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Sociologist Fiona Greenland receives NSF award to study wartime cultural violence

Fiona Greenland

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Fiona Greenland, Assistant Professor of Sociology, has received an award from the National Science Foundation to study wartime cultural violence. Her interests include visual culture, nationalism, science and technology studies, and the politics of cultural heritage.

Wartime cultural violence – the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects having ethnic, religious, and historical significance – is generally thought to be related to civilian casualties.

Professor Greenland points out that the theory and evidence on the issue are unclear. “This is the case even in Syria, a country whose recent civil war featured prominent, frequent instances of cultural violence and an astonishing number of civilian deaths. The cultural toll included four UNESCO World Heritage sites; hundreds of mosques, shrines, and ancient marketplaces; and churches, tombs, libraries, and museums. In the same war some 300,000 civilians died by violence inflicted by state, non-state, and one-sided fighting. Media and government reports suggested that the two kinds of violence were linked, with warring factions deploying them in order to carry out ethnic cleansing or cultural genocide. But in fact, although civilian deaths and cultural violence have been studied as separate phenomena, there is a lot that we don't know about how they intersect. Does cultural destruction occur at the onset of mass killing? Does it signal the near-completion of population clearance? Why are spatial patterns of cultural destruction events so variable in different contexts? Answering these questions requires a combination of historical and cultural data with temporal and spatial analytical techniques.” 

Thanks to a seed grant from UVA's Quantitative Collaborative, in 2018-19 Professor Greenland was able to test these ideas using a new dataset of cultural violence events. “That proof-of-concept phase highlighted strengths and weaknesses of my initial approach,” Greenland said. “I took those lessons and approached Therese Pettersson, at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) in Sweden, about a possible collaboration. The UCDP maintains a robust database of civilian deaths, and employs a sophisticated method for geo-referencing every event. Ms. Pettersson agreed to work with me, and the NSF project gives us the chance to develop an integrated database that will be publicly available and to experiment with spatial-temporal analysis. Specifically, we want to study the clustering of civilian casualties before, during, and after cultural damage events.”

The NSF award comes from the Sociology Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences. “This is a good fit for us, because the interplay of cultural destruction and the loss of human life is deeply sociological -- pushing us to think about community cohesion, collective suffering or survival, and the continuity or cessation of traditions, beliefs, and practices,” Greenland added. “Our research has potential to contribute to the sociological literature on ethnic cleansing and genocide, and symbolic violence and iconoclasm.”

“It's easy to look at the Syrian civil war and conclude that ISIS's targeting of culturally significant sites was a uniquely horrific event, or to set aside cultural destruction entirely out of respect for the tragic suffering of children, women, and men. We want to challenge such conclusions. Precisely because their suffering should not be in vain, we hope to identify patterns that can establish better understanding of why and how cultural violence matters in the modern world.”