Sunday, October 14, 2012

So What is Your Dissertation Actually About?

I’ve been asked this question a number of times over the past few weeks.   So, I’ll attempt to explain it briefly, though I’m happy to answer questions or go into more detail.  

For my dissertation, I ask: What are the causes of genocide?  I know it’s a rather depressing topic, but I am simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by the fact that genocides continue to take place.  I like to believe that people are inherently good, though it’s often hard to maintain an optimistic viewpoint when faced with the reality that it hasn’t been uncommon for people to attempt to destroy others based on perceived differences. 

Many believe that those who commit genocide are psychologically ill.  However, numerous people participate in genocide; in the case of Rwanda, well over one million people participated in some form or another.  And, studies have shown that, more often than not, people who commit genocide are not psychopaths but rather psychologically “average.”  Thus, we have to look to other factors to understand genocide, such as the situational context. 

To attempt to understand the causes of genocide, I’m using several methods.  The first chapter (yes, dissertations consist of chapters; they’re essentially books!) is an event history analysis.  This is a type of statistical analysis of the preconditions of genocide in all countries over the last 50 years.   Using statistics, I essentially try to better understand the common factors in states that experience genocide (and those that do not experience genocide).  This includes a variety of factors, such as societal diversity, the type of government, resource scarcity, and international trading patterns.   Overall, I argue that societal, state, and international factors must be considered when trying to understand why genocides take place.

Statistical studies can be very useful to establish general patterns.  However, they do not allow a researcher to take specific histories into account.  Furthermore, myy statistical analysis only looks at causes of genocide leading up to genocide.  But, to understand the causes of genocide, we also have to understand what drives genocide.  How do genocides unfold?  Is there a process?  For these questions, I am working on three case studies.  For my non-social scientist friends, these are essentially in-depth looks at particular cases of genocide—the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan.  For each case, I’m trying to understand how the specific societies, states, and international factors combined to result in genocide.  Beyond this, though, I am also studying the process of genocides.  To do this, I am looking at how genocide unfolded over time and space; in other words, I am looking at temporal and regional variation in violence.  (For example, why were some months or some regions within countries more violent than others during the genocides?)  I am using several different methods, including visits to each of the countries and interviews with scholars, government employees, activists, and other citizens. Thus, if you are interested, next spring I’ll be posting about Bosnia, and next summer I’ll be posting about Sudan.

Thanks to all of you who have been reading this so far; I’ll be taking a brief hiatus but will post every so often.  I’ll also be posting more when I travel for the other two cases.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Some Random Musings on Rwanda

Time in Rwanda is winding down, and there are still so many things to share!  So, the next few posts are going to be a mixture of different ideas and thoughts.  I wanted to share some random thoughts about life in Rwanda, and, due to many questions I’ve received concerning what my dissertation is actually about, I wanted to share a bit about that too (in the next post).  So, here are some random things I have learned about life in Rwanda from my perspective.

Security:  Security is considered a very important aspect of society.  I could literally walk almost anywhere in the city at any time and feel safe.  Why?  Because there are police people stationed everywhere all of the time.  Granted most of them carry very large guns, but overall you still feel quite safe.

Fanta:  I had no idea that Fanta was so popular.  If you go to a wedding, you are always offered a bottle of Fanta.  There are several flavors, such as orange, fiesta (purple), and coca cola.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been given a straw and a bottle of Fanta.

Dessert:  Here, dessert=bananas.  As someone with a sweet tooth, this is a little depressing.  But, I try to remind myself it’s much healthier than my usual choice of doughnuts.

Hired help:  Many, many people hire maids or cooks. I have many thoughts about this, but I’ll leave it at that.

Dowries:  Dowries are paid before weddings.  Then, there is an introduction ceremony where the bride’s family officially accepts the dowry.  

Moto Taxis:  The easiest way to get around is by moto taxi.  They zip in and out of traffic pretty quickly, so it takes a little while to get used to.  I actually burned my leg on one last week, but otherwise riding them has been fairly easy.

Umuganda:  The last Saturday of the month, all Rwandans must participate in mandatory community service in the morning.  They spend time cleaning the streets and making Rwanda beautiful.

Muzungo: As I shared in an earlier post, foreigners are called muzungos here.  It’s quite common for people, especially children, to point at me and yell “muzungo!”  Especially when I travel outside of the city, I soon find myself surrounded my crowds of children who want to touch me, pet my hair, or see my eyes. 

Ethnicity: Surprising in light of the acceptance of blatantly pointing out muzungos, ethnicity is taboo in Rwanda.  Due to the genocide, people are not allowed to differentiate by ethnicity.  Instead, everyone is considered Rwandan.

Food: Bananas, beans, and rice are core staples in almost every meal.  Rwandans don’t eat much meat, which is useful for a vegetarian!

Obama: Many, many people have asked me if I think Obama will win the upcoming election.  From what I can tell from my conversations, he’s quite popular here.  And, I’m continually amazed by how much people know about U.S. politics.  This weekend, I was talking with an 8-year-old.  When I told him I was from the U.S., he said, ”Ah, so your President is Obama.”  Wow.

School fees:  Education here is not free (though as a universal human right, it should be!).  Instead, students pay fees for uniforms and other services.

Sibling support: After 1994, many young people were left without a parent/parents.  In part due to that, the oldest sibling in each family bears much responsibility.  Most of the people my age I have met work so they can pay for their siblings’ school fees.  For example, the girls who clean and cook at my guesthouse work so their younger siblings can attend school (even though they do not attend school themselves).