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Looking for a dead horse

10 Sep

Gravestone

I had a couple of hours to kill a few weeks ago and took the opportunity to check out a legend that my mother had told me (or that I thought she had told me). What I remember being told is that the horse that King Billy (King William of Orange) rode at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was buried in a cemetery in Co. Armagh (Northern Ireland) just to the east of the River Blackwater. King Billy is a divisive figure in Northern Ireland. The victor of the Battle of the Boyne, he is regarded as a key figure in Protestant supremacy – and is often depicted on a white horse. You could just see the tops of a few gravestones as you passed along the M1 motorway and I was always tempted to take time-out to check out the legend. Although the cemetery was visible from the motorway, it proved to be very inaccessible. I had tried to find a route to it a few years ago but gave up after a few wrong-turns.

So, a few weeks ago, I began with an internet search. The area is known as Church Hill – a good start in looking for a cemetery I thought – but I could find no record of a church or cemetery on the map. And the landed family from the area – and their minor stately home – are no more. In my tiny hire-car, I turned off the motorway at what I thought was the nearest junction but quickly reached a dead-end. I then followed my nose and drove a good five or six miles along very narrow country lanes. The trees, tall hedges, tight corners and narrow roads meant that I felt enclosed – watched upon but not able to see very much. At each turn I prayed that I wouldn’t meet another vehicle as the only way out of the two-car traffic jam would be a long reverse. Many of the houses along the roads displayed the Union Jack or Orange Order flags – signifiers that I was in Protestant/unionist/loyalist territory. Although I come from within ten miles of the area, I was unfamiliar with this particular locality. There was a real sense of besiegement in the area. The flags struck me as defensive rather than celebratory – a tenuous holding onto identity rather than a sign of confidence. The place was only a few miles from the site of the founding of the Orange Order in the late eighteenth century and I began to feel a weird sense of history – that I had somehow stepped back in time or – at least – was in a place where history was not very far away.

After a few dead-ends, embarrassed reverses out of people’s driveways, and consultations with a 1986 map, I spied a laneway that looked as though it was headed in the direction of the cemetery. So I drove up the lane until the car exhaust started to scrape on the broken concrete.

eerie lane

Oddly, up this unprepossessing laneway was a modern house with very large gates and a security system. The house looked unoccupied, so I parked at their gate and looked further up the lane. I could see some disused farm building and could hear the motorway and so decided to continue on foot. The farmland, in keeping with the tumble-down farm buildings, was not cultivated. I began to get a really spooky feeling. The farm-buildings turned out to be much more extensive than I originally thought. There were multiple low buildings, mostly roofless now, like an old barracks – although I can find no record of a military base in the area.

Disused (military)? building

Some of the buildings had sectarian graffiti and I began to feel very uneasy. What would I say if someone challenged me: ‘Er, I’m looking for King Billy’s horse’.

Sectarian graffiti

Then I spotted a clump of trees – some of them Lebanese Cedar – a tree that is often associated with cemeteries. So I waded through chest high weeds and grass to the trees. They were surrounded by barbed wire and nettles so I could only peer in – hoping to see a few gravestones or some evidence of a cemetery. I couldn’t see anything apart from woodland. I turned towards the car, thankful that I would be out of this place in a few minutes and then saw another few Lebanese Cedars in the distance. I walked towards them and there it was behind a stone wall – the cemetery!

The small cemetery contained about 20 visible headstones – virtually none of them legible. Occasionally I could make out dates, names and ages but for the most part, the stones were worn. There were a few rocks in the ground too – I took them to be grave markers for those who could not afford a carved headstone. I spent a good 15 minutes going from stone to stone and found the cemetery to be a peaceful place despite the spooky surroundings. So content that I had found the cemetery I walked back through the disused buildings, past the offensive graffiti and back to the car. I was mystified. Why is none of this on the map? What happened to the church that – presumably – Church Hill is named after? Why had this place freaked me out like few other places had?

Cemetery

Afterwards I googled just about everything I could think of to find out more information about where I had been. Then I found a news story from 1953 that mentioned a headstone to a horse that had been at the Battle of Waterloo. So I had misremembered what my mother had told me: Battle of Waterloo not Battle of the Boyne. The stone had been taken away over fifty years for safekeeping, but my afternoon jaunt had gotten me thinking about the frailty of my own memory, and also how others remember and forget. The area was layered with multiple histories – from the Tudor suppression of Irish warlords by building a fort at nearby Blackwatertown in 1575, to the Battle of the Diamond and the foundation of the Orange Order – 200 years later, and the insecurities that persist yet another two hundred years after that.

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A walk along a disused railway line – Yes, I really am that dull

23 Aug

Signboard along the disused railway line

I had a fabulous walk on a disused railway line in Donegal (north-west Ireland) a few weeks ago and it got me thinking about globalisation, modernity and connection. The railway line was the ‘Burtonport extension’ – a relatively late addition to Ireland’s railway network. It winds through very scenic countryside and served isolated coastal communities. The line only operated between 1903 and 1947.

Walking along the line got me thinking though about the impact of the railways on geography, culture and economics. The area in question was – at the time when the railway extension was built – desperately poor. The ‘Land Wars’ were not long over and had seen multiple evictions in the area. Landlord John George Adair had evicted 47 families (about 220 people) in nearby Derryveagh in 1861 to improve the view on his hunting lodge. The early passages of Michael MacGowan’s, The Hard Road to the Klondike, serve as a useful reminder of the poverty in the area and of the drivers of emigration.

Telegraph equipment – made in Scotland

The immediate impact would have come from the building of the railway and the influx of skilled workers. While unskilled labour would have been available locally, skilled technical labour probably had to come from outside of the area. Surveyors would have built on the work on military cartographers, with Brian Friel’s play Translations capturing the political exercise involved in map-making and rendering locality intelligible to outsiders. Land would have had to been purchased, although much of this could have been done ‘in bulk’ given that a few landowners owned large tracts of land (Adair’s Donegal landholdings ran to 28,000 acres). In a new innovation for parts of Donegal, land would have had to be fenced off to keep livestock away from the train tracks. Obviously legal ‘enclosure’ had taken place much earlier with various parties claiming land and excluding others, but physically fencing off large tracts of land would have been an innovation – and a cultural shock.

This cultural impact must have been quite profound: a reason to tell the time (other than mass attendance that would have been signalled by a bell), a new uniformed profession (other than the RIC), and greater numbers of touristic and commercial visitors to the area. News would have traveled faster, emigrants could have gotten to Derry more quickly, it became commercial to transport fresh fish …

Very study gatepost.

There are still a few physical reminders of the railway in situ. The remaining gateposts – where country lanes abut onto the railway line – are of a breadth that they do not look local or indeed Irish and it is possible to speculate that they came from overseas – perhaps Canada? It reminds us that the building and running of the railway was part of a much larger political economy of empire and globalisation. Indeed, the railway was not a standalone technology – it was part of a broader assemblage of technologies. Running alongside the railway line is evidence of a telegraph system (hardware from Kilmarnock in Ayreshire) – so the railway came as a package of communication.

A raised section of the line.

 

The line was quickly superseded by other forms of transport (principally roads) and communication. The lonely walk along the line (I saw seven people on a 15km stretch of line at the height of summer) was a useful reminder that technologies come and go.

Call for Papers – Special Issue of Peacebuilding Journal

10 Jul

Peace in an age of power

The editors of Peacebuilding are commissioning a Special Issue on peace and power. Much recent critical academic work in Peace and Conflict Studies has concentrated on the agential aspects of peace but has somewhat neglected structural issues and the different types of power that are an obstacle to peace. The proposed Special Issue will concentrate on how peace scholarship and agendas can be furthered in an era of realism, hard power, the primacy of geo-politics, nationalism, authoritarianism and unfettered capitalism. Furthermore, structural power and the defence of privilege may also be being extended by the advent of new technologies of governmentality.

Peace and Conflict Studies has been very well-served by the local turn and ethnographically-inspired fieldwork. We are seeing very rich field and project data in terms of publications, which has made a contribution to the UN’s recent Sustaining Peace agenda. This fore-grounding of the local often means that the wider context – especially that involving the international, the politics behind international institutions, and the hard power of militaries – is somewhat neglected. Yet, for peace to take root and to be truly transformative and emancipatory, it seems that issues of hard power, geo-politics and the structures of states, societies and economies need to be re-addressed in a new set of contexts. Indeed, the local turn has highlighted far more than merely descriptive frameworks of localised peace or the limitations of liberal peacebuilding, but also the ways subaltern and intersectional political claims are forming and traveling from local to global and back again, as well as how such claims may be blocked.

We are particularly interested in theoretical and conceptual treatments of these dynamics and encourage authors to be bold and experimental (this includes being experimental with the format of journal articles). We envisage some of the articles in the Special Issue being longer than normal (up to 14,000 words) – although this will be through negotiation with the editors. Submissions that are comparative, seek to cover the ‘bigger picture’, and those that engage in horizon-scanning are particularly welcome. Possible themes include (but are not limited to):

– Power and the post-liberal peace
– Peacemaking and the persistence of national sovereignty
– Peace in a post-human rights era
– Methodologies to capture power

We seek extended abstracts (500 words) by 15 September and plan to get back to authors by 1 October. The Special Issue would be published in mid to late 2020. Email: oliver.richmond@manchester.ac.uk and roger.macginty@durham.ac.uk

Imposter syndrome and how I sort of got over it

6 Jun

I remember being at the British International Studies Association conference many years ago and some bigwig in International Relations introduced another bigwig with the words ‘And if you don’t know who our plenary speaker is, then you probably are at the wrong conference.’ I didn’t know who the plenary speaker was – other than an older male who looked very pleased with himself. It is just one of the countless number of points of exclusion in academia where I felt that I did not quite belong and that I should not really be in the room. Some of the exclusion is simply rudeness – the stunning lack of social awareness and professional courtesy that some academics have towards others. Some of it is hardwired into the structure and practices of our sector.

The other day, the PhD students at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham organised an interesting session on ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘belonging’ in academia – hence the spur to write this blogpost. The notion of imposter syndrome seems to be gathering more attention in the academy. Part of that increasing attention is related to a welcome growing awareness of mental health and well-being issues in the academy. But very probably issues of imposter syndrome and belonging are as old as the academy itself. People have always felt that somehow they do not have the knowledge, skills, background, or qualifications to ‘fit in’.

What follow are the personal reflections of a white, male of a certain age in (what I hope is) reasonably secure employment. In short, they are reflections from a position of relative privilege. We should be very aware that the exclusion that makes up imposter syndrome is gendered and shaped by class, race and a range of other social and cultural characteristics. If I – as a white male – can experience imposter syndrome, what must it be like for a female of colour who does not have academic English as her first language and is in a room with more senior colleagues who are sharing a series of in-jokes?

Fundamentally, academia is exclusive. There are barriers to entry, not least in terms of qualifications. Hierarchy is everywhere in terms of the titles people have and their security of employment. Perhaps the largest driver of a sense of not belonging is the isolated way in which many of us work in the humanities. Unlike many of the natural sciences where people often work in teams, research in the social sciences can be a lonely furrow. There is often a triangular relationship between the researcher, the computer screen, and doubt. It is this doubt, I would suggest, that is the key driver behind imposter syndrome – the feeling of not being quite good enough or of not fitting in. Given the amount of alone time we have, that doubt can grow and become paralysing.

So what can be done? Before continuing, I remind the reader of my own privilege. Would I write the following when I was still mired in my PhD? It also helps that I am a comparativist rather than an area studies professional who has to perfect a language and become deeply immersed in one context.

In an odd way, I have come to see imposter syndrome as somewhat empowering. I realised early on in my career that there would always be someone cleverer, better read and more articulate in the room. That person had just published the definitive book on the subject, had just landed a whopping grant, or just come back from the most amazing fieldwork. While I could string together a few stumbling sentences on the topic, they would manage to extemporaneously speak for twenty minutes with fined-tuned oratory. I had a light-bulb moment when I realised that this would always be the case: there would always be someone cleverer in the room. So I got past being paralysed by imposter syndrome and just got on with my own thing. Some academics engage with what I do. Many others would dismiss it as variously unscientific or not theoretical enough. I can live with that.

I also think that a degree of imposter syndrome can be useful in the research process in terms of epistemology and positionality. The best place to begin research is from a position of not knowing. If we already know the answers, why do the research? But if we begin from a position of (feminist) curiosity, of wanting to find out the answers, and wanting to engage with others who have far more knowledge than us, then research becomes fun, rewarding and intellectually fulfilling. If it is about proving that you are the cleverest person in the room, well good for you. But I am not playing that game.

I was also struck by the very good advice from my colleagues Carly Beckerman and Ilan Baron on the importance of having a life outside of academia. That allows us to put the inevitable knock-backs (the rejected manuscript submissions, the failed grant applications, the punishing feedback) into perspective. It also allows us to fill the space that might otherwise be filled with doubt or a sense of inadequacy. Also crucial is the social infrastructure that departments can provide in terms of coffee breaks, after seminar drinks, and other opportunities to share with others. Many of the ‘rules’ of academia are not written down and so these semi-social interactions become vital information-sharing spaces in which the unwritten conventions of academia are passed on.

It is also important that we think about the environment we create in our own practice. I was very taken by something I saw many years ago. I was just starting out in a lectureship and David Denver from Lancaster organised a conference on elections and surveys. Many of the attendees and presenters were early career researchers and PhD students. David sat immediately in front of the podium. As people spoke, he engaged in active and positive listening. He nodded vigorously, would chip in audibly with ‘good point’, and would ask questions in very constructive ways. It was a generous thing to do and it cost little. I was also struck by Christine Cheng’s chairing of a panel at the International Studies Association this year when she opened the questions by saying ‘Questions from female and early career scholars are particularly welcome’. None of this is about dumbing down or abandoning rigour. Instead, it is about reminding ourselves of the importance of civility and inclusion.

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.

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.

Bloody Sunday: Amnesty not murder charges

14 Mar

A former British soldier is to be charged with two counts of murder arising from ‘Bloody Sunday’ – a massacre by state troops of civilians who were protesting for civil rights in Northern Ireland. For the relatives of the dead (13 civilians were killed) this holds out the possibility of a justice that has been delayed for decades. There will be predictable howls of outrage from the usual sources. English and British nativism will dispense with arguments on justice and simply play to home audience.

It is worth asking what is to be gained from bringing someone through the courts for something that happened decades ago. Certainly the relatives and many in Catholic-nationalist circles in Northern Ireland may feel that there is a chance that justice might be done. But it is worth looking at the wider context of Northern Ireland – a society in which there has been a peace process but very little reconciliation. There is a strong case to be made that retributive justice has little to offer Northern Ireland – especially given the time that has elapsed since the massacre. This case will simply stir up traumas, entrench bitterness, and give many actors the opportunity to trot out tired tropes.

This Bloody Sunday murder charge is only possible because of the failure of Northern Ireland’s politicians – and political leaders in Britain and Ireland – to follow the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement with a comprehensive reconciliation plan. Various ‘dealing with the past’ schemes have been put in train but in a half-hearted way. The leaders of sectarian parties have little interest in initiatives that would put them out of business. Political attention in London and Dublin has little bandwidth for Northern Ireland (aside from Brexit).

The alternative to retributive justice is a form of transitional justice that recognises the hurt and exigencies of a deeply divided society but also recognises the need to protect the peace and move on – however painful that might be. An over-arching reconciliation plan might include a comprehensive strategy to deal with the past and an amnesty for all Troubles-related deaths, injuries and damage. That, of course, is easier said than done but one cannot help but look at the twenty years since the Belfast Agreement was reached as a squandered opportunity to deal with the past and thus avoid dragging pensioners through the courts.

An all-encompassing amnesty as part of an over all reconciliation plan would – of course – be controversial (what isn’t in a deeply divided society?). It would mean that individuals that many would regard as ‘terrorists’ would not face charges. It would mean that families would not receive forms of justice that involve a court hearing and a punitive sentence. It would mean hard choices between peace and justice. But, with an over-arching reconciliation plan there is a possibility of seeing peace and justice as complementary – as forming a reinforcing process that moves a society out of the need for retributive justice.

We now have the spectacle of former IRA members being dragged through the courts – to the cheers of unionists and the right-wing press, and former British soldiers being brought to the same courts – to the cheers of some within nationalist Ireland. What we don’t have is a reconciliation process.