WiRe Meets Mipri: a Guest Interview with Dr Alyssa Bernstein

If you’ve been a visitor to our blog in the past, you might have noticed references here and there to mipri, the Münster International Peace Research Initiative, a programme started by the University of Münster in 2021 in collaboration with the city of Münster to foster future-oriented ideas and support international scholars who are working in peace and conflict research. Mipri looks to continue Münster’s legacy as a space for sustainable peace-building, given that the city served as a the location for the signing of the Peace of Westphalia on October 24, 1648. The Peace of Westphalia ended a terrible decades-long religious war in Europe. In light of today’s situation in Europe, supporting the search for diplomatic conflict-solving solutions feels more important than ever.

Enjoy the interview with Dr Alyssa Bernstein

To commemorate the 374th signing of this historic treaty, we invited the current mipri fellows to tell us more about their projects on peace and conflict related research.

Today, we are delighted to share some words from Dr Alyssa Bernstein, a practicing attorney and scholar who studies political prisoner resistance and organization in protracted conflict. Her work crosses fields including sociology, legal studies, and carceral studies (how prisons operate and how people behave in them).

Her PhD, from Queen’s University Belfast School of Law, looked at contemporary Palestinian political organizations and resistance in Israeli prisons, and is forthcoming as a book. She also holds a JD from Harvard Law School and an undergraduate degree in Modern Middle East Studies from Yale University. Upon concluding this research she intends to return to legal practice in international dispute resolution.

Alyssa is interested in the answers to fundamental questions that studying peace and conflict offers: what do we decide is worth fighting for? Who do we choose as our enemies? How do we convince people to join us? And then when hostilities end, how do we return to or create peace?

Read on to find out more about Dr Bernstein’s research!

As an American, I have always been interested in my own country’s role in international affairs, and specifically how the macro-dynamics of diplomacy, peace, and conflict affect the micro-dynamics of individual lives. After living in the Middle East including in Israel and Palestine for several years, I became intrigued by in the society of captives among the thousands or tens of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. I performed my PhD research on those social dynamics. In the process, I learned some of the role of prisoner releases and their impact both on prison life and on the broader conflict, which is what I studied more in-depth under the mipri framework. Ultimately, I have found that there is much to be learned from the micro-dynamics of prisons – what agreements prisoners make with each other and the prison authorities, who is imprisoned, and who is released – and how those affect the macro-dynamics of diplomacy and peace and conflict.

Political prisoners releases.

Prisoners are a hugely important issue in any conflict – as we see in Russia and Ukraine, prisoners of war are important individuals even after they have stopped fighting for their respective sides. In internal political conflicts, especially those that are identity-based, prisoners are also extremely important. It is generally assumed-at least by the rebelling side- that at the end of the conflict, all the prisoners will be released. Generally the side doing the imprisoning is more difficult to convince. Without understanding how these dynamics work and the importance of prisoner treatment and releases to conflict resolution, this gap in understanding between both sides only serves as another barrier to conciliation.

Socio-legal studies is more an umbrella term than a specific area of research. Unlike the physical sciences, I don’t think we have greatest achievements so much as great social critiques and counter-critiques! In that spirit, it’s hard to come up with a more important thinker regarding prisons and social structures than Michel Foucault, who theorized about the role of prison in society, especially around the panopticon. Thinkers like David Garland have explained why his theories weren’t exactly historically sound, even if they are incredibly compelling and one of the cornerstones of social thought today.

From the practical side, in terms of ending conflicts, it is very difficult to predict how they will end when one is in the middle of them, and then after resolution the solution can seem quite obvious. It is perhaps cliché to say that Nelson Mandela’s leadership in South Africa, even while he was in prison, was an inspiring example of conflict resolution. That said, he is one of the best models of conflict transformation and also one of the best explainers of the dynamics of prisons in conflict. He also insisted that all political prisoners in South Africa be released before real negotiations to create a transition government could begin – an interesting and in some ways effective tactic to build cooperation and trust between both sides.

I would have loved to have met Hannah Arendt, one of world’s deepest political thinkers, who was unafraid of controversy in the face of expressing what she saw as the truth. She is perhaps most known for coining the term the ‘banality of evil’ in her discussion of Eichmann and the machinery of Nazi killings, a perspective that others later twisted as an excuse rather than an explanation. She also has contributed fascinating explanations for how and why totalitarian states come to be, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as on the meaning of being human itself in The Human Condition. I am very curious about what her perspective would be about the causes and how to fight contemporary issues like global warming, increasing populism, and misinformation, and whether she saw any of these as new trends or instead continuations of the problems that plagued humanity in the twentieth century.

I have a larger project on prisons in the United States’ war on terror that I’m conceptualizing right now, so I cannot tell you about it!

In addition, there are entire libraries full of Palestinian prisoners’ writings, from diaries to letters to internal constitutions for their self-government. I would love to get some of these documents translated into English and published as a set so that other audiences can see the experiences and achievements of prisoners in conflicts.

Definitely behavioral economics or what could be called ‘decision science’ –economists and psychologists who point out how people, as decision-makers, negotiators, and consumers, are not in fact rational beings. Whether Tversky and Kahneman’s work on cognitive illusions, or Dubner and Levitt’s pop-friendly explanations of strange economics in Freakonomics, I love understanding better how humans actually think. The field is very useful when researching negotiations and individual negotiators’ decisions, as well.

A good cup of coffee on a day that will be sunny.