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In praise of awkwardness

25 Jul

Awkwardness …. Well it makes us feel a little awkward.

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with Elizabeth Saleh from the American University of Beirut. She talked about some research she has been conducting among Syrian refugees children in Beirut and how awkwardness was a key part of the anthropological method. She described how she would visit various research sites to sit and observe as part of ethnography, and how this entailed a good deal of awkwardness at the beginning. People would wonder: ‘Who is this woman?’, ‘What does she want?’, ‘What is she actually doing here?’, ‘Does she work for the government?’ Essentially, she explained, you have to get beyond that initial period of awkwardness in order to make progress in research.

That got me thinking about the awkwardness that is involved in a lot of the fieldwork I have done, and how awkwardness is more or less a core part of the research process. A few examples of awkwardness:

The interview: You arrange to meet someone for a research interview, possibly in a café or at their office, and there is the initial awkwardness as each party scopes out the other. Basically, they are trying to work out the purpose of the interview and your intentions with the interview material. You are trying to work out if they will be easy to interview: engaging and talkative, or stilted and hesitant. In the vast majority of cases, interviewees are wonderfully generous with their time and insight, but there is always that initial awkwardness.

At passport control: The immigration officer asks you the purpose of your visit. In some cases, you have lied outright to get the visa because it would be crazy to say that you are conducting research. That would spell instant visa denial or bureaucratic delay. So you have to tell the immigration officer that you are visiting friends or there for a holiday. Since I am usually wearing a corduroy jacket and holding a book with a riveting title like ‘The heuristics and ontology of International Relations in the anthropocene” the immigration officer is rarely fooled that I am there to visit friends. They know I am lying, and I know that they know I am lying. It is awkward and usually I am saved by the fact that the immigration officer just does not care.

The walk: Often the best way to get to know a field research context is to have a walk around. It can be very revealing about standards of living, the main sources of employment and diversion, where and how people live etc. But in many contexts, the researcher stands out in terms of skin colour, dress and demeanour. It is obvious to any observer that you do not belong there. And with this observation comes awkwardness. You are simply walking around to see what you can see. You are not helping anyone or contributing to their lives. It is an awkward realisation that you are engaging in an intrusive activity.

Recognising the selfishness of our research: I would like to think that my research is vital for humanity. It is not. In my experience, virtually all policymakers and practitioners are extremely knowledgeable and rarely need insights from largely desk-based researchers who make occasional forays in ‘the field’. To the extent that my research is useful, it informs my teaching and provides material for my writing. That in turn might feed a number of academic debates I am involved in. Those debates, while fun and intellectually rewarding, tend to be among a limited number of scholars. Yet, we study contexts in which people have real needs – often basic needs of security and shelter. From this comes an awkwardness – a guilt – that we are voyeurs or conflict tourists armed with a visa to leave.

With a colleague I held a focus group in a post-authoritarian country in the past year. As a sign of thanks to the focus group participants, we brought along lunch. Although the country did not strike me as food insecure, every morsel of food was eaten. Not a crumb was left behind. As people talked during the focus group, it was clear that they led very precarious lives in which there was much poverty and hardship. It was a humbling moment. People saw this food (perhaps because it was brought to them and slightly removed from their usual diet) as being a great luxury. I left the focus group feeling very awkward – like some sort of crown prince. I would be in a nice hotel in a few hours and could choose whatever I wanted to eat – and would not think twice about leaving something on my plate.

My immediate reaction to awkwardness is that I want it to end. I usually fill awkward silences with platitudes and obvious questions and statements about the weather. But, in the case of research, perhaps we have to accept awkwardness and work through it. If there is any upside of this awkwardness it is that it encourages us to be reflexive and to think about issues of positionality and epistemology. It might help us get beyond the nonsense (indeed, as Patrick Chabal termed it ‘conceit’) that we can be truly empathetic with our research subjects. We cannot. For the most part, our privilege sets us apart from them so completely that we might as well be from another planet. Often our research subjects have not been to university and have little idea of the nature and purposes of academic research (let alone the arcane political economies that attend it).

So what is to be done? One thing that we can do is to embrace awkwardness and see it as a necessary part of the research process. It helps situate us, and reminds us that much field research is a very human process involving doubt and anxiety. Why do none of the textbooks on field research have a chapter on feeling awkward?

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Weeding …. and peace and conflict studies

18 May

Paddy the Dog inspects the heather bed

 

The heather bed

With less weeds

If you have made it past the title of this blog post then you are a special person. Weeding hardly sets the heart racing. But, in the long summer evenings, I try manage to grab 10 or 15 minutes to weed a heather bed I have been developing in my garden over the past few years (seriously, if you are still reading, you are special). It gives me enormous pleasure, but it also makes me think about the subject I study and how I study it.

With weeds

Here are four thoughts:

Hurrah for mud under your fingernails
The world of work – whether academic study or the administration of connected study and teaching – is full of sophistry. Whether it is the study of international intervention or administrative tasks, there is often a vernacular and a series of postures that are highly artificial and take us away from real world concerns. The language of postcolonialists, the datasets of conflict scientism or the argot of New Public Management mean that we are surrounded by artifice that seems very far removed from real world problems. Weeding, and I guess other apparently mundane tasks like kneeding dough, are good reminders that the ground level exists. It is good to turn up to university meeting with mud under your fingernails – a good reminder that we all have a connection to the soil – even if that is generations ago and even if we go to extraordinary lengths to deny it.

The tough fecundity of the margin

The thing about weeds – unless you use some sort of Agent Orange-type toxic weed-killer – is that they often come back. Obviously you try to take out the roots, although that is not always possible. The weeds are a great reminder of what Iain Sinclair calls ‘the tough fecundity of the margin’ and remind me of the persistence of individuals, communities, identities and ideas against immense odds. Obviously I am not saying that particular groups or individuals are weeds (!) – merely a reminder that communities and ideas often persist in the face violence and discrimination. Weeds that I was sure I had gotten rid of can reappear and multiply. Weeds are ‘inventive’ and ‘resourceful’ in the sense that their roots can be a long distance from any obvious manifestation of the weed in terms of the stem and flower. Often weeds will be rhizomes, with complex root structures underground. Deluze and Guattari have written extensively on the rhizome as a metaphor for multiple sites of authority and initiative. Basically, weeding can make you think about politics as a network.

The local matters
Weeding makes you pay attention to detail – to the hyper or nano-local. Miss a root and the weed will come back. Forget to look under a bush, and a host of weeds might be lurking there, ready to come back next spring. The point is that weeding is not just about taking out the great big thistles and nettles. It is also about taking out the small weeds. That requires going over parts of the garden inch by inch, picking out sometimes tiny weeds. It is a good reminder that the local and context matters in relation to international intervention and local and national responses to that intervention.

One man’s weed is another man’s flower

Of course there are good arguments about whether one should be weeding in the first place. Gardening, after all, is a supremely colonial exercise in which we are imposing a particular type of order on territory. This order depends on a set of aesthetics that prioritise one form of beauty over others. What is striking is that some weeds are quite beautiful. All of this is good for reflecting on international intervention and how, in the name of peace, order or stability, it seeks to impose systems of governance and authority on others. Of course, these prescribed systems often have to compromise when they meet local and national circumstances, expectations and even resistance. All of this brings us to a world of mimicry, hybridity and the need to see intervention as long-term processes involving multiple actors. It also explains why my heather bed is not a complete weed free zone (in fact, it is often quite overgrown with weeds). I have resigned myself to managing the weeds but not eradicating them completely – that would take too much time.

And if you have made it to the end of this blog post then you are extraordinary.

Trump and the academic and policy bubble

10 Nov

The pollsters got it very wrong. So did the experts. But then the experts and pollsters have been getting it wrong for some time. British general election: wrong! Brexit referendum: wrong! Colombian peace accord referendum: wrong! Trump defied the conventional wisdom while the pundits and pollsters were trapped in a conventional wisdom paradigm.

All of this reminded me of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. I was fairly confident that the result would be 45 percent for and 55 percent against. For once I was right (believe me – a rare occurrence). I used very unconventional polling methods and gut instinct. As a resident in Scotland, I used the revolutionary technique of talking to people on the morning dog walk, in the queue at the post office, and on trains. I also looked around me: at the screaming headlines on the newspapers as I walked into the supermarket, at the particular newspapers people were reading on the trains, and what the land owning families in my locality were doing to mobilise the locals. At this point, social scientists will be rolling their eyes and imagining me making predictions on the basis of various ingredients I throw into a cauldron. But that eye-rolling, and the dismissal of anecdotal and non-conventional evidence, is the point of this blog.

Social scientists and those in the policy and journalistic bubbles often convince themselves that they have their finger on the pulse of society. I am not sure that many of them do – simply because they do not live in the societies they claim to understand. Take, for example, most UK academics in the fields of politics and IR. Newspapers of choice: the Guardian and Financial Times. Radio station of Choice: BBC Radio 4 (or 6 Music). Favourite bands: too-cool-for-school specialist stuff. I could go on. The key point is that they tend not to listen to local radio stations, read local newspapers, live in the areas where they grew up, have deep family networks in the locality they live and work.

Not only do these social scientists (and I suspect the same is true for many in the worlds of commentary, journalism and policy-making) live lives far removed from general society, but they are deep denial about this. I had a conversation with some very lovely Manchester colleagues recently about the fact that academics tend to be removed from the society around them. The conversation did not go well. Every time I made this point I was met with howls of denial. ‘Oh, but the guy in the building next to me voted UKIP, so I really do have my finger on the pulse’ or ‘My plumber, you know, I really like him, but he reads The Sun and we talk about politics all the time’. Every time I made the point that academics are removed from the real world the protestations from my tri-lingual, cappuccino-drinking, yoga and yeast-free obsessed colleagues grew more ridiculous.

The key point is that academics and ‘experts’ lack the humility to take an honest look at themselves and their removal from (UK cultural references coming up) the Greggs-eating, Foxy bingo enjoying, payday loan society that is out there. Wonga, anyone? Academics who write about sensitive and ethnographically-inspired research overseas somehow forget that they are incredibly removed from the societies they physically live in but culturally avoid.

It is this interest in the anecdotal, and its evidential value, that made me pursue the notion of Everyday Peace Indicators. The project, which community-sources indicators of peace, security and change in localities in post-conflict societies has faced enormous difficulty in that the policy world cannot take seriously data that it deems to be anecdotal, too local or non-generalisible. The project has to work very hard to say that its data (expressed in a local vernacular) must be taken seriously by policy elites. From our research we know that people live in very local worlds, and make decisions and hold beliefs on the basis of anecdotes and everyday observation. They tend not to live the privileged lives of pollsters, academics and policy-makers. We have made ourselves into space aliens (who failed to predict that Trump would do it). That means that we really need to take a good look at ourselves, our disciplines and all those methodological conventional wisdoms that we foist upon our students.