“War and war-induced displacement create ruptures in people’s sense-making narratives that are at the core of their identities and understanding of the past.” – 5in10 with Viktoria Sereda

Viktoria Sereda is a sociologist, head coordinator of the Virtual Ukraine Institute for Advanced Study (VUIAS) and academic senior advisor to the project “Prisma Ukraïna: War, Migration and Memory”. She has been a member of the Prisma Ukraïna War, Migration, Memory research group since 2022. Prior to this, she was a fellow at the Imre Kertesz Kolleg at the University of Jena. Since 2020, she has also been a senior research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a professor in the department of Sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University. In the spring semester of 2021, she was a visiting lecturer at the University of Basel. Sereda has either led or participated in over 30 sociological research projects on Ukrainian society and its regional dimensions. From 2011 to 2017, she was the head of the sociological team for the project “Region, Nation and Beyond: An Interdisciplinary and Transcultural Reconceptualization of Ukraine”, organized by the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. In 2016/17 and 2019/20 she was the MAPA Research Fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, where she developed a digital atlas of social changes in Ukraine after the Euromaidan. Her latest publications include Displacement in War-Torn Ukraine (2023, Cambridge University Press).

Viktoria Sereda

1. How would you explain your research to someone who’s not an expert?

I have a wide variety of interests. My research agenda lies at the intersection of urban studies, migration and displacement studies, memory, nationalism and identity studies. On one hand, my research delves into the everyday, where official and unofficial spheres interact. This focus on mundane activities unveils undercurrent processes, portraying people as active participants in society. On the other hand, I focus on locality that helps to uncover interplay between global, national, regional or local phenomena and their impact on people’s everyday experiences.

Local everyday practices play a very important role in the process of identity shaping and historical memory reproduction. It is locality and local community that makes people feel that they belong here. Our experiences of belonging are dynamic and sensitive to changes. Moving to a new location, whether as a labor migrant, internally displaced person, or refugee, inevitably prompts a reexamination of one’s sense of belonging.. My question is what cultural markers make them feel home or alienated? What social groups they see as ‘us’, ‘them’ or ‘other’? Individuals are, to a certain extent, free to choose among a set of many different options. While the act of choice is a personal decision, belonging also depends on acknowledgement by other members of the locality.

In my current research, I focus mostly on different groups of displaced. How do they negotiate their positioning within the receiving communities? What strategies do they use to claim successfully that they belong to the local community? What are the main lines of inclusion and exclusion along which they narrate their belonging? What does it mean to be integrated to feel part of the community? Is it to speak a language, to have a job (these are the key markers that are often are used in many reports about successful integration of migrants) or something completely different? It is also important to look at how communities change under the influence of the displaced and what the role of civil society is in those processes.

2. What intrigued you when you started your academic journey? What were formative encounters or challenges?

My first degree was in history. During my undergraduate studies, I researched two student organizations formed around 1870s by Ukrainian students, who at that time were a minority group in the Lviv University. I was curious about their identity choices and conducted a prosopography to understand the social background of the group. I planned to continue examining this subject in a doctoral program and forge a career of a historian, but the community of sociologists was more open, inclusive and less patriarchal. However, I discovered new challenging issues in sociology that had just emerged as a new discipline in post-1991 in Ukraine and I went to study it abroad, first in Hungary and later in Scotland. Shifting disciplines and studying at the competitive and discipline’s top leading programs abroad was a formative challenge for me, but my international and interdisciplinary training gave me a lot. Initially, I gleaned the understanding that explaining contemporary social phenomena is challenging without profound knowledge of the past. History, in particular, taught me not only to think empathetically but also to understand the significant influence of time and cultural context. Additionally, sociology equipped me with the ability to contemplate universal patterns and fostered a heightened awareness of the importance of research methodology. This way, I gained insights into various academic cultures and learned how to navigate within them. My interdisciplinary training in history and sociology facilitated seamless communication with researchers from other social and humanities fields, and provided me with the opportunity to integrate different disciplinary approaches into my research. This approach allows me to address social phenomena in a more nuanced and complex manner, offering greater creative latitude in my academic pursuits.

Another important lesson that I have learned from my academic journeys abroad is the challenge of inbetweenness. This state creates situations where I am often perceived as the “other” in both systems. However, it adds an additional layer of reflexivity, helping to realize the specificities of each society that is often taken for granted by locals. The inbetweenness also facilitates sensitivity. For me it is important to alternate the “insider” role with the “outsider” one. This is true not only when I travel to another country, but when I go to the countryside or to another region and talk to people there. I believe one cannot be a good sociologist without talking to people and learning about their everyday experiences in their communities. Finally, I also acquired an appreciation for and placed significant value on collaborating with heterogeneous teams. This sentiment extends to my collaborative efforts with scholars from diverse disciplines, regions and countries. I attribute much of my intellectual growth to many of these collaborative endeavours.

3. How, if at all, has the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine influenced your research questions or approaches?

It did not. First, the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine reignited discussions in both the media and academic circles regarding identity and language divisions within the country. To comprehensively grasp the dynamics of identity and language in Ukraine, it is essential to examine the prevailing situation in Ukrainian society, specifically in the regional perspective since 1991. This aligns precisely with my expertise. Since the 1990s, I have been involved in a longitudinal research project comparing the regional differences of Lviv and Donetsk, and later in an interdisciplinary study of regionalism challenging simplistic conceptualizations and generalizations. It focused on intraregional and cross-regional differences and similarities in the hierarchies of identities and historical memories, language and religious landscapes in Ukraine. Russia’s aggression in 2014 provoked a political and academic debate about the nature of the conflict: Ukrainian scholars were often confronted with the interpretation of the conflict as an identity war based on polarized identities and memory projects as the main factor of escalation. The evidence I uncovered during my fieldwork made it evident that the war was not a result of internal processes but rather imposed on the people of the Donbas region. They found themselves thrown into the military conflict and a social reality experiment that manipulated loyalties and identities. Understanding the complexities of what transpired demanded more intricate and nuanced answers.

Second is the ‘invisibility’ of Ukrainian internally displaced people (IDP) for European migration research, as it has mostly considered migration as a cross-border phenomenon. Traditionally, migration and the IDP phenomenon have been associated with the Global South, not with Eastern Europe. Since 2014, discussions about the crisis in Ukraine have repeatedly come to the fore, particularly with regard to peacekeeping and foreign policy agendas. By 2016, Ukraine had the largest number of IDPs in Europe and the fifth largest in the world, yet European media did not consider Ukraine in their debates about the ‘migrant threat’ in their respective countries. Equally imperceptible to many outsiders was the response of Ukraine’s civil society to war and displacement. The transformative changes happening within the society, testing its resilience and forging new lines of cohesion and inclusion, underscored the depth of its response.

In October 2021, I came to Germany to the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena to finish a book describing all these phenomena. I researched how war (re)shaped narratives of belonging of IDPs and the local receiving communities in Ukraine. I submitted the manuscript in February 2022, a time when the entire World was stunned by Russia’s massive military aggression against Ukraine. Many issues discussed in the book gained even greater relevance after February 2022. This includes the evolving roles of the state and civil society in assisting IDPs and refugees, as well as the increasing weaponisation of refugee policies in the region. Many trends outlined in the book contribute to a better understanding of the specifics of the new displacement crisis, encompassing both internal and cross-border issues. In July 2022, the Forum Transregionale Studien invited me to constitute the research group “Prisma Ukraïna: War, Migration,Memory”.

4. What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?

I think that the role of any academic discipline is to produce new knowledge about society, explain and possibly predict effects. However, they often feed into policy-oriented and problem-solving discourses or ideological narratives which creates tensions. Scholars are often expected to function as ideological warriors, facing pressure from social and political groups that seek to censor information. Such groups may insist on classifying certain subjects as sensitive or potentially dangerous for the people, state security, or inappropriate public debate.

Yet, scholars from humanities and social sciences are also expected to comment and explain ongoing events. Their professional codes require the researcher to demonstrate objectivity by maintaining distance from the conflict and non-involvement in the discourses of the conflicting sides. This involves upholding a high level of neutrality during assessments, using adequate vocabulary (which itself can be a battleground for discursive conflicts), and putting aside own traumas, emotions or empathy for any particular side.

All this, in general, creates a complex internal conflict for the researcher, who is expected to monitor the situation in all its complexity, but also is torn between a role of the ‘researcher’ and the ‘citizen,’ and many other personal roles.

It is crucial to recognize the existence of internalized imperial frameworks and prevailing power structures and inequalities in the sphere of knowledge production. This environment tends to marginalize certain regions (or regional studies), perceiving them as least important, peripheral and consequently least trustful. Research conducted by scholars or institutions from these regions is often automatically deemed less objective, restricting their roles primarily to data collection or narration of their personal stories. In contrast, scholars external to the conflict or affiliated with academic institutions in the core are regularly perceived as inherently more neutral and trustworthy.

5. How do you think war affects memory or identity? And how does this connect to your research?

Extreme events such as war and war-induced displacement create ruptures in people’s sense-making narratives that are at the core of their identities and understanding of the past. Sense-making is intricately tied to individual and collective memories; we explain phenomena by building causal relationships based on or our personal or collective past experiences. In this process, history and the past emerge as vital interpretive resources shaping our sense of attachment, alienation and identity building.

The memory of recently experienced events (e.g., ‘after the beginning of the war’), is later connected to selected symbolic markers, events, or figures from the past. These serve to explain current events or legitimize individual or collective actions.

The study of memory changes take place in various contexts, including the local, regional, national, and global levels. At the macro-level, war and war-induced migration influence discussions on the politics of memory and identity. Questions arise about what should or should not be commemorated, in what forms, and whether school curricula should be changed. These changes affect national or global narratives about specific events, subjects thoroughly examined and discussed in academia.

While I follow the discussions about Ukraine, my main focus is on the individual and community levels. I explore the role of shifting collective memories in refugees’ adaptations and the reactions of receiving communities to their arrival. I also investigate historical narratives and symbolic markers present in the public space (or retained within families), examining how these contribute to a sense of belonging to a community. These elements are crucial factors of social exclusion and othering and possibly provoke conflicts. Last, but not least, the historical past can become a component of social activism, fostering new lines of solidarities.

Citation: “War and war-induced displacement create ruptures in people’s sense-making narratives that are at the core of their identities and understanding of the past.” – 5in10 with Viktoria Sereda, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.01.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50131

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 11. Januar). “War and war-induced displacement create ruptures in people’s sense-making narratives that are at the core of their identities and understanding of the past.” – 5in10 with Viktoria Sereda. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vkhs

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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