‘I am returning to theoretical research’

Christa Pelikan reflects on her last project, Alternative

Christa Pelikan

Christa Pelikan

Dr. Christa Pelikan is one of the founding members of the European Forum for Restorative Justice. She is a sociologist of law, with extensive experience in family and penal law, as well as restorative practices. She works with the IRKS, that is a partner for project ALTERNATIVE and responsible for the action research in the social housing estates of Vienna, Austria. Christa also won the European Restorative Justice Award, handed out by the European Forum for Restorative Justice.

‘Winning the award did not come as a complete surprise’, Christa says. ‘When Martin Wright won it the year before, a female colleague told me she would like me to receive it, I am pretty sure she nominated me. I was really happy to win the award. I am a scientist, but I received this award not because I am a scientist, but because I am seen as a person, someone who contributed something to restorative justice in Europe.’

‘I have neglected efforts in my country’

Although she was praised for her work, Christa feels she did not do all that she could in her own country. ‘There has been a stagnation of the expansion of restorative justice in Austria. In 1985, Austria was a pioneer in the early days of restorative justice. We were admired in other countries, we had backed it up with laws and methods. Then other European countries started to develop further, taking restorative justice to other fields in criminal justice, to sentencing and post-sentencing, to policing and beyond. We stayed at the prosecutorial stage when other countries had gone much further. It took us 26 years, we eventually launched new developments in 2011. Maybe I have neglected efforts in my country, but I find it easier in international settings to get feedback and response. The connections I have made, the friends I have made are so important to me.’
‘The added value of the project ALTERNATIVE in the intercultural setting of Vienna’s housing estates would be, for me, to strengthen the participatory element of restorative justice’, explains Christa, ‘And to help the residents acquire more capacities to deal with conflict in a constructive way. In the project, there are four different research sites and seven partners. This is very important, because it opens the possibility of a mutual exchange, to learn from each other about different ways to deal with conflict. This is a learning experience. In the end, it is not the result that is so important, it is the process itself. The process of talking, of struggling. The process is essentially the outcome.’

‘My dream almost never comes true’

Eventually, ALTERNATIVE will have to come to an end. On 16, 17 and 18 November, the project will have its final conference, and in January 2016, the project is over. This is not always so easy to accept. ‘I am dreaming of continuing the relationships with partners and people we have been working with. As long as the project runs, we are getting paid, which means that as soon as the project has ended, there will no longer be any money to fund us. Few people can afford to work without getting paid. So we need a new project. My dream of a project continuing on almost never comes true. It is very sad. I would like to keep things going, to see the people I work with go through life.’
Christa is a researcher. She knows how to conduct research and what the difficulties are. ‘Research builds on communication with people, on relationships with people. When I interview people for research purposes, the relationship usually ends after the interview. It sometimes really feels as if I am exploiting people. They have to get something out of it, too. It cannot be just us doing the taking. When that happens, when they do get something out of it, it is very gratifying. When you work close with people in a framework of science, you have to build up relationships, you build up trust. When it has to be cut off, it affects me.’

‘I once interviewed a prostitute for a project I was working on’, Christa recalls, ‘I visited her twice. She was a prostitute and a drug user. She told me it was very hard for her to build up relationships with men. She kept falling for the same type, the type that was no good for her. She did not know how to get out. She had had a very tough life and I remember being impressed with her. We had a connection. The last time I saw her, she said I should come back and talk to her again, but this time without the notebook, without the questioning. Just a conversation. I never did.’

‘Alternative seems like a good closing point for me’

It is necessary to stay realistic when working on a project such as Alternative, Christa thinks. ‘We have to become modest about what we can achieve. We should make no illusions that great things can happen simply because we were there. On the other hand, we must also not forget that small changes can have a big impact. We need to be careful and listen very attentively. I think what applies best for project Alternative is the motto of the IRKS, a quote from the former director. The motto is to look closely, analyse patiently and carefully and not be lead astray by illusions or ideologies.’

This project is not the only thing that must come to an end. Christa has decided she will no longer be actively involved in projects. ‘Alternative will be my last project. I will no longer involve myself in empirical research. But I might still be involved in an advisory board. I will not do nothing. Alternative is my dream project, it seems like a good closing point for me. I am returning to theoretical research on my own, in my field of family law. I will also still be available for consulting. I imagine I will still go places.’

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