Getting to know… Yael Warshel
Assistant Professor of Communications
Research Associate of the Rock Ethics Institute
Affiliated Faculty of Comparative and International Education,
International Affairs, African Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies
Pennsylvania Sate University, USA
Charu Uppal, our previous CAMmer in the Spotlight, would like to know if you incorporate your love for photography into research.
Yes! However, owed to academic biases that conflate scholarly findings with expression through only written rather than other media like photography, not as much as I would like. And ironically, even in our own field—one dedicated to the study of media and communication, we find these same biases. If more journals critically disaggregated between scholarship and media used for expressing findings, I would only produce photo essays. However and since Charu brought it up (thank you Charu!), I will use the opportunity and flexibility of this interview format, as indicative more broadly of the fun-spirited and openness of the CAM division, to answer some questions through image rather than only word!
What are you currently working on?
As Charu mentioned, I lead an initiative for the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University about Children, Youth, and Media in International and Global Conflict Zones. That initiative is an outgrowth of my broader scholarly, policy, and practice interests at the intersection between children, youth, media, and conflict zones. Those interests are divided across three interrelated areas that frame my current work: (1) what I coined, “peace communication” (PC), or efforts to assess and evaluate efficacy of communication interventions designed to build, make, or sustain peace through achievement of social-psychological effects and structural impacts. I summarize the concept in Warshel (2018) Peace communication. Key Concepts in Intercultural Dialogue, 91 (available here) and discuss it in more detail in, “The contributions of communication and media studies to peace education” (2010) in E. Cairns and G. Salamon. (Eds.) Handbook on Peace Education. (pp. 135-153). NY: Psychology Press, an article I co-wrote with Donald Ellis.
My interest in PC and long-time related efforts to encourage its subdiscipline extends back to work I began as a practitioner in the 1990s with conflict management institutes and UNESCO, designing and broadly studying those interventions that I would term “PC practice” by the mid-2000s. As part of my evaluation concerns, I (2) also conduct what I refer to as “context analyses” to reverse-path trace the “noise” that adversely obfuscates the effects and impacts of PC on managing conflicts. Since PC practice typically targets children and youth and because I work mainly in contexts of intergroup ethnopolitical conflicts, I began to critically interpret children and youth’s media uses and practices. I did so to measure their political opinions, culture, and day-to-day lives. I work globally, with an emphasis on African and the Middle Eastern states governed by anocratic ruling systems (middling democratic and authoritarian regimes) and plagued by de-development. Finally, I (3) critically compare the (lack of) relationship between international media coverage and production about conflict zones (whether generated by youth or adults) with empirical evidence about political conflicts around the world.
By way of current projects, I’m finalizing a book for Cambridge University Press entitled, Experiencing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Media, Mediation and Socialization. It engages elements of all three of my interest areas, and builds on field research I conducted for my dissertation, for which I won three top dissertation awards — from ICA, NCA and Peace Studies. The book constitutes (1) an assessment (by way of audience reception analyses) of Israeli and Palestinian audience members’ interpretations of Israeli and Palestinian Sesame Street.
And through the addition of (2) analyses of what marked Sesame Workshop’s first production in a conflict zone, a short textual and production study; and (3), through my community- and home-based ethnographic observations, my context analyses explaining why the audience members did not interpret the programs how the production teams hoped, including despite their extremely hard efforts. As I explain, armed political conflict behaviors are particularly resistant to change. I, in turn, link those findings back to my conflict management interests to make recommendations for future PC practices. A TEDx talk I gave highlighting parts of the book, entitled, “Do Media Have the Power to Make Peace?” is available here.
My main ongoing fieldwork project now, also extending back to my practice-based work in the 1990s, emphasizes my latter two interest areas. Using global hermeneutics, I am critically interpreting Moroccan and stateless, refugee, and forcibly–sedentarized Sahrawi children and youth’s citizen uses of digital media. I am drawing my interpretations within contexts of the conflict over whether Western Sahara should remain part of Morocco or become an independent Sahrawi country, and as part of that, questions concerning human and communication rights. The project, in turn, interprets those population’s uses and intergroup relations within the context of the conflict and its interrelationship to coverage about it (including through youth-generated media). To achieve its outcomes, I’ve been conducting multi-country fieldwork within and across North and West Africa, as well as Europe.
Accordingly, through my field research:
I’ve documented results of Sahrawi
solidarity activism, as in the case
with this Spanish mural in support
and in other instances,
Moroccan and Sahrawi children’s
Lastly, as part of a course I created about Children, Media and Conflict, my students have been designing media prototypes for use by Sahrawi refugee children. I’m hoping to connect my students with some of the amazing CAM practitioners, whom might be able to flesh their ideas out in a professional capacity.
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
This is hard to answer. I conduct the bulk of my fieldwork inside homes in family contexts. I will live in a community for a time and conduct interviews in multiple homes, so I, rather, think about homes or just specific moments. Three memorable themes emerge from across all the homes, communities, and countries I’ve worked in and regardless of the ethnopolitical identity of the families in question. Those include: (1) The gratitude people have shown for taking an interest in their lives, to the extent they thank me for my time, while entirely overlooking not just the time they’ve contributed, but the fact that without their efforts there can exist no research output. (2) Contrary to widespread assumptions made that women and armed conflict don’t mix and precisely because of those assumptions, it seems, families take particular care to ensure my safety coming and going from their homes and moving through their turbulent communities. They have often expressed surprise about my “bravery”, which I have found odd given that their five-year old, for example, is walking alongside me through the community. (3) Finally and despite how much one side in a conflict says the other side “doesn’t care about their own children”, all families I encounter and despite their deeply divergent political viewpoints, indeed love their children. I’ve seen that, whether expressed through a father who expressed his wish that his child not spend his entire life as a refugee, like he has; or a mother who worried about drug paraphernalia she regularly finds stashed in her backyard by addicts headed to the neighboring rehab center, or those who ask in wonderment what their child responded to my questions, in turn, asking, “is he smart enough?” and “what do you recommend she watch on TV?” The context-related interpretations made by all these parents for childcare vary widely. The salience of their concerns, however, are the same.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
In a word, “none”. I wouldn’t say my work has had meaningful impact. For that to happen, it has to be connected to practice, and the practice has to be based on scientific recommendations and, in turn, have meaningful impact on building, making or sustaining peace.
I’ve long been critical about the field of communication’s historical lack of uses of peace measures as outcome goals, and thus, lack of associated scholarly output. Likewise, I’ve been critical about the historical disconnection between practitioners and scholars around PC.
The only way I can, therefore, think of to answer this question is rather by explaining what I have most loved doing. That would be fieldwork. There are few things that make me happier. The feeling of being allowed access into someone’s home and soul, wherever I have been around the world, is unparalleled. Obtaining access in fieldwork, whether to one’s site or individual homes therein, is incredibly complex. I’m grateful to have been able to obtain access, and if there’s anything I would dare use the word “proud” about, it’s potentially, the resultant internal validity of my descriptions about children and family context-specific voices.
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
So much! It seems that often times, even where massive and excellent amounts of CAM research have been conducted, we end up with an answer like, “too much or too little is bad” as a draw between questions asking, “Is X media ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for children?” By contrast, since I work in conflict zones, I note that nearly all our answers are confounded in place, namely, in research conducted in peace zones. It’s for that reason that I think about regions and populations overlooked and to the end result that we can’t even provide tentative answers. In greater detail, empirical and historical evidence exists about conflict numbers and their given magnitudes. Therefore, we know which young people have been most impacted by political conflict. Conversely, we also know what populations have escaped CAM scholarly foci and, therefore, where attention is still needed. That means focusing on examples like Congolese, Central African, Indian, Burmese/Myanmarese, Afghan, South Sudanese, Syrian, or Yemini children and youth, on the one hand, and young people who have been forcibly-migrated, born of war, or have become girl-mothers, on the other hand.
Despite such combined knowledge, we know next to nothing to answer questions about, “What role media do, or moreover, could play in the lives of these young people?” As related, we neither have systematic comparative research on the topic, nor global analyses that connect global, glocal, and local media production and practices, on one side of the world, with those media needs, uses, interpretations by, and effects and impacts on children and youth in another, conflict-ridden, corner of the globe. Finally and conversely, we don’t know much about how these same young people, whether themselves victims and/or perpetrators, are covered and tracked, be it by news (produced by citizen or professional journalists), or GPS tracking systems, and to what effects or ends.
What would be your work motto?
Ethics: You are nothing or rather, have nothing (in the way of data) without your research subjects. My first obligation is to those I study. That, for example, means ensuring their identities are always protected and being intensely mindful of time spent inside communities. Recklessness by scholars has endangered conflict zones’ subjects’ lives. That is never OK. I describe some of my related methodological and theoretical concerns for field research in, “conducting ethical research with children inside and/or displaced by conflict zones” published in the October 2018 NEOS Child Displacement special section (available here).
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
It’s not necessarily my favorite, but I was glad to be able to contribute to a debate through my article, “It’s all about Tom and Jerry, Amr Khaled and Iqra, Not Hamas’s Mickey Mouse: Palestinian children’s cultural practices around the television-set.” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, 5(2), 211-245, 2012. In that article, I described how Palestinian parents attempted to use television as a “mediating artifact” to mediate political conflict, namely, by trying to move their children’s leisure practices indoors, away from being both victimized by and becoming perpetrators of violence. The argument, consequently, moves us away from focus on contents when studying relations between media violence and children. Meanwhile, the idea for the article arose amid controversy over Palestinian children’s media consumption habits. International media coverage offered up their framed opinions on the subject but in the absence of empirical evidence. Such a practice, namely, of coverage in the absence of science, is one with which I know many of us are familiar. I was, therefore, glad I had data to help address the controversy. To the best of my knowledge, the field research I conducted for it (back in the mid-2000s) constituted the first media uses and practices research to have been conducted with Palestinian or any Arab children. Alongside that, I had also studied Israeli children and their parents, the latter whom, likewise, tried using television to achieve similar peaceful outcomes.
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
In concert with the initiative I lead at Penn State, I would love to build research teams to help answer the unanswered questions I outlined above. In particular, I would like to critically determine roles PC interventions might play in altering children and youth’s political beliefs and related conflict norms. Such changes are essential to ensuring peace not only be made, but sustained at grassroots levels. Since children and youth often form a majority of conflict zones populations, considering their protest and, where and when relevant, voting behaviors, matters. It matters for achieving structural change in the form of an end of anocratic governance and de-development processes.
Finally, since my hypothetical resources are “unlimited”(!), I would go one-step further to create an organization partnering scholars and practitioners to bring about such potential impacts on armed conflict. This is similar to the great job CAM has done partnering scholars and practitioners of children, youth, and media to enable for creative research outcomes. However, and again, CAM’s efforts have almost exclusively functioned in peace zones, and obviously not with specific aims to assess and evaluate PC outcomes. Accordingly, I would love to see such an organization, connecting not just children, youth and media, but children, youth and media in international and global conflict zones, together. I talk about this dream for a PC organization, and accordingly need for practitioner, policy-maker, and donor partners for it is to materialize in the TEDx talk referenced above and in more detail in a 2018 BeTheTalk podcast (available here).
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Again, CAM does a truly unparalleled job of pairing scholars and practitioners. Take advantage of that unique synergy to produce meaningful impact through your work.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I came in thinking this would be the easy part of the interview, only to find it to be an impossible task! Does it have to be only one person?! If so, I’d like to nominate Charo Sádaba Chalezquer. I would like to learn more about her research with Spanish, and more broadly, children and youth populations based internationally. What specifically drew her to study children and youth?
To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.