The Cognitive Landscape of a Refugee Camp. Conversation part III

Conversation part III. For previous rounds, go to: The cognitive landscape of a refugee camp: Part IPart II, and Part IV

Bethany Ojalehto, in response to Jacob Akech

Jacob Akech raises an intriguing and perennial question in the study of human cognition. How do our global portraits of human thought account for the striking local diversity of individual minds? In any group of people there exist profound individual differences in thought and behavior, indeed, each individual exhibits internal variability in his or her development over time. As Mr. Akech notes, the experience of refugees in a camp like Kakuma is far from homogenous. Indeed, many of the refugees who shared their thoughts with me in interviews were entrepreneurs, teachers, NGO incentive staff, artists, and journalists. Each one brought a rich tapestry of unique ideas and complex experiences to bear on our conversations. But Mr. Akech's emphasis on individual differences may be misleading as an interpretation of the perspective offered in this article. I do not argue that all refugees adopt the same mindset or have the same psychological profile in a refugee camp. Far from it. Rather, I propose that the strange parameters of encampment challenge refugees to deal with a new landscape. As my refugee friends and colleagues spoke about their experiences, they highlighted intriguing spatial and temporal dimensions of daily life that mapped onto a notion of the camp as a cognitive landscape in both literal and metaphorical ways. My exploratory observations in this paper are based on a cognitive ethnographic approach to Ethiopian refugees' discourses about space and time. The project was not geared to look for individual differences; indeed, this was not the nature of the question. Here I sought to explore how prolonged encampment in a sub-Saharan desert camp influences high-level perceptions of time and space. To put it in more concrete terms, this might be akin to asking how moving to a foreign culture challenges newcomers to adapt to a new landscape of language, culture, and social patterning. Of course the room for individual differences is enormous. In any research inquiry, the nature of the question will determine whether we attend to emergent patterns across minds, or differences between individual minds. As Mr. Akech wisely points out, the human reality is always simultaneous. Our understanding will only be enriched by a continuous effort to investigate how unique differences arise between and within individual human minds across space and time.


Photo: mknobil