Moving Out of the Backstage: How Can We Decolonize Research?

This blogpost is written by seventeen researchers based in (or in between) various settings, in particular the DR Congo, Sierra Leone, India, Sweden, Rwanda and the UK. Since all co-authors do not have a personal or institutional web-sites they are simply listed by name, in alphabetical order: Oscar Adedi Dunia; Stanislas Bisimwa , Elisée Cirhuza, Maria Eriksson Baaz, John Ferekani, Pascal Imili, Evariste Kambale, Jérémie Mapatano; Lebon Mulimbi; Bienvenu Mukungilwa; Lievin Mukingi; David Mwambari; Swati Parashar; Darwin Rukanyaga Assumani; Wolf Sinzaher, Mats Utas and James Vincent.


 

Research here in the DRC is like the coltan and other minerals. Other countries that don’t have access to it claim it and benefit from it. It is the same with research. The research would not be possible without us. Still it is people from the outside who profit from it, get visibility, funding and are called experts. At the same time we – the ones who provide access, adapt the methodology and questions and collect the data in very precarious circumstances – get little compensation and are not acknowledged. It is sort of a continuation of colonial relations.

This was one of the conclusions summarising a workshop organised to exchange experiences among “brokering researchers”, in the DR Congo. This workshop forms part of a larger research project involving also Sierra Leone and India.[i] By the concept brokering researchers, we here refer to researchers based in the research setting who regulate the access and flow of knowledge. They are often, in the literature, pejoratively referred to as “local research assistants” or even “fixers”. While accounts of research exploitation have increased in recent years, in large enabled by social media, they go long back in history[ii] and have been articulated in a range of contexts[iii][iv] in and outside of Africa, most recently in Syria[v]. Yet, while research exploitation seems particularly marked in research conducted in settings marked by armed conflict (which is the focus here) it is certainly not unique to such contexts.[vi]Hence, we encourage also researchers outside conflict research to continue reading and weigh in.

To summarise a long and uncomfortable story: there is (most often) a marked inequality between brokering researchers and “contracting researchers” (i.e. researchers often based in the global North, who contract brokering researchers,). The latter are ones who profit the most, not the least from the research in zones of armed conflict. Publishing on issues based on exciting field data in such zones provides a venue for recognition, citations and further research funding necessary for career advancement. The trouble is that the more brokering researchers are silenced, erased and made invisible in the research texts, the more the contracting researcher appears to benefit from this extractive and exploitative relationship. Not only can he/she write him/herself as the daring and heroic inquirer revealing truths in dangerous places, he/she (by not including the indispensable people as co-writers),  can also profit from single (or with other contracting researchers) authored publications. More recently, the silencing of brokering researchers and the promotion of the “contracting researcher Self” has taken the form of indulging in psychological discomforts and so called traumas related to fieldwork. This increasing preoccupation with the psychological and physical well-being of the contracting researcher often appears as quite unintentionally oblivious to privilege and positionality, disregarding the situation of brokering researchers and others in the field.

Not seldom and gradually more so, given the increasing securitization of research[vii], such research is often conducted while the contracting researcher remains in the comfort of his/her country, or stays in a comfortable hotel in a safe urban setting in the conflict zone. Hence, it is frequently the brokering researchers based in the research setting who are most at risk, at times (in cases when the contracting researchers follow to the field) arising from contracting researchers’ risky and suspicious behavior. Moreover, brokering researchers regularly do most of the hard work; provide access to the respondents; translate and adapt the methodology (interview guides/survey questions) to the context; collect the data in insecure settings, summarise the data and provide crucial inputs into interpretation, ensure the safety of the researcher, and much more. Yet, brokering researchers most often do so with poor remuneration, no insurance and no/limited funds to cover unexpected costs crucial to their safety in the field. In addition to this and despite all the work, brokering researchers rarely make it further than the acknowledgement section (sometimes not even that); with slim chances of appearing as co-authors. As Mukungilwa concludes brokering researchers are “like ghosts in the research machine: they are there, but nobody sees them.” A similar situation has been reported also in other contexts, not the least in journalism. It seems academia is not much – if at all – any better.

Continue reading

Rebels without a Cause? Safeguarding, Risk and Banality in the Prevent Strategy

A guest post from Charlotte Heath-Kelly, Charlotte Heath-KellyAssociate Professor in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Charlotte is author, most recently, of Death and Security: Memory and Mortality at the Bombsite, and ‘Survivor Trees and Memorial Groves’ in Political Geography. She is the author of very many other publications on terrorism, counter-terrorism, memory politics and critical security studies, and is currently both an ESRC Future Research Leader and Principal Investigator on a Wellcome Trust project on counterterrorism in the UK National Health Service.


Prevent is a significant part of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy. It focuses on the early detection of radicalisation. The Counterterrorism and Security Act 2015 placed a statutory duty on the public sector (schools, colleges, doctor’s surgeries, hospitals, social services, probation services, prisons) to train staff to notice signs of radicalisation, and make referrals to the authorities. On the 13th December 2018, the third annual instalment of Home Office statistics for Prevent referrals was made public. 7,318 people were referred to Local Authority Prevent boards in 2017/18.[1] Much in the bulletin replicated statistical reports for previous years.  The education sector still refers most people to Prevent (2,426 referrals in 2017/18), and 95% of people referred do not receive deradicalisation mentoring known as Channel support. Yearly reports show us that the vast majority of people referred to Prevent are not judged to actually follow an extreme political or religious ideology, raising serious questions about the quality of referrals.

For those familiar with the Home Office’s statistical reporting, this all made for familiar reading. But, something new was introduced in the December 2018 statistics. A new category was added to describe the ‘type of concern’ presented by each referred person. Alongside commonplace descriptors of ‘right wing extremism’, ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘left wing extremism’, a new category of ‘mixed, unstable or unclear ideology’ appeared. The Home Office explain that this category has been introduced to reflect those persons which ‘don’t meet the existing categories of right wing or Islamist extremism’. Instead, it reflects the growing number of referred persons whose ‘ideology draws from mixed sources, fluctuates’, or where the individual ‘does not present a coherent ideology, but may still pose a terrorism risk’. Up to 38% of referrals in 2017/18 were grouped as ‘mixed, unstable or unclear ideology’.[2]

At this moment, we reached a threshold in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. By endorsing a conception of radicalisation without ideology, the Prevent Strategy has jettisoned a major component within almost all definitions of terrorism: its ideological motivation and political character. The ‘politicality’ of terrorism is seldom adequately defined, but provides the boundary which separates political violence from criminal or pathological violence. Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman analysed 109 definitions of terrorism used by officials and academics. They found that its ‘political’ nature appeared in 65% of those definitions – making it the second most common feature in terrorism definitions, after the quality of ‘violence/force’. The ideological motivation of militants is thought to be an important component of terrorism because violence is deployed with communicative intent. Interviews with ex-militants have shown that they deliberately use violence alongside propaganda to threaten the state’s monopoly on force – weakening the Leviathan image of the state and encouraging societal rebellion. Continue reading

Feminist labour at the ISA: White manels, the politics of citation and mundane productions of disciplinary sexism and racism

This piece is co-authored by a Feminist IR collective (Linda Åhäll, Sam Cook, Roberta Guerrina, Toni Haastrup, Cristina Masters, Laura Mills, Saara Särmä and Katharine A. M. Wright).


At the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention in San Francisco this April there were, as usual, many all-male panels. However, while they remain prevalent, the number appears to be decreasing at ISA at least. At the same time as ‘manels’ have been challenged both within the discipline and more broadly, attention has been given to the gender citation gap, whereby men benefit from ‘a significant and positive gender citation effect compared to their female colleagues’. International Relations is no exception here, women tend to cite themselves less than men, and men (already overrepresented in the discipline) are more likely to cite other men over women.

We were surprised then to find that a panel titled ‘Citation Is What We Make of It! Towards a Theory of Citation and the Implications of Citation Practice for IR Knowledge and Production’ at ISA featured not only no women on the panel, but, as it later transpired, no discussion of the gendered or racialized geographies of citations. Moreover, one of the panelists has published in International Organization on this very issue. As a result, the politics of citation practice was mysteriously absent. Laura Mills’ tweet questioning whether this was ‘some subversive performance art beyond [her] ken’ received significant attention. We attended the panel, some due to our interest in citations and others out of curiosity about subversiveness at ISA. Our presence as feminist scholars was noticeable, since we far outnumbered the four other audience members. From our perspective, the interactions around this panel were illustrative of the ways in which even those who on the surface appear to address such issues, can fall into a trap of talking past them. They can in fact reify a pernicious politics, which characterises IR as just the sum of its citations.

A Limited Vision of International Relations

The vision of IR the panel presented was both particular and exclusionary. It focused both on a narrow understanding of what IR is and of who is seen to ‘do’ IR. As Jess Gifkins has pointed out, IR more broadly is “‘cannibalistic’ (of other disciplines) and ‘slow’ (amongst other things)”. It creates ‘new turns’ without acknowledging that this knowledge has already been produced in cognate disciplines. These traits were exemplified in this space not only through the composition of the panel, but just as pertinently through the myth of IR they spoke to. An elitist IR where citation practices are the measure of contribution, and one whose contributions are siloed away from other relevant knowledge which might challenge them. Yet, the panel title and the questions posed in the call for papers for the panel suggested this could have provided an important space to address these issues.

The panel title – ‘Citation is what we make of it!’ – prompts consideration of what was being ‘made’ on a panel on citation practice and its implications for knowledge production in IR. How ironic that the panel not only failed to consider the politics of their own citation practices in the papers presented, but also failed to consider the very idea of IR produced as an effect of such utterances! Arguably an IR premised on exclusion, silencing and erasure when no mention of race or gender appeared in any of the presentations. Outside of our prompting during the Q&A, there was little to no reflection of why they began and ended their reflections on citation in IR where they did, why these might be the ‘most pertinent’ conversations, and what ‘vision’ of IR was being produced as an effect. Surely a panel title invoking critical reflection on citation would also prompt some kind of self-reflection. Therefore, the title also prompts consideration of what the implications of these practices are for what ‘counts’ as ‘legitimate’ ‘knowledge’. It points to the incessant gatekeeping of particular kinds of scholarship as ‘knowledge’. For who is this ‘we’ that has the privilege to ‘make’ of citation what it will?

All-male, all-white panels cannot be separated from the broader structural inequalities of our discipline which manifest themselves in particular and pernicious ways at ISA. Why? Because when women and people of colour are absent from the stage, their contributions are also made invisible. Manels reinforce the notion that white men are ‘experts’, marginalizing the authority and experience of others. The racism, sexism, and ableism embedded within IR as a discipline become all the more visible at this conference. This particular and exclusionary vision of what (and who) IR is communicated by the panel support, rather than challenge, these wider inequalities. As Marysia Zalewski writes in reference to all-male panels at the ISA in 2015: “Why is it that resistances to curtailing sexism, misogyny and racism remain so strong? Few in a field of study such as IR would simply say “no” to the call to curtail these violences. But many choose not to notice and not to think. Or to choose to be unthinking, even offended when such violences are pointed out. And in effect to not see the violence at all or acknowledge its viscous place in our power-drenched institutional structures.”

Indeed, the very use of the language of violence to describe manels could be met with further resistance. It would be all too easy to respond that to speak of violence as enacted in and through the ‘mundane’ site of the conference panel is to descend to hyperbole. Continue reading

On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.


My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 17.40.35.png

This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading

Beyond the ‘Case for Colonialism’: Rethinking Academic Practices and Dissent

This is the second in this weekend’s pair of posts on L’affaire TWQ. The author is Swati Parashar from the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who has Disordered previously. An abridged version of this essay appeared in the Indian Express on 30 September 2017.


It is arguable that we are living in an era of anti-intellectualism, with little respect for scholarly debates and academic endeavours. Despite the odds, several academics have been at the forefront of resistance against undemocratic forces; from participating in the widely attended public lectures on ‘nationalism’ at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in support of students charged with sedition, protesting against Trump’s policies in the US, to raising voices against state oppression in Turkey. Many academics in the critical tradition visualise an equitable world and contribute to insightful research and progressive activism. Hence, when a leading academic journal, intuitively named the Third World Quarterly (TWQ), founded to encourage anti colonial critiques and voices from the Global South, turns around to advocate for a return to colonialism and its benefits, it requires a serious public debate. It is time to hold the mirror to ourselves and reflect on our own academic practices.

TWQ was established in the 1970s, an era when being referred to as ‘Third World’ was a badge of defiance or honour rather than a slur. The term is now back in circulation within critical/postcolonial scholarship and has an analytical and political purchase. The journal averred to promote “an open-minded and sympathetic search for establishing an international order based on justice”. The main financial patron of this academic venture was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which gained notoriety in 1990s with allegations of money laundering and other financial irregularities. However, the journal recovered from this scandalous association and went on to become one of the premier academic avenues for critical development discourse and postcolonial and decolonial perspectives on global politics. Academics, especially from the Global South, take pride in publishing in this journal.

The most recent issue of the journal carried an article by Bruce Gilley, a professor of Political Science in the US, titled “The case for colonialism”, which not only glorifies the earlier colonial rule but also advocates for the recolonization of certain ex-colonies. The publication of this article led to widespread furore in the global academic community, with angry petitions demanding the retraction of the published article. The statement by the editor-in-chief that the article was a ‘Viewpoint’ published to generate debate and had undergone double blind peer review, was endorsed later by the Taylor and Francis Group. It has now come to light that the editor-in-chief chose to publish the piece with major revisions, after 2 reviewers’ recommendations varied from rejection to minor revisions. As a protest against the publication,15 of the 34-member editorial board have resigned, stating in their letter that they had not been consulted about the publication of this article, and that even after requests, the reviews were not made available to them. Continue reading

The Eternal Return of Benign Colonialism

One of a pair of posts we will be featuring at The Disorder this weekend on the Third World Quarterly affair. This first contribution is from Naeem Inayatullah, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, who has visited with us before.


In “The Case for Colonialism” (2017), Bruce Gilley calls for a return to colonialism. He asserts that colonialism brought great benefits to Third World states, that these gains were squandered due to a premature granting of independence to the former colonies, and that only a re-colonization by Western states can develop lost capacities. Many scholars are outraged by Gilley’s publication. Some have called for its retraction while others demand that we ignore it altogether. I think we make a mistake in underestimating this event.

We need not express surprise by Gilley’s presentation. He is only the latest in a long line of scholars and policy makers that have made such claims for decades and for centuries.  For example, Robert Jackson’s Quasi-States (1990) makes similar arguments but without Gilley’s polemical bite. Jackson’s book itself expands on an influential article he wrote with Carl Rossberg, “Why Africa’s Weak States Persist,” (Jackson and Rossberg, 1982).  Indeed, the tone and substance of Gilley’s presentation is widespread in our time. We can find it in the work, for example, of Max Boot (2002), Robert F. Cooper (2002), Niall Ferguson (2008), Michael Ignatieff (2003), Robert Kagan (2002) and Robert D. Kaplan (2003). Some Marxists make comparable claims: Bill Warren in Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism (1980) argues that the Third world needs more, not less capitalism and imperialism. Imperialism, as capitalism’s pioneer first destroys and then reconfigures all other cultures. This creative destruction is the condition for moving the world to socialism and to communism. The political bent of these mostly academic writers can range from Marxist to liberal to conservative. But they all require former colonizing states to accept the responsibility of doing good for others via a benevolent imperialism/colonialism. Nor are eminent philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx, short on praise for imperialism’s and colonialism’s value to subjected people (Blaney and Inayatullah 2010, chapters 5 and 6).

If our response is disbelief, we might wish to familiarize ourselves with the academy’s centrality in propagating a colonial praxis. Indeed, many have said that academia is an effect of empire, that King Leopold’s dream of creating universities to propagate and refine colonialism has been true for some time.

Three elements make Gilley’s article different from the usual.

Continue reading

The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

Continue reading