Archive | May, 2013

Following up on last week

24 May

A quick follow-up on my last blog posting (on how many of us feel excluded from our academic disciplines yet feel that we have to carry on the myth of being interested in them for professional reasons). I received quite a few emails – mainly from PhD students and early career scholars – who felt that the blog posting resonated with them. Thank you all for getting in touch – it made me fell less isolated. They felt that their PhD programme or tenure track was in some way intellectually coercive. It prescribed what they should be reading, who they should be citing, what methods they should use, and where they should be publishing. They felt that there was little room for intellectual curiosity and innovation.

What was most frustrating about the emails that I received was that the correspondents felt ‘trapped’. They just had to ‘get with the programme’ in order to get their PhD or secure tenure. They could not express their true frustrations to their PhD Panel or their employers. It’s somewhat ironic that we are in the humanities or social sciences – lines of inquiry that revolve around understanding human beings. Yet, we have created pedagogic and epistemological structures that discourage honesty and encourage dissembling (saying one thing but believing another). Perhaps academia is little different from the corporate world in which many people feel that they have to follow the ‘corporate script’ but they really don’t believe in it. The equivalent of saying ‘Have a nice day’ and having a cheesy smile is – perhaps – sharing in the collective myth that a particular piece of work is ‘seminal’. Maybe the piece of work is seminal, or maybe it is not, but there is often little space for people to dissent.

So what can we do? Well, if we look at the scholars who have really made a difference, who have inspired us through their writings and practice, then they tended to be unorthodox (many were also unorthodox in their private lives but that is another story). They tended to break free from disciplinary constraints. They often spoke ‘their mind’ (note their mind, not repeating someone else’s). And, often, they were iconoclasts within their institutions and disciplines: ready to stand out, and content not to follow the herd. So maybe there is something wrong with a lot of the orthodox career advice out there and encourages the replication of the xerox academic or faculty member, and tends to emphasise followership and ‘playing the game’. But, in actual fact, a lot of scholars ‘make it’ (in terms of being intellectually innovative) by breaking the rules. I am reasonably optimistic. I look around my own area of academic work and I see some younger scholars who are prepared to be unorthodox and who are prepared to take on ‘the big guns’. They are able to read and listen critically. Interestingly, many of them have changed disciplines; they have come to the study of peace and conflict from another field.

I never knew Kenneth Waltz

14 May

International Relations theorist Kenneth Waltz has died and there have been quite a few blog and Facebook tributes to him. I did not know him (though my sympathies go to his family and those who did know him), and I don’t think I have read much of his work. I’m sure some of it was on reading lists when I was an undergraduate or MA student, but I don’t have a conscious memory of using it in my working life as an academic. What interests me is the process through which particular individuals are identified as ‘greats’ in their field and are honoured.

It strikes me that the discipline of International Relations is a fiction (certainly a construction). It relies on a cohort of people who believe that there is such a thing as the discipline of International Relations. They have a vested interest in maintaining this shared fiction and so they reinforce it by going to the same conferences, reading the same books, citing the same authors, offering courses on it, and using the same terminology. They even have their own argot and abbreviations (not least ‘IR’). This is not to undermine the seriousness and genuineness of their intellectual endeavours. It is instead, it is to point out that International Relations is something of a club. Like most clubs, there are rules and gatekeepers.

I remember being at the BISA (British International Studies Association) conference in St Andrews some years ago. The plenary speaker was some ‘big name’ in ‘the field’. Typically, I have forgotten who it was. But what I do remember was the guy who introduced him saying ‘And if you don’t know who our plenary speaker is then you shouldn’t be here.’ Needless to say, I didn’t know who the plenary speaker was, but I took away the message loud and clear: you don’t belong here, if you don’t conform and join the club, and read the same things that we read, and honour the same people that we honour. So, for me, the discipline of International Relations was about followership, of getting into camps behind leading authors, of appending the word ‘School’ onto a particular group of scholars.

The reason I don’t have much time for International Relations (despite the fact I have an MA and PhD in it, and am now a Professor of Peace and Conflict studies) is that I have not found it to be 1. very useful or 2. very welcoming. It hasn’t been very useful for understanding the sorts of conflicts I am interested in (civil wars) and it certainly hasn’t been very welcoming.

I’ve sat through a few uncomfortable seminars in which students, dutifully giving their seminar papers, have cited me: ‘As Mac Ginty says ….’. I was sitting a few feet away. The thing was, I don’t think the students agreed with what I had written. They were just saying it to please me, to keep on the right side of me. I would have preferred it if they had used their own words and thoughts; if they had have had a go at my writing or added something to it. It was followership and very depressing. It can be no accident that we call our units of study ‘disciplines’. To follow them we must be disciplined: we must get into line, agree with selected others, cite selected works etc. This followership (perhaps best expressed in the US tenure system – and wasn’t ‘tenure’ associated with slavery?) leaves little room for innovation, critique and intellectual dissent.

Over the past few years I have been working on ideas of hybridity and resistance. I have to admit to having only the scantest knowledge of the works of Bourdieu, Foucault, Spivak and de Certeau. Frankly, although their ideas are important, I find their word very difficult to read. Usually whenever I give a conference or workshop paper, my fellow panellists or audience members mention these authors. I used to feel like a fraud, hoping that they wouldn’t uncover the fact that my knowledge of these people was paper thin. But now I’m happy to be a fraud. You see, I have got myself to similar intellectual positions as Bourdieu, Foucault, Spivak and de Certeau by observing my daily life, and my very broad reading. I hasten to add that I am in no way comparing the sophistication of my thinking to the likes of Foucault! I’m still messing about with Play Dough while they were building grand temples. I’m merely reflecting that I have been able to work out that the meanings of words matter, that politics is everywhere, and that power is often hidden and takes multiple forms without wading through their work in great detail. I have read a little of it, appreciated it, but have not done the cultish thing of reading everything and obsessively citing them.

Perhaps we need to be less referential (and indeed reverential) to ‘the greats’. Obviously we need to be scholarly and cite people when we use their work. But do we have to all cite the same stuff? Where is the law (and it is followed so religiously that I’m beginning to think it is a law) that says we have to cite Nye, Morgenthau, Kaplan, Keohane etc. I’m sure they are/were extraordinarily nice people and excellent teachers and mentors. But I just find it this followership creepy. Are we doing enough in this ‘discipline’ to encourage independent thinking, critique, innovation, the breaking of traditions and boundaries? Of course not. Because that would threaten the fiction that there is such a thing as International Relations.

Roger Mac Ginty

Dog Whistle Politics – a wonderful YouTube example.

8 May

This is fascinating. Much academic literature in peace and conflict studies concentrates on the escalation and maintenance of conflict and the ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ who stoke up passions. The clip shows just such a moment when a minor loyalist (pro-United Kingdom) politician in Northern Ireland makes a roadside speech. The immediate issue is connected to a decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag to a limited number of designated of days (rather than the usual practice of it flying for 365 days). The speaker and her audience see this decision as an infringement of their identity and Britishness.

What is fascinating about the clip is the dog-whistle nature of the politics. The speech is almost content free. Instead, it relies on familiar stock phrases that are meaningful to the audience: ‘I love my country and I love my flag’ and ‘no surrender’. It is a single transferable speech that taps into the community memory bank of key words and historical reference points. It relies on familiar tropes and narrative framing devices. It does not challenge nor introduce new material.

The speech is also high on emotion. Terms like ‘pride’, ‘honour’, ‘bravery’ and ‘shame’ are mentioned throughout. There is the usual demonising of the other side (the term ‘Sinn Féin’ – a political party on the national, pro-United Ireland side – is spat out with particular venom) and lots of references to unity without any concrete suggestions of what this might means, especially in terms of party politics.

And for those looking for humour, the speaker begins by mentioning the historical importance of her location: Carrickfergus Castle – the site where King William of Orange landed in Ireland in 1690 on his way to the Battle of the Boyne. This is an important place in loyalist, Pro-United Kingdom politics. But then when the speaker is challenged by a heckler, she dismissed history with the words ‘If you keep looking back, you’ll never ever look forward’. As with all ethnic entrepreneurs, history is there to be used selectively.

So when the academic literature on conflict escalation talks about the ‘security dilemma’, ‘the construction of narratives of grievance’ and ‘ethnic agitators’ this clip provides us with an excellent example on ethnic entrepreneurship in action.