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(2017-8) The impact of armed conflict on kinship, identity and family separation

By Lolly Bruce-Jones, Ella Davies Oliveck, Megan Jones, Poppy Luck, Leigh Roberts, and Kizzie Wilson Wilson

The following ethnographic examples demonstrate that identity is often threatened and laboriously reasserted after the initial period of crisis, when normalcy has supposedly resumed.

Redfield (2005) uses Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’ to explore the effects of crisis on identity. Agamben, expounding on Foucault’s theory of biopolitics, distinguishes between two modes of existence: bios and zoe. Bios refers to a person’s political existence, in which they are engaged in social relations and represented in the political world surrounding them. Zoe refers to a person’s biological existence, or bare life. In his work on refugee camps, Redfield argues that refugees are reduced to bare life through the effects of crisis and the administration of aid. He distinguishes the crisis as a distinct space in which the victim is perpetually emerging as a biological body. In this essay, we can extend our understanding of ‘crisis’ beyond Redfield’s pure space of imminent danger to include long-lasting effects caused by conflict.

For example, in Gardner and El-Bushra’s (2017) research Somalian masculine identity has been severely challenged by post-war and state collapse, in terms of their opportunities to fulfill gender roles and responsibilities. Little attention has been paid to Somalian men post-war and the intrinsic linkage between men’s experience and the condition of women and children. In considering the way masculinity and femininity are created in relation to each other, we can explore the inversion of economic roles and the breakdown of the ideals and norms of Somali manhood. Somalian men are perceived as inherently violent yet Somali manhood is based on expectations contrary to this. Manhood or ‘raganimo’ rests on responsibilities to his family’s wellbeing. War and changes to the state threaten their ability to fulfill these paternal roles. The tensions caused by the negotiation of gender roles and the inability to live up to the patriarchal expectations of responsibility generate stress and vulnerability, such as a breakdown of family resilience.

This breakdown of family resilience can also be seen in Dickson-Gomez’s (2002) ethnography. She explores the long-term effects on being a child solider within El-Salvador’s civil war. She focused on parent-child relationships and risk to the children’s sense of identity. Many children had to take on adult responsibilities very early on due to the trauma that their parents had suffered. The author argues that this led to the damage of basic trust as children felt like they could only rely on themselves for survival. Moreover, many young people felt that they had failed to protect their parents due to their young age which led to a feeling of guilt. Soldiers targeted the strong family units within El-Salvador by torturing and killing family members in front of one another. Many children wanted to seek revenge so became soldiers themselves. The author argues that this resulted in to a crisis of identity within the children as they were now soldiers like those who had murdered their families.

Furthermore, Halilovich’s Places of Pain (2013) explores the relationship between ‘forced displacement, popular memory and trans-local identities’ (2013:1) in Bosnian war-torn communities. Forced displacement affected Bosnian women and girls and consequently, their identities. During the war, between 20,000 to 50,000 women and girls were raped and systematically abused. Many of these crimes remain undocumented, due to the shame felt by victims of sexual violence. This resulted in the collective denial of war crimes committed against women. Rape as a systematically planned Serbian tool of genocide was designed not merely to encourage the evacuation of all non-Serbs, but to destroy spousal and parent-child bonds and to make the vast majority of society’s child bearing women symbolically contaminated and thus unmarriageable.

Jones (2002) found that for adolescents in Bosnia the memory of recent armed conflict is much more pertinent than for younger children. Through participant observation Jones found that different adolescents had varying means through which to cope with memories of conflict. She shows how the conflict reshapes the identity of certain groups as everyone was implicated in the conflict in some way. The separation from homes and a rapid collapse of interethnic relations had particularly traumatic effects for adolescents because they destroyed feelings of safety and security. This led to their insecurity about their position within society and many adolescents felt helpless. When adolescents cannot address the psychological traumas they face in crisis situations, the chances of further conflict become increasingly likely as the effects are conducive of disorder and resentment.

By exploring impacts of armed conflict on identity and kinship ethnographically anthropology highlights the importance of cultural contexts and the continuing relevance of the local, even in the era of globalisation. Anthropology demonstrates the importance of continued support long after the cameras have left and fighting has dispersed. The gross upheaval of identities and the damaging impact conflict has on kinship and selfhood is reproduced inter-generationally as seen in El-Salvador, Bosnia and Somalia. These ethnographies and participant observation have illustrated how the long-term effects in areas post-crisis are psychologically harmful and are potentially embedded in society for a long time after the initial conflict.


Dickson-Gomez, J. (2002). Growing Up in Guerrilla Camp: The long-Term Impact of Being a Child Soldier in El Salvador’s Civil War. Ethos, 30(4), pp.327-356

Halilovich, H. (2013). Places of Pain: Forced Displacement, Popular Memory and Trans-Local Identities in Bosnian War-Torn Communities. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Gardner, J. and El-Bushra, J. (2017). The impact of war on Somali men and its effects on the family, women and children. Rift Valley Institute Briefing Paper, pp.1-9.

Jones, L. (2002). Adolsescent understandings of political violence and psychological well-being: a qualitative study from Bosnia Herzegovina. Social Science & Medicine, 55(8), pp. 1351-1371

Redfield, P. (2005) ‘Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis’, Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), pp. 328–361.