On January 18-19, 2017, the IPEV kick-off gathered 100 IPEV members, researchers and practicioners in Paris for the first time. During the 2 days of conferences, meetings and debates, the members met up with their working groups and started collaborating.

Michel Wieviorka is the scientific director of IPEV project. Find out more about the speech of the President of the Foundation Maison des sciences de l’homme.

The idea for this panel grew out of the January 2015 attacks in France–at Charlie-Hebdo and the HyperKasher market. As a result, it seemed to me important to think about this form of extreme violence, but also about possible responses to it.  It also seemed to me important not to focus too narrowly on a single type of violence, i.e. terrorism, insofar as we can even find an acceptable definition of this term, which is far from obvious –  first of all because Islamic terrorism is itself inextricably linked to other forms of violence: war, civil war, the chaos in Iraq and the urban unrest in France of the sort that took place in 2005, for instance; and then, it seems to me, because we have everything to gain by opening up the scope of our analyses of violence and how to exit violence, even if it means confining ourselves to the study of particular phenomena or certain of their characteristics.

The approach adopted for this panel, which we are calling IPEV, consisted of inviting almost a hundred researchers from around the world to participate in working groups – ten of which have already been put together, with others in the pipeline – in order to deal with particular aspects of the issues of interest to us, while combining, as far as possible, thematic concerns and territorial focus on what was once referred to as a “cultural space” – whether a region of the world or a country. Each group has a certain amount of freedom and is set up in such as way as to be pluri-disciplinary and to prevent narrow approaches dominated by one school of thought or scientific approach.  The work of these groups is also integrated and forms a whole, which means the researchers take part not only in meetings and pooling sessions within their group, but also in review sessions. A final report will thus synthesise the overall findings.

Based on this quick introduction, I intend to make a few theoretical and methodological observations.

  1. A paradox

Violence has long been an area of particular focus within the human and social sciences. Exiting violence has been much less focused on, and our project should contribute to making this a relatively integrated research area. If it is our intention to broaden the issue of “exiting violence”, and to consider everything that might lead to its reduction or prevention, this means recognising that it is a fractured field, devoid of unity, in which there is much more input from experts, professionals and activists of all stripes than from researchers per se.  This field, as I pointed out in a text which appeared in the “chantiers” section of the review Socio, stretches from the most private, the individual – victim or perpetrator, for instance – with their subjective outlook, to the most global or general, the geopolitics of the Middle East, for example. Straight way, there is an issue that begs to be discussed.

It might even be stated in the form of a paradox.

In order to explore the issue of how to exit violence, the conditions that make it possible and the forms such an exit can take, we must surely have an understanding of that violence itself: its social, religious, cultural, economic, political causes – the environment in which it emerged. At the same time, it would be naive to believe that the way to exit or put an end to such violence was to merely reverse back along the same path that caused it, to put in place mechanisms or processes that appear to simply balance out the ones produced it in the first place. Violence must be understood, and at the same time there must be a recognition that exiting violence involves specific solutions. In other words, the issue of how to exit violence must be treated as a distinct topic, notwithstanding the fact that it is so directly affected by violence, apparently so utterly dependent on it, that conceiving of the issue independently from the question of violence itself seems impossible. This is already enough to prompt modesty.

  1. Making connections instead of objections

In 2016, there was a polemic which seemingly pitted against one another two French researchers, Gilles Képel and Olivier Roy, both specialists in radical Islam. Beyond questions of personality, the controversy stemmed from a confrontation between two different perspectives: one which stressed the role of religion in explaining current Islamic terrorism; and the other, which took as its starting point, above all, the radicalising of those involved prior to any reference to Islam. Initially, the best minds expressed the wish that these two viewpoints not be pitted against one another, but seen as complementary and mutually supportive. It is true that these terrorists claim to be affiliated with Islam and to be engaged in jihad; however, it is no less true often that they are late-comers to religion, and often to its rather cruder forms. This debate deserves to be pursued, but with the addition of a spatial perspective. If we examine jihadists from the perspective of their country of origin – France, for instance – it is indeed tempting to interpret the processes that cause them to take action as ones obeying a logic of radicalisation, that can be interpreted, for example, in terms of loss of meaning, desubjectification and resubjectification. If we then study the same actors in terms of the territories that coordinate their action, ideologically and practically speaking, everything changes: what counts now is the mixture of religion and regional, and even perhaps, global geopolitics.

The question is thus to establish whether or not it is possible to offer an analysis combining these two perspectives, or whether it is necessary to give precedence to one over the other. In both cases, it is important to take a “comprehensive” view, to go back and forward ceaselessly between the two vantage points, and to see how they enrich one another; and perhaps, in the final analysis, to come to some conclusions regarding the primacy of one over the other, but within an overarching framework, which may itself change depending on the experiences under consideration, and even with regard the same type of experience occurring at a different moment in time. On this basis, the thinking on how to exit violence can take one course or another: emphasising intervention in the Middle East (but of what type: diplomatic, military, etc.?), or in the country in question (using public policy tools, for instance, in the areas of employment, urban planning, education, etc.), clearly with different timetables in each case; or perhaps and global approach, combining action on both of these fronts.

  1. “Penser global” (Thinking global)

One of the original aspects of our project is that is part of an important current movement within the social sciences and the humanities, which is, to coin a phrase, attempting to “think global”. In an effort to do this, not merely are we not confining ourselves to one particular type of violence (i.e. Islamic terrorism) – although we do place importance on it –, and not merely are we linking, as I have just pointed out, what is happening in France, Europe, as well as in North and sub-Saharan Africa, but we also have a strong Latin American focus. It may seem surprising to be promoting a research project concerned with tow parts of the world as distinct as Latin America and the Middle East.  In one context, guerilla groups and terrorism have declined considerably, and we are in the middle of historic negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, the last major guerilla group in Latin America. In that part of the world, democracy has for the most part taken over from dictatorships, while in the other terrorism and other forms of extreme violence are the norm, and chaos or civil war are frequent, or loom large. But in both cases, a wide range of violence is also on display, more diffuse, criminal varieties, linked to the shortcomings of the State, or its virtual absence, and overwhelmingly linked to drug trafficking.

Above all, we are not taking a comparative approach. The idea is to move between different concrete cases, without looking to one of them to provide keys to understanding the others, or even merely the analytical categories for studying the others. The comparative approach generally proceeds by taking frameworks developed in one society and applying it to others, and is therefore has a constant tendency toward ethnocentrism. By moving between different concrete instances, each one can shed light on the others, notably thanks to the analyses that have already been carried out locally involving each individual case. Thinking global is thus about not being afraid of moving between Latin America and the Middle East without emphasising a priori any particular intellectual centre or categorisation established in advance in one place or another.

  1. Dead ends

Often, common sense, not to mention good intentions and what Farhad Khosrokhavar, following Hegel, called the “beautiful soul” take the place of analytical tools. Exiting violence is a type of action that obviously comes up against all sorts of difficulties, but one where the overall approaches seem self-evident. Here are a few examples.

Terrorist attacks do not merely kill or wound people physically. They also produce traumas, which had been identified even before Freud and the psychoanalysts during and after the First World War took a close interest in them. One idea that seems blindingly obvious is that exiting violence in the case of those who have been traumatised involves listening and the mobilisation of professionals, particularly psychologists, in an effort to encourage victims to express themselves. This is a trend that has grown considerably since the 1980s, as have the activities of associations such as those founded in France by Françoise Rudetzki precisely so that the views of the victims of terrorism might be heard. But there are sometimes voices – for instance those emerging from projects conducted under the heading of “resilience” – who would have people believe that listening, encouragement and expressing oneself can sometimes lead to poor outcomes and, and that in certain cases traumatised individuals do better when they do not receive professional help.

Now consider operations of the “peacekeeping”, “peace building” or “nation building” variety, which are carried out by international organisations – in the main the UN – on an international level. Analysis of certain cases, at least, suggests that they sometimes create more problems than they solve with respect to the declared goals. Similarly, the criticisms of NGOs working in this area has long been worthy of attention.

It would be overly hasty to take a hyper-critical stance by systematically calling into question the effectiveness of international organisations or NGOs, but we must avoid falling into the trap of taking them – along with their associated professionals, experts and activists – at face value. Let us remember that this area within the social sciences and humanities that we are trying to build – i.e. exiting violence – is full of these actors, and that while it is not our place to judge them, we must also remember that, while they may be capable of reflecting on and maintaining a distance from what they do, they are not researchers.

  1. Solo research, collaborative research

Research in the social sciences and the humanities is highly diverse, and it can be said to take place somewhere between two extremes. At one end, there is the model of the researcher working alone, perhaps immersing themselves in the reality they are studying, such as in the case of the participant observer, even if he enjoys support from an institutional infrastructure (e.g. secretarial services) At the other, research is collective, a large number of researchers working together, and here the Internet and modern communication technologies have opened up new horizons that were unimaginable fifteen or twenty years ago. The first end of the spectrum fosters originality and favours the inventiveness and individuality of the researcher, and perhaps his role as more of a classic intellectual; the second produces powerful dynamics, demands shared commitment, common approaches and questions, and depends on collaboration, as well as sharing. It is obviously not hard to see the pitfalls that come with each of these cases. It seems to me that what we have in common allows us to avoid them. We are pooling our knowledge, spelling out our approaches, which are sometimes different, but we also each have our own individual style.

We must, however, be aware that our approach runs the risk of stifling diversity in favour of a sort of mainstream view.  The internationalisation of the social sciences and humanities in an area like ours also means there is a risk that any approach that is not mainstream will be marginalised. That is noticeable straight away as soon as the question of language comes up: are we going to work in English, thus losing, when it is not our native language, a good deal of our distinctive character? From this point of view, I think our project is well balanced, for it allows for cooperation, pooling, and diversity in terms of approach, language and orientations. We are also obliged to link up our perspectives instead of choosing either the mainstream view or specific scientific or scientific traditions.

  1. The link with social and political expectations

It is all too easy to pit two conceptions of research one against the other, with one stressing its complete independence from any type of social, economic or political order or expectation; and the other, on the contrary, eager to respond and please.

Once again, it seems to me that our project offers a clear, if not original, response to this dilemma. Researchers interested in violence cannot remain indifferent to what they are studying, no more than those interested in making the topic of exiting violence into a field of research can.   As researchers, they wish to be free, and to choose their own research topics, their theoretical orientations and their methods for themselves. They know very well that the expectations are daunting, expectations so great that they, as researchers, enjoy a broad legitimacy in this situation that exists in few other areas. (Medicine comes to mind.) They are not responding to an explicit request or order, but to a more diffuse sort of expectation: how to act in the face of violence, and how to exit violence? This expectation is occasionally given expression by the public authorities, the media, institutions, foundations, as well as a host of other actors too. How then is one to avoid losing one’s independence while still acknowledging the huge significance that the production of knowledge in the areas of interest to us has for these actors, institutions and media? For me, the answer is as follows: by multiplying the events, situations, and venues where people who, like us, are producing knowledge and those who are in the field can meet and communicate; all of this without merging, on the one hand, and without maintaining an unbridgeable chasm, on the other. The fact that actors remain actors, and researchers remain researchers should not prevent them meeting – on the contrary –, exchanging views, debating and making connections.

Final remark: all of our efforts seem focused on making violence a taboo, the ultimate evil and something that is never acceptable or justifiable. It seems to me that our project should also be capable of taking into consideration the viewpoints of those who see revolutionary violence (that used during decolonisation, for instance) as the only means of putting a stop to a situation where injustice and extreme domination prevail. Today, no one in the democratic world seems to support violence, and we have forgotten the time (even though it is not so long ago) when revolutionary thinking – Marxism, for example – or anarchism promoted it, such as in the writings of Sartre, Fanon, as well as many others. This is a final point that should be given some thought.