By Joe Wiinikka-Lydon (Ph.D. Student, Emory University)
In May I attended an international interdisciplinary symposium focused on ethnic conflict, sponsored by Sabanci University. Sabanci is a new university in Turkey, and though located outside Istanbul, the attendees were hosted in a small center owned by Sabanci in the Karakoy section of the city. The symposium’s location was well chosen on the land bridge connecting Southwestern Asia and Southeastern Europe, an area of the world that has seen its fair share of some of the world’s most deadly ethnic conflicts and genocides. We met in the shadow of Galata Tower, the old Genoese fortress that overlooks the Golden Horn and the Ottoman imperial palace, a reminder of a time when Istanbul was itself a contested city familiar with war and subjugation. The conference papers were of high quality, and everyone I met was eager to collaborate. We were all drawn there by the chance to present our research to scholars from around Europe, to make new contacts, and perhaps find a spot in a book the conference organizers promised to make from the presenters’ papers.
For a doctoral student from the United States such as myself, this was a great opportunity to find out how my colleagues in Europe, and one from Africa, approached the study of ethnic conflict, yet I came away with an even stronger sense of how cut off we still remain. After nearly two centuries of social scientific work, we still approach such important topics as ethnic violence from within our own disciplines, and even within our own countries and regions. Ethnic conflict often involves religion, yet religious studies was not represented. The experience of genocide and ethnic cleansing is profoundly moral, however moral philosophers and ethicists, even those with a social scientific bent, were not represented. There was only one historian in attendance that I was aware of, and he too was saddened at the lack of historians. Most of the participants were, to gauge the conference papers, from political science. What does this say of the state of international academic cooperation when a single discipline dominates an interdisciplinary conference, located in an ancient city situated between two continents where at least a score of civilizations have traversed?
I do not want to fault the conference organizers. This is a systemic issue. Yet how do we move forward in constructive ways that are truly interdisciplinary and transnational? This is an important question, for without including diverse approaches and perspectives, how else can we be sure that our methods and conclusions do not overly mirror our own social locations and cultural biases? As I watched the presentations, I noticed that, for example, the Turkish scholars studied European countries with Turkish immigrants, and those from former colonial powers studied societies that their home countries had once ruled. In such an international setting, it seems crucial to reflect on how our histories, such as colonialism and empire, still drive what we research.
This is an issue that will remain but one that needs more attention. Perhaps the third symposium at Sabanci can be a reflection on interdisciplinarity, or lack there of, in the study of ethnic conflict? We are human, after all, bringing our histories and assumptions with us. And we all need more assistance from our colleagues to help each of us become more aware of our biases, as well as aid one another in addressing these issues.