Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Challenging Essentialist Ideas and the Policies They Influence

Q&A with Dr. Gemma Sou (HI² International Fellow)

Postcolonial disaster studies

What types of essentialist ideas about at-risk people do you encounter most frequently in your work?

My work focuses on low-income and marginalized communities in the global south – communities that are often the most at risk of disasters. I have noticed that risk reduction policies increasingly advocate for a need to maintain ‘at risk’ communities’ “traditional” values and ways of life. However, the term traditional is problematic because it essentializes people as non-materialistic, static, ‘backwards’ and fundamentally immune and/or adverse to elements of modernity. It also suggests ‘at risk’ communities live in hyper-separated cultural spaces that are immune to the influences of globalization. Second, in disaster risk reduction policies, there is often an assumption that these same populations are irrational if they do not prioritize risk reduction. However, this is based on a reductive interpretation of human behavior that overlooks many needs and concerns that influence the behavior and choices of ‘at risk’ people.

What impact do these ideas have on policy?

In order to increase the sustainability of risk reduction policies, they must be locally appropriate. If  policies are based on misrepresentations of ‘at risk’ people’s lives, policies will misrecognize local needs and concerns. For instance, imposing an idea that risk reduction is the referent or norm for ‘rational’ behavior can result in policies that overlook local needs and concerns that do not reduce risk. These needs are seen as obstructive and/or unnecessary for disaster risk reduction. Also, intention to maintain local “tradition” risks marginalizing the ‘modern’ social aspirations and needs of people. In this sense, policies romanticize ‘at risk’ communities.

Could you discuss some of the conclusions of your upcoming paper?

When risk reduction policies fail, there is a tendency to blame contingency factors such as lack of resources, poor management, or lack of political consideration. Despite policy failure, there is a belief that the policy objectives are inherently suitable. I suggest that there is an alternative explanation for the inadequacy of these policies. In particular, I suggest that the success of policies is dependent on how ‘at risk’ peoples are conceptualized – or in the case of my research, essentialized. I therefore call for researchers and policy makers to critically consider the soundness of their representations of at risk people if policies are to be appropriate.

Video Games

What are refugee ‘serious’ games, and how can they enhance popular understanding of refugee experiences?

Serious video games are designed to facilitate sustained learning and knowledge acquisition and to encourage activism. Serious games that focus on refugee issues aim to educate users about the complexity and challenges of refugee experiences, journeys and politics. They have been launched by a diversity of organizations, from international development organizations such as the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), international non-governmental organizations, grassroots activist groups, news media outlets and private companies.

Do these new types of media representation push back against essentialist ideas of refugees?

I argue that the technological form of video games allows them to simulate the historical, political and socio-economic factors that shape why refugees leave their home country and their experiences when travelling to host countries. Therefore, they are able to mobilize intellectual agendas. This challenges the de-contextualized and apolitical representations of refugee politics that are typical in traditional media. Serious refugee games also foreground the voices, identities, histories and personalities of individual refugees – albeit as an avatar. Therefore, I argue that serious refugee games challenge players to critically reflect on the complexities of refugee experiences and politics. In this way, they present a potential to move away from grand emotional discourses of pity and compassion that are typical in mainstream media.

Irma

What inspired you to write your recent piece on Hurricane Irma?

I was getting sick and tired of the UK media focusing on British tourists and how their holidays had “been ruined”. I wanted to give a little reality check: Caribbean people who have been the most adversely impacted – and will be for many years to come. Also, there was a huge debate in the UK about whether and how much the UK government should provide aid to British territories. I wanted to expose how the legacy of colonialism has increased the vulnerability of Caribbean countries to climatic hazards. This historical dimension adds further reasoning why the UK government should most definitely be doing more.