Jenny Pearce – A Feminist Approach to Knowledge

Interview with Dr. Jenny Pearce, a Professor of Latin American Politics at the Latin America and Caribbean Centre of the London School of Economics. The Interview was conducted by Mayme Lefurgey.

MPM: First, can you tell us a bit about what type of feminist-focused work you are currently involved in – through teaching, research and other projects?

JENNY PEARCE: I think it is important first of all to clarify what feminist-focused work consists of. I prefer to speak from the perspective of a feminist epistemology. I think that there is a feminist approach to knowledge that underpins feminist-focussed work. Thus a feminist epistemology or a feminist way of knowing goes far beyond a ‘gender lens’. Nor are we talking about a ‘feminine’ approach to knowledge. Rather it asks how does gender influence our conceptualisations of knowledge and why some knowledges have epistemic authority and others don’t? Such a perspective also asks us how do we conduct research and verify findings? This is why a lot of my work involves co-producing knowledge and interactive rather than extractive research. The aim is to find ways in which those who provide academics with our knowledge learn also from their collaboration, rather than knowledge be produced exclusively for academic peer groups in hard to access journals. A feminist epistemology also makes us think about how far dominant understandings of what constitutes knowledge disadvantages women and other marginal groups. For instance, certain themes and issues are excluded from discussion, certain ways of conducting research assumed to be the only ones acceptable. I would argue, for instance, that the fact that rape in war only entered the imagination and knowledge systems of the world when the mass rape of Bosnian women occurred in the early 1990s, despite evidence that rape in war has been commonplace throughout history, was due at least partly to the recognition of the problematic and amplification of its significance by feminist scholarship. It is often hard to convince positivist social scientists, that research in which the researcher is not totally detached from the ‘object’ of research is also rigorous and scientific. However, the recognition of an issue such as rape in war, requires capacity to ask questions and see problems that often only arise from subjective experience and reflection. The argument of the positivists also assumes, of course, that it is ever possible for social scientists to shed their subjectivity. A feminist epistemology would ask the social scientist to reflect on his and her subjectivity, and ask to what extent is it influencing the way he or she constructs the social realities under analysis and the questions posed in research. A feminist epistemology experiments with research methods which question the relationship between ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’. It questions power relationships of all kinds and, I would argue, enables us to ask, who is the research for? It is a feminist epistemology that has enabled me to travel from a background in political science (a discipline quite dominated by what could arguably be termed a ‘masculinist epistemology’  to anthropology. Anthropology gave me methods for exploring politics which political science with an emphasis on quantitative methods and elite interviews, lacks. A feminist epistemology enabled me to justify such methods in scientific terms.  I describe myself as a political scientist who works as an anthropologist, and notably as an anthropologist of peace.

Violence has a deep impact in many ways on how women can gain agency to shape and reshape the world.

These are all ideas that have guided my approach to teaching and research. I take my feminist epistemological framework to mean that I am looking beyond the impact on women of particular structures, actions, events etc. I also look at the impact of but also on men and understandings of masculinity in any approach to a research question. It is not about ‘adding women’ into research. It involves a more profound exploration of power relations and contingent possibilities.  Broadly my work is composed of two overarching themes: ‘violence’ and ‘participation’. Firstly, I am concerned with how violence impacts on the possibility of taking part in social, economic and political life and whether a ‘violence free politics’ is imaginable and possible. Secondly, I am interested in what makes participation democratic and capable of transforming the conditions for participation itself. Amongst those conditions are the social understandings and meanings attached to gender identity. These impact on both violence (roughly two thirds of homicides are committed by young men 15 to 44 on young men 15 to 44) and on participation (the ongoing domination of political life by men). While male on male violence might account for the majority of homicides, women are deeply impacted by other forms of violence, most of which are committed by men. Increasingly, the phenomenon of feminicide is being recognized also, notably in Latin America, which involves the killing of women because of their gender. Violence has a deep impact in many ways on how women can gain agency to shape and reshape the world. There is nothing ‘essentialist’ about this approach to knowledge and research. A feminist epistemology recognizes the multiple constructions around the feminine and the masculine. That these categories are outcomes of other intersecting identities around race, class and sexuality. A feminist epistemology recognizes the significance of these varied constructions.

So, I bring this orienting framework to work on violence and security in Latin America, for instance. The methodologies I have worked with are all based on various participatory processes. In Medellin, Colombia, I have worked with the Observatorio de Seguridad Humana on what we call ‘security from below’. This is a methodology involving co producing knowledge between academics and communities, in which community researchers enable academics to understand the everyday experiences of chronic violence, differentiating experiences of women , children, youth, the LGBT community and displaced people. In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, women in the violence torn colonias, have also used the methodology to gain voice and agency on what kind of security they need and to question the so-called ‘security’ of state agents. At present I am beginning a research project using the methodology in four cities of Mexico. But I also have worked in the North of England, particularly Bradford, on methodologies for co producing knowledge around participation, around the nature of power and we have built a Community University, as an experiment in knowledge exchange. This research has been in the context of a city recovering from the riot of 2001, where mostly Asian lads, provoked by the far right, took on the police, exacerbating tensions in the city. We set up in Peace Studies, a ‘Programme for a Peaceful City’ to work with communities in Bradford around these tensions. Some of this research could be called ‘action research’. However, I also do more traditional research, but I try to give it a steer towards its implications for peace in politics, for instance my research on elites and violence in Latin America, and my current theoretical engagement with the relationship between politics and violence.

MPM: You have many years experience working in post-accord and post-conflict settings, especially in Central and South America. Could you tell us more about how social change is taking place in Latin America, specifically on grassroots and community levels? Why is the local-level so important and what is the role women are playing?

JENNY: I do very much believe that the capacity for critique and self organizing at the grassroots level in Latin America generates extraordinary insights into the democratic capacities of ordinary people, often without much formal education. My experiences in war settings in Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia, in particular, have shown the creativity with which people in the region respond to suffering and trauma. Their unwillingness often to assume the identity of ‘victimhood’ per se, for instance. How does this translate into sustained social and political change is a very important question. It doesn’t necessarily do so visibly or in a way where one could easily trace a linear process from action to change. However, those of us who have followed Colombia over the decades, would argue that we would not have had a Peace Process in Colombia without the long history of social organizing and struggles for human rights, rights to the land, freedom to organize, the rights of women to be free from violence and many other painful and painstaking efforts to put human dignity on the nation’s agenda. Amongst the many momentous experiences I have had with women, for instance, at the local level, as they have acted to make visible and de-sanction violences, is that with the women of AMOR in the Oriente Antioqueno. They went onto the highway as the army headed to their villages, to declare that they would not allow them to enter those villages and rape women. The work of the Ruta Pacific in the book they fed into the Peace Process on ‘Truth: from the Perspective of Women’ (La Verdad desde las Mujeres), was an exceptional contribution to putting the experiences of women in the Colombian armed conflict on the agenda. They also used a methodology which enabled women traumatised by war and violence, to speak with safety and to recount their trauma to a country which still does not recognize how women are differentially impacted by everyday violences as well as armed conflict.

The feminist movement is one way in which many women have come to see themselves as historical actors, not necessarily directly, but in opening up the roles women might be expected to play.

The question of why the local level is so important is a key one. We cannot reify the ‘local’, just as we must not depend on the ‘national’. However, the local refers more often to spatial relationships of intimacy and daily interactions. It is at this level, particularly the community level, where women often express their capacity for agency most actively. Community leaders are often women; they organise and conduct affairs, in my research experience, for the benefit of children, families and neighbours. A feminist epistemology makes this visible, whereas political science mostly focusses on the national level of political exchange and dominating power or the institutional expressions of agency. Womens’ agency is often notably for its informality. Working at the community level reveals the real underbelly and potentiality of self organization, resistance and capabilities that are often not recognized as important components of national political life.

However, it is also at the community level, that authoritarian impulses gestate also, in conditions of insecurity which penetrate deeply the psychology of everyday sociality. In work I have done in South East Antioquia, Colombia, for instance, I could see how citizens, women and men, can become ‘authoritarian’, deny the rights of others and support non state armed actors who offer ‘security’. This means that we need to be careful about assumptions we bring to the ‘local’. Again, I would argue that a feminist epistemology enables you to explore the contingencies and uncertainties embedded in social action of all kinds. It is possible to critically explore approaches to social action from the margins, visibilizing its creative and participatory dimensions but also the ongoing reproduction of violence and authoritarianism.

The feminist movement is one way in which many women have come to see themselves as historical actors, not necessarily directly, but in opening up the roles women might be expected to play. I have seen this process grow over the decades in Latin America. However, I have also seen women’s movements divide and become weaken through their own internal conflicts. Thus a feminist epistemology of ‘power’ enables us to critically explore the multiple forms in which power can enable and disable activism. I learnt a great deal in this sense from my work with Bradford communities on their understanding of power. While feminists have provided some deconstruction of power and suggested that rather than power ‘over’ we can speak of power ‘with’ and power ‘to’, this has been mostly translated into the idea of ‘empowerment’.  A step beyond empowerment would be to ask how do we ‘transform’ power? I worked with a number of community activist groups in Bradford about their understanding of power, and found that the idea of ‘non dominating’ power is very much alive amongst groups that seek to make change at the community level rather than to take power in institutions. The process of finding self esteem plays an important role in this kind of social consciousness which rejects dominating power.

MPM: Are you able to comment on the ongoing struggle for peace in Colombia and women’s role within these efforts for peace?

JENNY: The peace process in Colombia remains fragile, even though at the time of writing and following the rejection of the Peace Accord in the referendum of 2 October 2016, a renegotiated Peace Accord was agreed on 14 November. Between the two moments, I have been talking to poor women in some of the most insecure neighbourhoods of Medellin about the referendum on peace, and discovered why many could not trust the Peace Accord. There are many reasons, including the relentless propaganda of the right opposition, and experiences of displacement at the hands of the FARC. We also need to explain why the right opposition led by former president Alvaro Uribe, has such a following, notably in Medellin and the department of Antioquia. It is notable nevertheless, that many Colombian women from all ethnic and social backgrounds have participated in Victims’ Movements and played an active role in promoting the peace process and the Accord, and the vote in favour of the Accord was high in many areas which had experienced the most intense levels of armed conflict.

Taking the meaning of a gender focus on peace into society is one of the major peacebuilding tasks
for Colombia.

The Havana Talks did not start off with female participation. There was only one woman in the FARC negotiating team, the Dutch guerrilla known as Tanya. I think it is a very interesting part of the process in Colombia, that women gradually made their voice heard. Womens organizations began to pressure the government for some place at the table and to engage in as many civil society spaces as possible where they could feed their experiences and their arguments into the peace negotiations. The National Summit of Women for Peace in October 2013 was an important moment, when around 450 representatives from 30 of Colombia’s 32 departments met in Bogota. They put in three demands, that the parties stay at the table until an agreement was reached, that women be included at the peace table and at every stage of the process and that women’s needs interests and experiences of conflict be taken into account during the Havana talks. Gradually women were appointed onto the government and FARC negotiating teams. By February 2015, over 40% of the FARC team was women. A womens subcomission was appointed to the Havana talks, which brought victims voices to the table including those of the LGBT communities. It has been particularly notable how the issue of sexual violence in war has been put on the agenda in the Peace Talks. That the final Accord emphasised its ‘gender focus’ was one of the big achievements of  womens’ activism for peace in Colombia. The extent of the achievement is apparent in the backlash to it from the right and from sectors of the church, particularly but not only, evangelical Christians. They talked of ‘gender ideology’ rather than a ‘gender focus’ and it became one of the prime reasons they put forward for rejecting the Accord as a whole. Thus, there remains much to be done to ensure that the gains made through the Havana negotiations are not lost. Taking the meaning of a gender focus on peace into society is one of the major peacebuilding tasks for Colombia.

MPM: What do you think are some of the central feminist concerns in the field of peace and conflict studies today? From your perspective, what gains do you think have been made and what issues do you think are currently needing the most attention?

JENNY: There have been great advances in what I call ‘adding women in’ to the field of peace and conflict studies. We have a great deal of very good and valuable research now on how women are impacted by sexual and other violences, how peace processes do or do not enable women to gain more rights after war, what it means to demobilize as a former female combatant and many other gender sensitive themes.  I think we still have to encourage deeper debate on what it means to have a society where men and women can transform the constructions of what it is to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. Debates on sexuality which have problematized the character of ‘gender’ have enabled the transgender community to gain visibility and voice. But we also need to research how ideas of hegemonic masculinity play a role in reproducing male on male and male on female violences. We need to understand better the challenge of intersectionality and how race, ethnicity and class impact on constructions of maleness and femaleness, giving these constructions cultural specificities that can limit womens’ and others rights in profound ways. It can limit the potentiality for men to be seen as ‘male’ and activists for peace at the same time. A feminist epistemology would not make us complacent about seeing more women in parliament, for instance. Yes, that’s an advance, but behind this progress, a rethinking of the meaning of democracy and rights can still be missing. A feminist epistemology would ask what transformatory impact might or might not having more women in positions of power make, for instance, to the waging of war and securitising the world in anti democratic ways? We would need to dig deeper into the meaning of peace from such an epistemology, and once again just ‘adding women in’ is insufficient.

MPM: Do you have any advice for students and young peace scholars/practitioners working at the intersections of peace and conflict work/studies and feminism/gender studies/work?

JENNY: I would like the next generation to embed the discussion on femininities and masculinities in every field of study, and to take it for granted that we need to understand the differential experiences of women and men and how understandings of womanhood and masculinity are reproduced. I would also encourage more interactive research methods which enable knowledge to be given back to those we work with, in a spirit of building a more ethical interface between research and practice. Peace scholars have responsibilities to be rigorously scientific and to pursue a normative agenda. It is different to be a peace scholar to being a political scientist, only to the extent that there is a normative framework for peace which peace scholars should not apologise for as long as we have robust methods and forms of validation of our research. I would like to see more scholars become comfortable with those two aspects, and vigilant lest the normative intrudes negatively on the scientific and vice versa. In that sense, the dialogue with feminism and gender studies and peace studies plays an important role. It can offer perspectives that challenge assumptions. Gender as a field belongs to the most intimate aspects of self. If we are truly able to self reflect as researchers, we need to bring the varied ways our gender positionality impacts on our research into the picture. At the same time, both fields are about looking ‘outwards’, to looking at how research can transform. The conversation between the two fields is thus potentially very fruitful, although I notice that Gender Studies has lost some of its autonomous space, at the same time as Peace Studies has not fully engendered its field of enquiry. Subfields of Peace Studies, such as International Relations, remain very gender blind. All this calls for more interdisciplinary conversations and communications. At its heart, Peace Studies needs to be interdisciplinary, not multidisciplinary. This remains one of the big challenges of the field.

Image Sources:

  • Featured Image: © Paola Mera
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