Koloma Beck: Theorising normalisation in/of armed conflict

In the last presentation, Teresa Koloma Beck proposed a conceptual framework for studying the everyday of violent conflict. She argued that any attempt in this direction should be based on a thorough understanding of the everyday as such. She pointed out that in social science research, the everyday is frequently understood as a disaggregated level of society, which is similar to the “local” and complementary to the “national” and “international”. Contrary to such conceptions, she proposed – drawing on concepts from pragmatism and phenomenology – to understand the “everyday” as a particular form of experience. These experiences are characterised by pre-reflective forms of conduct, habitualised behaviour and an unbroken flow of the consciousness – they are ordinary or “selbstverständlich“.

Koloma Beck showed how such a perspective re-orients research towards the study of adaptive processes on the individual as well as on the collective level, focussing not only on patterns of thinking, but also on those of acting. Studying armed conflict in an everyday perspective then means asking how armed conflict turns into an ordinary experience.

In the end, the presented some insights gained using this perspective in an analysis of the civil war in Angola.

Related publication: Koloma Beck, Teresa. 2012. The normality of civil war. Armed groups and everyday life in Angola. Frankfurt/Main: Campus.

Susanne Buckley-Zistel: Researching normalisation in/of armed conflict

Susanne Buckley-Zistel started her presentation, by characterising field research as a method, which is particular challenging as it means gathering data under conditions in which one gives up familiar levels of control. I. e. it involves confrontations with the unknown.

The “field” in conflict research is characterised by a highly levels of volatility. This is one of the major challenges to field research, but at the same time it is the main argument for conducting field research. As Carolyn Nordstrom pointed out, there is always “A different kind of war story” (1997) to tell. Buckley-Zistel emphasised that implicit in field research is an epistemological critique, because it challenges texts formulated in the ivory tower. Yet, even within field research, different voices can be found. Most important in this regard, this regard is the difference in perspective between officials and “private” people on the grassroots level.

Security is a core problem in field research on armed conflict. But involved here is not only the security of the researcher, but also the security of a the interviewees. In a conflict situation, a researcher can become an “intervener”, which changes the situation on the ground, which can put interviewees into danger. Buckley-Zistel pointed out that as a consequence, doing field research in a conflict zone the researcher must be ready to – if such a situation arises – abandon research.

Another important ethical question is how one can approach people to make them talk about difficult experiences and painful memories. This also implies a need for careful reflection of what one can expect of people in such interview situations.

A central question in the following discussion targeted the relationship between field research and theory. Some pointed out that understanding field research as a method which permits to disclose otherwise unheard voices entails the risk of research getting caught in the in the perspectives and world views of its objects. Counter to this argument, other emphasised that field research does not have to be devoid of theory, as the researcher comes to the field with some theoretical background. The point is that she/he is ready to re-consider initial conceptual frameworks in the light of the insights gained in the field.

Related Publications: Susanne Buckley-Zistel, “Ich bin dann mal weg. Feldforschung im Studium”, Zeitschrift Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (ZeFKo), Vol. 1, 2, 130-38

Sayed Asef Hossaini: Armed conflict and social changes in Afghanistan’s rural communities

In his presentation, Asef Hossaini discussed the transformation of rural elites among Afghans during the period of Soviet war, with a focus on the impact of the armed conflict on structures of traditional rule. At the beginning, however, he emphasised, that Afghanistan cannot be described as a “tribal society” in general, as in most places tribal structures have long lost their political significance, i.e. their role in organising communities. The only exception in this regard are the Pashtuns.

Hossaini showed how the war in the countryside changed the traditional structures among Afghan people. While before, the social order had been based on the triangle between landlords, clerics and villagers, the war brought about fighters (traditional Mujahedin) as a new powerful player. In the course of the events, however, an elite of Mujahedin fighters emerged, but not from within the group of traditional Mujahedin. Instead lead was taken by groups of newcomers who were well-financed, well-organised, familiar with politics, had fighting experiences and were Muslim scholars. Many of these new influential groups were formed not within Afghanistan, but in the diaspora.

He then discussed evidence for the transformation of life in the public as well as in the private sphere in response to the armed conflict. Hossaini emphasised that neither the concept of voluntary support, nor the one of force is sufficient to capture the complex relationship between armed groups and the civilian population. He referred for example to the increasing recruitment of child soldiers. He argued that the latter has to be understood against the background of conscription regulations under Soviet rule, which decreed military service for all Afghans. The fear of being marginalised in the community for supporting the foreign rulers, many families opted for sending their boys away to the Mujahedin. Widespread poverty among rural populations, which made parents struggled to sustain their children, added to this dynamics.

Friederike Mieth: Coexistence during civil war. Combatants and civilians in Sierra Leone

At the beginning of her presentation on civil war coexistence in Sierra Leone, Friederike Mieth pointed out that the term coexistence has to be understood relatively. The notion suggests the pre-existence of different groups, which in Sierra Leone was not the case. In the context of the presentation, was understood in terms of repeated interactions between different groups of people involved in the civil war.

Mieth argued that the type of armed conflict in Sierra Leone was closer to the logic of riots than to the antagonistic dynamics typically associated with civil wars. There were different armed groups, but those were not formed of out of pre-existing (ethnic or language) groups. Instead they all came from the mass of marginalised youth in the country.

Against this background, Mieth argued, the war did not divide the society, neither in terms of ethnicity, nor in terms of an absolute combatant-civilian divide. Instead, one can observe the continuation of habitualised forms of behaviour as well as of particular social relationships during the war. Mieth described situations, where during periods of intense fighting, people acted according to loyalties which ran counter to the faultlines of the war. As an example, she told the story of a commander of a rebel group, who when his group invaded a town attempted to protect families to which he felt bound by ties of kinship and reciprocity.

In the last part of her presentation, Mieth described how in the postwar situation, the return of combatants to village communities is facilitated by an implicit consensus according to which the current behaviour of a person is more important than what this person did in the past.

Martin Fuchs: Übersetzung zwischen Universalisierung und Lokalität. Kämpfe indischer Dalit und urban poor um Menschenrechte und Menschenwürde

In the evening speech, Martin Fuchs discussed the problem of human rights and dignity in socially marginalised groups, in a theoretical as well as empirical perspective. Theoretically, he employed the concept of translation to discuss how local struggles connect to universal discourses. Empirically, these dynamics were discussed in view of the struggles for dignity and human rights among Indian Dalit and urban poor in the mega-slum of Dharavi.

Fuchs characterised translation as an interactive relationship, which does not only happen in particular situations, but is a common feature of everyday interaction as the communication of particular contents has to be readjusted in view of particular contexts. Being processes of inter-action, translations are also processes of power, and they are pro-jective. They want to bring something across. Against this background, it is important who is the addressee of the translation, someone from inside or outside.

In some context, a so-called “third idiom” becomes important, as a universal, mediating discourse. Human rights can understood this way. But also some universalising religions can become such a “third idiom”. One of the particularities of third idioms is that they are not “owned” by experts, but that they can be appropriated by ordinary people.

Universal claims to validity appear in different forms; they are never “universal” in the first place, but are expressed in one particular form, which is dependent on the respective context. They then are re-interpreted in the light of universality. Universalitation is always contextually mediated.

Fuchs points out that for most of human history, the language of human rights was not available. Universal claims were made in other languages, for example the one of religion. In the era of human rights, these older formulations are re-translated in the language of human rights.

Another important aspect is that not all universal claims are brought forward in the language of “rights”. Especially, demands for justice in a broader sense, for social inclusion, are framed differently.

In the second part of his presentation, Fuchs illustrated his ideas discussing the situation of Dalit and urban poor in India, especially in the mega-slum Dharavi. Most of the Dharavi’s inhabitants are Dalit or belong to other marginalised groups within Indian society. Currently, the most important struggles going on  in Dharavi are, first, for respect at the individual level, i. e. the fight against stigmatisation; second, for Dharavi as a form of life, i.e. for the preservation of “informality” as a key characteristic of living-together; and third, for the activation of the state to improve living conditions. Important in view of the topic at hand is that although all claims are framed in terms of universal values, only the last one is framed in the language of human rights.

Fuchs concludes that human rights discourses cannot represent the totality of fundamental human needs. especially with regard to the importance of particular forms of life or particular social relationships. To articulate such claims, another “third idiom” is necessary, and may be a new type of social movements.

Raghav Sharma: The Afghan Conflict (1992-1996). Effects of Ethnic Conflicts in Everyday

Based on Rogers Brubakers work on nation-building, Raghav Sharma traced the transformation of ethnic relations in Afghanistan. He argued that the violent conflict let to a consolidation of ethnic divisions and identities in a country, in which social boundaries have traditionally been fuzzy: intermarriage was frequent and the settlement-patterns were interspersed.

Sharma elaborated that Afghan society had once been characterised by a multiple differences. This means that individual identities were shaped by various crosscutting affiliations: language, religion, ethnicity, locality. Ethnic identities for example as Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazara added to religious ones as Sunnis and Shiites as well as to attachment to the place people come from or life. In the course of the violent conflict, however, the ethnic marker gains social dominance over all other aspects of identity. Before 1992, the main dividing line was between communism and anti-communism.

As a consequence, ethnic conflict is now only affecting traditional craft, for example the symbols used in carpet weaving. Another consequence is the transformation of settlement patterns; especially in the cities ghettoisation: can be observed. Even people without strong ethnic identities move to “their” quarters because they want to make sure that in case of a resurgence of armed conflict, they would not life among the Others.

Miriam Aced: Lebanon. Beauty and Beast

Miriam Aced discussed the role of consumerism and aesthetic self-improvement in postwar Lebanon. She presented evidence from field research, which shows a society obsessed with appearances, consumerism and instant gratification. This can be seen in excessive nightlife, the social importance of acquiring consumer goods or   the widespread plastic surgery and cosmetic enhancements (by some, Beirut is considered the world capital of plastic surgery). In her presentation, Aced addressed the question of how this situation can be explained. She explored four alternative readings:

First, the importance of appearances can in part be explained by the fact that the country had an elevated number of highly qualified plastic surgeons due to the need to take care of people wounded in the war. The oversupply created its own demand.

A second explanation is the countries unbalanced sex ratio – between 8 and 9 men for ten women – , which puts high pressure on young women in search of future spouses.

A third line of interpretation understands the efforts in aesthetic self-improvement as a form of individual self-empowerment. As under conditions of armed conflict expressions of individuality are extremely restrictive, the experience of being master of one’s own life – and be it in the sense of being the master of one’s own body – might become important in a postconflict situation.

A last explanation is sees the obsession with appearances as an indicator for the dominance of short term perspectives. In postwar Lebanon, this is relevant as reducing the life to the present is a strategy to cope with the internal and external problems Lebanese society is facing.

A symbol for this life in tension between lifestyle and (violent) conflicts is the popular club BO18, which is built to resemble a Bunker.

In the discussion, the proposed relationship between this culture focussed on outward appearances and the postwar situation was vividly discussed.

Teresa Koloma Beck: Armed Groups as Lifeworlds

Stephan Malthaner, who had been scheduled as the second speaker in the first panel, unfortunately had to cancel his participation.

Related Publication: Malthaner, Stefan. 2011. Mobilizing the faithful. Militant islamist groups and their constituencies. Frankfurt/Main [et al.]: Campus.

Teresa Koloma Beck stepped in and presented on Armed Groups as Lifeworlds. She proposed to complement the understanding of armed group as organisations with a perspective of armed groups as lifeworlds, and to conceive the relationship between organisational and lifeworldly structures in terms of interpenetration. In a case study of the Angolan UNITA she showed how such a perspective sheds new light on how armed groups deal with basic organisational problem. In UNITA’s case, the armed group had systematically organised lifeworldly structures such as school education, healthcare, agricultural work and the family to stabilise its organisational structure. In UNITA’s military bases “normal” civilian life was staged and played by the rules of UNITA leadership. The aim was to “civilise” the combatant and thus to counter the risk of violence derailing.

The following discussion revolved around the question in how far the concept of interpenetration is appropriate for describing the role of lifeworldly structures for the stabilisation of an armed group organisation. Going back to the debate between Niklas Luhmann and Jürgen Habermas, colonisation was proposed as an alternative concept.    

Relevant publication: Teresa Koloma Beck, 2012, The normality of civil war. Armed groups and everyday life in Angola. Frankfurt/Main: Campus.

Bettina Engels: Rebels at Work in Northern Côte d’Ivoire

Bettina Engels situated her presentation within the research field of armed group studies. Influential for her own research has been research on “rebel governance” especially from political science and peace and conflict studies, as well as research on the social anthropology of the state. She combined the two strands of research to study rebel rule in Northern Côte d’Ivoire after the coup in 2002. Engels emphasises that the way how rebel governance works cannot be understood without considering how the pre-conflict state worked.

The title “Rebels at Work” is inspired by a German-African research project called “States at Work”. In the same vein as this project took an interest in actual practices which (re-)produce the state, she takes an interest in the actual practices of armed groups in their attempts to gain power and administrate population.

Engels discussed everyday life in the “rebel state” with regard to education, healthcare, taxation and security. In conclusion, she identified two main difference between the “normal” and the “rebel state”. First, the militarisation the of all public functions (all positions are filled by military personnel) as well as of the everyday sphere in general (ubiquity of armed actors and a potential for violence). The second difference is, what she calls the “shadow of the short run”, which was a result of the people (including the fighters) not knowing how long rebel rule would last. The consequences are an informalisation and privatisation of violence and welfare (especially of education and healthcare), an increase in inequality as well as a decrease in service quality.

Related book: Bettina ENGELS, 2012, Warum sie Rebellen sind. Motive nichtstaatlicher Gewaltakteure in der Côte d’Ivoire, Frankfurt/Main: Bandes & Apsel

Opening Speech: Florian Hoffman

In his opening speech as the director of the Willy Brandt School, Florian Hoffman pointed to a cognitive difference involved in studying conflict from an everyday perspective: Those to whom the everyday can be framed in a category of peace, might be ill equipped to conceive of everyday life marked by conflict. Their relation to conflict is always mediated, for example by a piece of paper, a television or computer screen. The reality of an armed conflict having become a normality is inconceivable from this point of view. Moreover, this perspective creates a kind of blindness for violent conflicts, which might go on in one’s own life world – such as increasing urban violence in the Global North.

Map & Directions

The workshop has four different venues:

  • Willy Brandt School of Public Policy of Erfurt University
    Nordhäuser Straße 74, Building 39, 99089, Erfurt
  • Hotel Pullman
    Theaterplatz 2, 99084 Erfurt
  • Dom Erfurt
    Domplatz, 99084 Erfurt
  • Pier 37
    Lange Brücke 37a, 99084 Erfurt

Below you find the most important directions. Map Erfurt


From Hauptbahnof to the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy (WBS):

Take line 3 to Europaplatz or line 6 to Rieth and get off at „Baumerstraße“. Walk along the road in the same direction as the Tram you just got off and after 100m you will be able to see the WBS Flag and building.


From Hauptbahnhof to the Hotel Pullman:

Take line 4 to Bindersleben or Hauptfriedhof and then get off at „Theater“. The Hotel Pullman is right in front of the Erfurter Theater, behind the Erfurter Dom. Be aware that unlike lines 3 and 6, the time between trams takes around 15 minutes depending on the time of the day. In case you are running late, you can also take line 3 to Europaplatz or line 6 to Rieth and get off at „Domplatz Nord“. It takes a 5 minute walk to the Hotel (see map).


From Hotel Pullman to the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy (WBS):

There are two options for reaching the WBS from the Pullman Hotel. One is to take the tram line 4 to Wiesenhügel and get off at „Domplatz Süd“, then cross the street to reach „Domplatz Nord“. There take line 3 to Europaplatz or line 6 to Rieth and get off at „Baumerstraße“. The second one is to walk directly to „Domplatz Nord“ (see map); it takes about 5 minutes.


From the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy (WBS) to Hotel Pullman:

At the „Baumerstraße“ line 3 to Urbicher Kreuz or line 6 to Steigerstraße and get off at „Domplatz Nord“. Either walk to the Hotel or wait for line 4 to Bindersleben or Hauptfriedhof at „Domplatz Süd“, just across the street.


Dom/Killiani Kapelle

The entrance to the Killiani Kapelle is located just next to the Erfurter Dom Steps, facing the Dom to the left; there is a black gate with a code lock. Further instructions will be provided the day of the event.


Workshop Programme


29. November 2012

Welcome and opening words
Florian Hoffmann, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University 

Teresa Koloma Beck, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

Panel I: Everyday life in/of armed groups
Chair: Wolfgang Muno, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

“Rebels at work in Northern Côte d‘Ivoire”
Bettina Engels, Freie Universität Berlin

“Village communities and the dynamics of civil war. The case of Uchuraccay, Peru”
Stefan Malthaner, European University Institute, Florence

Friederike Mieth, Center for Conflict Studies, Philipps University Marburg

Panel II: The everyday in war societies
Chair: Pablo Andrés Ramon Barón, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

“The Afghan Conflict. Contextualizing Ethnicized Violence in Afghanistan“
Raghav Sharma, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

“Post-war Lebanon: Beauty and the Beast”
Miriam Aced, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

Stefan Malthaner, European University Institute, Florence

Evening Speech
“Übersetzungen zwischen Universalisierung und Lokalität: Kämpfe indischer Dalit und urban poor um Menschenrechte und Menschenwürde”
Martin Fuchs, Max-Weber-Kolleg, Erfurt University


30. November 2012

Panel III: The everyday in war societies (II)
Chair: Annamarie Bindenagel-Sehovic, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

“Coexistence during civil war: combatants and civilians in Sierra Leone“
Friederike Mieth, Center for Conflict Studies, Philipps University Marburg

“Armed Conflict and Social Changes in Afghanistan’s Rural Community“
Sayed Asef Hossaini, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

Bettina Engels, Freie Universität Berlin

Panel IV: Theory and Methods
Chair: Andrea Ribeiro-Hoffmann, Freie Universität Berlin 

“Researching normalisation in /of armed conflict”
Susanne Buckley-Zistel, Center for Conflict Studies, Philipps University Marburg

“Theorising normalitsation in/of armed conflict“
Teresa Koloma Beck, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University

Wolfgang Muno, Willy Brandt School, Erfurt University


Armed Conflict & the Everyday

Gegenstand des Blogs ist die bisher vor allem in der politikwissenschaftlichen Konfliktforschung vernachlässigte Alltagsdimension von bewaffneten Konflikten. Die wachsende Bedeutung dieses Themas geht auf einen empirischen Trend zurück, nämlich die Entwicklung des Kriegsgeschehens weltweit: Seit dem Ende des zweiten Weltkrieges handelt es sich bei der überwiegenden Mehrzahl der Gewaltkonflikte um innerstaatliche Kriege. Charakteristisch für letztere ist ein Ausgreifen des Krieges in den Raum des gesellschaftlichen Alltags, weil Unterscheidungen, die in zwischenstaatlichen Kriegen strukturbildend wirken – Kämpfer/Zivilist, Schlachtfeld/Hinterland, Kriegszeit/Friedenszeit – sich auflösen.