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Book out 17 June 2021

14 Jun

My Book – Everyday Peace: How so-called ordinary people can disrupt violent conflict – is published by Oxford University Press on 17 June 2021. Details here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/everyday-peace-9780197563397?cc=us&lang=en

Lots of people helped in the writing of the book and I am very glad to acknowledge them here by reprinting the Acknowledgements from the book:

Completion of this manuscript is about seven years late, a fact not unrelated to having a seven year old daughter, Flora. The book is dedicated to my brother, Manus Mac Ginty, who died much too young. He loved his family, the outdoors, and storytelling. I miss him very much.

Many debts were incurred in writing this book. Alex Bellamy, John Brewer, Nemanja Džuverović, Pamina Firchow, Martha Henry, Laura Mcleod, Eric Lepp, Ben Rampton, Oliver Richmond, Tom Rodwell, and Mandy Turner all read sections of the book or provided help with literature. Conversations with Tatsushi Arai, Christine Bell, Morten Bøås, Roddy Brett, Kris Brown, Christine Cheng, David Ellery, Landon Hancock, Chip Hauss, Sung Yong Lee, Alp Özerdem, Michelle Parlevliet, Jan Pospisil, Gearoid Miller, Sarah Njeri, Stefano Ruzza, Elena Stavrevska, Anthony Wanis St. John, Gëzim Visoka, Birte Vogel, Andrew Williams and Susan Woodward also helped clarify thinking and provided encouragement. At Durham, a ‘Conflict +’ seminar spent an invaluable few hours discussing chapter 6 – thanks are due to Emil Archambault, Olga Demetriou, Elisabeth Kirtslogou, and Nayanika Mookherjee. Alex De Waal provided access to African Union data on security incidents.

Much of the stimulus for this book came from the Everyday Peace Indicators project, and I have been fortunate to work alongside the indefatigable Pamina Firchow for many years. I have been privileged to learn from Everyday Peace Indicators colleagues Peter Dixon, Naomi Levy, Lindsay McClain Opiyo, Jessica Smith, and Zach Tilton. The Carnegie Corporation of New York has provided patient and generous support to the Everyday Peace Indicators project and I am particularly grateful to Aaron Stanley and Stephen Del Rosso. I also acknowledge support from the Economic and Social Research Council in the form of a grant to work on peacekeeping data.

Ideas in the book were honed at papers given at the universities of Amsterdam, the Arctic, Belgrade, Bradford, Bristol, Durham, George Mason, Kent State, King’s College London, Leeds Beckett, Queen Mary, Manitoba, Newcastle, Notre Dame, St. Andrews, Turin, and York. I am grateful for the hospitality and the questions.

I benefited enormously from the encouragement and advice from the editors of the Oxford University Press series ‘Studies in Strategic Peacemaking’ – Scott Appleby, John Paul Lederach and Daniel Philpott, all at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. At Oxford University Press I am very grateful to David McBride and Holly Mitchell for their guidance. The anonymous reviewers managed to perfect the balance between encouragement and gently pointing out the holes in the argument.

I am also grateful to the community I live in and the distractions it provides. I appointed myself ‘writer in residence’ in the café bus at the Chain Bridge Honey farm. Not a word of this book could have been written without the support of Mrs Mac Ginty. Everyone needs a Mrs Mac Ginty. Thanks are also due to Patrick, Edward and Elisabeth Mac Ginty.

This is the book I wanted to write and I am grateful for having the opportunity to do so.

The utter inefficiency of universities

12 Apr

Universities have been moving full-pelt along a new public management and neo-liberal track for a few decades now. Yet they are becoming more and more inefficient. The so-called reforms meant to make them more agile are having precisely the opposite effect. Rather than being institutions whose energies are directed towards teaching and research, more and more resources end up feeding the very administrative ‘reforms’ that are meant to make universities more efficient. It is madness and it goes against the most obvious law of economics: that specialisation leads to efficiency.

Adam Smith, of course, hypothesised that workers in a pin factory could be much more efficient if each specialised on a particular task rather than let each worker make  pins from start to finish. Universities (doubtless many of which cover Adam Smith in Economics 101) seem to have overlooked this basic understanding of how to make organisations run efficiently. Let me explain this from the point of view of a research active teacher: I can teach and research. To some extent I am trained to do both, and have racked up a lot of experience. I know how to conduct research and then translate that into journal articles, books, and teaching. In Adam Smith’s view, I am a specialist worker.

But a series of one-off or occasional administrative tasks that interrupt my teaching and research mean that I am not terribly productive. While we might formally have a division of labour, in reality our labour is spread across a range of tasks – many of which we are not trained for, are not terribly interested in, and need to learn from scratch. Tim Hartford had a fascinating column on this in The Financial Times not so long ago: “much modern knowledge work is not specialised at all. Might that explain why we all seem to be working so hard while fretting about getting so little done?”

Academics are asked to perform a series on often one-off (or occasional) tasks that are usually time-consuming and involve coming to grips to with a piece of software that will be used for this one task. It is the epitome of inefficiency, yet the narrative around such activities is usually one of reform, efficiency and productivity. If viewed through a neo-liberal lens it is madness: academic staff (if fortunate enough to be on permanent contracts) are usually paid more than administrative staff. Yet, academic staff are being tasked with more of administrative tasks for which they are untrained, thus diminishing time for teaching and research. The growing number of one-off or occasional administrative tasks make us generalists rather than specialists and thus less productive. For example, on top of teaching and research, I might be tasked with filling out a particular form connected with a hiring process, claiming expenses, or the administration of teaching. Because I rarely fill out these forms, it will take me a long time to complete this task.

The answer is to rebuild the administrative centre of universities. That might sound regressive to those interested in productivity but it is actually in line with Adam Smith’s views on a division of labour and specialism. The gutting of the centralised administrative capacities of universities (remember when universities used to have a Registrar?) led to the devolution of administration (but not control or power) to departments. In many cases, that led to a replication of administrative tasks. Manchester had departmental accountants, school accountants, faculty accountants, and university accountants who would check and recheck each other’s figures and come up with exactly the same figures … before everything was sent off to an external auditor! The vast majority of university administrators I have worked with are highly professional and beyond conscientious. In my view, they should be entrusted with greater responsibilities (and suitably remunerated, of course) and allow university teachers and researchers to get on with what they can do best: teaching and researching. For administrators, their professionalism and productivity is often derived from the expertise they gain by completing the same task (for example, filling out a particular form) on a repeated basis. To ask an academic to do that task once or twice a year, and have that academic spend three times as long doing the task because they don’t know how it is it be done, is simply a waste of resources.

Of course, I could dress all of this very obvious stuff (‘let specialists do specialist labour’) up as management consultancy and charge a day rate of £2,000. I suspect that universities might then listen.

The academic obituary

22 Jan

I have read about half a dozen academic obituaries and tributes over the past few months. One thing that is striking about them is that most of them say nothing – or next to nothing – about the individual beyond a glowing account of their career. It is understandable that an obituary of a public figure concentrates on their professional career. Some academics are public figures. Most of us are private individuals with jobs that sometimes have a semi-public facing role.

An obituary that charts a career and ends with a tart, ‘She is survived by her husband John and her three adult children’ seems to do a disservice to the person. Certainly many academics see their career as a core part of their identity. Often academia is a way of life, shaping where people live and their social circle. But most of us are more than our job – or I would like to think that is the case.

Perhaps the professional obituaries are a function of a deeper issue – something that might be called ‘the always on syndrome’ or an overly-professional face that some academics maintain at all times. I have noticed, even at major conferences where people might be expected to have some down-time, that many academics stay in professional mode at all times. So a full day of conference panels is followed by drinks and dinner where the only legitimate conversation topics are work-related. Possibly precarity (the need for a permanent post or tenure) encourages this permanently professional persona that some maintain. Perhaps some people feel that there should be a firm distinction between work and private lives and thus it is inappropriate for conversation to stray from work-related matters. Perhaps some people feel – perfectly appropriately – that their personal lives and any of their thoughts and interests beyond work – are their own business. But to remain ‘in character’ all day must be exhausting and is – well – odd.

Over the years, the academics that I have really respected were those who were professionally on top of their game but who could light up a room with the force of personality, who could deploy humour at the right moment in the dullest of conference panels, who could take the time and effort to show an interest in early career colleagues, and who could show empathy when required. Many of them also had non-work passions that could be seen in the classroom or seminar room. This is perhaps best demonstrated by those colleagues who bring baked goods to seminars: nothing lights up a cold Wednesday afternoon meeting than when someone brings in a cinnamon cake to share. But I have also been captivated by academics who gave presentations that reflected their love of gardening, music or horses (to name a few). There was no dumbing down in what they said – it was simply a hook that humanised them and the session.

Maybe the strictly professional obituary and tribute is a function of corporate academia, where the obituary is simply an extension of corporate branding: “We are sorry that Joan has died but don’t forget that our Institution is now 47th in the QS indicators.” I should make clear that there are plenty of humane and personalised academic obituaries that take full account of the individual’s hinterland well-beyond their professional life. And I do know of lots of cases where colleagues have felt truly bereft at the passing of a colleague. I am merely commenting on the half dozen obituaries and tributes that I have read recently that made no allowance for the person having much of a life beyond work.

So if anyone is tempted to write an obituary of me when pass I on: those dull books and articles were not the most important things in my life.

The BBC and Hate Radio

28 Sep

Northern Ireland is a delicate place. Overt violence is largely at an end but division is everywhere. Catholics and Protestants largely live apart, socialise apart, and educate their kids apart. It does not take much to antagonise the more excitable in each community. Just wind them up with a few well-worn phrases and or dog whistle images and sit back and watch them. One wind-up merchant is Stephan Nolan who has a weekday radio programme on BBC Radio Ulster. His phone-in show simply relies on igniting already existing prejudice. It is cheap in the sense that it costs little (apart from Nolan’s very large salary). There are no reports to edit, or ‘talent’ to pay. Just pick a controversial subject and give out the phone number and – hey presto – those with an axe to grind have a venue. On a daily basis cheap shot radio platforms self-appointed community spokespeople and individuals who set up their own NGOs simply to gain attention to themselves and their partisan causes.
Journalist Cahair O’Kane had a wonderful take-down of Nolan, and cheap shot radio, in The Irish News the other week:

“Sammy from the Shankill rings in and is given the airtime to vent his fury at the GAA.
He doesn’t have to be right. He just has to be loud.
And then naturally the other side reacts. Seamy from Andersonstown is on, feeling that he has defend his side.
The same applies the other way around. Unionists take a kicking on the show too, and there are elements of nationalism that can’t wait to get stuck in when it happens.
The appetite for fury is never-ending, and so round and round and round it goes.”

Nolan’s programme is not the original author of division in Northern Ireland. But it perpetuates old divisions and creates new ones. It is radio without social purpose. It does not inform or educate. It is simply entertainment – but entertainment at the cost of perpetuating hatred and division. And here is the thing: the Nolan programme is from the BBC – the national broadcaster funded through near mandatory subscription. This blog post is not a generalised attack on the BBC. The right-wing press has maintained a shrill war on the BBC for decades now. The BBC generally has a social purpose. The key point of the blogpost is to underline that the BBC has responsibilities. These responsibilities are heightened in a deeply-divided society.
The good news is that people are switching off Nolan – listening figures are on a downward trend. Many people have simply had enough of what can be described as hate radio. But the BBC should take a good hard look at itself. It is simply unsustainable in 2020 that the BBC – on a daily basis – sets fire to petrol in the name of ‘journalism’. The BBC wants us to believe – I assume – that they are neutral and are merely reflecting the views of people. But that is not the case. The BBC is not neutral in this. It is a conscious actor in a sectarian space.

Britain’s coming culture war

15 Jun

We can see the contours of the remainder of this Tory government and the run-in to the next general election (scheduled for May 2024). The Johnson administration will continue to govern with incompetence, but its large parliamentary majority of 80 seats means that it will be insulated from external criticism. Those with the stature to criticise from within have already been eliminated from the ruling party.

So what will the governing agenda look like? The first two items on the agenda are obvious: the continuing Brexit shambles and coronavirus. The latter provides excellent cover for the former. Brexit means that the UK economy will take a massive self-inflicted hit. But much of this can be masked by the coronavirus recession. The promised ‘ sunny uplands’ of post-Brexit Britain will not be delivered in a material sense. But there will be a political boon for the Johnson government in the shape of near continuous sniping against Brussels: ‘Intransigent EU’, ‘Eurocrats snub Boris’, ‘French fishermen steal British cod’, … the headlines write themselves. As for coronavirus, we are going to have to get used to it being a fixture. The government will continue its strategy of avoiding any responsibility for its initial failures. The economy will be prioritised over health and if people get sick, then that is their own fault. The government line will be that it did the right thing at the right time. Any inquiry will be less than independent and have the same impact as all those other inquiries that sit on shelves.

The third agenda item is an insidious one but it will dominate: culture war. It is prominent now (Churchill’s statue, re-runs of Fawlty Towers) but has been bubbling away for years. Tory strategists will have seen how well it works in the United States and will be working hard to further foment it. In the absence of any policies or strategy, it is a cheap way of mobilising the base and winning votes. So be prepared to see almost constant rows about statues, head-scarves, and ‘classic’ TV comedies. There will be faux outrage a-plenty as loyal newspapers and columnists make hay. All they need is a single rent-a-quote mouthpiece to say they are offended and – bingo – there is a headline: ‘Outrage as loony left-wing council question Remembrance Sunday’, ‘Politically correct Uni bosses ban free speech’, ‘Now they’re after our food’. The language games will be insidious (‘they’, ‘our’ etc.) and stoke a binary. Trades unions, protestors, BLM, non-right-wing politicians, and Guardian readers will all be lumped together. If they can be associated with a violent fringe then so much the better.

We have seen this all before. It worked well with demonising Jeremy Corbyn, Ed Miliband, Diane Abbot and many others. But this time it is part of an on-going electoral strategy in which permanent campaigning acts as a substitute for debate, policy and genuine engagement with any opposition. To be clear: the general election campaign is now on. A culture war is a difficult place for opposition politicians to be. Any equivocation is quickly branded as unpatriotic.

These are the elements that make a culture war a winning electoral strategy:

– It operates via proxies or actors who are loyal but one step removed from government. Thus if a story become too hot, the government can distance themselves from it. So, the main agitators in the culture war by proxy will be the press (now overwhelmingly right wing in terms of newspaper editorial stance) and the multiple right-wing columnists, websites and retweeters. These constituencies are already highly sophisticated and have been emboldened by their Brexit victory. Many taboos of offending people have been broken. How many times has there been a 48 hour outrage against racist comments by newspaper columnists … who are still in their jobs?
– It costs next to nothing to run a culture war. This does not require billion pound initiatives. Instead, it relies on word of mouth and retweets. Certainly there are multiple shady political operations out there – especially online, but a culture war relies primarily on stoking pre-existing prejudices.
– It taps into the cultural knowledge and vocabulary of white England. The culture war is not about some abstract or far-away notion (quantitative easing, even Brexit). Instead, it is relatable if it stick to British comedy TV programmes and the basics of history (Churchill statues and Dunkirk. Anything about WWII really. Anything history beyond that is unknown);
– A culture war is about fear – fear of losing something (privilege, identity) and of something being taken away. So it feels immediate and threatening and thus strikes a chord;
– Finally, there will be a lot of equivalence. This tactic is straight out of the Trump playbook but it works. Thus White Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter are painted as the same: each deserving of attention, each with a legitimate point of view. If things get too hot, government ministers can appear to be even-handed. They appear as neutral arbitrators who are above the fray.

If you want to see what a culture war looks like, read the Fox News website on a daily basis. It rarely reports news. Instead, it is permanent spin that politicises stories along racial and partisan lines as a default option. The future isn’t pretty.

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.

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.