Archive | October, 2012

This much I know.

30 Oct

1. Administrative incompetence is rewarded. Colleagues who are administratively incompetent are rarely given administrative tasks in case they make a mess of them. The administratively competent are punished by being given more work.

2. Rejection letters from journal editors are rarely pretty, but it is possible to draw comfort from the fact that referee #3 cries him/herself to sleep at nights.

3. If you get a research grant, colleagues will ask: 1. How much is the grant worth? 2. Do you get any teaching relief (i.e., am I lumbered with your teaching), and 3. What is the research on? In that order.

4. Emails that begin ‘Hi’, ‘Hey’ or without any salutation whatsoever immediately go to the bottom of the ‘to answer’ list.

5. Every discipline has at least one serial bore who turns up to every conference/seminar/workshop, sits on the front row, dominates the questions, and is an ‘expert’ on whatever the topic might be. The serial bore last published something interesting/original in 1987, but that is no bar to their boundless ‘expertise’.

6. Colleagues with impossibly tidy offices are rarely normal.

7. It is very tempting to respond to Nigerian 419 scam emails.

8. It is impossible not to wonder what colleagues who look like they find their clothes in a dumpster, don’t have a car or kids, or any apparent interests, spend their salary on.

Tartan stitch-up

26 Oct

The terms of the referendum on Scottish Independence have been announced. As a result, the phoney war is over and the parties are now engaged in laying out their case for Scotland’s continued place in United Kingdom or for Scottish independence.
Rather than rehash the arguments for and against independence, this posting will concentrate on two points. The first point is hugely under-celebrated but deserves to be shouted from the rooftops: the campaigns for and against Scottish independence are peaceful. We are aware of multiple secessionist and independence struggles around the world that involve insurgency and state repression. Indeed, Sri Lanka shows just how badly things can get out of hand: the violent suppression of a violent secessionist movement, the systematic denial of human rights by the state, and the displacement and cantonment of tens of thousands of citizens. Many Scots take their politics seriously, and have firm views on the independence issue, but the campaigns are entirely peaceful. Crucial in this has been the extension of devolved powers to Scotland over a decade ago. This experiment proved to be highly popular and has given an arena for pro and anti-independence discourses.
The participants in the pro/anti-independence debate have been too slow to celebrate the fundamentally peaceful nature of their interaction. There are complex reasons behind the lack of violence; many of them specific to Scotland and the UK and so not transferable to other locations. Yet exemplars do matter. The fact that a velvet (though obviously tartan-patterned) divorce could happen has the potential to inform other campaigns.
The second point is to highlight the very obvious elite-level stitch-up between the political parties in setting out the terms of the referendum. For many years, all of the opinion poll evidence has highlighted that Scots favour ‘devo-max’ or an enhanced form of devolution. In other words, they want to see more powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament (e.g., tax raising powers) but want Scotland to remain in the UK. They prioritise this over independence and the status quo. Yet, despite knowing this, the Scottish National Party (who lead the Scottish devolved parliament) and the UK government got together and agreed to an either/or question for the referendum. This is very obviously against the wishes of a plurality (even majority) of the Scottish electorate. To be fair, the SNP wanted the three options on the ballot paper but the Westminster government insisted on a simple yes/no question on independence or status quo. This is plainly anti-democratic and denying people what they want. Much of the evidence of deliberative democracy experiments (like town hall meetings and local consultation processes) finds that they build up citizen expectations but don’t deliver. In the case of the Scottish independence referendum, political elites came together behind closed doors and decided what people wanted.
As to the referendum itself, it will be rejected. The London-based media, the London-based political parties and London-based corporate interests will unleash a ferocious campaign against independence. While this risks being counterproductive, it will browbeat the majority of Scots into supporting the status quo. Pity they won’t get a chance to vote for what they really want.

Following the script

14 Oct

Is it healthy for individuals and societies to routinely tell untruths? Sure we all do it. Think of the most common exchanges between individuals: ‘Hello, how are you?’ “I’m fine’. Normally the last thing we want to hear is how someone is actually doing. Think of how dull a verbatim account of someone’s medical woes would be. In our everyday interactions, we’re often acting out a socially prescribed script.

But a recent trip to the US got me thinking about just how much of everyday interaction is scripted by corporations, and what are the implications of this for society? For example, I was struck by how many times I ordered food at a restaurant to be told by the waiter/waitress ‘Oh, that’s my favourite!’ This was unlikely since invariably my order was the least healthy thing on the menu and invariably the server was a lean college student who has never eaten transfats in their lives. Or when I brought an item of clothing to the counter in a clothes store I’d be told, ‘Great choice!’ by someone who really wasn’t into early middle age wear. Clearly these are corporate scripts and the staff have been told to say this to every customer. Many of the staff probably don’t enjoy this, but just get on with it to stay in employment.

It works at the political level too. At a campaign stop in Michigan the other day Ann Romney told the crowd, ‘We’re not doing this for ourselves. We’re doing this for all those out there that are suffering.’ I’m sorry Ann but I just don’t believe you. Of course, many politicians play the same game, shifting their message to suit the audience.

My question is this: does routinized lying (and let’s be honest, it is the deliberate telling of mistruths or things that the sayer does not truly believe) have implications for society? And more particularly, does it have implications for how individuals interact with one another? Clearly we all engage in a certain level of dissembling. It is the diplomatic grease that oils everyday interaction in families, communities and the workplace. But if people are provided with scripts from their employer (‘Have a nice day!’, ‘Good to see you’ etc.) does this interfere with the ability of individuals to strike up real conversations, to interact in a genuine way, to connect with other human beings on an empathetic level? I’m not sure. Many people will be deft enough to compartmentalise their corporate script and reserve it for the workplace. But over the long term, I do worry about the impact of a trend that interferes with the ability of humans to communicate with one another in a free way. One group of theories around the causation of conflict posits that conflicts break out because of miscommunication. Perhaps these scripted interactions are encouraging miscommunication and de-skilling individuals and societies from the ability to communicate with each other in a genuine way.

In defence of hybridity

9 Oct

A few recent conference experiences and conversations have got me thinking about hybridity again. The term certainly seems to be popular in Peace and Conflict studies circles, and it has been the subject of recent special issues of the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, and Global Governance, and was the subject of quite a few papers and panels at the International Studies Association.

Like any concept that has become popular (and it’s worth noting that the concept is by no means new) there is a danger of conceptual drift, with different people using it in very different ways. From my recent conversations, I’ve picked up disillusionment with the concept among some quarters, as though it is not delivering all that it promised. According to one colleague ‘It is not a magic bullet after all.’

I find this rather odd. While my exploration of hybridity has allowed me to see it as a very useful explanatory tool, I have never thought of it as a ‘magic bullet’. It is a way of helping us interpret complexity, and the interaction between bottom-up and top-down dynamics in peacebuilding contexts. It encourages us to look within categories, to interrogate the interfaces between categories, and to recognize the fluidity in situations that are often characterised as unchanging. It encourages us to think of social negotiation in the widest sense. Moreover, and crucially, it helps us get beyond very simplistic views of two separate entities joining together to produce a third. To underline this point perhaps we should adopt Mike Pugh’s term ‘multibridity’.

At a recent conference in Manchester, Thania Paffenholz noted that the message of hybridity is ‘rather obvious’. She’s absolutely right. As I see the term, it is a way of understanding a phenomenon that is the hallmark of humankind: the long-term story of the accommodation of different norms and practices. Certainly this process is accelerated and put under more pressure during international peace-support interventions, but we have seen it in colonization and globalization. It is in our very DNA. So I would propose a defence of hybridity as a conceptual lens but in the knowledge that the concept was never an all-conquering tool. Such an analytical device does not exist. Instead, hybridity (as I understand it in my four part model (see International Peacebuilding and Local Resistance)) offers us simplicity in attempting to understand complex phenomenon.

Reading matters

7 Oct

Walk into a bookstore in the United States and you’re likely to be confronted with a series of prominently displayed anti-Obama titles. I wonder if this is a coincidence, or an electorally-motivated directive from head office? Here is a flavour of just a few of the titles:
Stanley Kurtz (contributor to National Review, Wall St Journal etc), Spreading the wealth: How Obama is robbing the suburbs to pay for the cities
Dinesh D’Souza (former advisor to Reagan White House), Obama’s America: Unmaking the American dream
Michelle Malkin (Fox News columnist), Culture of Corruption: Obama and his team of tax cheats, crooks and cronies
Edward Klein (former editor of the New York Times magazine), The Amateur
David Limbaugh (brother of right-wing shock-jock Rush Limbaugh), The Great Destroyer: Barack Obama’s war on the Republic
Interestingly, all of these authors are university graduates (many of them going to top universities like Columbia, Harvard or Dartmouth college). They are definitely not the ‘average Joe’, yet they find it profitable to channel ‘average Joe’.
A first reaction is one of prurience: these books tend to be bitter and angry. They attempt to tap into the angst of white, middle class, middle America. They play on a series of fears: the outsourcing of jobs, declining living standards, an intrusive federal government. There is a real sense of American decline about these titles and a harking for ‘the good old days’. They pick on predictable targets (Obama, big government, China) and have remarkably little to say about machine politics, big banks, feral and cannibalistic capitalism, or corporate social responsibility.
It is easy to write these books off as fear-mongering exploitation. Yet, there is something heartening to be said for a society in which there is a market for political commentary. The ‘commentary’ may be partisan and didactic, but at least this is an indication that some people are interested in the direction of the country and are interested in a ‘big idea’ (libertarianism versus some form of collective action). Of course, Republican and right-wing writers do not have a monopoly: there are quite a few Democratic and ‘liberal’ books out there that play on liberal fears and hit the usual targets. Two examples to be recommended are: Craig Unger’s Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s secret kingdom of power and James Carville and Stan Greenberg, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! But they tend to be less prominently displayed in the bookstores. I wonder why?