For a group of researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Turku, shared tragedy has led to a friendship spanning more than 14 years and 4,000 miles.

Professors who study crime and violence don’t expect that their research will become relevant to their own communities. However, James Hawdon, the director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, found himself faced with that very scenario at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.

Later that year, more than 4,000 miles away, a similar crisis struck in Jokela, a small town in southern Finland, when a teenage student shot and killed eight people at the local high school before taking his own life. As both communities struggled to process their grief, Hawdon wondered if studying the responses to similar violent events in these two different locations could help people understand how communities heal from tragedy.

He sent an email to the University of Helsinki asking about a potential partnership, which was passed around multiple Finnish universities before finding its way to Pekka Räsänen, a professor of economic sociology at the University of Turku.

“I think what piqued the University of Turku’s interest in our study was that we were looking at the community's response to the shooting, and how they came together and rallied to support each other,” said Hawdon, who is also a professor in the Department of Sociology. “When the shooting happened in Jokela, they saw how that response we had theorized played out.”

Räsänen agreed to Hawdon’s proposal, and in 2008, they published their first paper together, “Community Cohesion after Mass Violence in Finland and the United States.”

In the 14 years since that first article was published, their research partnership has grown into a full-fledged collaboration between Virginia Tech and the University of Turku. And in May of 2022, in recognition of the partnership between the universities and the work Hawdon has done in the field of sociology, the University of Turku awarded him an honorary doctorate.

“As a scholar, Dr. Hawdon is very talented and hardworking,” said Räsänen. “There are not too many sociologists or criminologists who can understand both quantitative and qualitative research. This makes collaboration with him very easy, especially in the current multidisciplinary world in which we live.”

To date, joint research between the two universities has produced 24 articles and one published book, with a second book forthcoming. They have also established an official collaboration agreement, which has led to faculty and graduate student visits, international courses, and student exchange programs.

Multiple Virginia Tech professors, including Sociology faculty members Donna Sedgwick and Ashley Reichelmann, have been involved in the collaborative research, along with Cozette Comer in University Libraries and graduate students from both universities. John Ryan, professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology, participated in the partnership all the way from the initial project in 2008 up until his death in 2021.

Faculty from Virginia Tech and the University of Turku have worked together on seven different grant projects, studying sociology topics that range all the way from life satisfaction in retirees to online hate groups and extremism.

Their most recent project together has been a comparison of the community response to the COVID-19 pandemic between Finland and the US. The researchers collected two waves of data from respondents in both countries in 2020, asking what behaviors people planned to change to deal with the pandemic, and, later on, how these measures had affected their social relations and whether or not they had been effective in preventing illness.

Future plans for the partnership include an international study of cybercrime victimization in Europe and the United States, together with Katalin Parti and Thomas Dearden, two Sociology faculty at Virginia Tech who have worked with Hawdon on studies of cyber criminology.

James Hawdon with his doctoral sword and hat
James Hawdon poses in his office with the sword and hat he received from the University of Turku, traditional insignia for doctoral degree recipients in Finland. Photo by Mary Crawford for Virginia Tech.

Hawdon was presented with his honorary degree at a ceremony in Turku on May 27, where along with his diploma he received a hat and an engraved sword, a tradition for doctorate recipients in Finland.

It might seem ironic for a professor in the field of violence prevention to be given a weapon in recognition of his work, but according to Hawdon, the sword symbolizes the defense of truth and knowledge—especially important in research with the potential to improve the lives of entire communities.

For Hawdon, the honor is not only an acknowledgement of his research, but also the culmination of an international friendship that has grown further than he could ever have imagined when he sent his first message.

“What’s amazing about the partnership to me is how good of friends we have become, all from a cold call to a different university,” Hawdon said.

Pekka Räsänen agrees that the impact of their work together has been much greater than the sum of its parts.

“After working with Dr. Hawdon, I realized he is definitely the kind of scholar I thought I should be,” he said. “He has been a great collaborator, but also someone whom I can learn from. I have learned quite a lot from him, especially when it comes to international collaboration. He still remains my best international academic partner.”

Written by Mary Crawford