Staring at some pictures I took in Rwanda almost a decade ago, now hanging on the walls of our living room, my sister-in-law asked me, on Christmas Day, if I miss it and if I’m ever thinking of going back with my family this time. “Desperately. Definitely”, I replied.
As I am getting into a nostalgic mode about the world out there that we can no longer see, the world we cannot feel and touch, and as we are finally (!) finalizing the questionnaires for the second phase of our research project (refining scales, improving scale items…) with the aim to measure media effects on how Greek people think, feel and intend to behave towards immigrants and refugees, I come across Elisabeth Paluck’s work on prejudice reduction (Paluck et al., 2020).
But, of course, this is by no means the first time I come across Paluck’s work.
We are back in time. June, 2012. Monday morning. My third day in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. I am in the heart of Central Africa, enchanted by the vivid green color of the banana leaves. This is my first day at ‘work’, in Radio La Benevolencija’s premises.
Just a few months after I have started my PhD, in a kind of a field research or, better, in a mission of actually trying to ‘track’ and understand my field on peace media. Radio La Benevolenvija, a Dutch NGO working on media & peace-building in Eastern Africa has the courtesy to host me for a few months in their premises and allow me to familiarise with their work.
Sara, my supervisor in La Benevolencija, has prepared a file for me with the most important information I should know about the project. On a note saying ‘Must Read First’, I see for the first time Elisabeth Paluck’s (Princeton University) and Ervin Staub’s (University of Massachusetts) names, among many other important names of researchers and professionals.
Almost 20 years ago (2002), professor Ervin Staub’s questions on whether it is possible to change individuals’ beliefs and attitudes towards others, took him to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, which was then struggling with a post-genocide reconciliation process.
There, together with ‘Radio La Benevolencija’ and a team of Rwandans, scriptwriters, directors and actors, they would try an unusual research project on a national scale: a radio soap opera named ‘Musekeweya’ (New Dawn) to help build a more tolerant country after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
I can still feel the magic of a project that combined advocacy grounded in theory and research, measured and evaluated at every step.
I won’t go into the fascinating details of this ultra-innovative project. For those interested, a first step would be Paluck’s paper (2009) ‘Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict Using the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda’.
My point today is quite different. 8 years ago, in Rwanda, as this research project was being revealed in front of me, I was excited to see the real impact it had on the society and people’s lives. From a research perspective, I was amazed by how methodologically thorough this project was.
But today, as I am reading these papers again and again, there is something more than innovation and impact that I see; I can’t help but thinking of the people behind it. Of all the hard work, energy and enthusiasm needed to put together such a project.
Conducting research is a sensemaking process. Researchers start with a lack of knowledge about something, recognize the gaps to be filled, and conduct research using various methods to bridge these gaps. But, at the same time, in our everyday research routines, as, for example, we collect newsclips, develop codebooks or take decisions on scales and items, it is not always easy to keep this sensemaking spirit alive.
So, what is it that maintains all the energy and enthusiasm alive during our everyday research routine?
To me, with time, the answer to this question becomes quite clear. It is the people we choose to walk this way that makes this process meaningful. It’s them with us, us with them that give meaning to what we do.
This is a big thanks to my team, my precious partners in research, the people I have chosen to walk this way together, for transforming this difficult, awkward year in research, to still a wonderful one.
Paluck, E. L. (2009). Reducing intergroup prejudice and conflict using the media: A field experiment in Rwanda. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 574–587. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0011989
Paluck, E. L., Porat, R., Clark, C. & Green, D. (2020). Prejudice Reduction: Progress and Challenges. Annual Review of Psychology. 72(1). https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-071620-030619
Staub, E. (1989). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge University Press.