‘Action research requires us to engage directly with people’s realities and needs’

Katrin talks about the action research in social housing estates in Vienna, Austria.

Katrin Kremmel

Katrin Kremmel

Katrin Kremmel did her master in social anthropology in Vienna and is a researcher for the IRKS. She is heavily involved in the action research at the different sites in Vienna, Austria. There, she is researching conflicts in the intercultural neighborhoods of social housing estates as well as looking into a women’s café. In this interview, she speaks primarily on her personal experience in the women’s café and what it means to be part of project ALTERNATIVE.

What are you learning from the action research in the women’s café?

K: The women have a lot to offer to us. I understand the women’s café to be a social platform where the attending women get the possibility to talk through crucial matters of their daily lives. At first sight, these Monday mornings look like a bunch of women having breakfast together, trying to practice German in the meantime.

Yet this breakfast table is a meeting point for women facing more than just language problems – to name but a few: struggles with the bureaucracy of the Austrian welfare state, having to look after small children with few resources at hand, the loss of loved ones, isolation in single apartments, the fear of growing older and of the bodily difficulties that come with it… All of these are problems that affect their personal feeling of security and safety, if you think about it.

So, while having breakfast together, the women sometimes discover that their difficulty is the solution to another woman’s problem. Sharing child-care for example, turns into a possibility of chasing away loneliness on the one side and lack of resources on the other. Networks are knit between diverse people.

Thus we can learn from the women’s café how social platforms might turn into the frame in which people develop their own social security solutions, as they manage to turn the diversity amongst them into a resource.

What is the most difficult aspect of the action research in the women’s café?

K: I would say that the most difficult aspect of our action research is the intervention part of it. Next to simply observing and describing the things that are already happening in the women’s café, we are supposed to offer some sort of training in restorative practice skills so they may handle the conflicts within their own group in a restorative way. There are several factors that complicate this endeavor. The issues we are dealing with are very sensitive ones, since the conflicts that are bothering them at the moment are evolving between fundamentalist and liberal Muslim women. Therefore we need to be very careful, which means that we constantly need to check how we can best assist them in this on-going learning-by-doing-process. This requires a lot of flexibility from us.

On a more general level, our intervention poses a particular challenge, since it is about applying restorative practices in intercultural settings. ‘Our’ intercultural setting here in Vienna, the Gemeindebau (social housing estates, red.), is strongly shaped by migration flows. The phenomenon of migration brings a plurality of languages with it. Very often, the participants in our workshops do not master the mother tongue of the others. This absence of a shared common language and the divergence of language skills introduce specific differences concerning the power to express oneself. Given that restorative practices are very much about expressing oneself verbally, these power differences need to be dealt with. Translation of some sort thus becomes necessary. We have to see, how having to take the time to translate will affect restorative processes.

Why is the action research such an important part of project alternative?

K: To me, action research is the methodology we chose to go about this project, because it’s principles are in line with some of the central ideas behind ALTERNATIVE. Instead of turning migrants, Roma, people of other ethnic groups or religious beliefs into objects of security discourses, we think about the people we do our research with as subjects. And we do not only think ABOUT them, but WITH them. As I understand it, action research requires us to engage directly with people’s realities and needs, action research allows for the dialogical processes necessary for collective knowledge production (as a knowledge produced collectively for the people/the collective who produced it).

Why is the women’s café so important in Vienna, what is the added value?

K: Half a year ago, I probably would have answered this question differently. When answering this question today, I sadly have to consider the antagonistic radicalisation tendencies of religious fundamentalists on the one hand and of anti-Islamist initiatives like ‘Pegida’ on the other. Today’s crucial questions are how these tendencies have developed in time and how they may be counteracted politically on formal and informal levels. The women’s café is so important because it is an example for one way of dealing with the local repercussions of these wider developments. Although brutal and complex realities seem to make us all speechless, these women still get up to get together and talk. They desire to belong to each other, and to me, that desire ultimately is a potential I want to explore.

What are the difficulties of working in the social housing estates?

K: The social housing estates of Vienna are of high political significance. They stand for the achievements of decades of social democratic government. Being confronted with the growth of the Austrian Freedom Party, who successfully managed to instrumentalise the admission of migrants to social housing for their nationalist proposals, the red city government adopted a rather defensive position when it comes to neighbour disputes in social housing estates – a position so defensive that it has become difficult to even state, that these disputes exist. That’s probably the particular challenge about trying to do research on conflict resolution work in this field.

Is there a part of the action research that stuck by you?

K: At one of my first visits at the women’s café, we asked the participants to engage with each other in small group conversations. I joined a group of four women. One of them was of Austrian origin, another one was a young Turkish woman, hardly speaking German. Then there was an Austrian adolescent of Turkish descent and a middle-aged Turkish woman of Kurdish descent.

One of the women asked the adolescent, where she felt at home – whether that was in Turkey or in Austria? The adolescent replied: “Neither there nor here, that’s how it is for us.” And – looking towards the middle-aged Turkish woman – she asked “ain’t I right?”
The middle-aged Turkish woman answered very calmly: “What, are you asking me? Well, no, this isn’t true for me. I am at home here in Austria.”

There are many ways of understanding this very small interaction. It’s certainly about how our ‘belongings’ are not fixed but negotiated, since the adolescent seeks to establish a ‘we’ that includes herself and the middle-aged Turkish woman, who then denies belonging to this ‘we’.

What is for you the most important part of project alternative?

K: Alternative allows us to explore HOW we may continue to talk in situations where dogmas clash. This HOW is important. Alternative does not ask, WHETHER we can talk, but departs from the assumption that we might. It does so, by proposing restorative approaches to conflicts that are dominated by beliefs, which only consider dialogue as an impossibility. As a research project, we have to take the question of HOW very seriously and naive answers are not acceptable.

Why are you part of and do you want to be part of project alternative?

K: What particularly interests me today about Alternative is the fact that we adopted a class perspective to approach our analyses. Thinking of cultural, ethnic, religious, or whatever difference without the category of class in mind is rather pointless. Yet we see, that the women in the women’s café for example, can neither be divided as belonging to distinct classes, nor can they be understood as belonging to the same class. It’s obvious, that the power differences on a local level are more heterogeneous than that. In that sense, thinking about ‘class’ means being attentive to economic differences, and having their political causes and implications in mind.

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