6+1 Questions

10 September 2021, 0900 EDT

Name of the Book

Justin Schon. 2020. Surviving the War in Syria: Survival Strategies in a Time of Conflict. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

What’s the Argument?

Civilians in conflict zones face a range of threats and opportunities. They adopt survival strategies that reflect how they perceive those threats – where they come from, how severe they are, what options exist to respond to them – and what opportunities they believe are available to them. People with advantaged social status, wasta in Syria, typically see more opportunities to take action. The key thing is that they don’t just choose whether “to flee or not to flee” (or “fight or flight”). They deal with dangerous and complicated situations, and they respond in complex ways.

To demonstrate this, the book highlights the interaction of community support and migration. It also provides brief examples of difficult-to-observe activities like hidingcollaboration, and short-term movement.

Tell us Why We Should Care

My book is part of a rapidly growing research and advocacy agenda on civilian self-protection, which shows that – even under high levels of violence and coercion – civilians make choices about how they live and what they want to do. Combatants may try to force them to do one thing or another, but civilians can respond in a wide variety of ways.

We need to very carefully re-think how we understand migration in conflict zones. Too often we adopt a binary approach: one where civilians either migrate or they don’t. For example, if we’re putting together a survey that ask respondents whether they migrated, we need to ask those who didn’t migrate what they did instead. Or, we might be analyzing official statistics that monitor when migration increases or decreases over the course of a conflict. When migration levels are low, we need to know what people are doing instead of migrating.

Why Should We Believe Your Argument?

It comes from interviews with over 250 refugees, mostly Syrian refugees but also some Somali refugees. I personally visited Zaatari and Kakuma refugee camps, as well as interviewing refugees outside of camps in Jordan, Turkey, and the United States. Beyond my own interviews, I also draw from other data sources to buttress my findings. I analyze this data with multiple methods of analysis, and they all generate consistent results.

This book grew out of my dissertation. When I started the research, I thought I was going to only going to write about migration: Why people migrate, when they migrate, where they migrate, and how they migrate. This changed when I started talking to people. There was one conversation, with a Syrian refugee in Zaatari camp, that was crucial in shifting the direction of my research. We spoke for about an hour, but when the interview ended, my respondent spent another 20 minutes explaining to me that I had neglected to ask what was in his view the most important question. He insisted that I needed to ask how people figured out what to do when there was danger. He recounted how many people that he knew had wasted time and money as they were trying to exit Syria by taking the “wrong route.”

This respondent also made it clear to me that information flows were essential to understand, and that people were working hard to figure out how best to survive. Many people decided that survival depended on migration, but there were many other options as well. This realization made me shift from a focus on migration to a broader view of “repertoires” of survival strategies. This way of understanding how civilians behave in conflict zones deserves more scholarly attention.

What Would You Most Like to Change, and Why?

To improve the research itself, I would love to see more data collection on the wide variety of survival strategies from which civilians select. We have datasets for migration, violence, and increasingly non-violent political contention such as protests. It would be great to also have datasets on short-term movement, hiding, collaboration, how civilians activate particular social ties within conflict zones, and other survival strategies. Documenting these other survival strategies poses immense challenges. Additional fieldwork and innovative forms of data collection and analysis, however, could allow researchers to overcome these challenges and substantially increase our understanding of how civilians live in conflict zones.

In policy discussions and social scientific theorizing, I would like to see migration understood as one possible response to threat perceptions, out of a wide repertoire of possible responses. Accepting this, we could then move to recognizing that migration away from conflict zones is not an action taken lightly. People fleeing their homes have made a decision that is difficult, and they often would not have done so if they could think of reasonable alternatives.

The +1: How Difficult Was It to Get the Book Published?

It turned out to be easier and quicker than I thought it would be. I emailed the Middle East Studies editor, Maria Marsh, and she quickly read my sample chapters and proposal. She was enthusiastic and encouraged me to complete the book and let Cambridge send the book out for review. I worked with her and Daniel Brown, and they were both terrific. I think it was extremely important that I sent the majority of the book along with the proposal, as an early-career scholar, so it was clear that I would be able to complete the manuscript when I originally reached out.