The Geography of Violence

Zero-sum politics on the ground in Northern Ireland and West Bank region
Shaul Cohen head shot

Shaul Cohen (right) has spent 30 years studying why people fight—and why they don’t.

As a political and cultural geographer, Cohen specializes in ethno-territorial conflict. He has walked the streets of Northern Ireland as partisan parades dissolved into rioting and he has wandered the outskirts of villages along the Israel-Palestine border when fighting made it too dangerous to enter the communities themselves.

Always, Cohen has been on the lookout for instances where a conflict was averted, where the actions by a few key people defused a situation that was spiraling toward violence. He finds rivals who live side by side in relative peace, and studies them to develop practical solutions to reduce conflict.

Cohen’s research has led to atypical areas for a geographer—ethics and incarceration, for example. These interests share a common thread, however.

“I’m interested in questions of power,” Cohen said. “I’m interested in pushing toward real-world outcomes.”

Q What have you been working on lately?

A I’m looking at how people find a way to live with one another and not pursue violence. The academic literature has historically suggested that violence occurs because communities are opposed to each other and violence is the method they’re using to advance their agenda—that it’s a zero-sum dynamic, “if it’s good for you, it’s bad for me.” However, what I’ve found in the field, where real life is lived, is that while the political operatives are talking zero-sum, there can be a whole lot more compromise going on than was ever even hinted at in the literature.

I’m working on an approach to shift conflicts from being about the demands for certain rights to fulfilling particular needs. When it’s a rights-based dispute it’s often headed toward violence, but when it’s a needs-based conflict there can be all kinds of accommodations.

Q Do you have an example of that kind of accommodation?

A There is a very difficult place in the town of Hebron on the West Bank. It’s a historical religious site and it is thought to be the burial place of the prophet Abraham, who is Ibrahim in Islam. But, because of the shared connection to that patriarch, the site functions as both a synagogue and a mosque, and the arrangements that are made to allow that to happen are quite interesting.

On Saturday, it’s a synagogue; on Friday, it’s a mosque. There are also holidays throughout the year from both communities that supersede that schedule. There are separate entrances. There are some spaces that are shared and others that are exclusive.

It’s a small space that can be shifted according to a schedule to serve the needs of different communities, without negating the claim by either side that the space belongs to them. It doesn’t force them to abandon their rights claims. They’re making it work.

Q What does your work involve in Northern Ireland?

A I’ve studied partisan parading, which historically has created opportunities for considerable communal violence.

There is what I’ve called “a choreography of violence”—people know what to expect in particular places and they can choose to pursue that opportunity for violence or they can choose to avoid it. The parades take place at a specific time, along a particular route, both of which are known to everyone in advance. Along the route, there are areas where there will be no friction, there are areas where there will be a certain kind of friction that doesn’t include physical violence and there will be places where physical violence is possible and even likely. And everybody knows where those places are.

I can tell you, “If you want to see Molotov cocktails thrown, stand on this street at this time on this day. And bring an umbrella, because the stuff’s going to be flying.”

Q What’s the take-away from the “choreography of violence” concept?

A There are sufficient stakeholders invested in violence, which means that violence persists. What we have with the choreography of violence, however, is that the violence is not acceptable to some people, and not beyond certain thresholds, and not in certain areas. There’s a geography to it—what the geography says is that some people are very susceptible and others are relatively or even considerably immune to violence taking place in their space.

It’s almost as if it’s sanctioned within that area, and that draws it. If you suppress it there, it’s going to come out someplace else. The police have made the decision to allow the pressure to be released in this expected way because in all likelihood, innocent people—noncombatants, nonparticipants—won’t get hurt, because they know where it’s going to be and they stay away.

Q So in those areas, the violence is essentially automatic.

A In fact, though, it’s not automatic. If people want the violence not to happen, it’s easy for them to signal, sometimes just by their presence, that the rules have changed for this moment and the space is not going to experience violence. There’s a lot of unspoken communication that takes place in the street, there are all kinds of symbols that serve as “fighting words”—they can be flags, insignias, stuffed animals, even music. And if you come into the space with those things, the challenge is issued and there will be a response; if you defer, then there may not be a response.

It’s difficult for me to talk about these things in detail because they’re sensitive and I’ve conditioned myself not to.

Q Can you explain why this is a sensitive area?

A The stakes are high. Some of the work that I’ve done that’s sensitive involves the leadership of these paramilitary organizations or sectarian organizations trying to take their membership in a less violent direction. But they can’t say, “We’ve decided to surrender, we’re going to elevate the needs of the other side.” They’re manipulating and orchestrating within their own community so that there will be an alternative course taken, but if you signal that to people it causes a crisis of legitimacy and what’s possible is their leadership will be eroded and they’ll be replaced by people who are more extreme who will take it back to the violence. The fact that they’re (moving toward nonviolence) is often something that they have to deny, rather than take credit for it.

Q Are you hopeful when you open a newspaper every day?

A Hell, no. It is challenging to absorb the news and maintain a positive outlook. The world is a harsh place when you do what I do, and the challenges are enormous.

One thing I’ve learned in the past 10 years, though, is that I mostly don’t need to encourage my students to engage in making change. They’re here to engage and they’re not deterred by the magnitude of the challenges. It’s a question not of motivating them but of strategizing with them, and that’s good for me.

—Matt Cooper

Photo: Matt Cooper

Shaul Cohen’s research as a political and cultural geographer has led him to some interesting areas—namely, ethics and incarceration. Cohen directs the UO’s Carnegie Global Oregon Ethics Community and he chairs the university’s steering committee for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.