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Professor Profile - Yael Warshel

Elisabeth Johnson: To start with, what attracted you to SIS?

Yael Warshel: What attracted me was that there was a more interdisciplinary focus here, and there are a lot of people who didn’t come via the normal route. Rather, people have arrived with an interesting combination of degrees not typically found elsewhere. I think that speaks to the interesting array of research and courses offered. Also, the commitment to international scholarship is paramount. My work has always dealt comparatively with cases in Africa and the Middle East. By contrast, communication as a field has largely been American-centric. There’s nothing wrong with studying the US. However, as a comparativist, I believe it’s important to study the US as one of several cases for crosscomparison if we are to arrive at any “truths”, or at least any useful understandings of the operating principles behind existing phenomena.

EJ: Do you remember what got you interested in IC as a field of study? Was there a crystallizing event in your career that led you to where you are now?

YW: I became interested in communication as a freshman in college – though I wasn’t a comm major. I had read authors like Orwell, Machiavelli, Bradbury and Fanon. I began to wonder why people followed leaders or “put up” with what to me, at least, seemed like a circumstance in which I would not want to live. The concept of charisma was thrown around in my political science courses as the answer, but I found this answer inadequate, and wondered if it had anything to do with the power of communication, specifically mass media.

I began an Interdisciplinary Studies Field Major to try to answer this question for myself. I became interested in the potential of media as a kind of power – one whose legitimacy was being harnessed to influence people’s behaviors. While interning as a photojournalist in Zimbabwe and researching media-government relations, I knew that I had become hooked on studying media. I remember blurting out, “I know what I want to do with the rest of my life!” So after that experience working in journalism and conducting fieldwork, my original question and experiences melded to form my interest in communication. Over the years, I refined my initial thesis and no longer think media as an institution is very powerful.

Meanwhile, my interest in Africa and the Middle East meant I was looking at communication internationally. The question that then kept me interested over the years was, “why don’t people rebel? What keeps them, or so it seems, silent?”

EJ: You have designed completely new courses for Spring ‘09 based on your research. How do these courses relate to your current work?

YW: Yes, I’ve designed two new courses: Peace Communication, an undergraduate course, and Children, Media and Conflict, for both grads and undergrads. The Peace Communication course is meant to introduce students to the question of what role, if any, communication plays in efforts to manage political, especially ethnopolitical, conflicts, and it is based in my initiative to create a subfield of Peace Communication. The emphasis is on explicitly designed communication for social change campaigns that attempt to manage some aspect of global conflict: journalism initiatives in Burundi, peace camps in Lebanon, peace-promoting disco party interventions in Northern Ireland, and Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding versions of Sesame Street. In my case, I conducted research with audiences of the Sesame Street programs to make an assessment about the utility of these kinds of interventions in managing conflict.

In the course, students will think about these efforts critically, look at their theoretical underpinnings, and ask hard questions about whether these interventions might have some kind of impact on managing ethnopolitical conflicts. Peace communication has been popular among practitioners, but not scholars; an endless array of these programs have been implemented world-wide, but scholars have not been evaluating their impact. As a result, empirically, we don’t really know how useful these efforts are. I hope in some way to change this scenario by getting students interested, and interested enough to conduct the necessary assessment and evaluation research. Again, you can see the relationship to my original question about the power of media. Can media do something, anything that’s “good,” as defined by all participants in a conflict?

The course on Children, Media and Conflict also incorporates my research with Israelis and Palestinians, but from a more sociological and cultural studies approach. In that class I borrow from the fieldwork I’ve conducted about children’s media practices and socialization to conflict. The course serves to equip students with methodologies and methods necessary for conducting research with and about children living in or exposed to news about conflict. Part of the course is about how children use media: what TV programs they watch, what video games they play. At the same time, they will also learn how to use media as a method for prompting children to discuss their experiences with conflict. They will have an opportunity to see and analyze data from my current research: figure-drawings, videos, and more. It’s data from the field that they otherwise could not access.

The idea of the course is twofold – to teach students how to use media products in order to test their hypotheses, quantitatively and qualitatively, and learn cutting-edge methodologies to analyze their findings. For example, students will learn how to use children’s media ethically to get children talking about the difficult subject of conflict, and learn how to use experimental methodologies, like dance notations, in an effort to interpret children’s bodily responses to televised coverage of conflict. Since research with and about children is not always as straightforward as conducting research with adults, and conflict is a very sensitive topic, this area requires new methodologies, and is a wonderful site of inquiry for trying to push the envelope on these methodologies.

EJ: What sorts of new research projects are you anticipating?

YW: My next project, “Mediating Western Sahara and Morocco,” which I’ve very recently begun, takes up the conflict in Western Sahara. This research still falls under my interest in peace communication – namely that I’m trying to find an intervention to evaluate that tries to build peace between Saharawis and Moroccans. At the same time though, this case brings up other interesting questions about the relationship of conflict to international media coverage of conflict. It brings up questions like, ‘Does, say, the amount and nature of coverage Spanish media afford the Arab-Israeli conflict versus Western Sahara relate in any way to the magnitude and intensity of either conflict? To what extent do the magnitude and intensity of any given conflict play a role in the amount of attention, and related third party intervention that a conflict receives?” Assumedly, foreign policy plays a leading role in the agenda media institutions are setting, or choices they’re making to cover a conflict, but how much, if at all, does that coverage compare to the magnitude and intensity of the given conflict? And as related, "Does public perception about global conflicts – e.g. where around the world death tolls are the highest, as one measure of the intensity of a conflict, have any relationship at all, to where in fact their intensities are greatest?" I’m not so sure. I think there’s a kind of disconnect between the reality – the size of a conflict and the actual amount of attention afforded to it comparatively. This may not, per se, influence third party intervention policies, as the causality is likely the reverse, but I’m often amazed by inaccurate popular estimates about where the world’s greatest hotspots are located, and their potential correlation with media coverage about these international conflicts.

EJ: What do you hope to see from the IC Program or SIS in the future?

YW: First, I could be wrong, there used to be more students in IC interested in the Middle East, but it doesn’t seem that there are now. There are students interested in Africa, and that makes me happy, but I’d also like to see more interest in the Middle East. Second, I’d like to see better integration of technology and research: both as actual methods for use in conducting research and as separate of that, as outputs for communicating research findings. Therefore, I’d also like to see discussion about the role technology might play in generating, analyzing and communicating research finds made more front and center in how we teach.