Undergraduate Grant Research Update

By Jessica Shakesprere, Undergraduate Student, The Ohio State University 

As a senior in the summer of 2017, I was given the opportunity to pursue an undergraduate research thesis with the assistance of Professor Jan Pierskalla in the Department of Political Science. I began my project with an inquiry of understanding the lasting impact of political violence on the psyche that went beyond visible-short term consequences. My background in Political Science and Biology with a concentration in Behavioral Neuroscience helped me understand how trauma is currently being narrated in these disciplines. I became invested in Sri Lanka as a case study as it is an understudied country concerning civil war violence. Moreover, given relatively recent political shifts within the country such as the change in political leadership in the 2015 General Election that “replaced” a government perpetrating state violence, this suggested evidence of political mobilization among Sri Lankan Tamils following the war. The diaspora is a new source of engagement in how political violence can having lasting impacts in new, foreign geographical spaces. To this end, I became interested in exploring the transmission of political violence across identities, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to political mobilization and social activism in the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. This study aims to add to the existing literature on large-scale traumatic events and their lasting impacts on individuals across generations as well as inform readers on how to understand and describe the complex effects of trauma. This understanding of trauma is crucial for domestic and international efforts to effectively address the psychosocial impacts of trauma in post-war societies.

In order to study the possible link between direct exposure to violence and prosocial behavior, my specific goals are to 1) determine if civil war violence has an effect on prosocial behavior in second-generation Sri Lankans in the Western diaspora 2) unpack the mechanisms of transmission of civil war violence to sociopolitical engagement, and 3) determine if contextual factors such as the size of the local community or density of social networks in the diaspora condition this relationship. Through the course of this project, my main focus is to understand how this trauma affects second-generation offspring. Thus far, my research illustrates that individuals do not process or perceive trauma in a linear way such as via varying levels of exposure to violence. Rather, narratives of self in relation to history, community, psyche, and cosmos shape the present context of second-generation Sri Lankan Tamils in the diaspora. As a result, there are various reasons, some factors deriving as an effect of a traumatic experience, that lead to an individual’s sociopolitical engagement in their community.

Due to the generous grant sponsored by the Global Mobility Project at The Ohio State University, I helped advance my project by obtaining and accessing relevant archival data on political violence and trauma during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Moreover, I was able to connect with Dr. Daya Somasundaram, a senior professor of psychiatry, consultant psychiatrist, and leading researcher on trauma studies following the war in Sri Lanka. I was also able to conduct qualitative interviews with participants both within Columbus, Ohio and Toronto, Canada, the latter city holding the largest number of Sri Lankan immigrants from the diaspora. Through this, I was able to gain a diverse sample of participants but also hear from a multitude of perspectives in the diaspora. I have the utmost appreciation for the team coordinating the Global Mobility Project, and I am excited to see the progression of this project as I continue my research.

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