In Memorium: Jacob Bercovitch (1946-2011)

Professor Jacob Bercovitch of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, passed away recently. He was an outstanding scholar who has left a tremendous legacy in the wider field of peace and conflict studies. Through his teaching and research, he influenced a whole generation of scholars, of which I count myself one. I first met Jacob in 1987 when I began studying political science at the University of Canterbury. Inspired by his research and teaching from the very first day, I went on to study with him through both undergraduate and honours levels, and then later for my PhD in international conflict resolution. During this period, I also worked closely with him as research assistant for his internationally recognized and hugely influential project on the Correlates of Mediation. In time, we became colleagues and worked together on a number of publications. More importantly, he also became my good friend.

The impact and legacy he left was, in many ways, immeasurable, as it included all aspects of the academic life, including his teaching approach, his relationships with his students and colleagues, and his research and scholarship. In this respect, Jacob did not just study conflict resolution, but he embodied and practiced the ethos and values of peace which were his life’s study.

In terms of his scholarship, there two aspects in particular which have left a lasting impression on me. First, Jacob always sought to apply theory and practice in such a way that each would inform the other. His empirical research always flowed first from the application of theoretical reasoning, while empirical findings were allowed to speak back to theoretical formulation. In this way, I believe he found a balance between the often de-contextualised empirical research which sometimes seems to revel in the employment of complex statistics for its own sake, and the overly abstract theoretical reasoning which equally seems to ignore the real world of people and communities in conflict. The necessity of applying theory to practice has remained with me, and as a contribution, I believe its effect has been to strengthen the broader field of peace studies which was often viewed as theoretically naïve and lacking in empirical rigour.

A second contribution lies in Jacob’s development and application of the Contingency Approach to the study of conflict resolution. This was a way of thinking about the operation of human agency within, but not determined by, structural constraints. It is, I believe, a major contribution to both peace studies and international relations. Not only does it provide an analytical framework for reintegrating historically-visible human action and choices into structurally-oriented accounts of political processes, but it reminds us that social processes like war and peace are made through human action and choice; they are not the result of impersonal forces or structures. Crucially, the effect of this is to return ethical responsibility to the individual and to make each of us a potential actor for peace with all the expectations this entails.

In short, through the theoretical development of the Contingency Model and its application to the systematic empirical study of conflict resolution processes such as mediation and negotiation, Jacob Bercovitch has left an indelible mark on the wider study of peace and conflict. His insights and understanding have inspired a generation of both scholars and practitioners, and he stands proudly alongside other great scholars of peace studies and international conflict resolution. We can only hope that scholars new and old will continue and expand his research, and thus, try to fill the immense gap left by his passing.

I feel privileged and immensely grateful to have worked with him, to have known him, and to have called him my friend. He will be missed.

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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1 Response to In Memorium: Jacob Bercovitch (1946-2011)

  1. 'Peju says:

    An eloquent yet touching piece on a man I never knew, but feel in-tune with because of his work (and yours) on mediation research. He will certainly be missed!

    I am currently reading your piece on “Negotiation and Mediation? An Exploration of Factors Affecting the Choice of Conflict Management in International Conflict.” It is helping piece together my PhD thesis on what data can tell me about consensus and its role in mediation outcomes. Thank you.

    Congrats on your new directorship!

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