Professor Laura Vinson studies religion’s role in conflict, peace

Next semester, Vinson will be working on two projects that examine the influence that NGOs and religious actors have on conflict. Photo by Jo Tabacek

Laura Vinson, assistant professor of international affairs at Lewis & Clark, specializes in African politics, ethnic/religious conflict, civil war, religion and global politics and humanitarianism. Currently, she is doing research on religious and ethnic violence in Nigeria.

“I set up a research project that’s secondary to an earlier project I did that looks at the role of people’s perceptions of their religious and ethnic or tribal identity, and how those perceptions of their religious, ethnic tribal identity shape how they view conflict,” Vinson said. “In the scholarly world on this topic, people tend to just treat ethnic identities as kind of the same thing, like race identity, tribal identity, all these different categories don’t mean something necessarily distinctive for how conflicts may play out.”

To gather data, Vinson set up a research experiment in the city of Jos, Nigeria, in which research assistants asked a random sample of people to complete a survey for each area within the city. 

Vinson will be on sabbatical during the spring 2020 semester during which she will be working on two new projects, one of which will focus on peacebuilding efforts and conflict communities. 

“We’re most interested in this question of, ‘What effect do these big international NGO (nongovernmental organization) dialogue efforts have on conflict communities?’” Vinson said. “There’s surprisingly not a lot of good research on that question. You get an NGO and they come in and they bring people together from both sides of warring parties in the community. And you sit them down and you have dialogue, and it’s self directed, and it’s to rebuild trust and create ties between the two parties. But the research isn’t clear about whether or not it’s actually effective in conflict communities that have had severe challenges.”

Vinson’s other project will examine the role of religious mediators in conflict and political crisis.

“There’s all this scholarly work on how to resolve civil wars or interesting political crises,” Vinson said. “(This work) looks at the role of different actors in mediating. The issue is that not a lot of work has been focused on religious mediators, even though they’re considered really important in a lot of major crises that have been resolved and addressed around the world. I’m really interested in how religious actors go about using their identity and ideas to resolve these political conflicts.”

Vinson was not initially interested in religion and conflict before starting graduate school, but became fascinated with the subject after realizing the lack of understanding of religious influence in conflict resolution. 

“I just shifted gears to look at what the significance is for a field that hasn’t really taken into account religion,” Vinson said. “In particular, countries like Nigeria are interesting because they have a lot of variation in religious violence. You have Muslims and Christians living together in an area where there’s been a lot of violence, but you also have them living together peacefully. So my puzzle was, ‘What explains that?’”

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