Friday, 3 April 2015

Quant Peace Research Part 1: Whose truth/justice/reconciliation?

This is the first in a series of posts on quantitative peace research.  Relatively new and often relegated to the 'huh?' panel stream at conferences, quant research in peace and conflict studies has been gaining ground in the past decade for several reasons.  Besides imbuing the word peace with less fuzzy/idealistic qualities thereby making it easier to build policies, raise money, frame political action platforms, and fuel solutions to conflict (Although it is the source of conflict with qualitative purists.  I won't hide that I am pro mixed methods... a topic for another post), the most promising reason quant research is having an impact in the field is that studies are being conducted by researchers with some surprising backgrounds beyond the usual polisci/sociology/social science disciplines.  These individuals bring with them alien concepts from neuroscience and even field experience from actual military combat that make for a truly multidimensional approach.

Whose Truth/Justice/Reconciliation? is a short version of an upcoming talk at The 8th Human Welfare in Conflict Conference. 

While presenting a seminar on the findings from my doctoral research (looking at narrative distortions produced via mobile ICT applications by bilingual participants), someone made an interesting comment about the applicability of my research, and methodology in particular, to transitional justice contexts.  This paper is an opportunity to develop that idea further.

In very generalized terms, post-conflict peace processes known often as ‘truth and reconciliation’ programs have been criticized for imposing a framework of justice that is culturally mismatched to the participating population’s concepts of justice. (see, for example, Avruch, 2010)  In this paper, I focused on concepts of culpability and agency by providing a nuanced quantitative measure to distinguish culturally rooted concepts of justice, responsibility, and agency. (Boroditsky, 2010; Costa et al., 2014)  The novel methodology adapted from cognitive linguistics combined quantitative measures of conceptual frames surrounding doubt, agency, and event structure to describe the concept of culpability.  Results have the potential to enhance dimensionality for articulating complex processes such as justice and  reconciliation as well as discussing the efficacy of such post-conflict programs.

I began by looking at the influence of ICT in conflict contexts because it is inescapable.  Due to the increasing use of information and communication technology (ICT) applications in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict resolution for gathering human rights abuse reports, election monitoring, polling, violence reporting, and other conflict management data collection activities that inform policy-making and participatory governance, this research performed a bilingual experiment with methodology from cognitive linguistics in order to describe the problematic nature of the ICT used in the conflict management context. This study was the first to incorporate cognitive-level communication variations and preferences as design considerations in the context of conflict management. (a.k.a radical alien interdisciplinary research) 

I have written extensively in previous posts about what cognitive-level means, but a brief recap. Pulling in research from both cognitive psychology and linguistics that examines memory, thought patterns such as categorization, problem-solving, cause-effect relationships, concepts of time and space, and use of language, this methodology focused, in particular, on conceptualization.  Conceptualization often requires complex relational understandings of objects, persons, time, space, and events.  The type of concepts that interest me concern events such as those that might be reported during conflict such as violence at a polling station or other incidents recalled as narratives and collected with mobile ICT applications.  (These narratives, once aggregated, become data for policy makers indicating hotspots of violence, political unrest, economic need, or even health crises.)  In order to observe concepts (because I can't see thoughts), I observed 'conceptual frames.'  A frame is something that computer scientists refer to, cartoonists refer to, cognitive psychologists refer to.  It is a fragment like a subject or a predicate, a basic unit of cognitive capacity that describes a perception such as he vs. they or something falling vs. something rising.    

Building from earlier work I had done which examined the consequences of a language barrier for ICT in crisis contexts (post-earthquake Haiti 2010, Libya and Egypt 2011, and Somalia 2011/12) which asserted that:
This flawed application prevented the original contributors from interacting with the information directly related to their own life-threatening situation, and the information it amassed formed an unsound basis for decision-making by international actors…. (Sutherlin, 2013, p.1)
my doctoral research (as well as this new paper) pursued the idea that the conceptual structure underlying language—the ‘organizational logic’ that occurs at the cognitive or thought-level—remained problematic for participation with ICT tools and the power they can leverage for policy-making for use by local actors.  In order to investigate conceptual structures, this research adapted experiments from cognitive linguistics that provided a quantitative means to assess the communication of concepts.  

In the northern region of Uganda, Gulu district, Gulu town, 29 bilingual Acholi-English participants completed a three-stage experiment. (I know it doesn't sound like a lot but that's an average number of participants for this type of bilingual study.)  Participants viewed a YouTube video depicting a chaotic street brawl, and were then asked to describe what they had seen in three distinct narrative forms: oral Acholi, written Acholi on a mobile device, and oral English.  By comparing narrative construction and identifying concepts unique to certain narratives, the experiment looked at the level of thought before language, the cognitive level, and thus followed in the footsteps of earlier research in the field of cognitive linguistics that examined how concepts from one language can be observed to transfer into another.  

**A quick note about language/culture/cognition: because this was a bilingual experiment and the data was in the form of 'language' but the variables under investigation were cultural and cognitive variation, the two comparison languages used in the experiment should be considered exemplars of cultures with certain characteristics that have a high cognitive impact such as orality or how categories are used. The characteristics which differ form a really long list, but part of the reason these two languages are compared/contrasted is their linguistic and cultural distance to one another which brings the issues under investigation into relief.  (Linguistic distance was  proposed by Greenberg in 1956 and extended by Lieberson in 1964 and even has a Wikipedia entry so it has got to be pretty well established. It quantifies how different dialects and languages such as German and Dutch vary from one another.  Cultural distance is adapted from this idea.  So English represents the culture that produced the ICT application and Acholi represents the culture using the application for data collection/aggregation/policymaking in conflict contexts.)  To summarize, it's not an experiment about English vs. every other single language or any specific language at all; it's about variations in underlying thinking (preceding or accompanying language).  Because we can 'see' thinking, the experiment observes language production and makes inferences about cognition and the culture that influenced it.

During the analysis, I looked for evidence of English to transfer into Acholi due to the presence of ICT.  For example, in the ICT recall stage, although participants were reading in Acholi and writing in Acholi, the logic of the ICT application which had been designed (as nearly all software has been) with the logic of English in its core would trigger English concepts in participants bilingual brains.  Concepts from English would transfer into their Acholi narratives that would not normally appear in an Acholi narrative.  My hypothesis was that, in essence, the ICT format would prescribe the participants' narratives in a way that was not natural to Acholi; there would be distortions or dissonance.  In 3/4 of the cases this was true.  There was a narrative shift and not simply one attributable to speaking vs. writing because I was looking at specific schemata and narrative structure. (From speaking to writing you might change how you describe something, but you don't change the story.)   

Before conducting the experiment, I spent three months in the field.  I did intensive language immersion.  I had discussions with local university professors, hunted for literature to review (anthropology, literature, poetry, linguistics, narrative studies, psychology).  All so I could identify specific cultural schema and narrative patterns. Schemata (sing. schema) are cognitive shortcuts that our brains use to make sense of the immense amount of sensory information we take in.  They are made up of conceptual frames.  For example, you can recognize a dog in a fraction of a second out of the corner of your eye because it fits the model/shortcut/set of conceptual frames for that animal.  We rely on schemata in order to be more efficient with our mental energy as well as to make sense of unusual or new situations by slotting what we see/hear/etc., onto the scaffolding of existing a schema and proceeding with a 'best fit' guess.  By focusing on schemata, this connected the experimental results to culturally formed concepts and the level of thought rather than a discourse analysis on language.  Schemata are culturally informed in this way-- you are probably familiar with the adage, 'When you hear hoof beats think horses, not zebras.'  Does everyone everywhere think horses?  It may depend on place/culture.   The video prompt for the experiment was chaotic and shared some familiar characteristics (because it was a street scene in Nigeria and the market stalls and taxi stand looked similar to Uganda as well as YouTube having made Nigerian videos popular viewing across the continent); however, the unfamiliar language in the video and, again, the chaotic scene, made it likely that it would trigger in participants the reliance on their culturally learned schemata.  That was the idea anyway.

Among the key findings, the concepts of culpability (who was guilty) and agency (who was involved) emerged as unique between what was described via ICT and orally in Acholi.  Crucially, several participants claimed that one specific individual was to blame for the incident in their ICT recall while they had only described a group having possibly been involved in something during their initial Acholi oral recall.  In addition, several participants changed the very nature of the event between these two recalls.  If we imagine these reports as part of a police investigation, the initial set of oral reports seems to indicate no action is needed while the ICT reports point the finger at one man.  Troubling to say the least.

In conclusion, if cultural constructs such as justice, culpability, and agency are both consciously and unconsciously programmed into technology, then the ICT application is putting limitations on the narrative, perhaps even prescribing conceptual elements of narrative for something as vital and nuanced as justice.  If we imagine a field poll being taken about what form transitional justice should take, if technology is involved, even in the aggregation of narratives later, this could radically alter the results by altering authorship/intentionality/voice/participation.  In addition to this practical impact, the methodology I used (with or without the mediating factor of technology) could offer a deeper understanding of the core conceptualization of justice within a society by being able to break the concept down at a cognitive level.  Subsequent posts will continue to look at each of these concepts in more depth (culpability and agency) as well as build on comments/reactions to the paper.

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