Two cheers for the UN: Some reflections on United Nations day

24 Oct

Blog post on United Nations day here

University of Manchester says “Stuff you” to Brexit.

21 Oct

There is a very good video on inclusivity – post-Brexit vote – here:



18 Oct

I spent a very diverting hour mudlarking this morning. Mudlarking is – as I have learned recently – poking around in mud (river estuaries in particular) for artifacts. I was inspired by Ted Sandling’s London in Fragments book.

A great inspiration: Ted Sandling's London in Fragments.

A great inspiration: Ted Sandling’s London in Fragments.

Sandling writes about mudlarking on the banks and shores of the Thames and his book is a rich commentary on the economic, social and cultural life of a world city. My patch of mud is not nearly as cosmopolitan (an estuary on the English/Scottish border), but nevertheless I had a very interesting hour walking around mudflats and sandbanks. I found various pieces of pot and crockery. Nothing I found was of great historical or financial worth. That is what attracted me to mudlarking.


It offers history in fragments. Rather than a landmark find (a tomb, a monastery, a treasure trove) it offers multiple data points that build up a picture of a locality over a period of time. It reminded me of the value that material objects have in telling stories of production and consumption. The fragments that I found contained narratives about imports, indigenous skills, fashions and habits. There was very rough clay pottery (perhaps from a bowl or a drain) and very fine china, suggesting refinement over time. There was the mass produced and the hand made. There was some sort of smelted metal – a sign of production and pollution. What was especially interesting was that all of the ‘finds’ had been thrown away or lost. They comprise, quite literally, of a discarded history. It reminded me of what is now called ‘data exhaust’ or the extraneous data trail that we leave after ourselves. In a century or two archaeologists and historians may be poking around our ‘data middens’ – the discarded and fragmentary remains of our digital footprint. What was especially interesting about my mudlarking adventure was the ordinariness of the ‘finds’ – they told a story of the everyday and as such built up a composite or aggregate picture. They were the type of items that I have stepped over and ignored on a thousand beach walks. I probably classed them as ‘litter’ and tut-tutted. But today, simply by purposively looking for the small fragments of evidence of others, I was able to conjure up a world of production, consumption, gifting, display, and waste.



I was able to justify taking off a morning on a school day because my mudlarking adventure fits in very well with my academic interests in the everyday and the bottom-up. The river bank did not contain a grand narrative of states and institutions. Instead, the narrative was about people of all classes and the everyday tasks of eating, drinking and sanitation. It is this everyday dimension that mainstream political science and international relations manage to overlook – much to their detriment.

I did have one amazing find though – a clay tobacco pipe. It was intact (apparently, usually just the stem OR the bowl is found). It was lying in the sunlight atop a sandbank, more or less as white as it had been when it was chucked into the river in the last half of the nineteenth century.

We might just need another Enlightenment

5 Oct

There is a danger that 2016 goes down as the year that stupidity wins. We have seen stunning examples of the rebuttal of facts and evidence by political leaders (and publics). The UK Brexit debate and the US Presidential election campaigns have seen unashamed assertions, promises, and downright lies. It has been called a post-truth or post-factual era, with many media reports pointing to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson as the embodiment of politics without evidence. One leading UK politician demurred to take on board evidence on the economic harm that Brexit would entail by saying that people ‘have had enough of experts’. The British Health Secretary warned doctors – with whom he is engaged in a labour dispute – not to argue over statistics. This was after he had used a series of (to put it politely) dodgy statistics to back up an argument.

None of this is to say that ‘experts’ – who are often self-appointed and self-described as such – should not be open to scrutiny and challenge. It is instead to make the case that there is a social purpose behind research (by universities, journalists, think-tanks and others). Facts and evidence gathered as part of research do matter. It seems incredible that anyone should have to say this some two hundred years after the Scottish Enlightenment. Certainly facts and evidence are subjective constructions and attended by all sorts of frailties, but without research on the ground or in context it is difficult to see how we can make informed decisions.

A good example of political elites choosing to ignore evidence came from a UK Parliamentary Committee on radicalization. What is interesting about this example is that the Committee when through the motions of collecting evidence. Expert witnesses were called to give evidence, they were grilled by Members of Parliament, and a report was produced. The reportreport – which attracted significant media attention – declared that social media was a ‘vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and the recruiting platforms for terrorism’. The Committee chairman, Keith Vaz, used dramatic language to state the problem and what he saw as the slow approach of the tech firms in dealing with this menace:

“The modern front line is the internet. Its forums, message boards and social media platforms are the lifeblood of Daesh [the Arabic for Isis] and other terrorist groups.
“Huge corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter, with their billion-dollar incomes, are consciously failing to tackle this threat and passing the buck by hiding behind their supranational legal status, despite knowing that their sites are being used by the instigators of terror.”

There’s just one problem with the findings of Vaz’s committee: they are complete rubbish. They manage to avoid evidence – it is worth surmising if this was because the evidence did not suit the political script. There is hard evidence on the role of social media and radicalisation. It comes from real research involving a patient gathering of data, a painstaking analysis of that data, and the delivery of the research results – regardless of whether they fit the script or not.

One of my excellent former PhD students (Teddy Reynolds, now at the University of Central Florida) conducted research on how Facebook was used by the English Defence League as a tool for organisation and persuasion. The findings – based on reviewing tens of thousands of posts using software he designed himself – are fascinating. What became clear was that active radicalisers – that is, EDL members and supporters who purposively used Facebook to promote their message and discipline the ‘troops’ – amounted to a tiny proportion of people. As Ted discovered, only five percent of those who liked the EDL page took the time to write a comment. And of that five percent, thirty-five percent posted something once and never came back. (Ted’s thesis is online). Rather than a tool of mass radicalization, the internet is a more complex space. Certainly, it is a gateway to radicalization for some, but it also a tool for conformity, monitoring and counter-radicalisation. A Parliamentary Committee worth its salt would have been able to reflect this of it had been bothered to consult actual research.

Given the retreat from evidence by some political leaders, news sources and others, it is worth reasserting the social purpose of Universities and others engaged in research. Perhaps we need to have another Enlightenment in which the importance of research and evidence can be re-asserted. One of the notable aspects of the Enlightenment was the sense of excitement and of the possible. If we look around at the funding competitions on offer from the British Government (and indeed the EU), it is notable that they are reactionary and often emphasise security and stability. The British Academy, for example, has just launched a scheme entitled ‘Tackling the UK’s international challenges’ (those bloody foreigners creating difficulties once again!) while the Research Councils UK have come together to launch a ‘global challenges’ scheme that is very much about implementing the sustainable development goals. The room for dissenting and truly innovative research seems to have shrunk.

Thoughts from Dan Smith on the UN International Day of Peace

21 Sep

This is the UN International Day of Peace so I share Dan Smith’s blogpost. There is some good news in amongst the reflections on the obvious disasters of Syria, Yemen, Ukraine …

The invention of the new Cold War

19 Sep

The talking up of the new Cold War is now reaching a crescendo. This weekend, the normally sober Financial Times led with a story on how the UK could not withstand a Russian attack. A Russian attack? Why would Russia attack the UK? What possible rationality could be extended for Russia to attack the UK?

The Financial Times story is just one of many news stories and political briefings that are talking up a new Cold War. For The Economist, Russia is anxious to move from a cold war to a hot war. Other news sources are full of (conveniently leaked) stories of how Russian jets have ‘buzzed’ US ships or how Russian submarine activity has reached Cold War levels. Every few weeks news stories emerge that Russian military aircraft have approached British airspace and have been warned off by scrambled UK jets. It should be noted that these Russian planes are ageing ‘Bear Bombers’. They entered service in 1952 (it is worth googling the hit singles of 1952 to remind yourself just how long ago that was).

In the past twelve months, I have been to various events in which speakers have talked up a new Cold War, virtually salivating at the prospect of renewed permanent tensions with Russia. I’ve heard Joschka Fischer (former Green Party(!) German foreign minister) give a talk full of realist nightmares of renewed Russian aggression. He mentioned a foreign policy of ‘a big stick’ many times. I’ve heard a senior member of the British military comfortably slip into Cold War rhetoric, almost delighting that an old reliable enemy has appeared again. He seemed to be overjoyed that the UK’s possession of what he called ‘heavy metal’ (that is, tanks) could now be justified in an era of defence cuts. And I’ve heard a briefing from a former member of an intelligence service that was so bereft of political context that it would have made a cartoon aimed a three year olds seem sophisticated: Russian = bad, the west = good. All three talks routinely referred to Russia as ‘the bear’, as though this was a shared code for an aggressive, unknown creature.

None of this is to offer any support for Russian foreign policy or militarism. The Russian bombs falling on Syria are real and have been dropped with a dreadful lack of discrimination. The annexation of Crimea, and the stoking of conflict in the rest of Ukraine, has caused real misery for millions. And Russia’s posture to the Baltic States, and its cyber-warfare, are causing unnecessary anxiety.

The essential purpose of this blogpost is twofold. The first is to point to the absurdity of the new Cold War narrative. The second is to wonder about the motivation of those stoking this new Cold War narrative. Yes, Russia is assertive, but so is the US (600+ overseas bases in 38 countries) and NATO. The Russian economy is in serious difficultly, after being hit by declining oil prices and sanctions from western states. The economy has shrank over the past six quarters, and a modernistation programme for the military is seriously delayed – simply because the state cannot afford it. Even Putin’s seizure of Crimea, hailed by some as a masterstroke of realpolitik, is best seen as a strategic error. Putin is now responsible for an additional two million people who live in an economically unsustainable enclave. The same can be said for his support of Syria’s Assad: Putin has acquired a dependent liability – while alerting western states of his intent. The seizure of Crimea and the entry into the Syrian war hardly present existential threats to ‘the west’. Putin is a mid-sized bully, not a tactical genius on the cusp of world domination: he can’t afford world domination and would face crushing opposition (Russian defence spending is merely one tenth of US defence spending).

This leads us to the second question: Why are so many people so keen to talk up a new Cold War? The most obvious answer is because it justifies their existence – as militaries, defence analysts, and armchair generals. A Cold War – against a permanent but easily identifiable threat – is a good way of justifying increased military spending, the political relevance of the military, and the renewal of nuclear deterrents. Don’t mention the evidence of just how ragged the Russian ‘bear’ actually is.

A podcast of me at the University of Oxford talking about linking qualitative and quantitative peace research

19 Sep

A podcast from me on the difficulty of linking quantitative and qualitative peace research