Fresh Grounded Peace Research: Åshild Kolås Interviewed by Wenche Iren Hauge

Åshild Kolås. Photo: PRIO/Ingar Haug Steinholt

Åshild Kolås, interviewed by Wenche Iren Hauge

What I think we should do more of, as researchers, is to reach out to ordinary people, especially those who live in the places where we have travelled and gathered material. We used to call them informants, but they are actually participants. And then, for our research to be useful to them, we have to communicate back to them. Unfortunately, this is not a part of what we are taught to do. Researcher education is about translating from the empirical to the theoretical. This is not just a literal translation, but a cultural one as well, which separates us from our participants. What needs to be translated in both directions, or brought into a dialogue, is actual understanding, between the society we study and the world of academics and people who work in international organizations, in ministries and in development aid. What we too often see, even in qualitative research, is a one-way representation of the society we study, targeting an academic audience.

Wenche Hauge: You are an anthropologist, Åshild. Can you tell me what it was that made you study anthropology?

Åshild Kolås: Yes, I think I was inspired to become an anthropologist very early in life, already as a small child. When I was five years old my family moved from Ålesund, Norway, where I was born, to San Diego, California. My father had relatives there. After a couple of months, I started school there. My twin sister and I both started school before we could speak much English. This was a cultural encounter that made a deep impression on me.

I remember that we had a Mexican friend and next-door neighbour, and she spoke Spanish. This place was close to the Mexican border. Some people would talk about the Mexicans as illegal migrants. They were sometimes referred to as ‘wet-backs’. So, being an immigrant myself, I quickly became aware of the many different social aspects of cultural encounters. When we returned to Norway, I was almost ten years old. After having lived on the west coast (in Møre og Romsdal) for several years and completed high school there, I decided that I wanted to study. I moved to Bergen and began my studies there.

Actually, I started to study archaeology. I was interested in how people have lived throughout history, and in prehistoric times. However, after a while I left my studies and got a job. When I later returned to academic study, I chose media and mass communication, planning to become a journalist. I wanted to have a chance to explore and travel while working, and to be able to experience and learn more about different ways of living. This was when I was in my mid-twenties. By this time, I had worked odd jobs for a while, and completed two years of photography school. I had also travelled all over Europe with an Interrail pass. While I was studying, I decided that I wanted to travel and see more of the world outside of Europe. My first destination was Asia. Together with a friend from the Experimental High School in Norway (Forsøksgymnaset), I went on a journey with the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow via Ulan Bator to Beijing.

Before you tell me more about these travels, I would like to ask if those first impressions and experiences in the United States, like meeting Mexicans living there, also stimulated you to travel more?

Yes, it certainly did. My family travelled to Baja California and all over the state of California, visiting many sites and camping in national parks. We visited the Grand Canyon. My father was an architect, and we also went to see the house of Frank Lloyd Wright in Phoenix, Arizona. When we had to leave the United States to go home, my father rented a moving van. My parents packed our belongings into the truck and drove all the way from San Diego to New York. So, I really caught the ‘travel bug’.

Since I had seen a lot of the United States over land, I thought I would like to see Asia in the same way. It was a fantastic experience to take the Trans-Siberian Railway, to lean back in the railway chair, look out of the window and watch the Soviet Union. Because at the time, it was still the Soviet Union. It was Autumn 1988. The travel experience gave me a completely different impression from what I had imagined. We had heard that the Soviet Union was a superpower. This was during the Cold War and the antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union was palpable.

Earlier, I had seen and experienced the United States and Europe with my own eyes from the ground. When I took the train through the Soviet Union and compared what I saw to Europe and the USA, I discovered that it was much less developed than I had imagined. I saw people living in the countryside in small cottages, using horses and wagons to transport goods and belongings. This gave me new insight and a completely new understanding of geopolitics. I became interested – not only in how people lived – but also in politics.

We had heard that the Soviet Union was a superpower. […] When I took the train through the Soviet Union and compared what I saw to Europe and the USA, I discovered that it was much less developed than I had imagined. I saw people living in the countryside in small cottages, using horses and wagons to transport goods and belongings. This gave me […] a completely new understanding of geopolitics.

Then we reached Ulan Bator and I saw the summer palace of the Mongolian Emperor. It was quite an experience, especially since this was a Cold War exhibit. When we came to Beijing, we experienced a China that was still in the early stages of opening up to the outside world. Foreigners could only stay at carefully selected hotels and we had to use something called Foreign Exchange Currency (FEC), which could be used in the same way as at the foreign exchange stores in Moscow. You could go to certain shops where most local people were unable to enter. In Beijing, we were often asked if we wanted to change money, as the dollar had this specific use.

We managed to find one of China’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Beijing. It had a separate door where those who had FEC could go directly in, whereas people who had no FEC would have to wait in a long line. And when they finally got in, they took pictures of each other with their pocket cameras. So, this was quite a contrast to what we had read and heard about China, both with regard to Chinese authorities and ordinary people. We also saw a disco or nightclub where we were barred from entering, but where we could see a big party taking place, with strobe lights and loud disco music.

So, in a way you understood the importance of going deeper and behind the images that the media had presented to you, and perhaps find a totally different world?

Yes, exactly. So, this stimulated my appetite for travelling as a way to learn. But I also had a particular reason for travelling – to learn more about indigenous peoples. A part of the reason for going to China was that I actually wanted to visit Tibet. We took the train from Beijing and ended up in a Tibetan monastery where a lot of nomads participated in a festival. This was extremely fascinating. Some nomad girls invited us to their tent. We had a Chinese girl with us, who translated for us. The girls invited us to stay at their fire and have food there. They joked with us, saying: ‘Are you married? Because we have many brothers.’ They teased a lot and made fun of everybody. It was totally different from what we had experienced elsewhere in China.

In the cities we had visited on the way to the Tibetan area, we often found ourselves surrounded by people who would stop and stare at us. We didn’t know how to deal with it, so we started to walk quickly to avoid attracting crowds. When we met the Tibetan nomads, the interaction was very different. I became fascinated with Tibet. This was when I decided that I wanted to study anthropology and focus on Tibet. However, exactly what the focus of my studies was going to be didn’t become clear to me until I travelled to India and went to Dharamsala, where the exile Tibetans lived. I attended their ‘Uprising Day’ on the 10th of March 1989. I stayed there for several weeks and the Dalai Lama gave a teaching. He used to do this every year around that time, right before ‘Uprising Day’. There were many volunteers and activists there, especially from countries such as the USA and Britain, working for the cause of the Tibetans. I understood that it would be difficult to conduct research and fieldwork in Tibet, so I decided that I wanted to write my master’s thesis on the Tibetan independence struggle, and that would bring me back to Dharamsala, and maybe also allow me to visit Tibet again.

When you were ready to write your master’s thesis, how was it to return from travelling, with so many impressions and experiences, to a theoretically oriented faculty?

My thinking before I went on fieldwork was that I wanted to explore, to stay grounded and avoid tying myself up too much theoretically. I was not quite sure about what theoretical framework to use at the time. But I discussed it with my supervisor Thomas Hylland Eriksen when I returned from fieldwork. He suggested to write about nationalism and to link my work to the nationalism theory that was very much in focus at the time, such as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.[1]

I received a student stipend to work on my thesis at PRIO. I started thinking about how to relate the material from my fieldwork to theoretical debates. What struck me was that Benedict Anderson writes about how the media and the literature create a community, a national community. In my experience with the Tibetan case, it was more of a resistance struggle, a popular movement. When Tibetans talked about the 1950s, before the Dalai Lama fled to India, their focus was on the first encounters between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans. The Tibetans’ view of their own history and their representation of their own experience focused on violent conflict and violent encounters with the Chinese ‘other’.  When I was in Dharamsala, I remember meeting some Tibetans who had just arrived from Tibet. They showed me their scars, to prove that they had been beaten and mistreated in prison, explaining that it had happened after they had participated in political activities.

What struck me was that Benedict Anderson writes about how the media and the literature create a community, a national community. In my experience with the Tibetan case, it was more of a resistance struggle, a popular movement.

Actually, there was a big difference between this way of building nationalism and the ones I read about in the theories of nationalism. I consider Ernest Gellner almost as a functionalist – that is – each society will inevitably develop the cultural elements used to build a nation, and the understanding of a particular nation is literally random. So, according to Gellner, people could use just about anything cultural to build a nation; any songs or national costumes. Any society, when it develops and builds an education system, a written language and so on, through modernization, would develop to become a nation and eventually a nation state. I felt that such theories were at odds with what I had experienced. So, I was not quite sure whether this was the theory I wanted to relate to my fieldwork material. But finally, I did, and I found that I was actually able to relate what I had gathered of research material to the theory in a – hopefully – interesting way.

When I finished my thesis, Dan Smith, who was PRIO’s director, asked me if I wanted to write an article for the Journal of Peace Research, based on my thesis. I did that, and this was my very first published article. It’s also my most cited article.[2]

You mentioned that you applied for a stipend at PRIO. Had you decided that you particularly wanted to work at a peace research institute? I ask because there were other institutes, like the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), where you might have worked. Did you end up at PRIO by coincidence?

I think it was a bit of a coincidence. I don’t think NUPI had any student stipends at the time. I remember that, when I was applying for the student stipend, I went to listen to Dan Smith at a seminar at the University of Oslo at Blindern. I thought he was very inspiring. I very much liked what he said.

Åshild in the North Cachar Hills district in the state of Assam in Northeastern India, 2007. Photo: Private archives

So, did you feel at home in the PRIO environment and did it also function as a basis for the work with your PhD?

Yes, I felt that I had come to the right place. I began to write the project description for a PhD right away. Then I asked Dan if this might be a better fit for SUM (the Centre for Environment and Development at the University of Oslo). But he said that it was a good fit for PRIO. Finally, I received a grant from the Research Council of Norway (RCN) to do my PhD at PRIO. By that time, I had already worked at PRIO for four years.

After finishing my master’s thesis, I became the coordinator of a project about Tibetan culture in China, about cultural survival and revival. The topic was the revival of Tibetan culture in the new period after Mao Zedong. So, it covered the reconstruction of monasteries and the revival of the monastic orders and issues related to that. The project was financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and I worked on it from 1997 until 2000. In the course of the project, I visited all the Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, that is, the cultural frontier between Tibet and China. I found that the most politically open area, where it was the easiest to do fieldwork, was Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan. When I went there in 1997, it was the first fieldwork I had conducted for the MFA-funded project.

When I first visited the Tibetan area in Yunnan, I learned that they had asked for permission to change the name of the county, Zhongdian, to Shangri-La. When I first heard this, I thought it was nonsense. Why would they want the name to be changed to Shangri-La? However, after a while I understood that this was about capitalizing on or benefitting from the Chinese government’s policy to promote ethnic tourism, and also about a reformulation or new representation of Tibetan culture. There was a growing interest among Chinese people in the large cities, in how to achieve harmony between humans and nature, which they associated with Tibetan culture. And there was travel for pilgrimage. So, this was about much more than a name.

The name Shangri-La itself was an odd choice, of course. It comes from a novel entitled Lost Horizon, written in the 1930s by a British author who had never been to Tibet. He had probably read articles in The National Geographic by a botanist who had been doing research in eastern Tibet, in an area not far from Diqing. So, this author had written a novel called Lost Horizon. It was made into a Hollywood movie and became a great success. The story was about an airplane that crashed in the Himalayas and the passengers were brought to a monastery high up in the mountains – in a place where people lived in harmony with nature and never grew old. The monastery was called Shangri-La. During my fieldwork, people in Diqing talked about an airplane that actually crashed there during the Second World War, although this was a long time after the novel was written. Regardless of the inconsistency in the timing, they argued that the events in the novel had actually happened in their home place. I was fascinated by how these people linked the literary world with a recontextualization of their history to build a new self-understanding.

During my fieldwork, people in Diqing talked about an airplane that actually crashed there during the Second World War, although this was a long time after the novel was written. Regardless of the inconsistency in the timing, they argued that the events in the novel had actually happened in their home place.

Very fascinating!

Yes. So, when I finally received my grant to do my PhD on ethnic tourism in Diqing, I was very satisfied.

You have told me in the past about some different types of experiences from your travels, such as encountering intense Hindu nationalism. Did this also influence your thoughts about causes of conflict and the lack of peace? Perhaps you also can see aspects of the current political situation that you think illustrate this?

Yes, I think this brings up the relationship between religion and nationalism. I have seen this in Tibet as well. It works in both positive and negative ways. Tibetan Buddhism is perceived as a core value in the Tibetan sense of nationhood. And in India, we find the same approach to the use of religion for political purposes, which has become a part of conflict, as the counterpart becomes an enemy, you might say. And the counterpart, or the Other, in India are the Muslims. I first experienced this when I conducted fieldwork for my master’s thesis, and there was a strong conflict related to a mosque named Babri Masjid where Hindus wanted to build a temple for Ram, one of the Indian gods. There were large crowds of people who went to the mosque, Babri Masjid, and wanted to tear it down. The mosque was destroyed in December 1992, while I was on fieldwork in India.

This gave me an insight into how incredibly strong emotions can become when people draw on this kind of religious motivation to rally around political goals. And I think of this in both a positive and a negative sense. Because you can see the same with regard to Israel and Palestine with the al-Aqsa mosque and the conflict surrounding that. So, this is something that makes you understand not only the conflict, but also what is universally human about this. We all have the basic tools that can be used to create societies, to create culture – and this can be positive as well as negative.

This gave me an insight into how incredibly strong emotions can become when people draw on this kind of religious motivation to rally around political goals. And I think of this in both a positive and a negative sense.

Interesting! And then let me turn to what you said in the beginning: As an anthropologist and peace researcher you have travelled much, carried out a lot of fieldwork, interviewing many different people. How do you relate to these people after you have conducted your research? Do we, as researchers, live up to our responsibility towards them?

No, this is an aspect of research where we have the potential for improvement. It’s nice to know that there’s something more we can do. On the one hand, you have your experiences from the field, what you gathered from qualitative interviews and participatory observation, which is special for anthropology. And then this material must be related to theory. What we do most of the time is to communicate within academic and policymaking environments, where we share some common frameworks of understanding, but which are quite theoretical. This is so because the same ideas are to be applied in different cultural or social contexts. As I said earlier, what I think we should do more of is to communicate back, leaving behind the theoretical, academic language, and reaching out to ordinary people, especially those who live in the places where we have travelled and gathered material. We used to call them informants, but they should be seen and treated as participants. And if they really are to be participants, then they cannot simply represent places where we collect material. For our research to be useful to them, we have to communicate back to them.

Unfortunately, this is not a part of what we are educated to do. Researcher education is about translating from the empirical to the theoretical. This is not only about the translation of language, but also about cultural translation. What needs to be translated is the actual understanding we can find in the society we study, for this to make sense in the world of academics and people who work in international organizations, in ministries, in development aid. What we too often see in academic output is superficial one-way representation.

Åshild visiting Inner Mongolia, 2008. Photo: Private archives

Perhaps it is also the case that we who work with this, know that it is quite demanding? It might be due to language, or several other issues. Perhaps research programmes and researchers we cooperate with also fail to take into consideration what the costs of this are, in terms of economic resources and time, to be able to communicate back. Should we make this more visible and emphasize it more in our project applications?

Yes, and I want to add that I haven’t really experienced any demand for this, whether from the funders of research, from degree-giving educational institutions or evaluation committees giving you a right to call yourself professor. What they look for is what you have published. And when you publish, this is in ‘peer-reviewed’ journals where the language is completely academic. This is challenging enough in itself. You need to get funding for research, you need to carry out big research projects, write articles and have them published, and you need to write books and have them published and report back to funders. If you then – in addition to all this – communicate the results to the participants of the project, it’s barely even noticeable.

With time, we have gained more opportunities for giving back. One example is to organize a seminar in the country where you conducted fieldwork. That is absolutely one way of doing it. But you might say that even then, we often meet the academic and political elite, the NGO-elite and multilateral actors who are based in the field. So, I am not quite sure about how this should be done, or how to make it more visible.

Another point is that when you cooperate with researchers from other countries, the same criteria are used to evaluate their competence – how much they have published and how highly the academic institutions they belong to are ranked. There are hierarchies in this system. Sometimes there are demands, like in the RCN programme NORGLOBAL, to include researchers from the Global South. Then you often see the same researchers included, who come to western countries and work with multilateral agencies. So, the criteria for selecting research partners have not actually changed that much, even though you are encouraged to have partners in the Global South. The way I have tried to meet this challenge is to seek out partners situated far away from national capitals.

In the field?

You could say that. What I try to do is to find people in the places where I go for fieldwork who have sufficient education to be able to do academic work. I have tried to support them when I could, so that they can have their research published. For example, when I have edited anthologies, I have included people with this kind of background to help them get their work published. I enjoy doing this. It’s by no means a burden. But I also think of it as an obligation, out of gratitude to those who spend their time and effort participating.

This is an ethical challenge that all researchers should discuss more, to give feedback and inform the target groups or participants they work with. This leads me to a last, but related question: Can we as peace researchers, and at PRIO, engage and use the knowledge we are gathering better?

Yes, obviously. We can do it in several ways. We can make different types of output, which help to lift up the presentation of the research results in unconventional ways, by using new means of communication and new platforms. It is quite common nowadays to publish and reach out through social media, and maybe even make video productions and documentaries. I remember in the beginning, when I worked with the MFA-funded project, that we actually cooperated with researchers from China who produced anthropological films.

With the help of new communication tools, we can develop and improve how we communicate our research, and give viewers direct impressions, instead of having the researcher interpret everything through a writing process.

There are lots of things that can be done. We can report our research directly from the field, rather than first just writing notes, then writing our PhD, and then finally publishing a book, maybe with a couple of photos in it. I actually brought a video camera with me to Shangri-La and made a video of housebuilding, where they used a rammed earth technique. In relation to this, they also carried out a series of rituals in order to bring good luck and happiness to those who were going to live in the house.

So, there is an enormous potential in trying to shed light on those cultural expressions and practices that are important to people, and how they are continued, but also change over time. With the help of new communication tools, we can develop and improve how we communicate our research, and give viewers direct impressions, instead of having the researcher interpret everything through a writing process. This will actually give the viewer an opportunity to make her or his own interpretation of what they see in, let’s say, a video. And this can easily initiate a process of understanding and reflection. This is an opportunity we should definitely take advantage of.

Yes, thank you very much!

My pleasure.

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