Spatializing Social Research: Locating Peace after Mass Violence

Delia Wendel, Lecturer in Landscape Architecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, combines spatial and social research strategies in her work in post-genocide Rwanda. Wendel’s contribution critically analyzes Rwanda’s villagization policy as part of its peacebuilding efforts after a devastating civil war. Below, Wendel discusses her work, in a blog that originally appeared as a post on Items, The Social Science Research Council blog: 

In 2013, I asked the same question of every rural resident in Rwanda that I met: “If you were to visit another village, how would you know if peace was there?”1 I was asking if peace was recognizable—if it was visible or spatial—or perhaps could be experienced. I was asking if peace was more than an ideal. Ultimately, I was inquiring into the everyday conditions and challenges for peace after the 1994 genocide.

A primary school teacher living in a village in northern Rwanda answered my question with a comparison. Christine said:

People can live in villages with houses in rows, places to meet, and good roads, and not have peace. Let me give you an example from Musekeweya. In that radio drama, the characters fight often. But someone who is not from that village would never know that. People in another village could have all of these things and by looking with your eyes you could say that the village is fine. But really, hatred is there.

Christine drew an analogy between new villages in Rwanda and the fictional villages in a popular local radio drama to reveal disconnects in the ways that peace has been planned and experienced in the country. For Christine, the villages that the government developed after the genocide—where identical houses are equally spaced in grid plans—only offer the appearance of peace in Rwanda. By contrast, her most ready example of prolonged hatred (inzangano) and the prevalence of fighting (gutongana) was located in the world created by a fictional soap opera. It is not that conflicts do not exist between neighbors in Rwanda. Rather, in terms of what is permitted to be spoken, fiction represents reality more freely and accurately.

Christine’s reflections introduce the strategic importance of spatializing social research. On the one hand, this is an issue of research design—one sensitive to opportunities for Christine and others to reveal their views less directly. Such an approach is critical in a country like Rwanda where residents routinely guard their opinions and see penalties for dissent. Throughout the 36 villages that formed the basis of Christine's research, individuals regularly referred to built environments and living conditions as proxies for critical views of neighbors and policies. In these ways, spaces present strategic entry into politicized topics.

On the other hand, socio-spatial research responds to the nature of peacebuilding in Rwanda. After the genocide, the government and its partners employed architecture and planning to do peacebuilding work. Accordingly, a series of spatial projects—including genocide memorials, new rural villages, a roof modernization program, and a radio drama’s fictional communities—form the content of my research on peacebuilding practices in the country. I explore the intentions of these government peace strategies and their impacts on rural residents. Both scales—those of national policy and local experience—are critical to defining what and where peace is in Rwanda.

In the following, I describe how I have interpreted socio-spatial research, which may resonate with other scholars who have embraced a “spatial turn” in their disciplines to locate difference, chart the impacts of global forces, and explore the materiality of social life. I also provide a sense of what is at stake in distinguishing between different spatial registers, where assessing actually existing peace is radically different from noting its appearance.

Spatial structures for peace

In the last twenty years, the Rwandan government and international organizations have, through their priorities and projects, progressively indicated that peace is a matter of development. This connection is evident in the country’s villagization program, which was introduced during peace negotiations in 1993 and formalized as state policy in 1996. Government objectives for villagization were twofold: (1) to assure efficient and appropriate land use for the Rwandan population, and (2) to promote national reconciliation and restore peace and unity among the Rwandan people. With these objectives, villagization represents a wider international and paradigmatic turn to development as means to build peace.

Figure 1
Pre-1994 typical habitat pattern, with homes loosely oriented to a dirt access road. Source: GOR Ministry of Local Government

Before 1994, most of Rwanda’s rural residents lived in scattered habitats that were located on family farming lands (figure 1). Villages were not common. A severe housing shortage, disputes regarding land ownership, and the mass exodus and return of over 2.7 million people during 1994–1998 accelerated efforts to reform land use, governance, and social relations through villagization. Consequently, the state identified villages as the only legal form of residence and required residents throughout the country to move into newly constructed and grouped settlements (figure 2). Villages house diverse residents, including demobilized soldiers and former perpetrators, genocide survivors, and those returning from long-term exile. Sites provide infrastructure and social services, modernize homes and agricultural production, and order social life. In addition, after 2001, villages have formed the base unit of newly decentralized national governance to promote “a culture of peace, transparency, and participation” at the community scale.

Figure 2
Post-1994 village settlements, with houses uniformly spaced in grid plans. Source: GOR Ministry of Local Government

The strategies deployed by villagization derive from “liberal peace” orthodoxy, which asserts that democratic institutions and a liberal market economy produce stability and peace. Villagization models these goals at the local scale to generate conditions for peaceful coexistence and national development. Critics of liberal peace claim that isomorphic institutional and economic reforms are focused more on nation building than peacebuilding. As a result, programs tend to privilege elite or foreign political and economic interests and poorly address local specificities, underlying causes of conflicts, or the concerns of citizens on the margins. Such a view would see villagization primarily as a development program that focuses on national indicators of progress rather than civil rights and individual challenges to living together after mass violence.

Christine’s above comments ground these critiques in her experience of village life in Rwanda. Furthermore, the confrontation of these government and resident perspectives suggest a need for critical research methods and analytic frameworks that can compare strategies and experiences of peace. The impetus for doing so is the recognition that after mass violence, repair is of paramount importance and something must be done for and with the scores of individuals affected. However, we should be equally cautious about taking peacebuilding strategies as self-evident—and be attentive to the ruptures and conflicts that these projects produce.

Spatial ethnographies of peace

Some of the most cogent critiques of peacebuilding orthodoxy in the last decade have drawn significantly from ethnographic research and case study analyses. These studies and arguably any research that takes fieldwork as central to its epistemological toolkit have a spatial dilemma: by what criteria and at what scale do we judge research to be adequate for social description? This raises persistent research design questions regarding how outsider-researchers distinguish truth from power and build generalizability from specific locales. These concerns are amplified in contexts where the absence of violence is managed by restrictions on civil liberties, thus opening peacebuilding processes to scrutiny regarding legitimacy, validity, and ethics.

My approach to research was to follow four spatial peacebuilding practices, including villagization, in 36 sites throughout Rwanda. Accordingly, I understand case studies in two senses: as typological—exemplified in the four types of spaces that are employed to build peace—and as physical places of experience. Of the latter: 10 villages are exceptional cases of interventions by either government or nongovernmental groups, and the remaining 26 were randomly chosen from geographically distributed regions to identify diversity and similarity in the cases. To respond to a lack of independent empirical studies on regional differences in these programs, this approach was necessarily exploratory and open-ended in nature. To try to understand the legacies of violence in everyday practices and challenges to peaceful coexistence, my study was guided by ethnographic research. I combined these priorities through multi-sited ethnography.

At each site, my attempt to balance these concerns was to take both people and place as equally relevant analytic categories and sources of knowledge. To do so, my methods included participant observation, life history interviews, geo-located surveys, and spatial analyses gained by in situ mapping, photographic documentation, and diagramming. As a form of socio-spatial research, a “spatial ethnography” such as this expands participant observation by analyzing spatial production, aesthetics, and landscapes of memory as cultural and social practices.

Spatial ethnographies are attuned to decoding the ways that Rwandan residents narrate complex social and political views through spatial metaphors and descriptions of living conditions. Kinyarwanda colloquialisms such as ku giti cyanjye, yari mu Mbyo, and ndi ku gasozi exemplify everyday uses of spatial figures in Rwanda. Ku giti cyanjye signals the start of an individual’s opinion but literally translates as “on my tree.” Yari mu Mbyo translates as “he was in Mbyo,” but here Mbyo is both a specific place in Rwanda and a toponym for wilderness, such that if he were in Mbyo he was nowhere, or in the bush and alone. Similarly, ndi ku gasozi translates as “I am on the small hill” but connotes emplacement in unfavorable situations such as poverty, despair, or misfortune. These are widely used idioms that employ figurative spaces (igiti/tree, Mbyo/wild place, and agasozi/small hill) as referents for subjectivity.

Alphonse, a young man who lives in the same village as Christine, illustrated this further in conversation. He lives in a house two rows back from the village’s new access road. Most houses are of the same, uniform design: rectangular 18-by-24-foot structures constructed from mud bricks and covered with metal shed roofs, located within a larger, quasi-private area designated for domestic work (urugo). On fields adjacent to homes, the dark soil characteristic of this region is periodically tilled and piled high over rows of potato plants. Stacks of rough, porous rocks trace the edges of house and farming plots. These volcanic rocks are plentiful here near the Virunga Mountains and are widely used as boundary, regional identity, and social status markers. The crops and houses are all new; this flat and wide hilltop was cleared of its trees, measured and parceled by local government authorities, and resettled by area residents between 2010 and 2012. When I asked how residents received assistance to build and move to his village, Alphonse responded:

The government supported everyone without singling them out. Yes, and it said, “there, those houses are destroyed—they suffered,” so they helped them. If your house wasn’t destroyed, you cannot ask them to help you. Also, with your friend, whom they helped: you cannot be jealous of him because he faced actual problems.

Rather than refer to ethnic identity, which is excluded from public discourse in Rwanda, Alphonse narrates social identity through house damages during the genocide. Those whose houses were destroyed, implicitly Tutsi genocide survivors, are recognized by the government for reconstruction assistance. Alphonse and other interviewees regularly claimed that all citizens received equal opportunity for this aid. However, a strong caveat was also often repeated, as above, regarding what was considered a permissible social expectation. It is understood that those whose houses were not targeted by the genocide, implicitly the majority Hutu population, cannot ask the government for help nor express discontent because they do not face “actual problems.” Alphonse’s reflections illustrate the epistemological value of spatial ethnography. More critically, he provides a sense of how villagization—a developmentalist approach to peacebuilding—reorders social life after the genocide.

Tracing the social and spatial process of villagization across multiple sites builds a composite understanding of peace in Rwanda. Throughout the country, residents typically claimed that new villages structure neighborliness. They draw from quotidian examples, where individuals share water and land, tend kitchen fires for neighbors and watch others’ children, and greet each other on paths between homes. In these ways, villagization has had real impacts on forms of social cohesion and trust.11 However, and quite critically, residents who do not fully agree with this view are usually very poor or socially stigmatized. The latter comes as a consequence of “outsiderness,” ethnic identity, familial relationships to genocide perpetrators, or as a result of being accused or convicted of genocide crimes. For many, villages are not more secure: relocating requires land exchanges that make livelihoods more precarious and brings residents closer to neighbors that regard them with suspicion. Villages reproduce existing tensions and create a more intense environment for reconciliation. Peace maps unevenly onto class inequality and social identity.

In this work, attending to both symbolic and phenomenological spaces exposes contradictions in how peace is built and experienced. This is situated knowledge that identifies the contingent and contextual aspects of claims, power, and identity.12 Planning for complexity, designing for the margins, learning from local views, and addressing the structural and underlying causes of conflict—these are just some of the urgent issues that could advance equity in peace and development processes. Spatializing social research can reveal difference with a view to locating opportunities for greater inclusion.