• Peripheral Histories

Research in Armenia: An interview with Shushan Ghazarian

Shushanik Ghazarian is a PhD student in cultural anthropology and researcher at the Institute of Ethnography and Archaeology at the National Academy of Sciences in Yerevan, Armenia. In this interview Shushanik discusses her PhD research on the very timely and understudied topic of Armenian refugees who were displaced from Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and resettled in the Armenian Republic between 1988 and 1992. Shushanik also provides us with some wider insights into the experience of postgraduate research in Armenia and the South Caucasus.


Jo Laycock


Jo: Can you tell us a bit about the topic of your PhD research and how you chose this topic?

Shushanik: When I began my first steps in academia I was interested in a totally different topic. The title was “Non-verbal communication among youth in social places in Yerevan”. Then I began working with foreign researchers as an assistant, and was involved in different interesting programs and themes.


During the six years while I was working on these different themes I came to understood that I needed to choose a theme which I was actually really interested in. First I decided to work with Syrian-Armenian refugees, because it seemed very current and very important, and I also had a lot of connections among Syrian-Armenians. Before starting I asked for advice from my future supervisor. He advised me to pay attention to another, different group of refugees, that are “forgotten”, to a topic that had not been studied well yet. My first investigations showed that there are really a lot of companies, students, NGOs etc. interested in Syrian-Armenians’ issues, but no one has paid attention to refuges from Azerbaijan who arrived in Armenia from 1988-1992. Though it is difficult to write a dissertation about a theme that is not well-studied and there is a lack of literature, I took that risk anyway, and now my PhD theme is "The integration issues of 1988-92 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan into Armenian society: from the beginning up to today".


Jo: Is this theme – refugees from Azerbaijan – a controversial topic in Armenia because of its political implications and because there is still no end to the NK conflict? Does this ever cause you problems?


Shushanik: Personally I always want to escape discussing the politics of the conflict and situation nowadays, but very often it is impossible, not least because the conflict is the reason that we have refugees today. During my interviews everyone talks about Sumgait, Soviet policy, Gorbachev, how it began in Azerbaijan and so on…


It is a controversial theme if it is studied from political point of view, (from a political science perspective) but in the Armenian sphere my theme is not really thought of as a real issue because during 1990s we had other refugees from Iraq, repatriates from the Armenian Diaspora during 1990s, now we have Syrian Armenians. The issue of refugees from Azerbaijan stayed in the past, in the shadows. For the most part, they integrated into our society by themselves, without taking part in governmental or international structures. Now most of them have Armenian passports, which makes them equal citizens, and though they have integration issues, neither international nor local organisations “pay attention” to them.


Jo: Can you tell us a bit about your research methods? What are the benefits and challenges of carrying out interviews?


Shushanik: Generally, one of my methods is interviewing and visiting refugees a lot. After having deep interviews, if a person says something about law, or about NGOs, or something like that, I organise interviews with specialists in these areas too, to find out the “reality”. One of the benefits of interviewing is individual communication, visiting them, following the way that they talk, their reactions, learning about their way of living etc. Having deep interviews also gives you an opportunity to become a part of their life, it seems you are doing an important thing only by listening to them; sometimes they need to talk to someone whom they don’t know.


Challenges: The most important thing for me is introducing refugees’ issues without insulting them. Sometimes they trust you and talk about very sensitive themes and as a researcher you should be very careful to introduce the problem withoutcrossing personal boundaries.


Jo: Your background is in anthropology and ethnography, but you have carried out archival research for quite a few historical projects (including my own!). Do you enjoy historical research like this and will you use archives or other historical sources in your own project?


Shushanik: I graduated from the Department of Cultural Anthropology (Bachelor and Masters’ degrees). Now I’m doing my PhD at the institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, at the department of Ethnography. I think researchers can use both of these disciplines together to find answers.


Yes, I have experience working in the National Archives and not only there, for example for my current topic, in order to find out how the “refugees’ centre” worked during the 1990s I have to look at archival documents. I also look at newspapers from the 1990s, to find out the authorities’ attitudes, public movements and so on. Of course I can’t analyse the material as a historian, but I use the information through anthropology.


Jo:  Do you think that interdisciplinary methods (e.g. combining history and anthropology approaches) are useful? What can historians and anthropologists of the South Caucasus learn from each other?


Shushanik: I have already answered a part of this question. I wish historians’ work would have more focus on analysis and not just on ‘facts’. And the opposite for anthropologists – it would be helpful to have more facts and dates in their studies.


Jo: Is it unusual for historians and anthropologists to collaborate in Armenia then?


Shushanik: Generally, we work separately here, historians and anthropologists. Collaboration like interviews with historians or asking them for lists of literature might occur. If you are lucky some historians will tell you about their experience.


Personally, I have never had interviews or collaborated with local historians, I often have discussions with ethnographers, and use their articles and books. Of course, I also read works by historians, because without historical frameworks it is impossible to write about anything. I also make use of international literature, for articles and books about refugees after World War Two in France and Germany. Sometimes it is hard to apply this to our social context in Armenia, but additional perspectives like this are always helpful.


Jo: What are the main challenges facing young researchers in the South Caucasus? 


Shushanik: It is difficult for me to answer about the whole South Caucasus, but I’ll try to answer about Armenia. As a young researcher most of all I face the difficulty that comes from Soviet times, in my opinion. It is very difficult do find a common language with older researchers (I have noticed this especially among historians), they don’t want young specialists to take on new, modern, themes for study. They often seem to want to make people study subjects that have been discussed a million times, maybe they don’t trust the new generation, or there is a fear that youth nowadays is more independent, and they won’t be able to control them. I personally had this problem until I met my current supervisor.


Jo: From my own experience of working in Georgia and Armenia, I have the impression that there is sometimes a lack of dialogue and connections between researchers (in my experience, historians) from the region and international researchers. What do you think about this? Do you think there are ways this situation could be improved and that we can create better networks? 


Shushanik: Unfortunately, you are right. We have this problem and not only between historians. There are some researchers in our institute who talk freely about the materials they are interested in. You can know the titles of their dissertations, but in other cases you’ll never know what else they are doing, what conferences they take part in, or what methods they use etc. It is a BIG secret! There is not so much group work, mainly individual projects.


It is difficult to say what the solution is. Maybe more group work, for example a program/plan/theme that will include a number of researchers working together and show a rational way of working. I need to think more about this question, because I think this problem comes from our (Armenian) mentality… See we have champions among individual sports (chess, boxing…) but never in group sports (football, basketball…)!


Jo: I remember you went to Germany for research and took part in some group research project -Caucasus Conflict Culture? Was this experience helpful for you and why?


Shushanik: Right, it was Caucasus Conflict Culture. First I went to Georgia, there we did some field work with Georgian refugees from south Ossetia. https://caucasusconflict.wordpress.com/ccc4/. The big plus of this program is that it gives Armenian and Azerbaijani scholars/students an opportunity to meet and have lively discussions.


Unfortunately, on both sides information is tightly controlled by the state, (especially in Azerbaijan) and there is no contact between both ‘sides’. If you don’t have contacts and communication the mutual enmity and detestation will grow. So, this project gave me new friends and contacts from an “enemy” country. However, I think that such discussions and contacts won’t help us to solve our conflict, because the solution is, in the end, in the hands of authorities and other countries. In any case to know the opinion of educated citizens from the other country is good.


In Germany I presented my theme at Marburg University and got a lot of comments which is important for me. I also worked with the Red Cross helping distribute clothes to Syrian refugees while I was there, and had interviews with other volunteers that were working with refugees. I tried to find out the mechanisms that work in Germany, so now I have another example and can compare local and international experience.


Jo: Do you have any general advice or suggestions for international PhD students who want to carry out research in Armenia? 


Shushanik: First of all it depends on the research they want to do, what theme, whether they will do research among people, or in libraries and archives. If it is research with people, I would recommend them to first live and make more connections with local people and develop channels of communication. This way the researcher is able to find people they can trust. Start by asking and discussing very simple questions - simple questions can open discussion of a lot of other things and reveal a lot about cultural features.


If the research related to documents, papers, it will be better to know the language - Armenian, or have someone (a research assistant) that knows both languages.


Thanks to Shushanik for taking part in this interview and sharing her perspectives.

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