23 November 2020

Understanding Civil War from Pre- to Post- War stages: A Comparative Approach

Dr Anastasia Shesterinina discusses her commitment to advancing research into civil wars and how this led to being awarded her recent UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

Dr Anastasia Shesterinina profile image, smiling to camera

You were recently honoured by UKRI with a Future Leaders Fellowship for your world class research and innovation. Can you talk about what led you to this award?

This Fellowship is the culmination of my decade-long commitment to advancing research on one of the deadliest and most persistent problems of our time. Every year, civil wars kill, displace and force millions of people into poverty, creating humanitarian and environmental crises. I first became aware of the severity of this problem when I was growing up and a number of wars broke out as the Soviet Union disintegrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, I could grasp only a fraction of the devastation and loss brought about by the fighting. Years later, when I started my doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia, it became clear to me that this is the subject I had to study in depth. 

My PhD research focused on an understudied but critical case of the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, which resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides of the war and displacement of most of the pre-war Georgian population from Abkhazia, now a breakaway territory of Georgia. To understand how the pre-war inter-group conflict affected the outbreak of this war, why ordinary people participated in the fighting and what consequences the war left behind, I conducted immersive fieldwork in the region, collecting in-depth interviews with nearly 200 participants and non-participants in the war and experts, practitioners and policymakers and a range of other materials. What I found through this fieldwork was that the war’s onset was marked by intense uncertainty and that ordinary people relied on shared understandings that they developed before the war to make sense of the violence, which left lasting effects on Georgia and Abkhazia. This research resulted in publication of articles in top journals in the discipline, including American Political Science Review and Journal of Peace Research, and the book Mobilizing in Uncertainty: Collective Identities and War in Abkhazia, which is forthcoming with Cornell University Press. 

This research also placed me in the centre of a network of civil war scholars affiliated with the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, where I was a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow before joining the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. The intellectual vigour that I drew from the program, the collaborations that I built as part of my Postdoctoral Fellowship and the indispensable guidance and support that I received from colleagues and mentors at Yale and Sheffield inspired me to develop the idea behind my UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship and encouraged me to apply for this large-scale, flexible award that I needed in order to put this idea to life. 

What does the fellowship mean for you going forward?

This Fellowship will provide me with the time and resources to redefine civil war as a process that connects the pre-war, war and post-war stages of conflict through the changing interactions between state, non-state and external actors and populations. It will allow me to study different paths that civil wars follow based on how they emerge, unfold and end (or transform). In particular, it will allow me to establish the Centre for the Comparative Study of Civil War to host the project, bring together experts on a range of case studies and dynamics of civil war and build the foundation for sustained research and impact based on the University’s interdisciplinary expertise and external collaborations with world-leading academics and practitioners in the field. 

The Fellowship will also allow me to build a team of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers with research experience in contexts of violent conflict. Together we will undertake a qualitative comparison of cases that will be selected based on the different ways in which the civil wars have unfolded in the respective countries. We will carry out intensive coordinated fieldwork in these countries, interviewing participants and non-participants in the events, observing ongoing processes and collecting archival materials, to develop a grounded understanding of the paths that these civil wars have followed and drawing implications for other cases of civil war. As a result, the Fellowship will help me push the frontiers of research on civil war and inform and influence international efforts to sustain peace in conflict affected societies.

How has your research fed into your teaching, and how will it, following your fellowship?

My teaching draws directly on my research. For example, I have approached my MA module on International Political Sociology of Civil Wars from the perspective of real-world relevance, informed by my knowledge of the subject and appreciation that civil war is an evolving phenomenon of major international significance. The module therefore aims to provide students with not only an advanced conceptual and theoretical understanding of civil war, but also applied skills of critical engagement with current cases through a range of hands-on activities, from analysis of breaking news, working papers and films, to mapping territorial control in civil wars, interview coding and simulations. Through these learning activities, students gain skills for future academic and policy careers and civic engagement as they develop an advanced understanding of civil war as a lived experience and practically apply it to the world around them.

The research that I will undertake as part of the Fellowship will further advance my comparative expertise on civil war and this will open opportunities for in-depth engagement with a range of case studies in my teaching. The practice-oriented aspects of this research will also allow me to draw further connections between research and policy and design new hands-on activities that will help students develop skills and engage in practices that will have a potential for real-world impact in their future careers. For example, in my MA module on Civil Wars, students will have access to cutting-edge findings on the subject and will be able to engage first-hand with the working papers and publications that will be produced as part of this research. This will help them build a strong foundation for their own case studies that they will prepare in the course of the module. Students will also engage in developing innovative toolkits for sustaining peace in their cases of interest, which will be an interactive and policy relevant component of their learning. 

These learning activities will equip students with detailed knowledge of current cases and applied analytical skills that government and non-governmental organisations working in the area of conflict, security and peace seek in recruiting the next generation of analysts and policymakers. The advanced conceptual and theoretical basis underlying these activities will also help pave the way for future doctoral studies for those students wishing to pursue academic careers. 

How do you feel about winning such a prestigious award?

It is an incredible honour and responsibility to be awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. I am still catching my breath from the news and am thrilled about building the research centre, the team and the collaborations as part of the Fellowship. But mostly, I cannot wait to start the research!


For more information about Dr Anastasia Shesterinina's research and teaching, please see her profile:

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