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I am currently researching stories and experiences of polarisation in Colombia and Britain, and the strategies used by people and organisations to build bridges across difficult political divides, with a focus on storytelling. 

Previous research projects include a study of Colombian government officials attempting to counter disinformation about the peace process with the FARC guerrilla in a context of historic distrust in the state, before and after a divisive referendum, and a study of cocoa-farmers in a conflict region in Colombia who declared themselves neutral to the armed conflict and build peace in the midst of violence.

Research

Stories of Divided Politics:

Polarisation and Bridgebuilding in Colombia and Britain

Individuals and organisations who build bridges across political divides

Stories of Divided Politics

Government Pedagogy

and Disinformation

Chocolate, Politics and Peacebuilding

I am Principal Investigator of the 2023 European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant (now UKRI-funded), hosted at the University of Edinburgh. This project builds on pilot research conducted as a Junior Research Fellow in Anthropology at Merton College, University of Oxford, about polarisation in post-peace accord Colombia, for which I conducted five months of ethnographic fieldwork over two visits in 2021-22, listening to a cross-section of people in different regions with different political orientations about their experiences of political divisions. Publications from this research are forthcoming. 

 

The ERC project, beginning in January 2024, will draw on my experiences of the Colombian peace process to study it alongside the political divisions in my own society, Britain, doing fieldwork in both countries with people who try to build bridges across complex political divides.

Project Abstract:

Colombia and Britain both held referendums in 2016—in Colombia on a peace accord, in Britain on Brexit—leaving enduring identity divides, and fostering widespread narratives about each society being more divided than ever. This project aims to re-shape academic and popular understandings of how people live with political divisions and build bridges across them. It will be anchored in the anthropology of politics, which studies the role of culture in people’s political opinions, ideologies and identities, and will draw also on political science studies of polarisation, which examine broader pictures of societal divisions. It will document and analyse the ways that people experience and (re-)produce political divisions through everyday stories using two complementary methods. First, an ethnographic case study in a socio-economically, racially and politically diverse locality in each country, to understand how different sectors perceive the differences and divisions they experience in their community, and how they connect these local experiences with their view of national politics. Second, ethnographic fieldwork with organisations that seek to build bridges across political divides, doing participant observation at their events around the country, and co-convening dialogues and workshops with them, to develop broader cross-cutting views of political divisions and people’s stories about them in different regions and sectors. By analysing the role of stories in polarisation and bridge-building, the project will add nuance and complexity to current theories about divided societies, develop a ground-breaking multi-scale framework for comparative research on political divisions, and inform global policies on the increasingly urgent problem of polarisation and the many kinds of violence and hostility it can engender.

Links:

Read a short story in Otherwise Magazine about a right-wing cattle-rancher-turned-peacebuilder in Colombia, trapped between two opposing sides: https://www.otherwisemag.com/between-two-waters

And read an author Q&A about the story, and on combining ethnographic research and fiction: https://www.otherwisemag.com/meet-the-author-gwen-burnyeat

Read a blog co-authored with Andrei Gómez-Suárez and Clara Rocío Rodríguez about polarisation and reconciliation five years after the Colombian peace referendum (in Spanish):

https://razonpublica.com/cinco-anos-despues-del-plebiscito-la-paz-polarizacion-reconciliacion/ 

Watch the webinar which inspired this blog (in Spanish, Gwen’s section starts at 36.20):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2ZeyMo4-og&ab_channel=RodeemoselDi%C3%A1logo 

Read a short story about a woman experiencing polarisation within her own family over the Colombian peace referendum, ‘Milena’, in Confluence Magazine: https://www.confluencemagazine.co.uk/confluence-issue-14

Read a short story about polarisation and conspiracy theory in Oxford and Colombia, ‘Where’s My Freedom of Movement’, in Critical Muslim: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/critical-muslim-48/ 

Watch an interview on Chilean TV program La voz de los que sobran in which Gwen Burnyeat and Hassan Akram compare the Colombian and Chilean referendums (in Spanish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcD6F2zs410&t=10s&ab_channel=LaVozDeLosQueSobran

Links:

Government Pedagogy and Disinformation:

The Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP)

In 2016, Colombian society narrowly rejected a peace accord signed with the FARC guerrilla which sought to end fifty years of war, amid a disinformation campaign in which opponents of the deal claimed it would turn Colombia communist and impose homosexuality on schoolchildren. The Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP), the branch of the government in charge of the peace negotiations, was tasked with explaining the peace process to society before and after the referendum. They created a strategy called “peace pedagogy”, a world first in peace process, in which government officials travelled the country giving talks to different audiences about the peace agreement, in a context of entrenched distrust toward the state. I spent a year with the pedagogy team studying their experiences translating the peace agreement for public opinion, and more broadly, the role of government-society relations in the peace process. 

 

This project, based on my PhD at University College London, thanks to a Wolfson Foundation Postgraduate Scholarship in the Humanities, led to my second book, The Face of Peace: Government Pedagogy amid Disinformation in Colombia (University of Chicago Press 2022 and Spanish translation, Editorial del Rosario 2024), an ethnography of government officials in the Colombian peace process. The book problematises liberal fantasies about using rationality as an antidote to disinformation, populism and so-called ‘post-truth’ politics, and argues that although the Santos government achieved a technically brilliant peace agreement, its downfall was the failure to build a strong alliance between government and society for peace. My PhD thesis won the 2021 LASA/Oxfam Martin Diskin Dissertation Award, and the book won the 2023 Public Anthropologist Award.

 

This project also resulted in three peer-reviewed articles: one in the Bulletin of Latin American Research about the problem of distrust in the state in the peace process, one in Critique of Anthropology theorising the concept of “cultural liberalism” to analyse the OACP’s responses to disinformation, and one in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute proposing the “face of the government” as an analytical framework that furthers the anthropology of the state by bringing theories of the face in to the understanding of government-society relations.

Read a blog for the LSE Latin American and Caribbean Centre about this project, ‘Colombia’s Unsung Heroes’:

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/latamcaribbean/2018/06/07/colombias-unsung-heroes/ 

Listen to a podcast from the Oxford Transitional Justice Research Network in which Gwen presents the book Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/book-colloquium-chocolate-politics-and-peace-building/id381703449?i=1000412091740

Listen to Gwen speak about this work on a podcast all about chocolate called Well Tempered:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/episode-28-gwen-burnyeat-anthropologist-co-director/id1214726212?i=1000434775720

Video clip of Gwen summarising the book for the Spanish edition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dLWJBMLrKw&ab_channel=EditorialUniversidaddelRosario 

Watch the video of the launch of the Spanish edition in the Libería Lerner in Bogotá: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMoTMVYobuQ&ab_channel=LERNER 

Links:

Read a blog about this project for Anthropology News:

https://www.anthropology-news.org/articles/government-peace-pedagogy-in-colombia/

Listen to Gwen speak about the book on the Talking Peace, Exploring Conflict podcast: 

https://podcasts.apple.com/si/podcast/the-face-of-peace-dr-gomez-suarez-speaks-with/id1536077106?i=1000539413027

Listen to Gwen speak about the book on the New Books Network podcast:

https://newbooksnetwork.com/the-face-of-peace

Read an interview with Gwen for the 2023 Public Anthropologist Award:

https://publicanthropologist.cmi.no/2023/02/22/winner-of-the-public-anthropologist-award-2023/

Read a newspaper article Gwen co-authored with Colombian colleagues María Paula Prada and María Isabel Cristina González about lessons learned from government peace pedagogy in Revista Semana (in Spanish):

https://www.semana.com/educacion/articulo/8-lecciones-que-dejo-la-pedagogia-del-proceso-de-paz/614502

Watch the webinar ‘Dis/information and peace’ in which Gwen shares lessons from the Colombian referendum (Gwen starts at 1.10.20):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noHgQcj2jDE&t=2s&ab_channel=RodeemoselDi%C3%A1logo

Read a blog about government peace pedagogy amid distrust in the state for The Conversation.

https://theconversation.com/colombia-struggles-to-build-trust-in-the-state-as-peace-process-rumbles-on-96830

Chocolate, Politics and Peacebuilding:

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, one of the most high-profile grassroots peacebuilding organisations in Colombia, is a community of rural cocoa-farmers in the conflict zone of Urabá, who were trapped between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and state armed forces, and declared themselves neutral to the war as a protection strategy. It is really thanks to them that I became an anthropologist. I first met them when I was working in Urabá as a conflict observer and international accompanier with Peace Brigades International, then I studied a Master’s in anthropology at the National University of Colombia and continued working with them as a researcher, thanks to a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholarship and an ICETEX grant. 

 

This research led to my first book, Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building: An Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia (Palgrave Macmillan 2018 and Spanish translation, Editorial del Rosario 2022) which documents their history, and argues that their everyday cacao farming work illuminates their political identity, an article in anthropology journal Antípoda about the Community’s rupture with the Colombian state, and my film, Chocolate of Peace.

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