Archive | November, 2014

The ever-lengthening research chain

30 Nov

The research process is complicated and can involve a chain of many actors. We have the researcher, and the researched. But to get to the researched we might have to use gatekeepers or translators. And there might be a donor involved who is funding the work and who asks for regular updates. And perhaps there is a University ethics committee and the University insurers. So the research chain involves a number of parties who stand between the researcher and the researched. Each must be approached in different ways and will have different demands: whether it is form-filling for an ethics committee or payment for a translator.

But the already lengthy research chain seems to be getting longer, especially in relation to field research. The difficulty with this is that the relationship between the researcher and the researched can grow more complex and distant. This can have obvious consequences for the research process and findings. The research process may take longer, meaning that the research findings are delayed and miss having academic and policy relevance; debates may have moved on by the time the research results are available. Moreover, with more steps between the researcher and the researched there are more opportunities for misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Three new additions to the research process have recently come onto my radar. There are reasons why they are have appeared in the research process, but it is not clear that they lead to better, more efficient, or more timely research.

The first new addition comes in the form of private risk assessment companies hired by universities to vet fieldwork proposals. I learned about this from a colleague at another UK university and I am unsure about how widespread this is. Basically, the university asks the risk assessment firm to report on the safety of the field work aspects of a proposed research project. One can see why universities, as responsible employers, would want to ensure the safety of their employees, students and anyone involved in the research process (e.g., translators or interviewees). But the hiring of a private company seems a new departure (to me at any rate). It is, of course, in keeping with the neo-liberal movement of many universities. But it seems like a wasteful initiative. Most risk assessment information is available from open sources such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisories or http://www.inform-index.org. Crucially though, the hiring of risk assessment firms is a statement by university managers that they do not trust the university academic staff to make judgments on field work. Universities, after all, are about knowledge and often they contain individuals and groups with long experience of particular contexts. Yet, if a private risk assessment company is hired the University is saying: we will overlook the accumulated knowledge of our own research staff (many of whom will be area specialists) and outsource this to a firm with access to google.

The second addition to the research chain comes in the form of the spate of knowledge transfer and impact acceleration officers that have been hired by UK universities. This is a completely superfluous tier of people who are a product of universities attempting to ‘game the system’. Let me explain. Central government in the UK runs quality censuses of university research called the Research Excellence Framework. Basically, it rates research output quality every six or so years. A key part of research excellence, according to the government census, is ‘impact’ or the policy and real world relevance of research. Universities seek to maximize their ‘impact’ score by hiring impact officers who steer research proposals and projects towards impact. This does not necessarily harm the research. At the same time though, it does not necessarily assist it by making it better. It is simply an exercise in political economy whereby governments set targets and universities try to meet them. The knock-on effect is that yet another layer is added to the research chain.

The third addition to the research chain are private sector companies and self-employed individuals that seek to help with research. Again this is hardly new, but it does seem more prominent and is driven, in part, by the risk adverse nature of universities. With universities and their insurers frowning upon field work in conflict-affected societies, researchers look for innovative ways in which conduct research. One such way is to see if technology can help. So, for example, researchers might be able to use mobile phone surveys in areas in which it would be too dangerous to conduct face-to-face interviews. Private sector companies have noticed this niche and now offer their services to university researchers. They bring with them a corporate language, the signing of business contracts, and a choice of services (silver, gold and platinum in one service I am familiar with) according to the project budget.

In other contexts, I have noticed ‘community mobilisers’ or individuals who have become used to visiting researchers coming to a particular locality and their need for focus groups and interviewees. This often occurs in heavily researched areas. The community mobilisers exist because there is a demand for them. They ‘mobilise’ in the sense of gathering people for a focus group.

The upshot of all of this is that the research chain is lengthening. Whether it is insurers or private risk assessment companies, the distance between the researcher and the researched is becoming greater. The reasons behind this are not always connected with facilitating better research. Indeed, having heard a number of colleagues talk about their frustrations at university interference with their research agenda, I suspect that we may see increasing numbers of academics conducting their own research as quietly as possible – avoiding ethics committees and the research impact tsars simply because it is too onerous, and adds little to the research process. There are all sorts of dangers along this path (not least connected to ethics and the danger of ‘rogue’ researchers) but if the process is too complicated, it will be rational to avoid complications.

New article by me. Email me (roger.macginty@manchester.ac.uk) if you would like a pdf copy.

13 Nov

Roger Mac Ginty (2014) ‘Everyday peace: Bottom-up and local agency in conflict-affected societies’, SECURITY DIALOGUE, (Online first).

Abstract

This article is a conceptual scoping of the notion and practice of everyday peace, or the methods that individuals and groups use to navigate their way through life in deeply divided societies. It focuses on bottom-up peace and survival strategies. The article locates everyday peace in the wider study of peace and conflict, and constructs a typology of the different types of social practice that constitute everyday peace. While aware of the limitations of the concept and the practice, the article argues that everyday peace can be an important building block of peace formation, especially as formal approaches to peacebuilding and statebuilding are often deficient. An enhanced form of everyday peace (everyday diplomacy) has the potential to go beyond conflict-calming measures to encompass more positive actions linked with conflict transformation. The article can also be read as an exploration of ‘the local’ and ‘agency’ in deeply divided societies. It provides a counterweight to accounts of conflict-affected societies that concentrate on top-down actors, formal institutions and conflict resolution ‘professionals’. The apparent ‘banality’ of the everyday challenges us to think creatively about perspectives and methodologies that can capture it.

Remembering

9 Nov

It is hard not to think about Remembrance today. This is Remembrance Sunday in the UK when there are a lot of official ceremonies to mark the war dead (there is picture of the one in my local town below). Even the weather seems to be in sympathy with remembering today – it is uncannily still; almost as though the weather has stopped to reflect.

I have been reading a lot of diaries and memoirs from WWI recently and it is hard not to be moved. Here are two extracts that affected me. The first is from To Fight Alongside Friends by Cpt. Charlie May, a fairly unremarkable middle class member of the British infantry who had been fighting from 1914 (he is pictured below – a fine looking man). He was at first enthusiastic about the war and maintained a terrific sense of anti-‘Boche’ (German) throughout. But he did report back, in letters to his wife, how scared he was of the war and the toll it took on his colleagues. Here is a particularly poignant extract from his diary from March 1916 when he and a military friend were in a rear area in France having a stroll:

“Ram and I strolled by ourselves along the Somme this evening. There was a glorious sunset, all flaming pinks and greys stretching the full extent of the heavens and the broad, smooth waters of the river reflected this till the world seemed alight with a soft, still radiance most peaceful and witching to behold.”

Three months later he was dead. Killed in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme. He left behind a one-year old daughter. Charlie May

19f36war2-489831

A more remarkable book, and one I would hugely recommend, is Poilu: The WWI notebooks of Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. Barthas was a private, and then corporal, in the French Army and an altogether different character than Charlie May. He was disaffected by the war from early on and his notebooks give an excoriating account of the selfishness of the French officer class and how they had little concern for the men who served under them. Barthas survived the war and took part in mutinous activities. One of the themes that comes through in Barthas’ narrative is how much he felt he had in common with his German counterparts in the trenches a few yards away. Indeed, he records a lot of incidences of reciprocal and localised ceasefires and fraternization. Here is one extract from the trenches:

“One day a huge devil of a German stood up on a mound and gave a speech, which only the Germans could understand word for word, but everyone knew what it meant, because he smashed his rifle on a tree stump, breaking it in two in a gesture of anger.

Applause broke out on both sides, and the ‘Internationale” was sung.
Well, if only you had been there, mad kings, bloody generals, fanatical ministers, jingoistic journalists, rear-echelon patriots, to contemplate this sublime spectacle.

Meanwhile our big-shot leaders were in a furor. What in the Lord’s name would happen if soldiers refused to kill each other? Our artillery men received orders to fire on any assemblies of men which were pointed out to them, and to mow down indiscriminately both Frenchmen and Germans, just like when in the ancient circuses they slaughtered wild beasts who were too intelligent to tear each others’ throats out and devour each other.”

Well said, Barthas. It is the best war diary I have read thus far of the unforgiving meat-grinder that was WWI. Yet, in WWI even the elites suffered. Twenty-two members of the British House of Commons were killed in that War, along with twenty members of the House of Lords. Today’s political classes have ensured that they are very safe.

Poppy Bling

2 Nov

One of the laudable initiatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was that all gravestones for British, British Empire and British Commonwealth soldiers would be the same. So a highly decorated general would have the same gravestone as a lowly private. The standard headstones (in Portland stone) made a magnificent statement: all sacrifices were equal (http://www.1914-1918.net/readcemetery.html). Rank and status did not matter when it came to death.

If you walk among the thousands of headstones in cemeteries maintained by the CWGC in France and Belgium then it is possible to see graves marking people of all ranks next to one another: A major next to a private next to a corporal. All the gravestones contain basic information: name, regiment, rank, number, decorations and date of death. They are usually adorned with a simple cross (other religious symbol such as the Star of David) and in some cases there is a religious inscription along the bottom. Most also have the crest of the regiment to which the soldier belonged.

The standardized headstones are a striking act of egalitarianism and stand in marked contrast to the dominant ethos of the military (highly stratified through ranks) and British society (and the seriousness with which it takes class). They set the tone for remembrance that was humane and saw the loss of a soldier (general or private) as a common tragedy with individual parts.

But over the past few years it is noticeable that the other “equal” act of commemoration, the wearing of the poppy in the weeks leading up to the 11 November Armistice Day commemoration, has become under threat from massive variations in the style of poppy. The wearing of the poppy (signifying the fields of northern France where so many young men lost their lives in WWI) began in 1921 and is very popular in the UK. The standard poppy is a simple stiff card and plastic affair, with the money from their sale each autumn going to the Royal British Legion, an organization that looks after servicemen and women and their families. It has become noticeable, especially on television, that the standard poppy is not good enough. Many “celebrities” and presenters wear modified poppies that are actually fashion jewelry: they (the poppies) glitter and sparkle and compete with one another to be more glamorous than the next. The standardized symbol becomes enlarged, adorned and decorative. In one variation, the green cardboard sprig behind the poppy flower has been replaced by a gold sprig.

With much else in society, many individuals and groups want distinctive materialistic displays. This is what the fashion, and to a certain extent jewelry and car, industries rely on. Yet it seems incongruous that the poppy becomes just another fashion accessory, something to ‘jazz up’ an outfit and add a little sparkle. It may be that the wearer/manufacturer of the more elaborate poppies give more money to the poppy appeal fund. I simply do not know. But the price seems very expensive – a retreat from the egalitarian notion behind a sombre homogenous symbol of commemoration. Despite the high monetary price of the pimped-up poppies, they seem to devalue the symbol.

None of this is to engage with the other debate on whether or not people should wear the traditional red poppy or the white poppy (favoured by pacifists) or indeed on the line between commemoration and celebration. It is, instead, to wonder about the motivations behind ‘poppy bling’ and the reduction of a symbol into a fashion accessory.