The merits of micro

Peace & Security01 Jul 2011Ellen Lammers

Had we not had such chock-a-block days preparing the launch of our new website, I would have loved to have attended the conference on the micro-analysis of violent conflict hosted by IDS yesterday and today.

MICROCON, an EC supported research consortium, organized the event. Its mission is to improve conflict policies through a better understanding of individual and group interactions that lead to, and result from, violent conflict.

Most policies addressing conflict still focus on the ‘big picture’ – on what’s at stake at state, regional or international level. Ordinary people, who find themselves in the midst of the turmoil, rarely receive the same policy attention. The MICROCON researchers want to show that a more ‘micro’ approach – one that understands how people are affected by conflict, respond to it, prolong or help to end it – can lead to policies and peace agreements that are more effective on the ground.

In my new role of coordinator of this Human Security theme page, I am to keep track of events such as this conference, which bring academia and policy worlds together. Reading about this conference takes me straight back to my academic roots. It’s four years since I defended my PhD thesis and, the next day, left university. The drive behind my years-long doctoral research was a strong sense that ‘the individual’ was unduly lacking from my academic field of study – anthropology. It’s no coincidence that the personal narratives of eight young men who had fled war and insecurity, form the core of my thesis.

It is fascinating, people’s lives. Their stamina in the face of brutality and uncertainty. Their unique reflections on what it means to be uprooted. Their struggle for dignity. It was an absolute privilege to be given the time to get to know and write about these young men. But, I realize with hindsight, it was the fact that this kind of research is rife with moral inconclusiveness that made me leave university behind.

To me one ethical question that needs to be posed is: can so-called micro analysis of conflict really improve policy? Do the insights gained by talking to survivors of war – such as about the changed sense of self and community that I wrote about in an article for Social Identities – really translate to better policies ‘on the ground’?

I would have loved to hear the positive evidence from the MICROCON researchers gathered in Brighton – and I’ll look out for their work. Lawrence Haddad makes a valid point by suggesting that future micro research should perhaps, rather than focus on the impact of conflict, focus on the impact of conflict prevention.

And this throws up some challenges of its own: conflict prevention at the local level will only be sustainable if supported by state-level and international efforts at securing peace and justice. The Broker believes in the importance of connecting the local (micro) with the global (macro) – but how exactly to do this, in both research and policy practice, remains a pretty tough nut to crack.