Timo Peeters

Winner Dissertation Prize 2023

The Unseen. Withdrawal and the social order of violence in Guatemala City.

Supervisor: Prof. dr. R. van Swaaningen
Co-supervisor: Prof. dr. R.H.J.M. Staring
Nomination: Erasmus University Rotterdam, Erasmus school of Law

Report by the selection committee

The dissertation by Timo Peeters offers a remarkably detailed and in-depth insight into one of the many sides of Guatemala City, a city which is characterized by extreme social inequality and violent crime. The central aim of this dissertation was to describe and understand the lived reality of people from various strata of society in Guatemala City. Peeters achieved this by immersing himself in the worlds lived by various groups with the city’s population, from people who live on the street to a wealthy family with bodyguards.

Peeters expresses the hope in his introduction that readers will feel that they have been there themselves. And he succeeds wonderfully in that regard. The literary style makes this a compelling and probing treatise, a real page-turner according to the jury members. The stories evoke empathy and offer amazing insight into the complex combination of danger, violence, oppressive structures and injustice in the daily lives of people in Guatemala City. A city where the non-violence advocated by Erasmus is a naïve aspiration and where withdrawal and dissociation are sometimes the only options.

It is quite an achievement that the dissertation captures the imagination in such a way, and in places it reads like a novel, without the author employing sensationalism. Nowhere does it become melodramatic, even though the lives of those characters are marked by an extraordinary degree of pain and misery. This appreciation of the absence of sensationalism should not be understood as an ode to the neutral, objective, scientific style that is so frequently praised. Peeters explicitly states that he cannot and will not keep himself out of the story. He shows how an explicitly narrative style and personal, empathetic approach can be scientifically convincing. Moreover, the very extensive opening and closing chapters, which discuss the historical and social context from a broad perspective, give the whole work an analytical character without ever being dull or dry.

As Peeters himself notes in his closing words: “the work of a social scientist does not differ greatly from that of a novelist: it is to explore beyond the appearance of things.” In his introduction, Peeters quotes the criminologist Young, who states that the gap between the outside world and the academy seems to be widening. Not in the least because of the prevailing positivism in criminology, which dominates the whole domain of social and behavioural sciences and is a great impoverishment of what we recognize as valuable knowledge about people and society. In the dominant discourse in this branch of science, the term ‘evidence-based’ is reserved for knowledge based of lots of figures and statistics, without the slightest sign of a person of flesh and blood. 

The dissertation convincingly shows that there is another way. An in-depth analysis of the daily experience of ‘ordinary’ people also generates evidence. Knowledge that is not disengaged from reality, but knowledge that makes reality visible and tangible. The ‘Unseen’ in the title of the dissertation have, in this work, been brought out into the light, and the reader will never forget them.