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


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?


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 if you would like a pdf copy.

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.

A brief observation on the impact of the Conservative-DUP arrangement on the Northern Ireland peace process.

9 Jun

A Conservative Party-Democratic Unionist Party arrangement brings Northern Ireland’s current political situation into question. At the moment the power-sharing Assembly that was established as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is suspended. The basic issue is a lack of trust between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Power now rests with the Westminster government (in the shape of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland). So what happens now if the DUP is effectively part of the Government? The ambition of power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and the series of institutions that stem from it. Is that ambition now to be set aside by the British Government?

Throughout the peace process, the British and Irish government have held the roles of brokers (albeit interested brokers) in mediating between the parties in Northern Ireland. So if one of the Northern Ireland parties is effectively a member of the British Government that mediation role is jeopardised.

The timeline between the close of polls and the declaration of a new governing arrangement suggests that these issues have not been thought through.

Weeding …. and peace and conflict studies

18 May

Paddy the Dog inspects the heather bed


The heather bed

With less weeds

If you have made it past the title of this blog post then you are a special person. Weeding hardly sets the heart racing. But, in the long summer evenings, I try manage to grab 10 or 15 minutes to weed a heather bed I have been developing in my garden over the past few years (seriously, if you are still reading, you are special). It gives me enormous pleasure, but it also makes me think about the subject I study and how I study it.

With weeds

Here are four thoughts:

Hurrah for mud under your fingernails
The world of work – whether academic study or the administration of connected study and teaching – is full of sophistry. Whether it is the study of international intervention or administrative tasks, there is often a vernacular and a series of postures that are highly artificial and take us away from real world concerns. The language of postcolonialists, the datasets of conflict scientism or the argot of New Public Management mean that we are surrounded by artifice that seems very far removed from real world problems. Weeding, and I guess other apparently mundane tasks like kneeding dough, are good reminders that the ground level exists. It is good to turn up to university meeting with mud under your fingernails – a good reminder that we all have a connection to the soil – even if that is generations ago and even if we go to extraordinary lengths to deny it.

The tough fecundity of the margin

The thing about weeds – unless you use some sort of Agent Orange-type toxic weed-killer – is that they often come back. Obviously you try to take out the roots, although that is not always possible. The weeds are a great reminder of what Iain Sinclair calls ‘the tough fecundity of the margin’ and remind me of the persistence of individuals, communities, identities and ideas against immense odds. Obviously I am not saying that particular groups or individuals are weeds (!) – merely a reminder that communities and ideas often persist in the face violence and discrimination. Weeds that I was sure I had gotten rid of can reappear and multiply. Weeds are ‘inventive’ and ‘resourceful’ in the sense that their roots can be a long distance from any obvious manifestation of the weed in terms of the stem and flower. Often weeds will be rhizomes, with complex root structures underground. Deluze and Guattari have written extensively on the rhizome as a metaphor for multiple sites of authority and initiative. Basically, weeding can make you think about politics as a network.

The local matters
Weeding makes you pay attention to detail – to the hyper or nano-local. Miss a root and the weed will come back. Forget to look under a bush, and a host of weeds might be lurking there, ready to come back next spring. The point is that weeding is not just about taking out the great big thistles and nettles. It is also about taking out the small weeds. That requires going over parts of the garden inch by inch, picking out sometimes tiny weeds. It is a good reminder that the local and context matters in relation to international intervention and local and national responses to that intervention.

One man’s weed is another man’s flower

Of course there are good arguments about whether one should be weeding in the first place. Gardening, after all, is a supremely colonial exercise in which we are imposing a particular type of order on territory. This order depends on a set of aesthetics that prioritise one form of beauty over others. What is striking is that some weeds are quite beautiful. All of this is good for reflecting on international intervention and how, in the name of peace, order or stability, it seeks to impose systems of governance and authority on others. Of course, these prescribed systems often have to compromise when they meet local and national circumstances, expectations and even resistance. All of this brings us to a world of mimicry, hybridity and the need to see intervention as long-term processes involving multiple actors. It also explains why my heather bed is not a complete weed free zone (in fact, it is often quite overgrown with weeds). I have resigned myself to managing the weeds but not eradicating them completely – that would take too much time.

And if you have made it to the end of this blog post then you are extraordinary.