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Posting again


Well, the research leave is over since quite some time but bizarrely neither the book is finished nor have these blogposts written themselvs. Hm…..

So I decided to take up writing again. I can tell that it will not be as frequent as before and probably shorter pieces (or maybe not). But it will be again on my readings on peace and war in the world and this and that thought, idea and reflection. Just to repeat it again, this blog is not an academic paper repository. Some of what I write is polemical, yes. Some of it might be not well digested, yes. Some of it might be utterly indegistable, yes. That’s what blogs are for. They are a repository for ideas and arguments that might (or might not) become parts of more polished, sophisticated, weighted, balanced and I don’t know what papers. These blogs are my little fridge to keep these ideas fresh.


Research leave


I’m on research leave. Strange and increasingly seldom thing to happen to academics, and even stranger and rarer for academics in management positions… So, I’m hovering over my book manuscript (last printout burried somewhere in the pile of papers on the right) on The Peacebuilders. Now, this turns out to be a greater adventure than what I thought it would be. So the blog, too, is on leave now. The list of future entries gets longer though, so I’ll be back!


One intervention, two winners, tout bénéfice!


Despite their January promise to be out of Mali within a couple of weeks, France is still engaged in chasing alleged terrorists through the Atlas mountains. Yes, remember! The war in Mali. Well, the French are still there (and the fifth French soldier has been killed just a couple of days ago). Yet, after having bombed out and killed the presumable leadership of AQMI (Al Qaeda in Mali) the war could be declared over. After all, it is already obvious who the main winners of this intervention are: the French Légion Etrangère and Mali’s putshist president Traoré. The former has successfully proven worthy of its long tradition of chasing natives in Africa. Relying on Chadian auxiliary forces with their exotic camel scouts and the Malian army which was given the honourable task of terrorising the population, the Légion Etrangère showed that good old school tactics of hunting down the ennemy are still more effective at keeping unorderly rebels at bay than drones and waterboarding. One could, disrespectfully, argue that blowing up so-called terrorists in the desert by the aid of hundreds of men, drones, telecommunications, satellites and camels, and, not to forget, more than 100 million Euro, constitutes in the end a rather meager victory yet! compared to US efforts to hunt down Bin Laden and to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, the French excursion in Mali does seem quite successful. Those French nationalists who still believe that the world would be better off if it were ruled by them and not those uncultured Americans have had their most gleeful moments in the past couple of weeks.

The greatest winner of this war, is, however, without any doubt, Mali’s President Traoré. He won on every front: The French have kindly bottled up the Touaregs and chased away other rebellious elements in the North of the country, so he’s rid of that problem; Traoré showed the rest of the world and most notably the big money givers how decisively anti-islamist Mali is; he also has successfully convinced the rest of the world that his army needs better equipment and training and more money, which is something that a former general who putshed himself to the president’s office should always be pleased about; furthermore, he has gained international legitimacy for his regime by talking the international community’s talk of elections and reconciliation missions and he has successfully set into motion the rally-around-the-flag effect within Mali by first scaring Malians in the South ouf of their socks and then reaping the fruits of their excitement that their former colonizers still have such an efficient Légion Etrangère. And if Traoré is lucky and the international community decides to reward him for all these brownie points, he’ll get a real UN mission in his country with all the UN agencies, NGOs and other elements of the emergency caravane. What an economic booster that will be! For him, this intervention clearly was “Tout bénéfice”!



Touché! Operation succesful, patient dead.


Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, or AQMI by its acronym has been in the past designated as France’s new public ennemy no. 1 and so President Hollande might have opened a nice bottle of champagne when the Algerian television anounced that the Tchadian desert troops had tracked down Abou Zeid, the leader of AQMI and French airforces had bombed him and 40 of his collaborators to death. They even assert having killed the infamous Belmokhtar who is seen responsible of the kidnapping of In Amenas. However, the French ministry of defense is for the moment not confirming this. Now, the death of Abou Zeid and of Belmokhtar is certainly nothing to be sad about. Zeid, too, is allegedly responsible for the kidnapping of tourists, journalists and humanitarian workers and supposedely killed the Briton Edwyn Dyer in 2009. No, they were certainly not the kind of man you would like as your next door neighbour. Some say Abou Zeid strangled Dyer to death with his own hands although very few of reports wonder how we can know this if there is not even a reliable photo available of him. He has, indeed, all of a mystic figure: neither his age nor his correct name are known, there is no reliable picture available, in some reports he is described as ferocious and vicious, in others as cold and determined…Yet, now that he’s dead this does not really matter anymore. What does matter and what has, however, been much less discussed in the media is his capacity to build up, lead and actually quite succesfully lead an armed group in the desert. From where is he recruiting? How are these men trained? What ARE, once again, their goals, their politics?

If there is anything that is coming out of this desert crusade it is slightly more information about these kind of groups. Following the flight of AQMI from Timbuktu several papers have been unearthed which outline the strategy and politics of this group. Interestingly, these papers seem to be a far cry from simple propagandist babbling and resemble any typical bureaucratic policy document with clearly outlined and structured chapters, lessons learnt, procedural guidelines and recommendations for action. The document shows that Abou Zeid was not an illuminated madman or simply a bandit but well a leader who used violent means strategically to realize a political project. This, in turn, means that AQMI’s attractiveness for potential recruits stems less from material gains (which anyway given the hardships of desert fighting is a flawed argument) but from a political vision that is shared by a wider population. As we might further assume it is attractive because it is a response to a deep social conflict in those countries (Mali, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger etc.).

This is the crucial to understand why even this killing will not fundamentally change the situation on the ground. If AQMI is a political response to a social conflict it will remain attractive beyond the conjectural leadership of a certain Abou Zeid. Of course, another leader might not be as skilled and successful in finding finances through kidnappings, another leader might not be as a good a military strategist as he was but another leader might also be even better. Leadership is important yet the phenomenon AQMI might be more founded by underlying social and political conflicts than by momentanous and sporadic movements.

If France and Mali were out to eradicate such movement they will need to consider more than police actions which, apart from being only partially successful in terms of ridding the country of “terrorists”, also have the effect of undermining any potential for democracy, law and justice. At least if these are understood to be protecting citizens against state violence, to be assuring a minimum of fair process, and to be making legality a higher value than vengeance and arbitrary killings on suspicion. Killing the AQMI leadership and its fighters does not solve the political problem; it actually risks rather igniting more and new fighting as state suppression most often radicalizes opposition movements and provides new justifications for radicalisation.

In a talk at Oxford University, Alan Kuperman makes this point which he has developed in several articles under the title of “the moral hazard” of interventions. In his talk, Kuperman meticulously pulls apart the disinformation on the Libyan crisis and intervention. He then compares the casualties and dead of the fighting going on before the intervention and the estimated casualties and dead accounted for due to the intervention. He concludes that the intervention has not only prolonged the fighting but also aggravated the violence, spoilt the post-conflict environment and led overall to more unrest, misery and plight than Khadaffi’s suppression of the rebellion of spring 2011 did. Instead of saving lives, the intervention had cost lives and created greater instability, among other by dragging Northern Mali into war. The moral hazard of the Mali intervention is yet to be determined. Human Rights Watch has been documenting abuses and summary executions by Malian soldiers in the wake of the French intervention as have newspaper reports.

And what is it all for? This the French government has still not convincingly explained. Over 100 Million Euro to track down 40 men, holed up in a desert mountain, several thousand kilometre away from France certainly do not represent a major terrorist threat to Paris. For the time being, the economic interest hypothesis remains the more convincing one; after all, it is the French company Total that has the priority right for oil, gas and mineral prospection in exactly that area…Add a good dosis of neo-colonial disciplining of developing countries, uhm, sorry, support for friends…and a quick fillip in direction of the US that yes, France, can still tidy up its own backyard…then probably we’re closer to the reflections of the French ministry of foreign affairs, its ministry of defense and the presidential advisers than following up on the terrorist argument.



The US’ xenophobic drones or why the Republicans don’t want to confirm Hagel


So, the Republican senators do not want to confirm Hagel as Secretary of Defense on the grounds that his answers to questions about the legal grounds for the domestic use of drowns were considered insufficient? Should the Republicans all of the sudden have discovered their hidden consciousness for human and civil rights? Far from it. On the contrary, this debate just clearly reveals how deeply xenophobic the war on terror is.

Humanitarian interventions, the war on terrorism and interventions under the responsibiltiy to protect doctrine are all considered to be decided on the universal grounds of human rights and humanity. Consequently, the means of violence deployed are supposedley taking into consideration the universal human rights of menkind or so it is often argued. If drones are used in this struggle and “islamists” or other “terrorists” are killed then this has, up to now, caused little outrage; on the contrary many even argue that drones are a means of killing that is particularly respectful of human rights as it allows precise targeting of the person to be killed.

But now that the US Department of Justice is thinking of using drones for targeted killings of US citizens, or to be more precise of US cititzens under suspicion of being “terrorists”, and to do so on US territory, there is nothing universal anymore about terrorist threats and the way to deal with them. Now there is outrage in the US. Now the Senate has questions to ask about the legality of these killings. Now congressmen and women have a word to say. Now special commissions should be created. Killing people is one thing, killing Americans is quite another, it seems. The war on terror is now openly revealed to be a war against the US’ other as, by definition, a US citizen seemingly cannot be a terrorist. And even if he (or she) ever was, then this would have to be proven in a lawful procedure first in the great ol’ country of the rule of law…Yet, as the celebration of torture in recent Hollywood films shows, the least the war on terror needs is such fancy decorum as rightfulness, legality or rights so it’s absolutely fine to put away with this stuff for those outside the US. It’s like turning the Declaration of Independence on its head: if the Declaration can be read as a universal invitation to everyone who is pursuing happiness to become a US citizen, then the war on terror has redefined this as a doctrine where anyone who is not a US citizen is not pursuing happiness and, potentially, hostile to the American dream…in short: a terrorist. So, in the Republican’s view there is the US and its citizens, and there is the world out there and its terrorists.

It’s 2013 by the way, year 16 after Netscape.


Sandcastles and dustclouds in Mali in the aftermath of France’s intervention


In his novel “Desert” the noble prize winning French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio describes the two waves of destruction to which nomad cultures in the Sahel have been subjected in the past 100 years: French colonialism on the one hand, and modern labour migration to metropole and the alienation that goes with it, on the other. Whereas French immigration policies since the 1980s have ever more drove the latter to its climax, the arrival of French troops in Timbuktu has signed off another chapter of the first. In fact, French troops had taken Timbuktu already in 1894. In Le Clézio’s novel, the link between the two narratives is the family and love story that connects the main characters. However, from a political history point of view the connection of both is the ways the Western, in this case the French state has appropriated, used, abused and pushed around the political entities in the Sahel and its people, whether by subjugating them to colonial rule or by exploiting them as cheap, immigrant labour. The current intervention of France in Mali has all of perpetuating this pattern. What is at stake in the North of Mali? As before the groups that the French were (supposedly) battling were constituted of people whose primary objective was to extract themselves from the state and its characteristics, whether imposed nationality and “national culture” or taxation and rules. As before their way of living and making a living, does not fit the state’s aims, whether the Malian or the French. Remember that it is the state’s costums booth that transforms long-distance trading into trafficking and smuggling. Yet, contrary to Le Clézio’s novel and the impression one could gain from past events, most often these groups seek to evade the state and its forces rather than to fight them directly. Using their intimate knowledge of the extremely difficult terrain as well as their capacities to survive in this hostile environment, these state-evading groups have commonly retreated into the desert, away from the  grip of the state.

When France started marching on Timbuktu last week much of this hide-and-seek game seem to be repeated. The French met no resistance when they “took” one city after the other…the “terrorists” had evaporated. Finding them is an almost impossible task if the sheer vastness of the territory is considered. However, searching them is a perfect excuse for the US to send in their drones for surveillance of the vast Sahel desert. What exactly they are seeking and who these people are and what kind of threat they represent other than not accepting the state (which is for a state, of course, bad enough)…nobody yet knows.

If the French intervention has confirmed the Malian government in its belief that only force can hold the country together and keep whatever rebellious group out and down, it has not solved any political problem at all. Although Mali has anounced that it would take up negotiations with those groups who have abstained from violence, there is a large array of indicators that such initiatives are bound to fail. In fact, during all this marching and winning battles, no one, neither the Malian government nor the Western decision-makers have proven that they actually knew who these groups are, by what they are motivated and what kind of modus vivendi could be found. France, by the way, happily makes known that they actually never cared, they just intervened to show who the strong man is (by the way confirming Jean-Louis Arcand’s argument that the whole operation is a marketing campaign to rid President Hollande of his marshmellow image) and now that this is done, they’ll go home as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius declared: “Maintenant, c’est aux pays africains de prendre le relais. Nous avons décidé de mettre les moyens en hommes et en matériel pour réussir cette mission et frapper fort. Mais le dispositif français n’a pas vocation à être maintenu. Nous partirons rapidement”. (Now it’s up to the African countries to take action. We have decided to provide men and equipment to make this operation a success and to show strong muscles. But the French mission is not meant to stay. We will leave quickly.)

Yet, there are quite some things happening which clearly should not be part of any “liberation” or intervention to save civilians and which legitimately raise doubts over the Malian goverment’s willingness and capacity to negotiate successfully a political solution. In Gao and in Timbuktu, Arabs and Touaregs or people who were said to be Arab or Touareg were violently attacked, their shops plundered and cases of lynching were reported. Furthermore, past experiences with African “peacekeeping” troops leave little hope that they can decisively advance a protracted conflict towards resolution. Not only have African troops (albeit others, too) been involved in many cases of abuse, extortion and violence, they also represent a bunch of autocratic governments that barely agree among themselves and who certainly have not shown any particular sensitivity or capacity to deal with non-state and secessionist groups and claims. As Jeffrey Herbst has pointed out long time ago there is nothing more stable and immobile in Africa than the state borders set by the colonial powers, and this is so particularly at the wish and travail of the African, metropolitan and elite governments themselves. The metaphore does not quite fit the climate but sending in African peacekeepers sounds very much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The paroxysm is reached when the Malian’s government sole plan for pacification is to propose elections. Not only do we know from sufficient scholarly research (let’s just mention Snyder/Mansfield’s study) that elections tend to exacerbate tensions and may actually lead to escalation, this proposition comes additionally from a putshist government! It’s now one year that the “interim” President Diokounda Traoré has promised elections, there is little reason to believe that they will live up to this promise now. Last november he showed his discontent with the prime minister by having him simply arrested by the army and, after a short stinch in an army camp outside town, declare his “resignation”.  Clearly a sign that this President is committed to peaceful deliberation and dialogue, and predisposed to give up power when elections or constitution require him to do so…What will happen is that with an extended network of UN agencies, African Union institutions and NGOs the government will be able to stretch its bureaucracy into these regions which are far removed from the political centre, hence, extending a little bit farther its claim to statehood without having actually to provide any state services…

World literature is usually recognized as such because the stories told and the way they are told go beyond the national or cultural particular identity of the story teller. They speak, so to say, to the whole world as they sublimate the specific themes into more general, timeless and ahistorical narratives which can be recognized by many more than the culturally initiated. The great dust cloud stirred up in Mali has only re-ignited a circular movement where colonial power, oops sorry former colonial powers work together with local sedentary chiefs to establish and uphold a mirage of stateness by the way criminalising, marginalising and radicalizing those groups whose mode of life, culture and production evade the categories of the state. Their violent and radical reaction serves as excuses for expanding again statist security and surveillance, hence pushing these groups again further into the desert, hence marginalising them even more, hence….and the wheel keeps on turning….



Wouldn’t it be nice…?


if the Malian’s defense minister’s optimistic prediction became true that the war would be over in a couple of days? Yet, one does not need to be a great military strategist to be suspicious of the easiness with which the French troops are advancing. The armed groups in Northern Mali certainly are not so silly that they would throw themselves against the French upfront, lined up and in proper Clausewitzian combat formation? They certainly know better and are patiently hiding out in the “backland”. But let’s just assume that they were really, fully defeated. What will happen next? What are the plans for post-intervention Mali? The Touareg conflict is as old as Mali’s statehood and will flare up again. Given that the Malian army is already accused of exactions, it might flare up extremely quickly. And what deeper problem has this military intervention solved? None, as Rue89 argues and they have a couple of points to make, most notably that this military intervention has rather added another layer of hatred and complication to the already nasty relationships between the North and the South, and that the President has very little, if nothing to say about the day after. Après nous, le déluge…


France in Mali…. le bordel, quoi!


Like every socialist French government of the post-Cold War era, president François Hollande had pledged to set an end to French interference in African affairs, to end “la Françafrique”. Like it happened with every socialist French government, it took merely a couple of months to set an end not to Françafrique but to pledges of ending French fumbling around in their African “précarré”. But even if this intervention is consistent with France’s general interference in this region, the question which concrete motives have pushed the president to send in the troops now comes up (in this interview the former Director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense Vincent Desportes speaks of 3000 men to be in the region soon).  In the French media, there is a lot of speculation but little confirmed information. The president’s declarations are not very elucidating or helpful, either, as he speaks of helping a befriended country (“pays ami”) or forestalling an islamist threat on Europe, both of which are not only contradictory motives to invoke (wouldn’t there be the risk that French islamists get upset over their government right now?) but also not very convincing. The armed conflict in Northern Mali has been dragging on since almost a year, the Malian government is barely legitimate as it has come to power by a coup d’Etat and what kind of islamists actually are involved in the conflict, where they come from, how many they are and what their goals are is, for the time being, still cloaked in dust and vagueness. As for the other motive invoked, namely “saving French citizens” one wonders if a simply evacuation operation would not be more appropriate, cheaper and less, how to say, raising dust?

Several analysts speculate that the motives of securing and maintaining access to valuable natural resources in the triangle Northern Mali, Mauritania, Niger are the most important. Indeed, a large part of the uranium of French nuclear power plants comes from this region and French companies are heavily involved in the extraction of gas, oil and minerals. A propensity of supporting conservative but secular authoritarian regimes like Boutelfika’s Algeria suits well with such a strategy of using French military to secure the access to mineral resources as the past has shown that these governments rely heavily on the export rent and are, consequently, “manéable à merci”. Like the US, France always had much better relationships with authoritarian dictators in Africa than with popular or even democratic regimes, and in the case of Algeria this is certainly the case since the Algerian people were unfortuante enough to vote for the FIS (Front islamique de salut) in their first and subsequently stolen elections in 1991. Indeed, France’s schmoozing with Algeria has since always been disquieting given the latter’s way of fighting its own “war on terror”. For Algerians, the regime’s friendliness with whatever French government must have been even more disheartening given the latter’s sometimes hysterical immigration policies, growing and ever more visible islamophobia and mischievous treatment of anything related to its colonial past, whether apologizing for the Parisian “ratonnade” of 1960 or the compensation of Algerian harkis. For both, taking action against long-declared ennemies of the state, the Touareg and its new allies, must be a most useful propaganda campaign.

The islamist threat is another route to go down if one is looking for reasons of this intervention and it is the reason French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had put forward in an interview with radio “Europe 1”. Yet, what remains largely unclear is what is actually meant by “islamism” in this context. Of course, the one-size-fits-all label of “Al Qaida” appears now and again, and, of course, all these islamists are all salafists. The problem is simply that both labels don’t tell us an awful lot about what these people want, who they are, where they come from, what they are fighting for or against and so on and so on. The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan goes that far to simply deny that radical islamism exists in the Sahara and claiming that this is all a set-up of the Algerian secret services.

This is, obviously, an unevidenced and hardly provable conspiracy theory yet it points to the utter ignorance and confusion once more serious questions about the programme, identity, organisation, or even nationality and support of these so-called islamists are asked. Some of them seem to be Touareg, some not. Some seem to have been financed by Qatar, some not. Some seem to be “left-overs” of the Lybian war, some are coming apparently from Algeria, and others are “Malian” by name although not by allegiance. Indeed, as this analysis makes believe there internal dissensions and distinctions make these groups appear less unified.

Since In Amenas it is obvious that some of these groups do represent a major threat to econmic interests in the region and to the people and living in their way, yet, even with the claim of  Mokhtar Belmokhtar to be representing Al Qaida. According to Jeremy Keenan’s “The Dark Sahara”, Belmokhtar was in the past rather involved in smuggling and trafficking than in radical Islam although he has been listed in 2003 on the UN black list of Al Qaida members. As of most terrorists, very little is known of this man, his intentions and workings. Al Qaida also does not seem to be the principal group in Northern Mali that promotes the instauration of Islam as political system but Ansar Dine which up to now has not been engaged in fighting and killings. How are the two related, if at all? No clear information available on this.

Hence, there is much more speculation than secure knowledge about the various armed groups, their finances and financiers, the sources of their armement, and their goals and aims. Even more confusing is the question whether they are allied with the Touareg forces, namely the MLNA (mouvement pour la liberation nationale de l’Azawad), or not, and if this is an alliance of convenience or of a more durable kind. Just now the MLNA anounced that it would fight back the “islamists”.

Given that little is known about these groups and that they are rather represented as terrorists in order to make up for this little and uncertain knowledge,  the argument that they represent a threat to Europe is, to say the least, surprising. The right wording does seem to be rather that they are threatening European economic interests in the Sahara. They are also threatening a political order which is certainly not democratic or free but determined to protect their “good relations” with France. And this is why they are considered dangerous by the French government. Hollande is leading a very simplistic, post-colonial and short-sighted intervention, that’s all. And that will probably soon be too much. Just as other operations of this kind, France is actually risking to make the situation more complicated and to engage in a much more protracted and long-lasting war of attrition than they expect.  Critical and notably self-critical reflections on how and why France has contributed to “terror” in the world are indeed not the most obvious characteristic of this or any other French government. It is dragging other countries like the Chad into this operation, thereby legitimizing their anything but democratic governments, it is polarizing even more the antagonism between the Touareg and the Southern Malian population making any political solution to the Touareg’s claim to autonomy (or even independence) move far away, it is conferring unwittingly a legitimacy to the radicalization of Islam in the region, it is reinforcing fears of islamist terorrism in France and in Europe hence playing into the hands of its own right-wing xenophobic parties and probably generally intesifying islamophobia in France, it is intensifying the guerilla tactics of those armed groups hence offering more opportunities for small arms circulation and, if Stathis Kalyvas “Logic of violence in civil war” is to be believed creating more situations of brutal exactions as uncertainty of the population’s loyalty is increasing, and as one common consequence of most assymmetric and guerrilla wars of attrition is the mushrooming of camps and detention centres with their practices of surveillance and torture, it is pushing even more the war in the shadows…in short it will be creating a much bigger mess than what it can fix.




Why surveys will not tell us why they fight.


Reacting to my post on the Stapel Affair Macartan Humphreys sent me an email the other day saying that he was very unhappy to see his research being described as uncritical. Unfortunately, an email exchange is not quite the right communication mode to discuss such matters and even more disappointingly he refused to write his own blog post here to set straight what he thought I got wrong. Yet, the exchange did allow me to reformulate my reservations about using surveys to investigate why people would take up arms and engage in a violent conflict and it might be useful to repeat them here. To get this straigt, however: in my post where I talk about Humphreys and Weinstein’s survey “Who fights?” I do not say that there methods is in any way fraudelous or that they are sloppy or inaccurate in their scientific procedure; on the contrary both are, indeed, very diligent in documenting their data collection and in providing explanations about the process of research.My argument was, however, that by using an extremely inappropriate method, namely surveys, they make themselves complicit of shaping and maintaining an externally created narrative of the reasons and causes of conflicts which might be, can be, could be but very probably is not what the interviewees would say were they allowed to speak in their words and narratives. Surveys in particular deprive the interviewees of their own voice as surveys are only efficient tools of data collection if all data is formatted in the same categories and definitions.

Hence, there are two type of objections that I have about survey research: the first set of reservations is about the methodological weaknesses of surveys more generally and for obtaining knowledge about people’s “real” motives in particular; the second set of objections concerns the scientific logic that makes researchers use surveys in the first place, i.e. of a more epistemological order. As far as the first set of objections is concerned, it is noteworthy that surveys are blunt tools if one seeks to find out the “real” motives (whatever those might be) of people’s doing and  especially of their wrongdoings.

However private the athmosphere of the questionning, interviewer and interviewee meet up as strangers and the interviewee will, in the large majority of cases, show her public face. When talking students in methods classes through survey design I like to cite the example of one question of the World Value Survey that asks “Is prostitution defendable?” with the possible answers “under no circumstances, under some circumstances, sometimes, always”. In China the answer is to more than 87% “under no circumstances” which makes my students laugh heartily and whoever has watched the nightly traffic in any hotel in China knows why. Of course, prostitution is as endemic in China as it is elsewhere in the world (maybe even more so as China is still a country where marriage and sex are seen by many as two very different things) but prostitution is also morally highly frowned upon and, consequently, in this culture where “face” is even more important than in other;s no matter how confidential the interviewing athmosphere is, it is extremely hard to get the large majority of people to admit that they even know what prositution is.

There are, apart from the very factual sociologial base data, not many questions where people are not compelled to keep up their public face when confronted with questions in surveys. Very few people want to be seen as thinking differently from the pack, to stand out or not to say what they think is the socially acceptable thing to say. Of course, if the research is concerned with this public face then surveys are a fine method to see how homogenously public discourses and standard narratives are spread, how well people acknowledge the lingo of those and if they adhere to them or not. For electoral or marketing studies, the stern public face shown in surveys is, indeed, an ideal tool to capture how well a brand name or platforme has developed into a commonly recognizable dominant discourse. But if one wants to go beyond the established and socially acceptable narrative, things become much, much more complicated.

That surveys are biased by respondents’ desire to keep up a public face and, also, to please the interviewer is a well-known phenomenon in social science research and one of the major restrictions for the use of surveys and polls. A common response to this problem is to argue that questions and responses simply have to be formulated in a better way, that more explorative tests have to be done and to propose a row of statistical instruments to control for biases; and it is true that some progress has been made to identify particular weaknesses in question or response formulation.

Yet, delving deeper into the issue of response biases has also shown that there are huge cross-cultural differences in the way people understand and respond to questions and that these are compounded by age, gender and social differences. A survey of combattants in an armed conflict in Africa (or Latin America or Asia for that matter) by Western scholars crosses the cultural boundary twice: first, there is the obvious national culture difference between the American, English, French etc. researcher and the Sierra Leonean, Liberian, Columbian or Philippine; second, there is the “professional culture” divide between the academic and the violence professional. This implies an important social divide between the usually well-off, usually middle-class, usually urban and highly educated Westerner and the usually poor, usually underclass, usually rural and barely literate combattant. Double-testing and counter-checking certainly sounds like a promising inroad in controlling for these biases but they also promise to blow up the research project to its double or even triple size (and cost) and are therefore rarely done in a systematic and controlled manner (and in Humphreys’ and Weinstein’s published work there is no reference that they have undertaken any of such tests).

From the above, it is obvious that those biases are more likely to occur if the answers to the questions are restricted, pre-formulated and vague, i.e. if they have the double effect of being on the one hand externally imposed (not the own words of the respondents) yet, on the other hand, sufficiently ambiguous to allow varying interpretations. In fact, recognition of this has pushed parts of social psychology and sociology to move away from overly standardized questionnaires in order to provide inter-discursive room for respondents’ own formulations and words.

Given the difficulties of undertaking a survey in an appropriate way in these circumstances, one may wonder why researchers choose to do so in the first place. As mentioned, it might be the purpose of the research to identify the socially acceptable discourse or to see how compliant respondents are to such desiriability. Yet, this is certainly not the intention of the combattant surveys. Here, the aim is rather to find out the “real” motives of their joining of armed fractions, always assuming that there are a countable and verifiable number of “real” reasons. This is assuming that one can reduce all the forms of hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, pressures, feelings of obligation and duty, rational calulations of survival, achievement, strategic and opportunistic moves, all the pleasure and misery, all the social interaction and solitary ruminating of an individual to a functionally small number of variables that can be “tested”. This enumeration of emotions, calculations, reasons and thoughts is not exhaustive and does not consider yet that all of them might be present at one given moment or only some, that they might contradict each other and that their importance and meaning will vary from individual to individual. Fear is rarely experienced in the same way by any two individuals and peer pressure is exercised differently on a 16-year old  youngster than on a 35-year old family father. This does not mean that one cannot account at all for this wide and varied array of motives and reasons…but it requires an enormous amount of simplification and reduction of complexity if they are to be reduced to a manageable number of variables. That simplification can go as far as rendering any result either banal or inconclusive.

So, again, why would one want to do this then? Using such a method despite these reservations expresses a stern belief that proper academic research only “proves” things if it is carried out over a large number of cases (the question what a large number of cases is, is again relative as the social sciences claim that for instance n=2000 is large is laughable for any natural scientists…just imagine a medical study on a new drug carried out only over n=2000 subjects…). From this point of view, ethnographic or sociological research based on in-depth interviews, participant observation, focus group interviews, analysis of diaries, blogs or other texts written by the study subjects, or the analysis of artefacts (music for instance) are all nice and fine and sweet but not really “proves” because their n is so small; they could be “random observations”.

This reflects an understanding of science in which there are facts somewhere out there, a truth even, that we can discover by excluding (refuting) the false and random observations through hypothesis testing. This implies an uncritical understanding of the categories and concepts we use as any kind of refutation procedure assumes that “we”, and that is you, me, the researcher and the research subject, all know what those categories represent and what they mean. In this case for instance this means that there is one unitary and solidly confirmed — a “true” — understanding of categories like child soldiering or poverty. Of course, some exploratory research might be necessary to obtain this factual knowledge about child soldiering but once we have done our homework we can establish confidently such a category and apply it to our research objects. We can establish criteria which will allow us to refute or confirm that this or that person is a “child soldier” or that “poverty” is a cause of armed conflict. We either assume that it doesn’t matter whether the subjects see themselves as child soldiers (or children or soldiers) or poor. It also doesn’t really matter what kind of child soldiering we are talking about (given a purely age-based defintion, Napoleon was a child soldier as was Clausewitz) and it doesn’t matter what kind of poverty we are talking about …in fact, there must not be any great internal differentiation of these categories, otherwise they cannot function as categories.

And this is where uncritical, undifferentiated and unreflected reproduction of categories becomes also complicit with current power structures. Contrary to the pretention of a “value-free” science, all these categories are imbued by the understanding that is being produced and reproduced by dominant social, economic and political structures and their agents. The so-called common sense rarely is common but most often defines what some define as is supposed to be common. This becomes very clear if one thinks of categories of gender or race…for centuries it was absolute common sense (and for some circles it still is) that women or blacks are simply not as intelligent, active, creative, inventive, industrious etc. as white men.  Applying categories witout critically reflecting how these are produced and what they mean, and what they mean for different subjects, including those under investigation, means simply accepting and uncritically reproducing these patterns of domination that have established these as “common sense”.

From the said that this does not mean that any survey or quantitative method is inappropriate; yet, it is so if it uses ascriptions rather than descriptions and if it reproduces categories without critically reflecting on the construction of these categories. The question to ask is actually rather simple: who understands what by which means when I, as observer and as agent of (at least) one specific understanding, talk about “poverty” (or childsoldiering or any other category used) and which power structures are reflected in this understanding? In the absence of this question, the categories used in a survey will always reflect only one specific, namely the observer’s (and at the time of publication the reader’s) understanding. Apart from being hence inconclusive and, at the end of the day, not saying very much, they also misrepresent the “facts” and miss out the largest part of the story that the subjects of inquiry would have to tell.