Putting Violence in its Place

James Tyner has made many expeditions to Cambodia as part of his research on the violence that occurred in Cambodia’s “killing fields.” When he’s not teaching, Tyner, professor of geography, spends most of his professional time helping the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) piece together the locations and conditions that led to the deaths of approximately 2 million Cambodians.

For Tyner, geography may be more than a spot on the map. It’s about understanding the relationship between space and violence. Tyner has examined ties between violence and their associated landscapes for more than 20 years. In addition to his research on Cambodia, Tyner has published geographical works on topics ranging from black radicalism in the U.S. to the exploitation of migrant Filipino workers. Tyner traces his interest in geography to his parents, who were both geography teachers. When Tyner was a child growing up in California, his parents took him along on road trips across North America as his father prepared for fall classes. They took pictures of grain silos and cornfields rather than tourist attractions.

“The inspiration or experience that comes from that is not tourism but to experience places in their everydayness,” Tyner said. “We would travel around and begin to see relationships between the different objects in the landscapes.” 

Collaboration in Cambodia 

Tyner studied geography in college and received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1995. After receiving his doctorate, Tyner worked as an instructor and lecturer at several California universities before accepting a position at Kent State in 1997.

Over his 20-year career, Tyner has written 12 books and published 48 peer-reviewed articles in major geography and social-science journals. He also has made 76 scholarly presentations around the world. Tyner has received approximately $325,000 in external grants to conduct his research.

The major funding organizations include the United States Geological Society and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Tyner has had an NSF grant for his collaboration with DC-Cam, an independent Cambodian research institute. The goal of his work is to identify the location of various structures present during the period and determine how they were built, why they were built and what happened there. 

The structures are either directly or indirectly related to Khmer Rouge’s attempt to boost rice production through irrigation. The regime forced millions of people into the countryside to work on the irrigation systems, which included the construction of dikes, canals and dams. Khmer Rouge also built prisons to discipline workers and created mass graves. Some of these sites no longer exist.

As part of his research efforts, Tyner interviews Khmer Rouge survivors or residents who lived during the period. He also uses GPS technology to map the locations. His encounters with the local residents bring to life the horrors the people in that area experienced. 

Helping Students Understand Violence

One of Tyner’s primary goals as a professor is to raise his students’ awareness and understanding of violence in society. He’s taken two of his students to Cambodia to conduct field research. Perhaps even more rewarding are the opportunities his research has brought to the Cambodian people.

Tyner used part of the NSF funds to bring two Cambodian students to Kent State so they could study for their master’s degrees. The students, Savina Sirik and Sokvisal Kimsroy, enrolled in the geography program at Kent State. They were selected based on their knowledge of the Cambodian genocide. Both students lost family members during the Khmer Rouge era.

“They will be able to contribute through first-hand research to the documentation and empirical interpretation of the genocide,” Tyner said.