Winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2023

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2023 is Gwen Burnyeat for her book The Face of Peace. Government Pedagogy amid Disinformation in Colombia

Gwen Burnyeat is Junior Research Fellow in Anthropology at Merton College, University of Oxford. The Face of Peaceis an engaging journey into the complexity of Colombians’ peace efforts and challenges. Moving between different scales of inquiry, Burnyeat explains the intricacies of the government-public relationship and the dynamics and failures of liberal peace-making. A great ethnography and a precious reference for comparative analyses on peace processes.


Antonio: Would you like to share with us the personal and professional trajectories that brought you to the publication of The Face of Peace?

Gwen: The questions that led to this book came out of a long trajectory of living and working in Colombia, and of being embedded with sectors of Colombian society who were trying to find ways to end the country’s fifty-year armed conflict and build a more peaceful future. I spent six years in Colombia before starting a PhD, initially as a practitioner in human rights and peacebuilding organisations, then as a scholar. My background was in literature; I retrained as an anthropologist at the National University of Colombia after working as a conflict observer in the north-west region of Urabá, really to try to understand the Colombian conflict that I had been experiencing on the ground. 

My first research project, which I did for a Masters at the National, was about the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, a grassroots community of cacao farmers in Urabá who, trapped between left-wing guerrilla, right-wing paramilitaries and state armed forces, declared themselves neutral to the conflict as a strategy of self-protection. This project 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), which argues that the community’s everyday farming work illuminates their political identity as a peacebuilding organisation, and my documentary, Chocolate of Peace (2016). The Peace Community were victims of state violence, as most of the violations carried out against civilians in that region were done by state armed forces in alliance with paramilitaries, and a third of that book is about the way the community perceive the state. This made me interested in the state itself, because for the community the state was the ultimate other,so for my PhD I turned from victims of the state to studying the state itself. 

When I was studying at the National and living in Bogotá, I joined Rodeemos el Diálogo (ReD), literally “Let’s Embrace Dialogue,” a nonpartisan civil society organization founded in 2012 to support the peace negotiations which began that year between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrilla. We held hundreds of “peace breakfasts” and other events to inform ordinary people about what was going on in the negotiations, bringing experts from all sectors (government, guerrilla and paramilitary ex-combatants, victims, academics, artists, activists, journalists, and others) to share their perspectives on peace and create a culture of dialogue across difference, as a way of peacebuilding from civil society. 

In retrospect, it was a very innovative and important thing to do, because peace-making at a national level brings up all sorts of emotional quagmires at the societal level. Wars, especially long-lasting ones like Colombia’s, engender all sorts of divides in society: political, social, economic, regional, and between people with different experiences of the conflict. The only way these differences can be processed is through spaces of dialogue: slow, repetitive, exploratory, calm, safe. The opposite of politics, which happens fast, in the public eye, often superficial rather than deep.

The peace talks took place amid staunch opposition from the right-wing Democratic Centre party, who complained the government was negotiating with terrorists. Anyone trying to explain the peace process, as we were in ReD, had to contend with their disinformation campaign. They told people that the peace process would turn Colombia communist, end private property, and impose “gender ideology” on schoolchildren, turning them gay and destroying families. Then, when the peace deal was signed in 2016, President Santos decided to hold a referendum on it, and this disinformation intensified. On 2 October 2016, Colombia voted ‘No’ by just 50.2% to a peace deal which was celebrated internationally as the most complete peace accord in the world, as it promised not only to disarm the FARC but also to address various structural reforms to prevent future violence, such as land reform, tackling the drug trafficking which has fuelled the conflict, and providing redress to the over 8 million victims of the conflict. This happened just a few months after the Brexit vote in my own country, the UK – and a few months before the election of Donald Trump. 2016 was the year that ‘post-truth’ became the Oxford Dictionary ‘word of the year’ – and since then, global concern over disinformation has spiralled.

I started my PhD two days after the referendum, and the referendum came to dominate my research. While lots of people were wondering how the ‘No’ vote had been so successful, I was more interested in how the “Yes” had lost. I became interested in the role of the government in the referendum, the way that they had tried to counter disinformation using rational explanations, which they called peace pedagogy, and the role of government-society relations in the peace process. 

I spent 13 months embedded in the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP), the branch of the presidency in charge of peace talks, observing their everyday work and life in the office and travelling with them to peace pedagogy sessions around the country. My book is a study of an attempt to do what many people say that governments around the world should be doing more of –education to counter disinformation, for people to know “the truth.” It focusses on the experiences of the government officials in charge of this peace pedagogy strategy and the challenges they faced in translating the peace accord for public opinion. As is now increasingly obvious, and as neuroscientists and psychologists have been telling us for a long time, people don’t form political opinions based on rationality but emotions, identity, culture, and history. I explore the problems of liberal fantasies about using rationality as an antidote to disinformation. There are many wonderful scholars working on populism, but fewer on the way liberalism reacts to what it perceives as post-truth politics. I’m convinced that we have to look harder at this, and in particular, I think we have to question our assumption that explaining is not political.

Antonio: What is exactly peace pedagogy?

Gwen: As the peace process in Havana progressed and more information and disinformation circulated publicly, ReD and other civil society groups began to do peace pedagogy, a term that emerged organically to describe the act of giving talks to different audiences to explain what was being negotiated. When the referendum was announced, peace pedagogy gained the emphasis of encouraging people to make an informed decision with their vote. The term filtered into government discourse, and a designated peace pedagogy team was created in 2013 in the OACP, the office that provided technical support to the government negotiating team in Havana, led by Sergio Jaramillo Caro, Santos’s High Commissioner for Peace, and chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle. My book is about government peace pedagogy, but many civil society organisations did peace pedagogy in their own way, and continue to do so.

Essentially, government peace pedagogy involved officials from the OACP travelling the country giving talks in-person to different audiences: from rural communities in village sports halls in conflict zones and students at universities, to the business sector in local chambers of commerce, personnel in state institutions, and local and national media. Through the four years of negotiations, government peace pedagogy evolved, and they developed myriad creative strategies, from workshops with local NGOs and online webinar courses to booklet summaries designed for specific groups, such as women, ethnic communities, conflict victims and religious organisations. This is a world first in peace processes: there is a sub-field of Peace Studies called Peace Education, but this refers to educational processes to solve conflicts non-violently. Peace pedagogy, as it was referred to in the Colombian context at that time, was defined by an emphasis on dissemination of official information. This is why I think it’s so important to learn from it, as it’s clearly only going to get more important in peace processes worldwide, as spoilers use disinformation more and more as a strategy to derail negotiations.

But one of the most important findings in the book is the problem of distrust. In speaking as the government, OACP officials had to contend with a historic distrust in the state, which is pervasive in Colombia, due to the state’s role as a perpetrator in the conflict, and to widespread narratives about state “abandonment” and “absence,” referring to a perception of lack of state presence in certain regions of the country. In speaking from the government, the officials were already at a disadvantage. Additionally, they believed they were trying to counter disinformation with facts, and that this was a purely technocratic exercise in explaining – but speaking from the government is always a priori political, because citizens project onto them all the complex emotions and imaginaries they have around national politics. Peace pedagogy was always-already political because it took place in a context of problematic state-society relations.

Antonio: Can you tell us more about the ethnographic and multi-scale research conducted for this book?

Gwen: The government officials I worked with often talked about the difficulty of “giving face,” in Spanish dar la cara, a common Colombian idiom meaning both to be present in physical encounters with someone, and to assume responsibility for something. The officials would say things to each other like, “it’s not our fault the peace process is falling apart, but we’re the ones who have to go and dar la cara, give face to people in the regions.” Giving face as the government means being on the receiving end of the many perceptions that Colombia’s diverse audiences have of the government, in a context of historic distrust in the state. For me, multi-scale research has to do with taking the micro-level observations which anthropology is so good at and connecting this up with macro-level politics, and looking at how the two intersect and produce each other.

In the book, I connect the experiences of individual officials which I documented in my fieldwork with the production of the idea of the government in the public eye. I do this by taking the emic category of “giving face,” to explore how all governments “face” society, and I propose a related analytical concept, “the face of the government,” as a framework for thinking through government-society relations. As Santos’ central policy was the peace process, I argue that the “face” he sought to “give” from his government was a face of peace, hence the book’s title. But the face of the government isn’t just created by Santos and his public relations efforts, but rather by a whole ecosystem of people, institutions, policies and actions. The face of the government is a construct, but “facing” is also a process, in the sense of coming face-to-face with people in personal encounters, and in that of assuming one’s responsibility, as in “facing the music.” 

I use this framework of the face to highlight the role of government-society relations in the Colombian peace process. Overall, I argue that while Santos dedicated great efforts to negotiating with the FARC, his government failed to invest the same efforts into building a government-society alliance for peace, and that this was the fatal flaw in the peace process.

Antonio: What were the main challenges in your research?

Gwen: When I approached the OACP about the possibility of doing fieldwork within the institution, I was followed the idea of “studying up,” Laura Nader’s idea of turning the anthropological gaze to the study of the powerful. This is a challenging positionality. It is easier to identify with, and to feel sympathy for, the marginalised or the oppressed, and anthropological research commonly focusses on experiences of inequality, exploitation, and local forms of critique and resistance. In many ways a government trying to make peace is more other to an anthropologist than a victim. Studying the powerful does not imply agreeing with them; it means recognising them as human beings, product of and reproducing Colombian culture. I had to apply the same openness, the same critical but non-judgmental eye, the same empathy in my approximation of the OACP as I had with the Peace Community, while not losing sight of the responsibility of the institution and its members in Colombia’s destiny.

The OACP generously accepted my proposal to spend a year embedded with them, partly because they saw international academic expertise as a source of knowledge and support to the peace process, and partly as they saw my experience with the Peace Community and ReD as relevant and useful. My embedded engagement was possible because I was ultimately supportive of the OACP’s overall objective to consolidate the gains of the peace process. I would have been unlikely to receive the same access under the subsequent Duque administration, especially given my trajectory with pro-peace and left-wing organisations. Likewise, being embedded in the institution under an administration I politically disagreed with would engender more complex ethical challenges to fieldwork. Participant observation inside governments is therefore deeply contingent.

Antonio: What are your future plans?

Gwen: I’m very lucky to have a three-year research fellowship at Merton College, University of Oxford, which gave me the time to turn my PhD into the book, and also develop my new research agenda. My new work is on the role of stories in political divisions in Colombia and the United Kingdom. Both countries held referendums in 2016 (on the peace accord and Brexit), leaving enduring identity divides, and fostering widespread narratives about each society being more divided than ever. Four months of pilot research in 2021-22 in Colombia exploring experiences and perceptions of polarisation among people from across the social and political spectrum made clear to me how lived experiences of political divides are integrated into everyday life and sociality through stories, from anecdotes over dinner tables and narratives shared in WhatsApp chats to politicians’ speeches. I now want to apply questions generated by my work in the conflict context of Colombia to the non-conflict but increasingly divided context of the UK, transcending traditional thematic categorisations such as north/south, conflict/non-conflict, to learn lessons on peacebuilding in divided societies by studying the two together. 

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