Just published. Email me if you would like a pdf copy

4 Oct

Pamina Firchow and Roger Mac Ginty, “Including hard-to-access populations using mobile phone surveys and participatory indicators’ Sociological Methods and Research

Abstract
One of the main obstacles for survey researchers—especially those conducting surveys in difficult contexts such as postconflict areas—is accessing respondents. In order to address this problem, this article draws on an ongoing research project to reflect on the utility of mobile phones to connect with hard-to-access populations in conflict affected, low-income countries. It considers the strengths and weaknesses of a number of different mobile phone survey modes. The article goes a step further and discusses how (potential) survey respondents can be included in the survey design process thereby increasing the relevance of the research to them and hopefully encouraging them to participate. We conclude by considering the issue of “good enough” methodologies, or the need to balance methodological rigor with an understanding of the exigencies of suboptimal research contexts.

Email: roger.macginty@manchester.ac.uk

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Donald Trump’s false proclamation of the end of liberal internationalism

23 Aug

Donald Trump’ s August 2017 speech on Afghan and South Asian policy was quite remarkable in its bellicose tone. In recent history at least, many foreign policy speeches are heavily coded with diplomatic phraseology in which threats and leverage are muted. As we have come to expect with Trump, the language was that of a barroom brawl. Whether ‘we know who we are and what we are fighting for’, or references to American ‘warriors’ and American ‘warfighters’, this was a speech that made explicit that the US would deploy military power to achieve its aims. It defined US foreign policy as ‘principled realism’, with the principle being (as far as I can work out) that the US is top-dog and fights to win.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable passages of the speech was its step back from liberal internationalism, or the notion that by spreading liberalism (democracy, trade, rule of law, rights) within and between states will decrease conflict. This notion of the liberal peace (sometimes called the democratic peace) has been a mainstay of peacebuilding and peace support interventions and policies for the last thirty years (although it has a much longer historical pedigree). The finest exposition of liberal internationalism was probably Tony Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech in which he extolled the virtues of righteous intervention against despots, of the liberating potential of trade, and of the need for a community of nations to intervene for the greater good. The ‘liberal peace’ has been manifest in dozens of countries (former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guatemala, Cambodia, Bougainville etc.) as international actors have introduced and supported good governance, democratisation and a host of reforms.

Crucially, the US – along with the UK, EU and major international institutions like the World Bank – have been mainstays of this liberal peace. Whether through military force, military advisers, and billions of dollars in assistance and loans, the US has played a key role in spreading the liberal peace and proselytising the virtues of democracy, accountability and liberalism. Obviously there have been bumps along the road, but there has been a good deal of consistency of messaging (if not practice). And then Trump comes along and signals a retreat from liberal internationalism:

“But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”

“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

“I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”

According to these quotations, the US is no longer interested in democratisation and nation-building (more correctly statebuilding) – both key pillars of the liberal peace. The notion and practice of the liberal peace depends on viable and accountable institutions. Without them the liberal peace does not make sense.

Clearly Trump was speaking – in part – to a domestic audience, many of whom will lap up lines about tough love overseas and in order to protect the folks at home. But the idea that you can walk away from the liberal peace is crazy for a state like the US. Notions and practices of liberal internationalism are hard-wired into development and peacebuilding support. If the Trump White House wants any sensible engagement with the rest of the world it is going to have to follow a liberal internationalist path in some respects – otherwise international engagement grinds to a halt.

Trump’s speech demands or hints at the following expectations from overseas clients:

Accountable institutions (“not a blank check”)
Belief in individual rights (“it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership”)
Reform of institutions (“I am a problem-solver”, “we will learn from history”)
Free trade (lots of references to economic development and trade)
Liberal optimism (“allow our children to live better and safer lives”)

All of these are in the liberal internationalist playbook. They all can find intellectual routes in liberalism.

And the odd thing is, even Trump’s speech – for all of its talk about warfighting and realism – also mentions partnership and common interests. He knows – or more likely the more intelligent of his advisors know – that tough talk and military might can only go so far.

Even though Trump’s rhetoric disavows many of the key points of liberal internationalism, he will find that he cannot escape it.

New journal article from me. Email me if you would like a pdf copy

3 Aug

Roger Mac Ginty (2017) “Everyday Social Practices and Boundary-Making in Deeply Divided Societies”, Civil Wars

Abstract

Based on empirical evidence and conceptual scoping, this article builds a typology of everyday social practices in a deeply divided society. The typology distinguishes between moderating and non-moderating practices relating to boundaries. Based on a case study of contemporary Lebanon, it describes how boundary making and maintaining are the stuff of everyday life in deeply divided societies. But it also describes how the society under study also contains much evidence of fluidity and permeability in relation to boundaries. Many of these instances of boundary crossing do not threaten the meta politico-religious boundary, but they do compel us to re-evaluate views of deeply divided societies as comprised of homogenous and uncompromising blocs.

The journal article here but it is hidden behind a paywall.

In praise of awkwardness

25 Jul

Awkwardness …. Well it makes us feel a little awkward.

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with Elizabeth Saleh from the American University of Beirut. She talked about some research she has been conducting among Syrian refugees children in Beirut and how awkwardness was a key part of the anthropological method. She described how she would visit various research sites to sit and observe as part of ethnography, and how this entailed a good deal of awkwardness at the beginning. People would wonder: ‘Who is this woman?’, ‘What does she want?’, ‘What is she actually doing here?’, ‘Does she work for the government?’ Essentially, she explained, you have to get beyond that initial period of awkwardness in order to make progress in research.

That got me thinking about the awkwardness that is involved in a lot of the fieldwork I have done, and how awkwardness is more or less a core part of the research process. A few examples of awkwardness:

The interview: You arrange to meet someone for a research interview, possibly in a café or at their office, and there is the initial awkwardness as each party scopes out the other. Basically, they are trying to work out the purpose of the interview and your intentions with the interview material. You are trying to work out if they will be easy to interview: engaging and talkative, or stilted and hesitant. In the vast majority of cases, interviewees are wonderfully generous with their time and insight, but there is always that initial awkwardness.

At passport control: The immigration officer asks you the purpose of your visit. In some cases, you have lied outright to get the visa because it would be crazy to say that you are conducting research. That would spell instant visa denial or bureaucratic delay. So you have to tell the immigration officer that you are visiting friends or there for a holiday. Since I am usually wearing a corduroy jacket and holding a book with a riveting title like ‘The heuristics and ontology of International Relations in the anthropocene” the immigration officer is rarely fooled that I am there to visit friends. They know I am lying, and I know that they know I am lying. It is awkward and usually I am saved by the fact that the immigration officer just does not care.

The walk: Often the best way to get to know a field research context is to have a walk around. It can be very revealing about standards of living, the main sources of employment and diversion, where and how people live etc. But in many contexts, the researcher stands out in terms of skin colour, dress and demeanour. It is obvious to any observer that you do not belong there. And with this observation comes awkwardness. You are simply walking around to see what you can see. You are not helping anyone or contributing to their lives. It is an awkward realisation that you are engaging in an intrusive activity.

Recognising the selfishness of our research: I would like to think that my research is vital for humanity. It is not. In my experience, virtually all policymakers and practitioners are extremely knowledgeable and rarely need insights from largely desk-based researchers who make occasional forays in ‘the field’. To the extent that my research is useful, it informs my teaching and provides material for my writing. That in turn might feed a number of academic debates I am involved in. Those debates, while fun and intellectually rewarding, tend to be among a limited number of scholars. Yet, we study contexts in which people have real needs – often basic needs of security and shelter. From this comes an awkwardness – a guilt – that we are voyeurs or conflict tourists armed with a visa to leave.

With a colleague I held a focus group in a post-authoritarian country in the past year. As a sign of thanks to the focus group participants, we brought along lunch. Although the country did not strike me as food insecure, every morsel of food was eaten. Not a crumb was left behind. As people talked during the focus group, it was clear that they led very precarious lives in which there was much poverty and hardship. It was a humbling moment. People saw this food (perhaps because it was brought to them and slightly removed from their usual diet) as being a great luxury. I left the focus group feeling very awkward – like some sort of crown prince. I would be in a nice hotel in a few hours and could choose whatever I wanted to eat – and would not think twice about leaving something on my plate.

My immediate reaction to awkwardness is that I want it to end. I usually fill awkward silences with platitudes and obvious questions and statements about the weather. But, in the case of research, perhaps we have to accept awkwardness and work through it. If there is any upside of this awkwardness it is that it encourages us to be reflexive and to think about issues of positionality and epistemology. It might help us get beyond the nonsense (indeed, as Patrick Chabal termed it ‘conceit’) that we can be truly empathetic with our research subjects. We cannot. For the most part, our privilege sets us apart from them so completely that we might as well be from another planet. Often our research subjects have not been to university and have little idea of the nature and purposes of academic research (let alone the arcane political economies that attend it).

So what is to be done? One thing that we can do is to embrace awkwardness and see it as a necessary part of the research process. It helps situate us, and reminds us that much field research is a very human process involving doubt and anxiety. Why do none of the textbooks on field research have a chapter on feeling awkward?

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Two new additions to my Rethinking Political Violence book series.

4 Jul

60 people are dead and no one important is to blame

18 Jun

At the time of writing about 60 people are thought to have died in the Grenfell Tower fire in central London. That figure may rise.

In a febrile political atmosphere, a lot of people are asking questions about how such a thing could happen, and who is culpable. Attention is focusing on the local authority, and on the refurbishment of the tower block that saw the installation of cladding that seemed to contribute to the intensity of the fire. A public inquiry has been ordered and doubtless there could well be corporate manslaughter court cases.

Blame will be apportioned, and a few years from now relatively minor and expendable figures will have to endure the walk of shame as they emerge from a court room or inquiry hearing. The tabloid press (a sector that has an utterly sordid reputation) will publish all sorts of self-righteous name and shame stories about previously un-heard of figures in local authorities and construction companies. That will be very convenient as it will take attention away from wider systemic issues that have contributed to the death of about 60 people.

It might seem somewhat lame to say ‘it is the system that is wrong’ but it is true. Until we look at ‘the system’ then not only is the there the risk of events like the Grenfell Tower fire occurring again, but there is also the risk of the appalling political and statutory reaction to the tragedy.

System failure 1: Central government has devolved responsibility (and sometimes power) to anyone but itself. A salutary question to ask in the wake of this tragedy is: Where is the housing minister? A large public housing facility has burned killing a large number of people and yet the housing minister is nowhere to be seen. That is because the housing of citizens has largely been devolved to Local Authorities and, in turn, Local Authorities have devolved the issue to housing associations and the market. This is symptomatic of a trend that has occurred across in the public sector over the past thirty years whereby Central Government has established a range of trusts, associations and companies that are in charge of delivery. Central Government retains power in the sense that it legislates and often is the funder of last resort, but it absolves itself of responsibility. Thus Central Government (and indeed Local Authorities) can self-righteously point the finger of blame anywhere but towards themselves.

System failure 2: The poor, migrants and minorities don’t matter. It seems that Grenfell Tower was home to many people who were struggling to get by (especially in London’s most expensive borough). They were many migrants, refugees, and minorities among the dead, missing and displaced – the type of people who are generally invisible unless the Daily Mail or Daily Express wants to blame someone for something heinous. The people of Grenfell Tower (and I accept that they are not a homogenous group) were the antithesis of the people who stood behind Theresa May in the stage-managed events in her dreadful election campaign.

UK society has evolved to a situation in which there is a large constituency that can be ignored. Since many among the migrant, refugee, and minority populations do not vote, and have less access to public means of articulation, they can be ignored. They exist on the margins of society and are largely contained there. They can even be useful to the dominant society as participants in the flexible economy but largely they are unseen, contained and perceptually segregated.

System failure 3: There is a class of politicians who really don’t care. It is not unfair to say that Theresa May seems to lack the empathy that many of us would regard as normal in human beings. Her years at the Home Office and the punitive policies she enforced against refugee and migrant children are testament to that. But how could someone with so scant people skills be Prime Minister? Well that one is pretty easy to answer. For decades UK politics and specifically the Labour and Conservative parties have been perfecting leaders who are fundamentally removed from society. We have election campaigns in which leaders do not meet ‘ordinary’ people, field questions from them (or indeed journalists), or participate in any event unless stage-managed. There is an elite political class who are so insulated from the general populace (and much of this is self-enforced and not due to security concerns) that it is unsurprising that they cannot relate to human tragedy outside of their circle. (One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign attracted so much attention, and no little success, was that he actually met with real people).

What to do? Well we can call out trusts, associations and the bullshit (there is no other term) that recasts citizens as stakeholders and clients. We can refuse to vote for politicians that fail to pass the most basic tasks of participative humanity (or refuse to participate in faux elections at all). And we can try to see refugees, migrants and minorities (not all the same thing) as part of our society – not just irritating clutter to be ignored.

All of that might be terribly idealistic. But the alternative are faux apologies from plastic politicians.

A material turn in International Relation. New article by me. Email me if you would like a pdf copy.

12 Jun

New article by me in Review of International Studies.

“A material turn in International Relations: the 4×4, intervention and resistance”. Email me at roger.macginty@manchester.ac.uk if you would like a pdf copy.

Abstract
This article explores how analysis of material objects offers insights into international intervention and reactions to that intervention. Building on studies that examine the 4×4 as emblematic of intervention, the article argues that the 4×4 can also be seen as an object of resistance and agency. To do so, it uses the case study of 4×4 usage in Darfur and draws on primary data including interviews and a UN security incident database. The article is mindful of the limitations of a ‘material turn’ in the study of International Relations, especially in relation to how it might encourage us to overlook agency and structural power. While finding new materialism arguments largely convincing, the case study encourages a note of caution and proposes the notion of ‘materialism+’, which allows for the further investigation of the human/non-human interface, but is circumspect about tendencies towards neophilia, dematerialism, and posthumanism.