Seeing Conflict at the Margins in Madagascar
Last week, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil chatted with the Institute of Development Studies’ Amber Huff about her work on Seeing Conflict at the Margins, a project funded through a PaCCS Conflict Theme Large Research Grant. These interdisciplinary grants under the PaCCS conflict theme were funded by the AHRC and the ESRC.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about how you got involved in this line of research?
Dr Amber Huff: My training is in economic and environmental anthropology, and I self-identify as a political ecologist. In 2014, I joined the Institute of Development Studies, where I now work as part of the Resource Politics and Environmental Change Research Cluster which does a lot of interdisciplinary work. When I joined IDS, I started thinking about my research in terms of conflict, but the angle my work takes is very different from a lot of the conventional research on conflict which is conducted in security studies. My work takes a very anthropological and grounded approach to looking at conflicts and then situates them in a broader political economy.
When the call came out for proposals through PaCCS’ research program, my colleague Jeremy Lind and I immediately started talking about the possibilities. We found the idea of working using social science methods alongside arts and humanities methods compelling and wanted to develop a project that was interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. This grant was also an opportunity for me to apply my knowledge from the study of various dimensions of conservation and equity issues in development and environmental studies to conflict and security – and to see that work through a new light.
What has the Seeing Conflict project entailed?
The project is based in Kenya and Madagascar and focuses on community experiences of resource development and natural resource conflict.
Often, when we’re talking about resource conflicts whether it be in mining, conservation, or some other form of resource development, they are often depicted as ‘the people’ vs. some other interest. What that perspective loses is the fact that when we talk about ‘communities’, those communities aren’t homogenous. These communities are differentiated – made up of different groups of actors who have different forms of power and divergent interests. So, these conflicts are much more complicated and more deeply social than you might think.
So, we’re looking at these experiences of resource conflict using participatory multimedia methods, with a focus on sites we knew were involved in contentious resource development.
What types of multimedia work has this project involved?
In Madagascar, alongside methods from the social sciences like interviewing, oral histories, focus groups and ethnographic research, we’ve been using participatory video and filmmaking by people who are experiencing these conflicts as a way to ‘unpack’ these conflicts from within. We’re then using the narratives that are produced as a starting point to facilitate dialogue on multiple levels.
We’ve got both academic publications and multimedia essays, as well as films, in our production pipeline, but we’ve also been working with UK-based artists right now too. In addition to our work with film and narrative storytelling, we’ve been working with a comic artist named Tim Zocco to help translate some of our results in ways that are more easily accessible for the general public, and maybe for policymakers, who don’t have a lot of time to read through academic publications.
What’s that process of working with a comic artist like? It sounds fascinating.
It’s been very fun. I’d never worked this way before, and it is amazing how comic books work as a form of art. You can strike a balance between the words and using the drawings to enhance narrative. And, minimal words are best. You might think you need a lot of narration to explain something fully, but a good artist knows how to minimize the use of language, and to combine the images and words in a way that tells a story about the research. It’s been a fascinating process, and I’ve been learning a lot. Beyond the process of collaborating, the project is oriented around bringing various ways of ‘seeing conflict’ into dialogue and working with Tim has brought an additional and novel perspective in terms of ways of seeing and communicating about the research settings and results.
You mentioned that you are hoping that this work with comics might be one way of communicating your findings to policymakers in an accessible manner. At this stage in the project, what would you want policymakers or development actors to know about your findings thus far?
There are things that policymakers in Madagascar should know, and then other things that I think would be useful to international development professionals and people involved in informing development policy. First and foremost, I think it’s important for people to pay attention to what we call the ‘vernacular’. We need to value not just what powerful actors and ‘experts’ say, but also people’s own understandings of the securities and insecurities they face. To know what is required for ‘development’ – what we mean when we talk about improving people’s well-being – we need to understand how people would define development if they were asked what it should be, instead of applying universalist assumptions about what people need or want.
I think there’s a lot that could be learned there that could inform development policy and practice. Moreover, I think the methods that we’re using in this project might be able to better mobilise vernacular knowledge and help us better understand development and security challenges and think about how policies in everything from development to investment can be more equitable if we just learn how to listen. We need to pay more attention and respect how other people see situations that we might see as very straightforward coming from an outsider’s perspective, but which are really very complicated, but also understandable, if you know what to ask.
Have there been things you’ve learned or encountered over the course of this project which have surprised you?
When you’re doing fieldwork in very rural places, there are always things that surprise you. There’s always something to learn. I’ve been doing research in Madagascar since 2007, and every time I go back, I learn something new.
One thing that really has confronted me over the course of this project is the fact that in Madagascar there is a lot of prejudice against the rural population, particularly in the south of the country. That’s something that developed historically and which has survived in government institutions and social attitudes into the present day.
When you talk to people in government about rural southerners, they get described as ‘backwards’, or ‘resistant to progress’, or something similar. But this project has really given me the opportunity to learn more about the people in the south of Madagascar, the history of extraction there, and the history of colonisation in both the pre-colonial and post-colonial periods in this region. They’ve been involved in international trade routes for centuries, and forms of extraction for everything from precious metals to, in the early days of the Atomic Age, uranium. These histories, and archival research, are fascinating ways of situating contemporary dynamics around conflict and shed light on the context in which these people live their lives. A lot of this history is remembered, handed down, and discussed, and consequently, the legacy of that history interacts with contemporary challenges in a very dynamic way.
This post is part of our Spotlight on Conflict Research Series, which will be running on Tuesdays throughout the month of March.