Heather Roberson Gaston

  • B.A., Peace and Conflict Studies, University of California at Berkeley, 2004
  • M.A.,Human Rights, Columbia University, 2013
  • Certificate in Advanced Study of Russia and East Central Europe, The Harriman Institute, Columbia University, 2013


Conflict, Trauma, Nationalism, Identity, Human Rights, Financial Austerity, The Former Yugoslavia, Israel/Palestine

My research interests tend to revolve around conflict, trauma, human rights and, more recently, the impacts of austerity measures when coupled with the moral language of human rights, and with pressure to adopt restrictive concepts of human rights over and against local rights concepts. I would like to unpack how rights concepts come to be developed in the first place, and how Western concepts of human rights have come to be accepted by so many as "Universal" human rights. I believe that the field of Anthropology has much to say on this issue -- and has been saying it since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was still in its draft forms.

Most of my firsthand research that has led to the forming of these interests has taken place in the Balkans, specifically in the Republic of North Macedonia, where I have spent an already excessive amount of time writing an undergraduate thesis; followed by co-authoring a graphic novel based on my experiences there, called Macedonia: What Does it Take to Stop a War? (Random House/Villard, 2008); and later by a Master's thesis. I have also, in recent years, advised human rights organizations, including one in particular that has openly resisted adopting the language of human rights, all the while doing crucial and effective rights work, and which I will hope to write about in the course of my PhD. Over the span of this several years I have spent traveling to the region, I have watched with much concern as the austerity measures that once contributed to the dismantling of the social state of Federal Yugoslavia (a process then undertaken by international financial institutions) has continued to unfold in the Yugoslav successor states as part of the European Union accession process, amid constant talk of human rights and democracy.

My research is also informed by my background in the region of Israel/Palestine where I have spent about ten months, basing in the West Bank and Jerusalem. There I interviewed and observed a number of anti-occupation activists, in an effort to write on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement (the nature of which changed dramatically even while I was conducting research trips there, in the years between 2009 and 2014). While that project sits on the back burner, I have been podcasting a bit about Hebron and about human rights to bring my research to a wider audience, and am happy to say that my recent educational podcast series on an activist there is now being used as curriculum in at least one college class.