From ‘Sustaining Peace’ to ‘Building Bridges’ in civil war research

Dr. Sayra van den Berg is a research associate within the Civil War Paths project at the University of York. In this piece, she shares initial findings from her recent field research in South Sudan on the arts as unconventional and unrecognized spaces of transitional justice.

Sayra van den Berg

“Building on the rich and interdisciplinary contributions of the past, the new Civil War Paths Blog series theme, ‘Building Bridges’, invites contributions from authors that explore exciting connections between scholarship and practice in the study of war and political violence.”


The Civil War Paths Blog has published over 20 pieces under its previous series theme of ‘Sustaining Peace’. As we welcome a new cohort of Civil War Paths Fellows and transition to the new series theme of ‘Building Bridges this piece gathers and shares insights from the rich contributions that have fostered a dynamic community of engaged civil war research.

Drawing on the diverse research conducted by past and current Fellows around the world, the Blog has published work on contexts ranging from Brazil, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, Georgia, Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Lebanon, Nepal, Northern Ireland, South Sudan and Syria. This research has enriched both context-specific analyses of civil war trajectories and articulated cross-cutting themes that advance the study of civil war and the ‘sustaining peace’ agenda of our previous blog series in myriad ways, including along the axes of: changing mindsets; breaking out of silos; formulating a theory of change; leadership, and; partnerships.

Changing Mindsets

Edoardo Corradi and Nicola Mathieson argue for the need to change mindsets to understand why and how foreign fighters participate in conflicts (abroad), drawing attention to the role of emotions in mobilising foreign fighters, and the importance of modalities of integration within armed groups once mobilised.

Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala unpacks challenges to changing mindsets from war to peace and highlights the persistence of ‘war mentalities’ that endure and hinder peace in the post-war landscape. Conversely, Francisco Villamil examines the role of government propaganda and community co-optation through militias in generating support for the perpetrators of violence after war. Kerry-Luise Prior highlights the importance of localising justice efforts for achieving sustainable peace. Echoing the need to individualise peacebuilding measures, Miranda Melcher advocates for rethinking Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) away from a one-size-fits-all approach to offer combatants choice on how to transition from war to peace. Further advancing the need to rethink DDR, Pauline Zerla proposes shifting our gaze beyond formal reintegration processes and toward the everyday spaces where reintegration does, and doesn’t, take place.

Breaking out of silos

Articulating the need to change current mindsets for peace and de-silo attention to climate change vulnerabilities and weak political institutions in fragile states, Federico Manfredi Firmian argues for long-term perspectives and comprehensive reforms to prevent state collapse and foster sustainable peace. Michael Livesey calls for rethinking temporality in the study of civil war, drawing attention to the problematic silo-isation of past and present in existing scholarship and introducing the ‘conceptual archive’ as an analytical tool through which to explore the interpellation of conflict dynamics. Mabel González Bustelo articulates the positive potential for mediation with armed groups that remain excluded from conventional mediation efforts, drawing on examples of organised criminal groups and Jihadi groups.

Formulating a theory of change

Several blog contributions critically examine current assumptions and theories of change related to conflict transformation processes. Theresa Bachmann interrogates the implementation of ‘inclusivity’ in peacebuilding measures, empirically demonstrating how inclusivity is manipulated to reinforce existing power relations. Similarly, Víctor Barrera calls for greater interrogation of assumptions about the benefits of participation in peacebuilding in the interests of achieving ‘total peace’. Luna K.C. examines women’s changing roles in war and the challenges of their post-war reintegration experiences to highlight their invisibilisation in post-conflict reconstruction efforts. CP Aryal examines the practice of inter-caste marriages during conflict to evidence the transformation of discriminatory mindsets during war, which both do and do not extend into peacetime.


Along the axis of leadership, several blog contributions highlight influences and impacts at the level of state leaders and institutions. Sharing insights from her recent book, Rachel Schwartz evidences how the criminalisation of the state during war extends into the post-war period and reminds us that post-conflict states are not blank slates. Erica De Bruin focuses attention on how and why militaries veto post-conflict reform and undermine peace. Christopher Shay demonstrates the lasting impacts of repertoires of resistance within governments and societies, evidencing how violent resistance institutionalises state repression while non-violent forms of resistance are associated with liberal democratic outcomes and greater human rights protections. Reflecting on recent landmark presidential elections in Colombia, Eduardo Álvarez-Vanegas emphasises that progress can only be transformative when legacies and continuities of violence are addressed. Cesare Figari Barberis evidences the role that leadership can play in preventing violence where the conditions for its emergence are present by de-securitising and avoiding collective threat framing.


Finally, the blog has provided a space for contributors to reflect on critical dimension of research partnerships and encounters in civil war research. Building from a combination of ethnographic experience and professional trauma training, Theresa Bachmann emphasises the importance of trauma awareness and training for civil war researchers, highlighting that such training is not a luxury but in fact essential for both researchers and participants.

Members of the Civil War Paths team have also contributed field research insights to the blog reflecting on the realities of ethnography in Colombia, Lebanon, Nepal and South Sudan and the opportunities and challenges of building and maintaining partnerships in civil war research. In Colombia, Eduardo Álvarez-Vanegas emphasises the pitfalls of positionality and highlights the need for adaptive and flexible research practices and mindsets that require embracing ‘ethnographic surprises’. In Lebanon, Toni Rouhana articulates the importance of research(er) sensitivity and shares the experience of research encounters with ex-combatants in the period surrounding recent parliamentary elections. In Nepal, Hanna Ketola reflects on the personal experience of ‘returning’ to a familiar research environment and the space for connection and depth that emerges when relational research encounters are storied with personal themes. In South Sudan, Sayra van den Berg discusses the use of arts-based research methods to deepen research encounters in an environment fraught with continuities of violence and high levels of state repression. In the broader context of partnerships in the Civil War Paths team, Anastasia Shesterinina has shared reflections on the human side of research collaborations.

Introducing the new series theme: ‘Building Bridges’

Individually, and collectively, these blog contributions have advanced and enriched our understandings of civil war trajectories and identified roadblocks and opportunities for ‘sustaining peace’ in myriad ways. Building on the rich and interdisciplinary contributions of the past, the new Civil War Paths Blog series theme, ‘Building Bridges’, invites contributions from authors that explore exciting connections between scholarship and practice in the study of war and political violence, including (but not limited to) the areas of:

  1. Knowledge (co)production: How can research move beyond extraction? What does it mean to ‘co-produce’ knowledge in the study of war and peace? How can this be achieved and what implications does this have?
  2. Impact: what does and can research contribute, and for whom? What does ‘impact’ look like, for example across policy/art/activist realms?
  3. Advancing new or existing theories of peace and/or conflict: 
  4. Decoloniality in research and practice: how does research/practice entrench or dismantle colonial systems of inequalities in research participation, access and representation?
  5. (new) media and artistic spaces: How can different forms of media and artistic spaces contribute to understanding war and peace? 
  6. Methodologies: How to construct methodologies that allow us to generate connections between scholarship and practice? Are some methods particularly suited for creating such connections, and why?  
  7. Activism: How to understand and strengthen connections between activism and scholarship in the study of war and peace? Why might this relationship be a contested one, and how to understand these contestations?

Rural School Teachers in Colombia: Decrypting Memories and Tackling Violence amidst Colombian Armed Conflict

Luisa Isidro-Herrera is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at York University. Her research focuses on the participation of former FARC-EP combatants in the current transitional process. At York University, she is a research associate for the Centre for Research in Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC). Luisa’s background is in revolution, historical memory, transitional justice, forensic anthropology, peace pedagogy, and armed conflict. She has worked for the National Centre for Historical Memory, the Truth Commission, and other governmental institutions in Colombia.