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Published: 2023-11-01 Updated: 2023-11-02, 11:26

Beyond the Body Count

PROFILE A day at work for Josefa Maria Stiegler, guest researcher at the Department of Political Science.

Image: Johnér Bildbyrå AB, Peter Lydén

Why did you apply for the Guest Research programme at the department of Political Science?

– I applied for the program because it offers several great opportunities for me as an early career researcher. Firstly, I perceive the peace and conflict studies research group as a vibrant research environment that fits well with my research interests, for example, the gendered dynamics of violence and conflict, bottom-up peace-building and the spatial and temporal formations of violence, (in)security and peace. Secondly, I can also contribute to this research environment with my knowledge of the intertwined dynamics of conflict and peace in urban spaces. That is, how (in)security, violence and the fear thereof play a central role in the production of urban space, both top-down and bottom-up. Based on this, thirdly, the program facilitates exchange, the creation of new networks and laying the foundation for possible future collaborations. For me as a recent PhD graduate, establishing new contacts and networks is really important—and fun.

What is your research background?

– I have an interdisciplinary background in political science, gender studies and urban studies. Interdisciplinary research can be challenging. Yet it is fascinating to bring different disciplines into conversation that rarely speak to one another and create knowledge at theoretical intersections that allows us to get a deeper—or simply different—understanding of a research puzzle. I have long been curious about questions of how security and space relate to each other to produce gendered, classed and racialized inequalities and insecurities. Over the last years, I developed my research approach at the nexus of feminist security studies, decolonial theory and feminist urban theory.

– In my PhD thesis, I explored how everyday (in)securities in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are marked by spatiality, shaped by racial and gendered (post)colonial hierarchies. Rio de Janeiro is a city that is historically shaped by a power matrix established during colonialism, which means that anti-Black violence and exploitation is engrained in the city’s urban fabric and continues to shape contemporary urban security governance. That is, the distinct configuration of urban space works to conceal extreme police brutality against poor Black populations in favelas, which is happening far from the eyes of white populations living in wealthier neighborhoods. I analyzed (in)securities in favelas through the empirical lens of mothers’ movements, a type of social movement mainly driven by mothers whose children—mostly sons—have been tortured, incarcerated or murdered at the hand of the police. In my research, I have demonstrated that the workings of militarized spatial security regimes purposefully create gendered, classed and racialized vulnerabilities for Black women and, at the same time, thrive on the naturalization of their everyday gender-specific suffering. Moreover, I have elucidated how Black mothers of victims of state violence find unique ways to claim legitimacy for participating in the political discourse on urban violence. For example, they engage in different memorial practices, intervene in the built environment of favelas and build bridges between a violent past and a future that is imagined as just and peaceful.

What research project are you planning in Sweden?

– During my time at Umeå University, I work to lay the foundations for my Postdoc project with the working title “Beyond the Body Count: A Critical Feminist Perspective on Everyday Urban Violence and its Effects in Stockholm”. Urban violence in smaller and larger Swedish cities has become an urgent problem that is placed at the top of the political agenda. However, the popular narrative of gang violence as an immigrant problem and the new government’s “tough on crime” approach reproduce a racist binary between “deviant immigrants” and the white Swedes who need to be protected. It also normalizes the death of young men from immigrant backgrounds and fails to comprehend how everyday violence affects society as a whole. Departing from my PhD research, I propose a perspective on everyday urban violence in Stockholm’s suburbs that centers on everyday actors who embody the link between violence, community, trauma, grief, guilt and resistance. That is, how do families and friends grapple with the loss of a loved one? How does it shape how they go about their day, what problems do they identify? The purpose of this research is to explore how security “works” in everyday spaces; I seek to understand the invisibilized gendered, racialized and classed effects of (in)security practices in marginalized urban spaces.

In what way will you conduct your research?

– Contexts characterized by high levels of violence are very sensitive because speaking about their experiences can be potentially (re)traumatizing for research participants. This can also be overwhelming and difficult to navigate for researchers. Therefore, at the moment, I am busy establishing contact with interlocutors, build networks and, more generally, get a better understanding of the research context. The particular research design is still “under construction” but it will involve some form of ethnographic fieldwork and collaborative research methods. I could, for example, imagine including photo and video diaries to document everyday lived experience. This means that research participants choose themselves what they deem important to record, photograph and, thus, share about their everyday lives. It also carries the potential to shift away control from the researcher and is an interesting entry point to discuss issues around knowledge production and epistemic violence (when research participants are prevented from speaking for themselves, particularly when the researcher is in a more privileged position and not part of the community they base their research on). In conversation with interlocutors and (potential) research participants, I want to develop a research design that accounts for my research interests but, equally important, also addresses questions and produce knowledge that matter to the communities whose lived realities I center my research on.

Why is it important to do research on such issue(s)?  

– With regards to knowledge production, a focus on perpetrators of violence and criminal networks is unsuitable to understand how everyday violence and the fear thereof structures everyday life in the spaces it takes place in. That is, it is important to shift the focus “beyond the body count” to those who inhabit the spaces of violence but are less affected by the direct, physical and lethal forms of violence. With regards to socio-political issues, civil society, community organizers and activists have long identified the less visible, less politicized long-term consequences of everyday violence as important. They regularly point out the comprehensive effects that constant insecurity, urban violence and the criminalization of victims has on the wider communities. Violence, insecurities and the militarization of (urban) security governance are pressing issues for many cities. Living in cities peacefully must be put on political agendas instead of demanding “more security” in the form of militarized police, privatization of security and securitization of urban governance.  

Who will benefit from this research?

– Giving back to the research participants is an important pillar of feminist and decolonial research approaches; there are different ways to do that, depending on needs and requirements from the communities but also time and financial resources. Visibility can be an important aspect, for example, particularly for activists and social movements. I think it is difficult to clearly carve out the benefits that will arise from the research beforehand. Yet bringing issues to the fore in collaboration with organizations and individuals and identifying ways that my research and I as a researcher can contribute to their agendas are guiding principles of this research project. For research more broadly, there are interesting reference points for a research community interested in locating (in)security experiences and practices in urban space and placing the agency of marginalized actors center stage. Ultimately, we need to have a better understanding of the long-term effects that violence has on the society where it is perpetrated.

Link to  phd-thesis: "Em Nome do Estado: A Feminist, Decolonial Analysis of Everyday (In)Securities in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas“ 


Stiegler, Josefa Maria (2022): Accessing Local Knowledge From Afar. A Hybrid Research Project. In: Urban Matters 3: Dislocating Urban Studies.

Jawad, Emilia / Stiegler, Josefa Maria (2018): „Bitte seien Sie achtsam (...)“: (Un-)Sicherheitsproduktionen in der aktuellen Kampagne der Wiener Linien. In: zeitschrift für kritik, recht, gesellschaft 2018/2, 175–185.