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Three Conference Papers on Aspects of Sectarian Division - 'Researching Sectarianism'

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Researching Sectarianism

Marie Smyth and Ruth Moore

Within Northern Ireland or the north of Ireland, as some prefer, a conflict has existed, - characterised by violence until recently, - over the sovereignty and legitimacy of the state and its agents. This paper discusses some of the issues raised by research in one location which is focussed on the relations between the two main rival political blocs within Northern Ireland, and on their conflicting national identities and opposing political aspirations. The research is concerned with the ways in which those relations can be characterised as "sectarian" and attempts to elucidate the meaning of that characterisation. The role of external agents such as the British and increasingly the Irish government in the dynamic between the two blocs is significant, but is not the focus of the research which gave rise to this paper. Rather, the research, and the development of methodologies, has been aimed at learning more about the dynamic of the political, spatial and other relationships between Unionist and Nationalists in Derry Londonderry.

One of the lenses through which we examined these two blocs was that of sectarianism and sectarian relations. We wished to know more about the nature and quality of this relationship. We saw sectarianism as the characteristic which distinguishes and determines the quality of relationship between these two politically opposed factions. In the popular mind, and in some academic studies, sectarianism is reduced to a one dimensional phenomenon, often psychological in nature. This reductionism has narrowed the investigation of sectarianism to rather linear and reductionist questions, such as, for example, whether, as a set of bigoted beliefs, sectarianism is cause or effect of the conflict. In this study we have attempted to avoid seeing sectarianism as one dimensional or as the prerogative of any one discipline, in order to avoid such over-simplification, and over-determination. (We have not necessarily always been successful in this attempt.) In this paper we will set down some of the conceptual context for our work in order to delineate the broader context, and establish the parameters of the cross-disciplinary approach, within a specific research paradigm and developing methodologies, - the latter of which will form the subject of further papers at a later stage in the work.

Whilst we attempted to remain open to the contradictions and complexities of events around us, we brought our own pre-conceived orientations to the study, one set of which is particularly significant. We began by locating sectarianism in a broader context of what has been called "systems of subordination," (Smyth, 1994)(1) primarily sexism, racism, and class. This orientation was influential in shaping our approach to the study, in that it seemed to point to characteristics which sectarianism, racism and sexism had in common. These include their common reliance on the ultimate threat of the use of violence in order to maintain the sexist/racist/sectarian status quo; their ideology of the superiority of one group over another; the struggle to actualise dominance over the "other" group; the way in which the struggle for dominance and its counterpart - resistance to subordination - may closely resemble each other, at least in dynamic terms.; and, indeed, the way in which the possession and maintenance of power over the "other" may seem to be the only way that subordination can be resisted. Furthermore, the dynamic between the two factions is polarised, characterised by binary "either/or" "Black/white" and over-generalised thinking, and where conflict arises between the two factions, the dynamic in one of symmetrical escalation.

The existing literature on Northern Ireland yields little in the way of definitions of sectarianism, or explorations of its nature. One of the few definitions available is provided by Sugden and Bairner(1993) who describe sectarianism thus:

  • In its most general sense, the term sectarianism is used to describe attitudes, belief systems, symbols and practices through which one group of people sets itself apart from another within an otherwise shared culture... the term is usually employed more specifically to describe divisions which are grounded in religious differences. Neither approach adequately covers the situation in Northern Ireland where sectarianism can best be understood in two overlapping ways: first as a symbolic labelling process through which community divisions are defined and maintained, and second as an ideological justification for discrimination, community conflict and political violence.

McVeigh (1992) has argued in relation to Irish racism, that it merits analysis which examines and uncovers its specificity: that the phenomenon of Irish racism, as distinct from English or Scottish racism, takes on a specific and unique form, shaped, as it is, by the characteristics of Irish historical, economic and political conditions. So too, we argue, with sectarianism. Sectarianism in Northern Ireland/ the north of Ireland has been shaped by the relationship between Ireland and Britain, by the specific economic and social forces at work here, and by specific local economic and social and political developments, the latter being a particularly powerful force since we began work in September 1994. Sectarianism in Derry Londonderry, we argue, is differentiated from sectarianism in Liverpool- or indeed Belfast - by the specificity of local conditions.

McVeigh (1991)(4) has argued that sectarianism is undertheorised. He states:

  • The key to making sense of this undertheorisation is the recognition of the fact that it has been in nobody's immediate interest to address sectarianism. This can be illustrated by examining the relationship between sectarianism and the three key elements in the "Northern Ireland situation": the Protestant/unionist bloc, the Catholic/nationalist bloc, with the British State... Each of these has had its own reasons for "studiously ignoring" sectarianism and this has conditioned the neglect of the subject by academics.

The late and respected John Whyte, in his Interpreting Northern Ireland, (1990) organises the literature on Northern Ireland under two classification systems within which he identifies a number of categories:

  • by subject area, into
    political and
    psychological accounts;

    by interpretation into
    traditional unionist,
    traditional nationalist,
    Marxist and
    internal-conflict interpretations.

The extensive array of literature reviewed by Whyte tends to focus on specific aspects of the society or the "problem". In this classic reference text on Northern Ireland, sectarianism is not dealt with, except in passing, nor is mentioned in the index.

McVeigh goes on to argue that Unionists refuse to pathologise Protestant sectarianism, and justify it as "an affirmation of religious belief in the face of the imperialism of the Catholic church". The British state, prior to direct rule in 1972, attributed any sectarianism to the Unionists; after 1972 their official policy of non-sectarianism managed and reproduced sectarianism, he argues, by the implementation of "fair" policies within sectarian structures. McVeigh finds the failure of Catholics to address sectarianism more difficult to understand. He points out that Catholics see themselves as the "victims" of "survivors" of sectarianism, and sectarianism itself as an "epiphenomenon of the problem of imperialism". The problem for Catholics, according to McVeigh becomes "what to do about the British, not what to do about the Protestants".

Our study was well placed to explore some of these issues, since the study was located in city with a numerical predominance of Catholics and a predominantly Catholic/Nationalist City Council. We could observe the extent to which Catholics, (whose primary identity is as the subordinate group in the context of Northern Ireland/the north of Ireland), can conceptualise themselves in the role of the dominant group, or can countenance the possibility that they can, or could in certain contexts, subordinate Protestants.

The question of whether Catholics can be described as "sectarian", or whether the quality "sectarianism" can be attributed to their acts or motivations is reminiscent of the questions about the possibility of Black racism. It is clear from our fieldwork is that some Catholics possess the attitudinal attributes of sectarianism. Given positions of power, there is no essential reason that Catholics would discriminate against Protestants, nor any reason to doubt that some Catholics with such power already do so. That Catholics, as a bloc, are generally more subordinated, or are generally less likely to have access to such power does not alter or negate the sectarian quality of the acts or relationships of those Catholics who hold sectarian attitudes and possess and exercise the power to subordinate Protestants. Whether the quality is theorised as sectarianism or reverse sectarianism is a moot point. It is sectarian, in that it is aimed at the domination of the "other" group (in order, perhaps, to avoid being subordinated by them, or to avenge past grievances). Sectarianism, therefore is the quality of relationship between the two blocs, which is inherent in the relationship between them, rather than simply residing in the attitudes, behaviour or power position of one party.

Nor is that quality limited to the relationship between Catholics and Protestants in working class areas, or in enclaves. In order to explain the undertheorisation of sectarianism which McVeigh has pointed to, we must examine the quality of relationships within the academic community, -which is the potential source of such theorising - and between that community and the outer world it seeks to understand. If sectarianism is seen in a broader way, as a particular quality of the relationship between two blocs, which is historically, economically, politically specific to Northern Ireland, and which structures all relationships within Northern Ireland, then the academic community, as part of the society it studies, must be similarly structured. It will be argued that the academic community has tended to act as a mirror, reflecting rather than analysing the sectarian dynamic in the society in which it operates. That sectarianism is undertheorised does not mean that sectarianism is considered by the academic community to be of no relevance. Rather, it suggests that the process of academic reflection has failed to engage with the task of producing a thorough analysis of sectarianism. We suggest that this failure is due to a number of fractures which exist within the academic community, which are themselves reflections of "fault lines" which occur in the wider society which structure both, and which explain the nature of current analyses and lack of analyses.

We wish to concentrate on the manner in which three particular fractures have restricted the ability of the academic world to produce a reflexive and thorough analysis of sectarianism.

The three main fracture we refer to are gender, class and colonialism. Each fracture is associated with a universal organising principle - in turn, sexism, class division, and racism and sectarianism - which marshals social, economic, political and ideological power in ways which maintain systems of subordination, whereby one group maintains dominance over another group in the society. The lack of integration of gender, class and colonialism into analyses of society in Northern Ireland has had implications for the study of sectarianism which we wish to explore further here. Their introduction is often seen as a challenge to orthodoxy and the status quo, and can be perceived as "divisive" or "tendentious". Yet, we argue, that their omission has seriously impeded the development of an analysis of sectarianism. The failure to successfully integrate gender, class and colonialism into academic practice has weakened methodological base and stunted analysis in fundamental ways. We will explore the effects of each and the implications of the omission of each factor in turn.

Gender and Researching Sectarianism

The "real world" - which is the field of academic inquiry - is gendered, like the academic world itself. Yet until relatively recently, mainstream scholarship was largely gender-blind. The male was considered the norm, and to raise the issue of gender was considered to be a diversion from the important issues. In a world where maleness and femaleness are essentialised, and where characteristics such as physical strength, aggression, passivity, emotional expressiveness are stereotypically assigned by gender, the academic world has done little until relatively recently to question this gender status quo. Feminist criticism has led to the questioning of a scholarship and "knowledge" that has focussed largely on male experience and practice. For example, the use of male subjects in experiments, and the assumption that it is scientific to generalise from the male to the female experience has led to radical re-evaluations in the state of the science in psychology, to name but one field. Two features of this impact, which are first manifest at the ethical and then the methodological level concern us here. In the traditional academy, (i) theory and logic are typically privileged over emotion and instinct; and (ii) objectivity and value freedom are considered to be characteristic of good science, and anything else is considered biased, subjective and therefore of limited scientific value.

At a methodological level, feminism has given impetus to some of the re-evaluating the logical, statistical, quantative approach in the social sciences. Methodologies which extract a greater depth and richness of data from a more narrowly defined field, - a more "anthropological" approach which collects data on both the thoughts and feelings of those interviewed - have developed under these influences.

The question of the subjectivity of the researcher has similarly fallen under scrutiny. The has meant the admission of subjective data such as life stories or autobiography as worthy of analysis, and the questioning of the "scientific objectivity" of traditional research paradigms. It would be misleading to imply that all of this has been universally accepted as valid and reliable research practice. These debates continue, and the value of any given research paradigm is a subject which is constantly revisited.

There is also resistance to meeting the challenge of incorporating subjectivity and emotion into any analysis, specifically of sectarianism. Typically, resistance in the academic world takes the form of arrogance, denial of the validity of the new data, intellectualisation and counter-attack.

We will return in more detail to the issue of objectivity and identity when we discuss colonialism. In relation to gender, the tendency to exclude emotion as data and the resistance to the exploration of personal experiences and emotions in relation to sectarian division serves to prevent emotion entering an arena previously reserved exclusively for logic and fact. Narrowly defined research paradigms may have a significant prophylactic effect by preventing the researchers from being swamped by their own rampant emotions or the (real or imagined) emotions of others whilst researching sectarianism. The adherence to a logical/ factual approach which, whilst of value in itself, - can also be construed (when pursued to the exclusion of all else), as a means of managing the impact of the field on the researcher.

Such studies and knowledge of sectarianism, has methodologically tended to be empirical/historical, truth seeking, and quantative rather than qualitative. The most significant tendency has been the emphasis on logic and objectivity to the exclusion of emotion, and the denying emotion or regarding it as suspect. This tendency in turn shapes the analysis. The undervaluing of subjectivity, personal experience, feelings and emotions as a way of knowing the social world, or their dismissal as biased implies the existence of gaps in any existing understanding and analysis.

The way in which research is designed and the focus given to it, the topics and interviewees selected are also significant in the gendering of research. Political worlds, and the world of sectarian political division is a gendered world in which male and female roles are circumscribed. Women generally, are not political actors; the inherent conservatism of the society on both sides of the sectarian divide has consigned women to the traditional kinder, kirke und kucken, leaving the contests over national identity and political power, physical and ideological, largely to men. Differences between Loyalism and Republicanism are emergent on this issue, with some evidence that Republican politics have achieved some small success in beginning to include women in political life. Loyalist politics, on the other hand has almost exclusively male, with the exceptions of some female relations of Loyalist leaders, looks set to remain so in the immediate future.

Consequently, when one looks at the impact of this on scholarship on the "Northern Ireland problem", it is not surprising that the late eminent John Whyte (1990) would argue that a new paradigm was required for research and analysis in the field, and with no apparent irony conclude:

  • Kuhn (1970, 90) suggests that the fundamental innovations of a new paradigm are almost always due to either very young men of to men very new to the field.

The consequences of gender blind research has been that the academic world has mirrored rather than investigated the gendered aspects of sectarianism. We depict this diagrammatically in Figure 1. What is known about gender differences elsewhere would suggest that the effective exclusion of women from research and analysis makes for the establishment of ideological frameworks which are: objective rather than subjective, paranoid rather than self-investigating, blaming rather than reflexive, competitive/combative rather than cooperative, reductionist/absolutist rather than divergent and exploratory , are "true" and "right" rather than diverse and inclusive - and, of course, debate amongst scholars on "the Northern Ireland question" is polarised.

Figure 1


Academic world

  • "Real World"

exclusion of women
from the academic
study of political life

  • exclusion
    of women
    political life

impact on academic culture

  • impact on political

research focus on male
perspectives and activities

  • discrimination against

segregated gender roles in
academic life

  • segregated gender roles
    in "real" life

the production of an
"objective", paranoid,
competitive, combative, blaming

  • maintenance of
    misogynist culture

reflects and reifies

Taking Gender into Account

The concrete and obvious remedy to gender-blindness is the inclusion of women - both as subject in all research and as researchers in research on sectarianism and on other subjects. This measure would contribute greatly towards making good some of the more glaring omissions of earlier work, which for example tended to interview heads of household, and so on. However, the inclusion of women will not necessarily ensure that the subject is researched in any way other than the traditional objective/ quantative paradigm, since women are not essentially equipped to do it otherwise. Even if they were, their usually subservient roles may prevent them from influencing the way in which research is conducted. Attention must be given to the method by which the field is dealt with, and to decisions on what is construed as valid subjects for data collection and analysis. This would entail the inclusion and consideration of emotions in fieldwork, and the recognition of the role of emotion at the design, fieldwork and analysis stages. This allows the feelings and thoughts of researchers and participants, to be recorded and incorporated into the research process.
This approach is predicated on an understanding of the dominant/subordinate (see Baker Miller, 1995) gender dynamics, and validates emotion as of equal value to logic. The inclusion of intuition, hunches, and emotions which are recorded as data allows attention to be paid to the way in which emotions interact with, shape and influence the dynamic of everyday life. In studying the dynamics of sectarianism, strong feelings can be elicited, which can be easily confused with issues of competence, or with the researcher's own identity position. When emotion is not an explicit part of the inquiry, and the researcher is occupying an "objective" role, it is virtually impossible to sift through the data and separate the data emanating from the researcher from that emanating from those researched.

The Relevance of Emotions in Researching Sectarianism.

Sectarianism as a topic for research carries an emotional weight which can make it a difficult subject to discuss openly, and therefore a difficult subject to research. The acknowledgement of emotion as a valid and valuable form of data has a particular relevance to studying a subject such as sectarianism which carries such an emotional charge. Like the study of deviance, the choice of participants for the research can be perceived as a judgement. Participants can be selected - or feel they are selected - because they have been judged to be "sectarians", just like participants in research on deviance can feel labelled as "deviants". The label "sectarian" is an interpretation based on subjective judgement, a perception which is usually projected onto others rather than owned as a quality possessed by oneself. Thus the act of negotiating an interview, or asking someone to talk is laden with emotional significance.

The issue of intimidation is also prevalent within the study of sectarianism. Intimidation is a by-product of political violence linked to sectarianism, and is the most powerful example of the kind of strong emotions which are present in such research. Intimidation was defined by Darby (1986) as

  • "the process by which, through the exercise of force or threat, or from a perception of threat, a person feels under pressure to leave home or workplace against his or her will. It can be considered within a framework of three categories....; (1) actual physical harm, (2) actual threat, (3) perceived environmental threat.

Smyth (1994) notes the characteristics of intimidation.

  • "Intimidation:
    - is a subjective matter rather than an objective experience

    - it is experienced independent of intentionality

    - it has a wide range of effects on individuals, including severe trauma and avoidance of certain topics of conversations, as well as the avoidance of certain locations, physical injury and flight from homes or employment.

    - the accommodation of these effects which have become part of the culture of social exchange when operating in mixed situations. It is commonly regarded as inconsiderate or insensitive to discuss certain potential issues, to reveal one's ethnic identity or inquire about the identity of others."

Intimidation is subjective and based on subjective interpretation. It is therefore not possible to effectively study intimidation without paying attention to emotion. Since intimidation is such an important feature of sectarianism, the particular relevance of the inclusion of emotion to the study of sectarianism is apparent..

How are emotions used in the study of sectarianism?

At a practical level, we have adopted the following strategies

1. Emotions are acknowledged and recorded, rather than avoided. (In interviews, fieldnotes, public meetings).

2.Emotions are spoken of and reported
- to co-researcher
- to participants

3. Using emotions in this way often leads to feedback or a response from
- co-researchers
- participants. These are also recorded.

4. Paying attention to emotions increases the likelihood of an emotive response from - co-researcher and an outcome of this is an increases likelihood of the validation of emotion, which in turn furthers the analysis.

The effect of paying attention to emotions in fieldwork is that emotions are included and acknowledged in the research process, furthering the analysis and having an overall impact on the analysis, leading to a different understanding.

The following are examples of how emotions have been used in fieldwork to date.

Example 1. In the first public meeting, the projects director who was chairing the meeting, acknowledged her feelings and expressed her nervousness on chairing a public meeting on any issue related to sectarianism and segregation. She went on to ask people to agree to listen to each other, and to agree to some basic ground rules about how the discussion would be conducted. Her nervousness, once named, became a part of the meeting rather than just a part of the directors inner world. This self disclosure permitted nervousness in general, about talking about matters related to sectarianism and segregation, to be explored and managed. It allowed collaboration between researchers and participants and went some way to setting the atmosphere for discussion.

Example 2. This example comes from the second public meeting held by the project to discuss the subject "Is segregation desirable, and should walls come down now that there are cease-fires?" Angry and fearful responses came from the minority Protestant participants at the meeting; " why are you talking about this?" "to talk about this is dangerous to us because it will escalate, we'll lose control and the walls will come down, whether we want them to or not." The typical response would have been to back off from the strong emotion, - in this case anger and fear,- to apologise for upsetting the person, turn to another topic and not to talk about it. However, in this case the emotion was acknowledged and explored. We learned that the fear some people had of talking about certain subjects related to sectarian division was that if you talk about things, they change. Their perception of change was negative, being a minority in the city, and change was therefore to be avoided; thus talking, too, was to be avoided, unless from a position of strength.

Example 3. In the third public meeting on " the changing population and Protestant drift out of Derry Londonderry", we presented statistical information on the shifts in population. We also included two short monologue-type performances which represented some of the feelings associated with having to move and the emotional dilemmas and outcomes of the experience of having to move out of one's home, from one side of the city to the other, or beyond. This had the effect of acknowledging that we as researchers were interested not merely in the numbers who had moved out from the city, but also in the human consequences of moving. The expression of emotional dilemmas enabled a more grounded discussion of the issue of changing population balance. Had we merely presented the statistical information, we could not have facilitated consideration of the issues of Protestant drift in a holistic way, in which all participants were able to consider the larger trends in the context of the personal effects and consequences of the trends.

Gendered emotions in fieldwork:
an example from the interpretation of field work data.

In the preliminary in-depth interviews carried out within one of our field studies, two participants spoke of the experience of intimidation. One participant was male and the other female.

The male spoke about petrol bombs lighting up his flat in a matter of fact way, without any apparent emotion. He had remained living in the area and is adamant that he will stay and will never be intimidated out.

The woman participant, on the other hand, with a shaking voice and tears in her eyes, spoke of nights where burning logs came in through the window, of breaking glass and how her front door had been hammered in. She spoke of her concern for her children's safety, a desire for the preservation of their innocence, of the lasting effects of the attack and how affected she herself, her husband and all her children were by the experiences. In the end the family left the area as a result of intimidation.

Two points emerge in the analysis:

(a) ways of dealing with emotion are gendered, so that the woman's tearfulness and the man's lack of expressed emotion do not necessarily mean that they are in radically different emotional states.

(b) Women and men have different gender roles, in this example child rearing is mentioned. This means that the woman's expressed concerns in, for example, a situation of danger will be true to the role ascribed to her -in this case child-rearing - she expresses concern about her children and the effect on them. The man's expressed concerns is true to his ascribed and gendered role - fending off attackers and fighting to protect his family.

A gender blind interpretation would conclude that the difference between these two Protestants, is that the male was not fearful or intimidated and he stayed, whilst the female was fearful and she left.

If we acknowledge the gendered nature of emotion, - that women and men have different culturally approved ways of expressing emotion, - then the analysis produces rather different results. The possibility that the man could be fearful would be considered, and other factors which explain his staying on in the area (such as economic reasons) could be examined. Conversely, the woman's ascribed role of carer for her children means that the woman's fear is expressed in a specific way, with specific emotions attached to it, such as fear for the vulnerability of her children, and worry about the damage being done to them. This does not mean that the male does not have children, or is not worried about them, but merely that it is not his role, but rather that of his female partner to worry about them. Thus, incorporating an understanding of gender roles and identities impacts significantly on the analysis.

In summary, it is argued that, in relation to gender, a new research paradigm is required which incorporates and validates of emotions in field work and analysis, recognises the value of subjectivity. Specifically in relation to research on sectarianism, emotions are of great significance, since the study of sectarianism necessarily involves the study of subjectively defined issues such as that of intimidation. Therefore, to successfully research sectarianism requires an emotional articulacy and insight, and a willingness to view and incorporate feelings as facts in the research process.

Colonialism and research on sectarianism

In terms of the academic literature, and research on sectarianism, this lack of attention to subjectivity and the corresponding implicit claim to detachment, neutrality and subjectivity has created a situation where the academic community largely unreflexively mirrors and re-enacts the divisions occurring in the society it is observing and writing about. On the question of academic analysis, McVeigh (6) describes academia as "distanced" from "political stances" and "studiously ignoring sectarianism." He writes, " Amongst academics, there has been little academic impetus to theorize sectarianism." and goes on to outline their " inherited the aversion to the analysis of sectarianism."

With a few notable and fairly recent exceptions, virtually all analytical writers on sectarianism and on the political divisions within Northern Ireland implicitly lay claim to objectivity and scientific detachment. These writers employ scientific methodology from the social or political sciences, which provide an "objective" and "scientific" approach and thereby, in their view, to make explicit their subjective positions or experiences in relation to community divisions in Northern Ireland. Their method of argument and analysis relies on telling and retelling of historic and contemporary "facts" and interpretation of those facts by their juxtapositioning alongside one another. The process is that of logical argument, the persuasion is that of illustrating positions and making cases.

As McVeigh points out, it is as if these writers are apart from the society they write about. The academic who writes about the motivation for paramilitary violence does not reveal that he was interned without trial under emergency legislation, or that perhaps a close relative is in prison for IRA membership; the academic who writes about reconciliation does not reveal a privileged middle class background in England and how coming to work in Northern Ireland calls into question for that writer aspects of Englishness and Britishness, and a sense of responsibility to "do something" hence his/her work on, for example researching prejudice. We argue that the identity position of the researcher and his or her motivation in undertaking research has a direct impact on the research as a whole. These personal positions influence not only the analysis of the writer, but their very choice of field of inquiry. These factors influence what is studied and not studied. To take McVeigh's observation a stage further, without a rigorous self-reflexivity and transparency on these issues, at a collective level the academic community can only provide a mirror image of the society it studies. The academic community too, has its loyalists and republicans, its champions of the working class and other more popular causes, operating from behind a veil of academic language and method, and laying claim to scientific objectivity. To be apart from the society provides a certain safe distance between the writer and the violence of community battles - conducted in working class communities. The weapons are different in the academic battle, yet one suspects that it is the same battle.

Some topics, such as the psychological effects of state violence, remain virtually unexplored by researchers: sectarianism is another such field. O'Dowd (n.d.) argues:

  • Not all social scientists are equally willing to acknowledge the communal divide... I evaluate (and reject) four arguments which seek to either avoid the issue, or compartmentalize it unduly: (1) the principled objection:- 'religion' does not, and in any case should not matter in the late twentieth century; (2) practical objection: the politics of communal division makes related research dangerous and threatens social scientific impartiality; (3) the pessimistic objection: communal division is intractable and in any case conflict research has produced little of relevance to either social science or policy making; (4) the optimistic objection: why not concentrate on what unites people rather than on what inexorably divides them . (O'Dowd, L. (1989)

The role of the academic is not to have lived experience of these battles, but to "know" about them in a purely scientific way. This leads to a disowning of "personal life" which is akin to the denial and silence that surrounds the issue of sectarianism itself: it is uncomfortable and socially gauche to be open about one's "sectarian" identity. The class split facilitates the allocation of the most violent, and therefore uncouth, sectarian motivations and actions to the working classes. Such allocation allows a denial of such motivations and actions in the middle classes.

The possibilities or implications of incorporating subjectivity into traditional methodological approaches in research and writing on sectarianism would entail the writer declarating his or her position, and / or data providing data on his or her socialisation in relation to the sectarian divide. This would immediately make for a more transparent and honest scholarship in the field.

Figure 2

Colonialism, race and sectarianism

  • Academic world

  • Real world

  • exclusion of natives from academic life

    must learn the rules of the colonizer
    before they are admitted

  • exclusion of
    natives from
    political power

  • "civilising" project

    yardstick/norm is the "mainland"
    colonial is the ultimate authority

  • amplification of
    violence (native

  • exclusion or marginalisation of
    anti-colonial accounts (sometimes
    by association with native savagery)


    reflects and reifies

Racism and sectarianism are included with the concept of colonialism, since both sectarianism and racism find a common history in the history of colonialism. Thus sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland can be characterised, not as Protestant versus Catholic or unionist versus anti-unionist, rather as native pro-colonial versus native anti-colonial. This is perhaps best illustrated by the situation of the Northern Unionist /Protestant who discovers on travelling to England that he or she is regarded as a "Paddy" in the same way as Northern anti-unionist/ Catholics, and is just as much a target of anti-Irish racism.

Academic life does not reflect the outside world in terms of its composition. Rather, the more powerful groups are over-represented and, conversely, the less powerful groups under-represented. Academia in Northern Ireland contains a disproportionately large number of English academics and a similarly disproportionately large numbers of males in its ranks. What women there are in the academic life of Northern Ireland are usually found primarily in traditional female areas: the liberal arts, nursing, social work and the social sciences. The ideology is one of elite academic achievement, and yardstick by which academic achievement is measured is the Oxbridge standard and that of British academic achievement.

This ideological and practical legacy of colonialism, and the formulation of resistance to it, has had consequences for the development of gender politics, and the state of power relations between men and women. The Irish poet Eavan Boland has written of her need to combat 'the association of the feminine and the national - and the consequences of simplification of both" (1989, 24). Ashis Nandy (1983) writing of the experience of India, argues that, in general, colonial and anti-colonial discourses tend to narrow concepts of sexuality and establish, as normative, a sharp dichotomy between an aggressive warrior masculinity and a submissive, passive femininity. C.L. Innes (1994)

  • "seeks to compare constructions of Irish and African women within a gendered colonial and anti-colonial discourse (with specific reference to Mother Ireland and Mother Africa and the sexual dichotomies set up within such discourse). Such a comparison may allow us to see more clearly the circumstances and political relations which reinforce associations of the feminine, the national, and the racial, and thus to combat the consequent simplification of each."

The traditional academic world tends to privilege colonizers' accounts over "native" accounts. The exclusion or marginalisation of native accounts of the native material or ideological world, and the tendency to construe the conflict in terms of the "two warring tribes" thesis essentialises the "violent nature" of the natives, and casts the colonizer in the role of neutral arbiter.

Academic practice has been to aim for a value-free and objective scholarship on the "Northern Ireland question", and it has not been academic practice to state the identification or identity position of researchers or writers. Yet, we argue, that this is an important question, and to know the stand-point and concerns of the writer is essential to the ability to evaluate his or her contribution to the understanding of sectarianism. To fail to make the personal position of the speaker or writer explicit is to obscure the meaning of the statement and limit the value of the contribution to the study of sectarianism. Further it obscures the extent to which the academic world reproduces rather than analyses the division found in the society.

We conclude that a new paradigm is required, which encompasses the explicit use of the researcher's identity position within Northern Ireland, and his or her subjectivity becomes part of the research process, and where appropriate, part of the content. The use of a co-researching strategy whereby two or more researchers from various identity positions work in collaboration, making explicit use of their various perceptions, by, for example comparing perceptions, exchanging fieldwork diaries and in order to arrive collaboratively at an analysis would seem to be a more productive method of proceeding. This process would, in the long run, make for a more reflexive subjectivity within each of the participating researchers, and between them as a team and ensure that any analysis represented more of a synthesis of data than otherwise might be possible.

Class division and research on sectarianism

Similar mirroring processes can be seen to be at work in relation to class division, the academic world and the study of sectarianism. The ideological consequences of the academic mirroring of the "real world" in the study of sectarianism, has tended to lead to an uneven distribution of research interest in class terms. The working classes, or more deprived people, are the usual subjects of research on the Northern Ireland problem, and are consequently over-researched in comparison to their middle class neighbours. Class and sectarian segregation, (which occur simultaneously), have meant that if the area of research is defined geographically, then the selection of poor and sectarianly homogenous areas for research attention is almost guaranteed. Conversely, the middle classes are under-researched, since the areas they live in do not contain as much sectarian violence perhaps, or there is little apparent sign of the presence of sectarianism. Further, those conducting the research come from the middle classes or are upwardly mobile researchers. This leads to a situation where the middle class researcher examines the working classes, in this study,

Figure 3


Academic World

Real world
exclusion of working class

from academic life/

exclusion of
class from
political life

production of analysis
focus on working class activities
from middle class perspectives
amplification of the role of the
working class in sectarian division
(and gender)
"backwardness": projection of social
problems onto working class:
lack of research attention to
middle class culture
internationalisation of
because of middle class hegemony
in institutional life.





social Darwinism


reflects and reifies

for signs of sectarianism. We then carry off the data, conduct the analysis and publish the "results" thereby compounding a class division of intellectual labour and often further marginalising already marginalised communities.

Furthermore, the research process is a one way process in more than one way. Jargon and excessively technical language exclude all but those versed in the jargon, even if they are physically present. Ultimately, those who are researched may experience no direct gain or benefit from participating in the research.

Class and The Democratisation of the Research Process

In order to address these issues, it was necessary to democratise the research by securing involvement of those researched at each stage of the research process. This was done by incorporating representatives of the researched population into the management and advisory structures of the research. This required the adoption of a discipline in relation to the use of technical language, and a more "user-friendly" research style. In the ongoing work of the project, the production of interview transcripts and the agreement of them with interviewees, the consultation with those researched about the analysis, presentation and dissemination of the findings all contribute to breaking down the class-dichotomised research process. The use of, for example local exhibitions of the findings of the research which include the comments of those researched is a useful mechanism for feedback to communities, and to researchers alike.

In terms of the benefit of the research to those researched, the adoption of an action-research paradigm allows the incorporation of, for example, services to the community into the design, so that the research is seen to be of mutual benefit.

Principles and Mechanisms

A number of principles seem to be central to new paradigm research. The principles together with the mechanisms through which we have tried to actualise them are outlined below:

Principle (1). Research is an exchange between the researcher and the researched in which both roles are crucial and equally valuable.

Mechanism - our Board of Directors include individuals from working class communities and backgrounds, including the communities studied. Furthermore, our Board of Directors meeting are open to the public including the researched communities on alternate meetings.

Principle (2). Research is a field of expert operation.

Mechanism - An research Advisory Group exists which includes individuals from the working class communities studied. The Advisory Group is made up of research experts and community experts: both forms of expertise are recognised and valued and attention is paid to the language used.

Principle (3). Research is a socially responsible activity and a cost/ benefit balance of responsibility to community is required.

Mechanism - Networking with and participating in "indigenous" informal groups and community associations in the working class communities being studied takes place. relationships between these organisations and individuals and the research could be described in some instances as "give and take".

Principle (4) Research is a socially accountable activity.

Mechanism - This has been addressed by creating space for the ongoing public presentations of findings and analysis to interested parties and individuals, based on the ideal of and "public ownership" and citizens rights to know.

Principle (5). Research is accountable yet a barrier to actualising this accountability is the fact that only other academics tend to read academic journals, and working class people do not usually read academic journals.

Mechanism - Academic language and discourses are alienating and so local media channels are used for presentations and feedback as well as public meetings and pamphlet type publications. There is collaboration with journalists and other publicity and information channels, including an attempt to present other academics' research on issues relating to sectarianism and segregation in places accessible to the communities researched.

Action Research

What we mean by action research is that the research is not a static but a dynamic and interactive process with the communities researched, and that change will occur as a result of the research being conducted: some of this change may occur in the researcher in terms of how he/she perceives the issue, some change may occur among those researched in terms of access to information, expertise or advocacy, for example, and some change may occur in outside agents.

The ultimate evaluation of the research will not merely be in terms of the knowledge gained and the analysis arrived at by the researchers but also in terms of movement and change which occurred as a result of the information disseminated. Results such as public awareness raising, confidence building, improvements in the quality and form of political dialogue, broadening the content and creating a culture of political dialogue, public policies affected, and marginalised life situations explained and understood.

Figure 4

Researching Sectarianism

element in










new research

Figure 4 pulls together the arguments about research under each of the three "fractures" referred to at the beginning of the paper. The synthesis of all three arguments led to the search for a new research paradigm which would incorporate the issues raised under all three discussions above. The notion of new paradigm research (Reason and Rowan, 1993) was incorporated into the design of the study and the result is shown as Figure 5.

Figure 5

Phase 1

Entry into
Data Collection &
Analysis of Census Data

Action Research
Entry into Communities
Aim: To create a climate
of respectful public
discussion about issues
of sectarian division
Phase 25-7 in depth
interviews in
each enclave
(selected by
with local groups)
Research DesignPublic seminars on
aspects of sectarian
Publications on Area
Plan census Data.
Seminars etc.
Phase 3Use of focus froups
work in schools
+youth clubs.
Follow up in depth
Questionnaire design
pilot and admin.
Statistical Analysis
of results.
Opsahl type hearing on
minority experience
in the city. Publication
of findings.
Trips to Belfast Community
education with each enclave
Phase 4Final ReportFinal Report Public Exhibition

The research design

After much discussion we arrived at a research design which involved both qualitative and quantitative methods, action-research, and ongoing feedback of our findings to the communities and the city as a whole. (please note that the actual research did not follow exactly the design outlined in Figure 5, but incorporated other extra features which became necessary to incorporate in order to maximise the effectiveness of the work. A full report of the work involved, including the additional activities and techniques will be contained in the final report of the project.)

Subjectivity and the role of the fieldworkers

The compilation of file notes, and the "matching" of fieldworkers to communities of the same identity as themselves has been a deliberate research strategy. This meant recruiting a researcher who had personal experience which would allow her to identify with the Protestant community, since the proposer is from the Catholic community. The next phase of the research will afford the opportunity to explore the insights gained by conscious use of the workers' subjective views and observations. A comparison of these, the use of reflective dialogues in which the impact of each community on each worker is explored will provide the opportunity to deepen the qualitative analysis.

(a) community development and community research

Although the project was designed around the concept of action research, certain tensions exist in the area of methodology. The tension between being 'useful' to the communities, contributing positively to the ongoing work in each of the communities and engaging with local people, versus the need to be a "researcher", analytically competent, yet able to detach sufficiently from the community in order to engage in the research task. The challenge is that of collecting information, analysing it, feeding it back to the communities through the use of public meetings, local media, publications, and allowing this process to shape the research in an ongoing way. Ultimately, the process is explicitly concerned with generating change in the issue which is studied, in addition to the usual research task. This involves the communities in question and those who attend the public meetings in a cycle of re-action to the research as it is presented to them. As was stated earlier, the ultimate evaluation of the research will not merely be in terms of the research outputs, but it will also be in terms of the change achieved in the community. There are moments when the role of the researcher resembles that of a community development worker, since the research aims to make a positive contribution to the communities being studied, and this often accentuates the community development aspect of the research role. Finally, the skill base required to undertake such work is quite wide, and demands a range of skills and experience on the part of the researcher.

(b) quantitative versus qualitative methods

In the initial phase of the work, we saw the work as mainly qualitative. However as the work progressed, we began to see the qualitative and quantative aspects of the project as connected. Initially, we conducted an interrogation of the census data to establish the baseline population changes in the city and in the areas being studied. We used small area statistics on a grid square basis. A questionnaire designed for use in the two communities tested the prevalence of some of the views and experiences found in the in-depth interviews carried out in each area. A combination of approaches are being used: quantitative methods are used, both in the analysis of the baseline census data, and in a questionnaire survey in the two communities; qualitative methods are being used in the compilation of fieldwork notes, records of public seminars, and in- depth interviews; and an action research or "interaction research" orientation is being maintained by the ongoing presentation of our findings, the use of the responses we receive to shape the next phase of the work, and the ongoing interaction with the communities and relevant policy makers.

In conclusion, the need to find new ways of researching was apparent from the inception of a project which involved the researching of sectarianism in a manner which got as close to the heart of the matter as possible. The challenge posed by researching a subject such as sectarianism, where there are many obstacles between the researcher and the heart of the matter, may have stimulated us to productively reconsider the paradigm within which we work, and to revisit some of the ethical issues which may not seem so pressing in researching some other "safer" subjects. The quest to more clearly and carefully define a new paradigm which better meets the needs of both researcher and researched will continues. The work outlined here has been, however, an instructive beginning.


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CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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