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Violence, State formation and memory politics: an off-site ethnography of post-revolution Iran

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - OFF-SITE (Violence, State formation and memory politics: an off-site ethnography of post-revolution Iran)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-12-31

“Violence, State formation and memory politics: an off-site ethnography of post-revolution Iran” (OFF-SITE) is an ERC funded project (Starting Grant 2018 n° 803208, 2019-23), hosted by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire sur les enjeux sociaux in Paris (UMR8156), involving the PI and a team of 8 researchers and assistants.
Our main scientific output is the use of an unconventional methodology, i.e. “off-site investigation”, in the production of ethnographic and empirical study, in order to overcome a challenge in the advancement of knowledge in social science, namely the study of off-limits topics (such as State violence, mass violence, armed political conflicts and denied State crimes) in closed societies. The project argues for the need to overcome and rethink a seemingly unconditional pillar in the making of ethnography, that is embodied fieldwork and presence on the field, in order to experiment research methods “at a distance”, which would allow for the production of knowledge in domains that are normally considered beyond scientific reach because of lack of access to the field. The question that triggered the project was then: what research protocol can allow us to build empirical knowledge in the case when the traditional fieldwork methods are not applicable? However, a year after the launch of our project, the covid-19 pandemic has shattered the methodological boundaries of our discipline: our question has become that of any qualitative research in social science, making our approach both more accepted (almost topical) and more needed.
The methodology we are experimenting is at the crossroads of digital humanities and historical ethnography. It is based on the use of new technologies and means of communication, and archival research and attention to “counter-archives”, inspired by the investigative methods in micro-history developed specifically by feminist and post-colonial historians in order to study events and groups that have left little archival traces, or have been recorded through the activities of repressive powers. These creative methods for making scarce archival material “speak” are not new in themselves. The innovation is to use this lens and approach in order to study empirical material in relation to State violence in contemporary authoritarian States, to use new technologies in collecting these fragmented, disseminated archival material, and to use digital humanities in order to classify and make this archival material accessible in a searchable database. The first incentive and question triggering this research project as well as the different methodological paths it explores in order to achieve its goal are inherently anchored in a practice of open science.

Our project uses these methods on the case-study of post-revolution Iran. What took place during the Khomeini years (1979-1989) between State and society and how do we understand the everyday experience of theocratic government? This history has not been studied so far, but different narratives are available. Why is there a research void running through almost a decade, while so much has been written on “one of the most important revolutions of the 20th century” (Keddie 2006)? And how are we to fill in this gap? The project will examine (1) State formation and the construction of political subjectivities through everyday experiences of violence and their effect on the social fabric; (2) counter-memories of violence and forms of memorialization that emerge through claims to truth and justice; and (3) how the State manages this legacy of violence, redefining political belongings, participation and exclusion. This genealogy of the contemporary government will combine the research methods of multi-sited, archive and digital ethnography.
This is feasible through new, unexplored, available empirical data. Narratives, data and archives of violence are entwined in different enterprises of memory. Narratives of post-revolutionary violence in Iran have appeared in testimonial and literary forms, practices of commemoration as well as truth-seeking enterprises (human rights databases, people’s tribunals) compiling thousands of individual case records. These counter-memories in diaspora circulate back to the Iranian society and solidify in different forms of memorialization framed by legal claims. In the same timeframe, in Iran, archive manipulation and production, and sustained cultural policies redefine violence in order to consolidate State legitimacy, and the emotional and moral order – and provide additional material to observe memory politics. These different ‘narrativizations’ of a violence, whose official archives and basic facts remain precluded, highlight new experiences of government and political participation that reinvent the terms of constraint and adhesion, submission and cohesion.
The projected social impacts of the project are twofold. At the level of research methodology, the project seeks to open the way to further collaboration between social scientists and citizens’ tribunals and truth seeking initiatives around the world. Peoples’ tribunals on Sate crimes are multiplying in the lasts years. However, they need to be studied carefully by legal anthropologists or sociologists, and more importantly, there is no example of how the rich body of data produced by these grass roots initiatives can be used and analyzed in the ethnographic study of State violence at a distance. At the level of the empirical case-study in Iran, the project aims at providing a non-political, scholarly site of knowledge and debate, eventually granting to younger generations an access to a past they did not hear about in the cultural, social or political life. For this generation, coming to terms with the past means understanding how their present life has been shaped by it.
The research program is organized around 3 Research Clusters (RC):
• micro-politics of violence after the Iranian revolution of 1979: lived experiences and State apparatus (RC1)
• counter-memories of violence (RC2)
• hegemonic memory and politics of denial (RC3)
The methodology focuses on participatory research through the production of digital counter-archives.

Fieldwork, research and analyses

New field research (oral interviews, focus groups, archive gathering) were carried out by the PI and a post-doctoral researcher among former prisoners and activists in exile in Paris, Berlin, Toronto, Stockholm, Firenze, Frankfurt. Conferences held by the Iranian diaspora in Toronto, Stockholm, Firenze, Frankfurt were a good opportunity to both present papers on our research, make contacts with new interviewees and conduct focus group interviews. Private archival funds were identified and consulted in France and Canada.

The PI is coordinating collection and digitalization of several private archives. She is also leading a visual research project on the Kurdish civil war (1979-81) (RC1/RC2) and a research project on contemporary justice seeking mechanisms on the global arena in regards to past State violence in Iran, looking at how legal proceedings and rules of adjudication produce collective narratives and memories that circulate globally (RC1/RC2).

A post-doctoral researcher is studying the Iranian Cultural Revolution (1981-83) and its impact on the education system (RC1/RC2). This is currently an important gap in the literature on post-revolutionary Iran in general and education in particular. The reseacher collected (hi)stories of cultural revolution at the school level to understand this multi-layered mechanism through which the Islamic Republic consolidated its hegemonic power both materially and discursively.

A second post-doctoral researcher conducted an analytical investigation on the digital archives of the revolution made publicly available by the heritage and research institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in the last decade (“”) as a digital network, looking at their traceability, liability and the historical discourse they construct (RC3).


An analysis and critical description by the PI of an Iranian photo-book and political pamphlet archival fund (RC1) in collaboration with photographer Hannah Darabi led to a public exhibition in Le Bal Paris and FoMu Museum of Photography in Antwerp (Belgium), and the publication of a book, Enghelab Street. A revolution through books which received two major prizes in art: the prize for the best historical photo-book in Arles (2019), and the Aperture Prize for the best exhibition catalogue in Paris Photo (2019). (cf )
5 public seminars and a one-day public conference on “Thinking the Iranian Revolution today” were organized at EHESS and le Bal Paris, during the exhibition held in January and February 2019 around the photo-exhibition “Enghelab Street: a Revolution through Books. Iran, 1978-1983”. These events reached a large academic and public audience and are available as podcasts on Le Bal and Off-Site’s websites. (cf )

A documentary film (shot, written and directed by the PI) undertaken before the project received ERC funding. Hitch, an Iranian Story (78 min. Alter Ego production), was completed in 2019. It looked at family memories of State violence in the light of contemporary politics of denial in Iran (RC1/RC2/RC3). In addition to exploring methods in visual ethnography, the shooting of the film offered an opportunity for further field research. The film received 3 prizes (best first movie at the Jean Rouch ethnographic film festival, student jury prize for best movie at the Ecrans Documentaires film festival, jury prize at Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire in Blois, France). The PI discussed this work in 1 peer-reviewed article, 1 interview publishe in a peer-reviewed journal and a book chapter. (cf )

An analysis of citizens’ tribunal and how situations of injustice are narrated and memorialized through the law (RC2) has led to the coordination of a Special Issue of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) dedicated to people’s tribunals “Desire for Justice, Desire for Law: an Ethnography of Peoples’ Tribunals” ( ), which explored how the rituals of law and rules of adjudication are used in order to produce collective narratives and memories in the absence of institutional, official forms of recognition.
The “counter-archives” of the Iranian Revolution: a new database

The PI and one of the post-doc researchers have defined the conceptual framework for the description, analysis, and data modeling of the different (physical and digital) archival funds collected or identified and inventoried in an online database (portal). More than 17 Iranian websites displaying digital archives in Iran and 20 physical and digital repositories outside of Iran, along with several private archives have been identified and are being analyzed.
Regarding our area of study, an extensive volume of digitized copies and digital-born archival data of historical value is available online. Due to the volatile nature of this digital material, there is an urgent need for its synthesis, analytical handling, and safeguarding. Our database is designed to present the outputs of the ethnographic study aiming to provide a critical assessment of historical sources regarding the state violence after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran. What is particularly at issue are archival materials available to the research community in form of physical collections or holdings, public and private, and disseminated in digital form online. The database will be a repository of reference information on physical and digital collections and items. It will also contain analytical reviews of issues related to the provenance, context, integrity, traceability, and, consequently, the trustworthiness of the investigated historical sources, providing at the same time a critical overview of the practices of memorialization and the challenges of living memory with regard to the post-revolutionary decade in Iran. In order to meet the FAIR data principles, the following international description standards are used as a basis for design the database: Dublin Core, ISAAR (CPF), ISDIAH, ISAD/G. We have also adapted the elements of the standards for our unique research needs, specifying some resources types and relations between entities and resources.


A post-doctoral researcher is working on a micro-chronology of the years 1979-1989 based on exhaustive (manual) press surveys of 3 State newspapers (Keyhan, Etela’at, and Engelab-e-Eslami) and 3 independent newspapers (Mardom, Mojahed, Rahaee). The data are treated to be exploitable by data mining programs. The aim is both to provide a detailed micro-chronology on the topic (not available to this date), and to use data-analysis methods to detect turning-points, disputed, denied, or forgotten events and processes, as well as to identify webs of events and the relationship that may appear between them. By so doing, the project attempts to map the complex process in and through which the Islamic Republic employed violence as means to consolidate its power and form the State after 1979. This chronological review, unavailable so far, will be made available for data analysis and data-mining, opening new paths for the study of the Iranian 1980s.

Novel archival appraisal and analysis: “” as a digital network

Following the conceptual paradigm of Agnotology as the study of ignorance, and theoretical and methodological discussions conducted by the experts on archival science, a post-doc researcher examines the online archival databases on contemporary history (târikh-e mo’asser) developed in the Islamic Republic of Iran with regard to the issues of authenticity, integrity, traceability, and, consequently, the credibility of the archives and, more broadly, historical sources in a digital environment in a “post-truth” era. This study is at the crossroads of archival science and memory studies.

Counter-memories of violence

Through her visual and written production, the PI uses methods in auto-ethnography and non-fiction in the study of mass violence, looking at the imbrication of the collective, political and intimate dimensions of this experience. This research opened new discussions in showing how forgotten histories surface in collective memories inside and outside of Iran, eventually modifying its frame and texture, redefining political subjectivity and understandings of citizenship.