Archive | April, 2019

New Article by me on the state of the art of Peace and Conflict Studies. If you cannot access it then email me (roger.macginty@durham.ac.uk) for a pdf

2 Apr

New article by me:
Roger Mac Ginty (2019) Complementarity and Interdisciplinarity in Peace and Conflict Studies, Journal of Global Security Studies.

Link to article here

Abstract
This essay unpacks some of the nuances and complexities of peace and conflict studies. While it accepts that there are divisions between those who study conflict and those who study peace, it argues that there are also multiple sites of overlap and complementarity. Many of those who study topics labeled as “peace” are actually studying conflict, meaning that we have a complex “masala” of peaceandconflictstudies. Moreover, trends within social science research more broadly reflect the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of recent work.

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Can we stop using the term ‘ontological security’. It is ridiculous.

1 Apr

Can we all stop using the term ‘ontological security’? It is a ridiculous term. The concept simply means comfort or a feeling of security. There has been great academic work done the concept and it has helped us understand security in more sociological terms. This has been a very useful service as it helps us move beyond rather staid notions of security that prioritised states and formal institutions and tended to minimise the importance of people. Yet there is a conceit about the term that grates.

Many of us have conducted multiple interviews and focus groups with people in insecure or conflict-affected environments. In the history of the hundreds of thousands (possibly millions?) of research interviews and focus groups among conflict-affected areas has anyone ever used the term ‘ontological security’? Has anyone ever said, ‘Conditions in this area have improved after the peace, but I don’t feel more secure – ontologically.’? So if none of our research subjects use the term, why do academics use it?

Each academic discipline has its own vernacular and it is, of course, healthy for disciplines to develop their own debates and unpack the meanings of concepts and words. This blog is not making an argument for censorship or the ‘dumbing down’ of academic study. Yet, the term ‘ontological security’ seems particularly egregious. It relates to a very simple concept that can be conveyed using straightforward language. It is often used in relation to real people who are experiencing very real threats and situations of insecurity.

The use of such language, I would argue, represents a further stripping of the agency of people who may be under threat. We are aware from multiple sources (blogs, interviews, life histories, vox pops etc.) of the articulacy of people in conflict zones. They are as articulate (if not more so) than you or me. But using a term like ontological security seems to write over their voices. It risks reinforcing their apparently subaltern position. It seems to suggest: your narration of your own circumstances is not good enough and it needs to be (re)translated so that it can be better understood. The academic imperative of sense-making risks shoe-horning lived and embodied experiences of life into categories and concepts that may not be entirely faithful to the actual lived and embodied experience.

This is not an argument against specialist language. Many professions need to be precise in their communication. Medical professionals and others who rely on a technical jargon come to mind. But in the humanities (let’s remember the root word) we do not have such an imperative. Instead, we have made specialist language an imperative.

I should conclude by an act of disclosure that perhaps explains why I find the term ontological security just so grating. Recently I was fortunate enough to have had a piece published in Cooperation and Conflict (and I am very grateful for the opportunity). In that article I used the term ontological security. Yet I felt uncomfortable doing so. Academic strictures mean that often we have to anchor our writing in existing literature and – as this article was for a special issue on the notion of the everyday and International Relations, then it seemed relevant to anchor this piece in the concept of ontological security. And the reviewers (who were very helpful throughout the process) seemed to like the term ontological security and recommended more and more references to literature that used the concept. That is fair enough, and I gained a lot from reading that literature.

But as I was writing (and trying to convince the editors and reviewers to publish my article) I kept thinking of the people we had interviewed and ‘focus grouped’ as part of the Everyday Peace Indicators project. They were the inspiration for the paper. None of them used the term ‘ontological security’. They had narrated their experiences in very articulate and colourful ways. They had used rich idioms, vernacular insights and lots of language that grounded their views on peace and (in)security in terms of their families and communities. By using the term ‘ontological security’ I was being unfaithful to their voices. I was – I am convinced – engaging in a colonial practice. Just as colonial cartographers replaced local place-names with terms like ‘New York’ or ‘New Zealand’, here was I replacing their lived and embodied experiences with a ridiculous term.

So what to do? Jargon seems inescapable in academia. It is a passport allowing entry into specialised debates. To be taken seriously by editors, reviewers and peers we do seem to have to use an argot, especially if one is involved in conceptual and theoretical debates. I don’t have an easy answer. I am aware that we are all prone to the political economies of peer review. But I will try, as far as is possible, not to use ‘ontological security’ again.