The projectisation of Peace and Conflict Studies

6 Dec

When I survey the field of Peace and Conflict Studies I see a lot of ‘project work’. By that I mean journal articles, books and other forms of dissemination that arise from funded projects. This work is often interesting, relevant and sheds light on issues and places that hitherto were neglected. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with project work, I often feel that it lacks the concept and theory-building that really drives a field forward. It tends to report findings from fieldwork or evaluations and often concludes with policy recommendations. It tends to be (and maybe I say this because it is bleak mid-winter) a bit dull, samey and lack the big claims and arguments that seek to push debates and disciplines into new places.

Looking back, I can think of works that have been really influential to me in the study of Peace and Conflict*, and they tended to be works that arose from the authors sitting back and thinking. They were works that pushed boundaries – conceptually, theoretically and epistemologically. Certainly, these works were grounded in the real work of practice or fieldwork – but they had something else. They were making an argument, trying to break out of established ways of thinking, coining new terminology and typologies, and were making linkages with other disciplines. They were books written – from start to finish – without having to jump through hoops that a funder has demanded.

None of this is to be ungenerous to project work. Work grounded in funded projects is often of the highest standard and can make advances in terms of theory, concepts and methodology etc. But project work usually has to serve its ultimate master first – the funder of the project. And project funders – whether from the academic or policy worlds – are increasingly interested in impact. And this impact often has to be demonstrable, quick and easily translated into a vlog or visualisation. The danger is that the academic conducting the funded research has little time left over – after putting together the proposal, conducting the research, and reporting the findings – to sit back and reflect on the wider conceptual or theoretical avenues that follow the research. It takes a special kind of discipline to grind empirical findings, policy recommendations and wider lessons that contribute to our study of Peace and Conflict out of the same project. The political economy of academia means that many academics have to look for the next funded project just as the current one ends.

I should say – very clearly – that I have benefited in the past from work that has been funded by research councils and others. And I hope that I might benefit from their largess in the future. I am grateful for their support. It has enabled me to go places – intellectually and physically – that I otherwise would not have been able to go. Perhaps, most importantly, it has allowed me to work with people that I – ordinarily – would not have been in contact with. What I find very difficult to do, however, is to break out of the strictures of a project (for example its reporting requirements) and engage in the original thinking that I hope would contribute to shaping the discipline of Peace and Conflict Studies. There are a few donors out there who do encourage concept and theory-building and they are to be celebrated.

When I survey Peace and Conflict Studies I do think that it is a bit stuck at the moment. Apart from some interesting work on complexity theory (nod to Cedric de Coning and others) I do not see the blue skies thinking, original critiques, and concept-building that marked out the discipline 20 years ago. I find this odd because our concepts and vocabulary are clearly having difficulty grasping and explaining situations of chronic non-state violence in Mexico, or discourses of peace in a post-truth era, or the status of the liberal peace when the erstwhile champions of the liberal peace don’t even pretend to advocate liberal internationalism anymore. These big questions – and many more – seem unaddressed yet the ‘narrow gaze’ of project work abounds.

* Here I am thinking of work by John Paul Lederach, or Cynthia Enloe, or Mary Kaldor, or Oliver Richmond’s The Transformation of Peace (that kicked off the whole critique of the liberal peace), or Taiaiake Alfred’s Indigenous Manifesto ….

One Response to “The projectisation of Peace and Conflict Studies”

  1. Phil Vernon 06/12/2019 at 10:29 am #

    Interesting. One area that might be worth researching, is to look at project work in the round – either the work of a specific agency or some useful collection of agencies – and try to work out what the intrinsic theory of change they are actually using. Not the ‘theory of change’ as used in project designs, but the higher level theory implied by what organisations actually do. (Very few org seem to have done this – though I’m pleased so say we did so at Int Alert, with the Programming Framework that sets out a fairly clear meta theory of change.) This might be a way to marry the ‘project’ work with the bluer skies thinking you have in mind.

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