Improbable Dialogues: Participatory Research as a Strategy for Reconciliation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Politics


The Colombian armed conflict has been protracted and complex. Its multi-causal, multi-actor and multi-level nature complicates the construction of peace. Furthermore, there are real disconnects between the formal provisions in the negotiated Peace Agreement and the daily lived experiences of communities affected by conflict. In many communities various forms of conflict continue, and in some, new conflicts have emerged as a result of the national-level peace process. We capture these conflicts through the term conflictividades, a Spanish word describing conflict-prone scenarios not necessarily related to armed confrontation. This project seeks to explore the disjuncture between the Peace Agreement's formulation and the daily realities of life in three communities, and to facilitate and amplify local expertise and agency in moving towards peace and reconciliation in those communities.
This participatory action research (PAR) project (Fals-Borda 1987) works towards reconciliation through approaches that give primacy to local communities over external perspectives in understanding the roots of ongoing conflict, and recognise that communities themselves have the necessary knowledge and expertise to overcome conflict. The ethos of the project, as both research and intervention, is therefore to work with communities to facilitate and harness their expertise rather than to impose models or ideas from outside. This will be achieved through utilising our participatory approaches to understand the sources of conflictividades and to prompt 'improbable dialogues' (Lederach, 2016), thereby bringing together community members who may not normally work together to address these themes within and beyond the study communities.

As a starting point for engaging with communities over the causes and resolution of ongoing conflictividades, we will work along three lines of enquiry that constitute recurrent sites of ongoing conflict in many formally-defined 'post-conflict' settings around the world. These are: i) territorial development; ii) provision of basic services; and iii) media. Our approach will engage the three study communities in iterative processes of reflection and dialogue around these three issues, mapping lived experiences of everyday conflict and building from those insights towards prompting inter- and intra- community dialogue. Local capacities for reconciliation will be harnessed and augmented in the process. As a result of these lines of enquiry, the project has particular relevance for three areas of the Colombian Peace Agreement: comprehensive rural reform (point 1), political participation: democratic opening to peacebuilding (point 2), and victims (point 5).

Methodologically, the project will deploy a range of participatory approaches (including participatory video and photo projects, and participatory media analysis) alongside more conventional social science techniques, such as focus groups and key informant interviews. The project will consequently combine innovative ways of community involvement in research with proven and rigorous academic methods.

This project brings together a partnership of scholars from the University of Sheffield (UK) and Pontificia Universidad Javeriana (Colombia) with CINEP, the leading Colombian organization on issues of peace and development. These three organisations have been developing a partnership over a significant period of time, culminating in the co-design of this project. Equally important are the strong relationships with the local partner organisations in the three communities in which the project will be carried out. Through co-production with the communities themselves, the project aims to generate important capacity-building gains for them to move towards a stable and lasting daily peace, and at the same time to contribute to the generation of new academic knowledge.

Planned Impact

As Participatory Action-Research (PAR), the potential impacts of the project are fully integrated into the project's design, being generated from the very start of the research rather than being an 'add-on' at the project's conclusion. A variety of forms of impact, both direct and indirect, are anticipated to occur: on the study communities themselves, on our local and national NGO partners; on policy audiences at the local and national levels; and on wider audiences outside of Colombia. These are described in full in the Joint Case for Support, but include:

Local Communities: full participation in guiding the research, from beginning to end; facilitation of achieving their own impact through the project's methods and interventions; opportunities to engage with and potentially influence policy audiences; capacity and skills-building through training in video-making, photography and media analysis; opportunities for intra- and inter-community conversations and 'improbable dialogues'; opportunity to engage in academic analysis and outputs; a feedback process that returns the project's findings to the community,

NGO partners: capacity-building via training in participatory video facilitation; building knowledge and capacity for future research and intervention projects; creation of a network of NGOs including the local partners and CINEP; engagement opportunities with high-level policy audiences.

Policy audiences (local and national): Community-level meetings involving community members and local government officials, creating a space for the opening up of dialogue and the generation of new ideas and initiatives; follow-up interviews will local officials to canvas their views on any lessons learned; high-level workshop in Bogota involving the screening of the films and the exhibition of selected outputs from the photography projects, followed by a group discussion (involving participants from the study communities, where they are willing); co-production of a 'toolkit' to inform similar interventions in other settings; follow-up interviews to investigate and document impact on attendees; ongoing engagement via policy briefs and academic outputs.

Wider audiences: A sub-titled edited compilation of the videos from the three communities to be made freely available as a teaching and research resource; co-production of a 'toolkit' to inform similar interventions in other settings; dedicated project website and use of social media channels to include regular project updates and details of academic outputs.

Our Colombian partners (both academic and NGO) have very strong contacts in the study communities and at the national policy level that will be used to facilitate effective engagement with the desired policy audiences, allowing a high level of confidence that the relevant audiences can be accessed in practice and that the project related activities can be successfully run.


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Description Meeting with Truth Commissioners 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact CI Turton and other colleagues from Sheffield, along with representatives from our partners at Javeriana and CINEP, met with members of the Colombian Truth Commission in Bogota in February 2019 to brief them on the Improbable Dialogues project and to seek their input on particular aspects of the project's design, as well as to explore opportunities for further related research projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019