In recent decades, social work research has paid increased attention to how political, ethnic, and national conflicts affect its practice. Scarce research, however, has examined the experiences of social work community practitioners in the context of ethnopolitical violent conflicts. Using an innovative place-making analytical framework, this qualitative multi-site study, addresses this gap, exploring community practitioners' practices around outbreaks of violence occurred in Jewish-Arab mixed cities in Israel. Specifically, it examines the ways community workers develop creative strategies of place-making to protect the sense of place in the troubled context of divided cities.
Anchored in social constructivist perspective, this study is based on a purposive sample of 33 public community organizers in four Israeli mixed cities (Haifa, Acre, Ramla and Lod). The sample represents both Jews and Arabs that are involved in diverse community initiatives such as urban renewal and mediations between cultural groups. Data collection was conducted in two main stages. First, we conducted 32 semi-structured interviews prior to the eruption of violence. The interviews elicited participants’ perceptions and coping-strategies that characterize their work in Israeli mixed cities. Second, we reinterviewed 18 of the participants after the eruption of violence in May 2021, elicited their experiences, perceptions, and practices during and after the violent events. Interviews were transcribed verbatim, and coded thematically using 'MAXQDA', a qualitative software program, guided by the constructivist grounded theory approach. Data was analyzed across cities and nationality.
Analyses reveals that public community organizers were engaged in three modalities of place-making, to (re)make shared places within conflict zones. First, the 'place-developing' modality, which refers to participants' everyday practices prior to the violent events. As participants hold positive and deep relations to the city, they functioned as place-makers who sought to construct a conflict-free and ethnoculturally diverse urban space. Second, the 'place-protecting' modality which focuses on participants' practices during the unrest. Although this stage was characterized by a sense of threat to participants’ sense of place, they became place-guardians, aspiring to protect the city’s nature as a site of safe shared-existence. The third modality, 'place-remaking', refers to participants’ practices after the violence. In light of community practitioners’ threatened sense of place, they used three approaches to regenerate the urban space: enabling separate recovery of space, strengthening co-existence, and addressing the conflictual nature of space.
Conclusion and implications
The study shows that community practice plays a significant role in constructing safe and promising spaces within cities affected by ethnopolitical conflicts. It enables communities to negotiate over their shared urban existence and manage conflict non-violently at the local level. The study also underscores that community organizers' sense of place informed their practices, sometimes challenging, shaping, or strengthening their actions. The study encourages the inclusion of place-making as a framework to understand social work practice within conflict zones. Such perspective may enhance more just community interventions, that promote social justice and establish the profession’s role in peacebuilding.