Thursday, August 20, 2009

Social Networks Essential for Wartime Migrants in Afghanistan

Ksenia Glebova

It is better to have a hundred friends than a hundred roubles, claims a popular Russian proverb. In times of war these words sound as true as ever. Afghanistan, a country that has been at war with others and itself for over thirty years now, social networks have gradually acquired a whole new meaning let alone dimension. The war has displaced thousands of Afghans who used their social networks making decisions to escape, return, integrate in exile and reintegrate at home.

In his Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan recently published by Palgrave Macmillan Norwegian scholar Kristian Berg Harpviken seeks to show how people’s networks are crucial for their responses to ongoing war. Berg Harpviken addresses wartime migration on his quest to explore the role people’s social networks play under the extreme circumstances of war.

Earlier research suggested that social networks help to maintain or mobilise new physical resources, to provide security and to gather information. Social networks theory has not yet been widely applied in the civil war setting. There has previously only been limited debate on whether social networks disintegrate or strengthen in the face of war. Berg Harpviken tests the network analysis framework in the wartime migration setting drawing on his empirical research in two villages in Afghanistan’s severely war-affected area on the outskirts of the city of Herat. In the first village most people fled to Iran, in the second village majority chose to collaborate with the government.

His network analysis approach is systematic and comprehensive but what makes it stand out is the connection made to other disciplines. In particular Berg Harpviken draws on sociology of economics and organisational sociology and their tools for social network analysis. This comparative method adds a valuable perspective to the study of human responses to war going beyond the traditional debate on the metamorphosis of social networks in times of war. The book’s appendix on researching migration in war is a useful resource for migration scholars.

Three decades of war translate into three decades of wartime migration and a second generation of wartime migrants growing up. In great contrast to numerous macro-level studies of war and peace building in Afghanistan, it is these people who are at the heart of this book that questions their one-sided image as victims of the conflict. Their escape decisions, integration at exile, return decisions and reintegration at ‘home’ were based on and executed with the help of their social networks and resources available through them.

The book is based on Berg Harpviken’s fieldwork during the period of the Taliban's domination of Afghanistan (1996-2001) and since the arrival of US-led coalition forces. Doing fieldwork in Afghanistan is in itself a test of perseverance and Berg Harpviken has spent more time researching Afghan villages during the Taliban regime than most of his fellow scholars. This first-hand experience of the context empowers Berg Harpviken to give agency to his informants. He emphasises the importance of agency and network resources in responding to unpredictable and extreme social environments, of which war is an example par excellence.

Afghan refugees make use of the evolving social network resources to make decisions to leave and to return. Berg Harpviken demonstrates how social networks are formed and how they evolve in the absence of state. Most notably, he succeeds to show on the example of the world’s largest refugee displacement of modern times that during wartime social networks are not only maintained by the people in the network but may be even strengthened in order to facilitate migration and return. More precisely, Berg Harpviken shows that individuals become dependent on a small circle of ties, which partially confirms the assumption that networks contract in wartime. At the same time, armed conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen some of the old ties and build completely new ones.

Berg Harpviken’s study of wartime migration strategies in Afghanistan makes a solid contribution to the field of migration studies and social network analysis. In addition to its thorough empirical evidence and theoretical engagement, Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan is also a valuable and timely resource for national and international policy makers who engage in the understanding of this currently failed state. Berg Harpviken’s research paves the way to future scholars of migration and social networking to build on the scholarly understanding of wartime networks – in Afghanistan or elsewhere.


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