On international research collaboration: a conversation
In summer 2019, several colleagues from DisTerrMem’s various partner organisations undertook simultaneous secondments at the University of Bath.
Ryan Brasher of Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan, and Arpine Kostanyan of Educational & Cultural Bridges in Yerevan, Armenia, reflect on the benefits of spending in-person time together when working on a large-scale collaborative research project across borders, time zones and cultures.
I and my colleague, Nelli Gishyan, spent a month on secondment to the University of Bath in July 2019, based in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies. One of the first things that struck me was the shared view of our respective organisations (despite one being a small Armenian NGO and the other a large British university!) of the importance of good education for building a peaceful society free from violence and hate.
What was particularly valuable was the opportunity to meet and spend time with professional colleagues from a number of DisTerrMem’s partner organisations, given that several of us were on secondment to Bath at the same time.
I agree. Professionally, it was a privilege to spend time with our fellow colleagues on the DisTerrMem project. These included Bath-based project coordinator, Sophie Whiting, as well as former coordinators Nina Parish and David Clarke, as well as Wali Aslam, who had already spent some time with us on secondment from Bath to Forman Christian College in Pakistan. Arpine and Nelli from Educational and Cultural Bridges in Armenia were of course also present during my stay, as well as Weronika Czyżewska-Poncyljusz from the Borderland Foundation in Poland. Each provided very enlightening perspectives and insights from their location and work. From my own team in Pakistan, Qalandar Memon and Ammar Ali Jan also joined us in Bath for a month, and it was good to think together how we might apply the insights from our collective memory studies to the particular case of Pakistan.
Absolutely, that collective perspective and sharing has been invaluable. In fact our whole month-long secondment seemed to pass by all too quickly as we were constantly involved in a flurry of interesting activities and opportunities - exhibitions, events, roundtables and discussions. Being together in this way allowed us, as project colleagues based in diverse organisations and locations, to learn about our respective professional perspectives and their cultural contexts, and to share and debate our varied knowledge and opinions across the wide subject area of memory studies during several informal reading groups and collaborative sessions.
In addition, I took the opportunity to interview nine professors in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies in order to gather learning on the development and delivery of educational programmes that could be of relevance to my own organisation. The slogan of Educational and Cultural Bridges is a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and I found this principle shared by our colleagues in Bath.
My primary goal in Bath was to familiarize myself with the expansive and multi-disciplinary literature on memory studies. Regular reading groups (generally every 2 weeks) were organized by project coordinator Sophie Whiting and these, in addition to the precious time available to read and research, were incredibly helpful in allowing me to wrap my head around the diverse issues, controversies and arguments extant in the literature.
It was a treat to be able to interact with the University of Bath’s Anna Bull, one of the premier theorists of the concept of agonistic memory-making, both through her writing and her presence in the discussion groups. Recurring themes and questions that emerged in these readings groups included:
1. Can we apply the psychologically-based concepts of repression and trauma to the sociological and political phenomenon of collective memory?
2. Is agonistic memory-making, which necessities honest and unrepressed conversation between past victims and perpetrators, overly grounded in the democratic European experience?
3. How might it apply in authoritarian settings?
4. Have European theorists neglected the importance of colonialism to the European construction of memory?
5. How might the South Asian political context, particularly with the memory of partition, contribute to the study of collective memory?
Yes, these reading groups and roundtables were invaluable, as was the opportunity to engage in relevant events beyond the University of Bath and the DisTerrMem project team. One such event of particular note was a seminar at London’s Brunel University, entitled Conflict, Transitions to Democracy, and Methodological Approaches to Research. This event brought together professionals from diverse backgrounds and countries; each shared details of their own local projects in conflict management and perspectives on their roles as an activists and change-makers. For my part, I gave a presentation: Do we learn lessons from the past? A case study on Armenia.
Agreed - an excellent event and a privilege to attend! It was fascinating to hear how both scholars and cultural practitioners from a variety of academic backgrounds have approached the subject of memory-making in conflict and post-conflict contexts, with perspectives from Lebanon, Syria, Armenia, Pakistan, Myanmar and the UK including Northern Ireland. I presented a theoretical outline of how one might approach the subject of identity among displaced refugee communities in South Asia.
Back at the University of Bath, DisTerrMem project coordinator Sophie Whiting organized a series of seminars to which we had the opportunity to contribute. Myself and my colleague Qalandar Memon presented some ideas on how the subject of memory studies might intersect with our own research projects. I presented my project on Christian political identity in Pakistan, and was grateful to the seminar participants for their suggestions regarding future research directions. Identity construction and memory-making are intimately connected with one another, and I look forward to further qualitative research to supplement quantitative surveys I have already conducted.
Yes, these were fascinating conversations about the relationship between national identity and political attitudes. As part of the same seminar series, I and my colleague and Nelli Gishyan gave a presentation on the importance of the Armenian genocide in memory-making and national identity. The Armenian diaspora is spread all over the world from Australia to the USA which raises important questions about where borders actually begin and end for Armenians.
And Weronika Czyżewska-Poncyljusz gave us an insightful overview of the work of Poland’s Borderland Foundation and other activist-artist groups and their role in memory-making before and after the transition from Communism.
Later, we were also joined by my colleagues from Pakistan, Ammar Ali Jan and Umber bin Ibad, at which point we all gathered for another seminar with longer presentations by Bath’s Anna Bull and Mattia Cacciatori, followed by shorter ones by several of us. It was a useful opportunity to help put together a number of thoughts on agonistic memory, particularly due to Anna and Mattia’s theoretical work, and to consider how I might organize my literature review as part of the first stage of the DisTerrMem project.
By the time I left in early August, I had developed a rudimentary theoretical framework on how to think of collective memory within the discipline of political science, and had submitted a literature review draft. I was struck both by the relative dearth of literature on the subject – not many political scientists have explicitly tackled this subject – but also its creative application by those few who have, including a range of topics from jihadi recruitment, democratization, and state building to post-conflict reconciliation and justice.
And just to close… the end of year Departmental barbeque, to which we were invited, was a wonderfully warm and friendly conclusion to an extremely productive visit. We felt very much like a part of a team, which isn't always easy when collaborating across geographical distances and cultural differences.
Indeed. Myself and my team at Forman Christian College are very grateful for the intellectual collaboration that the DisTerrMem project affords us, and we look forward to hosting our project colleagues from the UK, Poland, and Armenia in Lahore.
Arpine Kostanyan is President and Co-Founder of Educational and Cultural Bridges base din Yerevan, Armenia. Dr Ryan Brasher is Assistant Professor & Department Chair of the Department of Political Science at Forman Christian College, Lahore, Pakistan.