Violence, public safety and institutional trust
Researchers at the RIDC-NEV are studying how laws and rules are implemented and how this defines the legitimacy of institutions that prevent violence and guarantee democracy, such as the police and the judiciary
By Heitor Shimizu, in New York | Agência FAPESP – The results of Brazil’s 2018 elections have again shown that public safety and violence are important factors on candidates’ platforms and in the decisions of voters. According to the Center for the Study of Violence (NEV) – a FAPESP-funded Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center (RIDC), headquartered at the University of São Paulo (USP) – violence was one of the main themes of the elections and is among the key issues identified by Brazilians.
Brazil is one of 10 countries in the world that have the highest homicide rates. In 2017, Brazil reported 63,895 homicides. The high rates of violence represent a phenomenon that profoundly affects the daily life of its citizens. Data from research conducted by the NEV indicate that in São Paulo, 75% of the people say they are very worried about being the victim of an assault and 80% say they are very worried about having a close relative murdered.
According to the NEV, the failure of institutions that enforce the law and public order – and the perception that the State has failed to provide security – is a common assessment made among a wide range of social sectors.
Violence, human rights, institutional trust and the challenges of “building democracy daily” were the topic of the presentation by Sergio Adorno (photo), coordinator of the NEV, at FAPESP Week New York, held November 26-28, 2018 at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).
Adorno talked about the activities at the NEV, whose researchers investigate “the ways through which laws, rules and procedures are implemented over time and how this defines the legitimacy of key institutions, mainly the police and the judiciary that prevent violence and guarantee democracy.”
“The NEV’s current research program focuses on the way in which laws, rules and procedures are implemented over time and how that defines the legitimacy of institutions essential to the democracy. The purpose is to analyze how this legitimacy is built daily in key institutions and how it is jeopardized by exploring the contacts between citizens and civil servants and their implications for the democracy, human rights and violence,” said Adorno, a sociology professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).
“The objective is to study how laws, rules and procedures are enforced every day by civil servants in local government agencies, in other words, the importance of the work of the institutions, searching for information about how they affect social and institutional trust, as well as compliance with laws or the desire to obey laws,” he told Agência FAPESP.
Adorno explained that the NEV initially conducted research with a focus on three publics with differing perspectives: community, civil servants and youth. Longitudinal panels were conducted to understand the perspective of citizens and adolescents.
“There are two reasons for this: first, to establish causality; second, because social changes occur very quickly and as a result, a longitudinal study with multiple contact points is necessary. In order to understand the perspective of civil servants, we have conducted surveys and interviews,” he said.
According to Adorno, the idea is to analyze how the legitimacy of those institutions is built or eroded every day, as well as the implications of same with respect to human rights and violence.
New research challenges
The NEV brings together an interdisciplinary group of researchers and faculty that conduct studies and reflect on the various human rights violations in Brazil. Since 1987, it has conducted studies and trained researchers through an interdisciplinary approach in discussions of topics related to violence, democracy and human rights. The key questions that have guided the studies carried out involve the complex relationship between the persistence of violence and violation of human rights during the process of democratic consolidation in Brazil.
Beginning in 2000, the NEV became part of FAPESP’s RIDC program. The initial proposal for the first RIDC was organized along five lines of research: 1) monitoring serious violations of human rights; 2) building public safety policies; 3) studying criminal impunity; 4) displays of human rights, justice and punishment; and 5) integrated theory of human rights. This project was renewed nearly five years later with two lines of research: 1) monitoring serious violations of human rights; and 2) democracy, rule of law and human rights.
According to Adorno, FAPESP funding was important for the center’s institutionalization, by guaranteeing its continuity and the possibility of conducting long-term multidisciplinary research. With the support of FAPESP, it was also possible to invest in education and knowledge transfer and dissemination to a non-academic public, through programs such as the Network of Human Rights Observatories, the website Rights Guide, and the Promoting the Right to the Healthy Development of Pregnant Adolescents and their Children project.
At FAPESP Week, Adorno also talked about the new issues addressed by studies conducted at the NEV.
“One of the topics is the issue of social representations and discourse about security policies, violence, human rights and democracy. The objective is to assess the impact of security policies on the perceptions and discourses of public actors and citizens in a historical perspective,” he said.
“Another issue refers to cities, organized crime and prisons. We conduct research into the Brazilian experience in controlling criminality and the organization of prison space in recent decades,” Adorno said.
“A third issue involves public opinion, democratic political culture and legitimacy. Along this line, we are investigating relations between public opinion and legitimacy, with a focus on the mechanisms of forming public opinion in the era of digital technology and social media,” he said.
Such complex topics demand contributions from several disciplines. Therefore, the NEV relies on collaboration from researchers trained in several fields of knowledge (including sociology, psychology, political science, law, anthropology, statistics, history, and public health), in addition to investing in a wide range of research methods that include document analysis, opinion polls, interviews, observations and geo-referencing.
Education and international collaboration
The NEV has developed one of the most innovative initiatives in the field of education: the Human Rights Observatory in Schools Project (PODHE). It is an intervention and research project that works with informal education methodologies in two public elementary schools located on the outskirts of São Paulo.
“The main objective is to develop activities that raise awareness and build the monitoring skills of students, teachers and other school personnel about the role human rights play in their daily lives. Although the pilot project has only been implemented for a short time (the 2017 school year), school personnel, such as teachers, have already identified changes in the daily behavior of the students who are presenting a stronger sense of belonging, collaboration and engagement. Our plan is to expand this initiative to more schools,” Adorno told Agência FAPESP.
Another important aspect of the NEV’s activities is internationalization of the research studies it conducts. “Our strategy for establishing international partnerships includes inviting researchers who work on similar subjects to visit the NEV and spend short periods of time engaged in intensive collaborative work. During their stay, the partners have the opportunity to meet our team, become familiar with our work, and actively participate in the process of developing research tools and discussing analytical models and findings,” Adorno said.
These experiences in cooperation have resulted in publications, participation at events and collaborative projects. They have also helped to create a network of researchers with institutions abroad, such as the London School of Economics, the University of Cambridge and the University of Indianapolis.
“Recently, through one of these partnerships, we participated in the development of a proposal submitted under a call for proposals issued by the European Social Research Council on “Trust, collective efficacy and social control in urban spaces.” It is a comparative study about six cities on four continents (Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia) in which we adopted a research design inspired by the work done at the NEV, with a longitudinal panel and comparisons between different city neighborhoods,” said Adorno.
Learn more about research studies conducted by the Center for the Study of Violence at: nevusp.org.