Monthly Archives: January 2013

Just imagine you had 50 million Euro …


… all the things you could do, all the places you could go! All the council housing you could build, all the teachers you could pay, all the children and youth clubs you could set up, all the jobs you could create, all the nurseries you could equip, all the books you could buy, all the theatres you could have play, all the concerts you could show, all the…ah!… just imagine!

And what did the “socialist” President do? Play tin soldiers in the desert.


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…


Mali…a couple of updates


France has since long preferred to use state resources for their economic interests and so it is not surprising that instead of calling upon private military firms as most American and British mining companies do in Africa, the extraction sites of the French company Avera in Niger will be protected by French special forces, as reports the Journal du Siecle.


A lot of questions are asked with respect to Qatari involvment in Northern Mali. Following an article in the French journal “Le canard enchainé” which is a satiric as well as an investigative weekly newspaper (which does not put its articles online so I can only link up to reports about their report), a number of observers are wondering not only if and how deeply Qatar is involved in financing various groups in Northern Mali but also why. Highly interesting, yet little discussed is the question of the arrangement between France and the Qatar if the latter indeed is active in Norther Mali. Given that Qatari activities in Libya and Syria have been seen rather favourably, that French president Hollande just returned from a visit joined by the biggest French companies to other Gulf states with which he has quickly restablished good relations after a couple of naughty comments during his electoral campaign, that anyway Gulf states seem to be allowed to do whatever they want if it’s only securing Western oil interests and is somehow hostile to Iran, it appears unlikely that there would be a major confrontation between the two.


The strategy of the US to get the UN involved seems to work also well for France. The recipe is simple: first get a sufficiently vaguely formulated resolution which you, the state which wants to intervene, can interpret as authorization to use force; send troops which are sufficiently strong to  stirr up a lot of dust but not strong enough to finish this off quickly (if this would ever be possible with assymmetric wars, yet strong beliefs die hard); then call in the UN. If that does not work, call your friends for help.


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.



Empathetic reflexivity as data collection method


Winter holiday is time to read the books that do not fit easily into the research and teaching agenda yet promise some new insights. This year’s reading was no exception: Pierre Bourdieu’s “Esquisse pour une auto-analyse”  which made me think through a number of questions about data collection for conflict analysis. This autobiographic non-autobiography is another tentative of the French sociologist to explain his approach to social sciences, this time by referring to his intellectual and academic trajectory. He notably explains in length his early (intellectual) struggle as young “normalien” (graduate of France’s prestigious grande école Ecole Normale Supérieure) against the grand authorities of the time, and particularly his ambiguous relationship to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ works which he admires for their pioneering character but also sharply criticizes for their epistemological and, hence, methodological premises.

Commonly, Bourdieu’s criticism is understood to have been directed against Lévi-Strauss’ scientistic naturalism for its rigid structuralist thought…and, yes, in this sense Bourdieu can certainly be called a “post-structuralist”. Yet, it is less the naturalism of Lévi-Strauss that is at stake but the ahistorical and unreflective take on societies against which Bourdieu argues. Bourdieu most certainly does not share any so-called post-modern arguments about the utter contigency of society which leaves us with pure phenomenologist thunder and aw. He does argue that social behaviour follows patterns and rules, yet these are historically specific and need to be analysed empirically. He upholds this epistemological position for two reasons: one, because he ascertains that any social situation is fundamentally shaped by power and the particularity of power is exactly that it shapes, determines, limits and enables human behaviour — the sociologist’s task is to analyse these shapes, determinations, limits and abilities and to do so we need to know also the subjective side of power, how power is perceived (or not), used (or not), expanded (or not), diminished (or not) and the effects these power games have on body and mind of individuals, groups adn entire societies.

Second, assuming in a positivist manner fundamental laws of society poses a major epistemological problem, namely the question how we, as researchers and observers, can know, understand, think and talk about these laws to which we would be, logically, also subject. We would have to be able to step through the looking glass and make us as observer disappear in another world (which we know from Alice is a paradox by itself) OR we assume that WE are fundamentally different from THEM. Bourdieu argues that Lévi-Strauss had chosen the latter option, hence, “a vision of the social world based on the denial of the social” as Bourdieu puts it (Esquisse pour une auto-analyse, p. 62) by representing his objects of analysis as preserved in a historical, social, political and cultural vacuum, unconscious of the world around them and ready-made aesthetic, museal objects. The counter argument Bourdieu makes is that the world is not stuck in an eternal variation of the same theme (like we would be running up and down Esher’s staircase) but evolving, changing and moving because individuals, groups and societies do, subjectively, deal with those objective structures of which they are part. Once we admit this, we also have to admit that we, the observers, are part of this “game”. Instead of denying our integration into the subjective living of objective structures, we should rather use this awareness as source of understanding of and knowledge about the social world.

If Bourdieu’s argument would be taken for granted on this very basic level of thought, one could misread him as pleading for an empiricist sociology. Yet, Bourdieu draws on a huge philosophical fund when he negotiates the relationship between the empirical and theoretical, the subjective and objective, his main reference being the French philosopher Pascal (Méditations pascaliennes) and the German “idealist” Emmanuel Kant. Put in a nutshell, he refuses to accept the distinction between the empirical and ideational world and challenges the common argument that one cannot analyse both at the same time (Loic Wacquant has nicely written about the ways Bourdieu bridges the empirical/theoretical and objective/subjective divide here). For the analysis of armed and violent conflict this throws up a row of interesting challenges, and it does so first of all for the questions what exactly should be empirically observed and this question does not only concern the problem whether large or small phenomena should be observed (already discussed in this post) but also what about the conflict needs to be observed.

Taking Bourdieu’s critique seriously one will stumble and fall when trying to identify “causal mechanisms”. Whatever the mutual constitution and influence of agent and structure is, it will hardly be a linear one of an independent variable A having an effect on a dependent variable B, maybe (or not) transformed by intervening variable Z. Not only does the idea of linear causal mechanisms exclude any possibility of reflexive “loops”, it also ignores the idea of mutual constitution (so the acceptance of the fact that one cannot know whether the hen or the egg were first), it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation, it disregards the historicity of structures and it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation of these. Yet, much of the current conflict analysis is still preoccupied with “causal mechanisms” despite the fact that research of the past ten years has shown that there are too many, that they are too unspecified and that there are barely “provable”.

This is particularly evident in the behaviouralist approaches to the influence of economic conditions on war which has been particularly prone to arguing in terms of “causal mechanisms”. Yet, it is the proliferation of hypothetical causal mechanisms that has made this research area one of the most frustrating in civil war analysis. Despite increasing efforts of collecting data, the major neglect of context and complex causalities has produced an erratic variety of “maybe” explanations. Ross for instance identifies five causal mechanisms which could explain the relationship between resource wealth and onset of war ; Humphreys indentifies six “families” of causal mechanisms how natural resources set off civil wars, and another seven families for causal mechanisms how natural resources impact on the duration of conflicts. None of these bundles of causal mechanisms has ever been systematically tested, probably because they are much too complex for linear regression models; particularly if more than two variables have to be assumed of influencing each other dynamically.

Unsurprisingly, this strand of research has not produced any conclusive insights about how economic structures shape the likelihood of collective violence, rebellion or war. Michael Ross’ work is examplary for this: In his early works, swimming in the streamline of Collier and Hoeffler’s greed model, he found a significant relationship between resources that can easily be looted  so which excluded for instance oil. Two years later, he finds that oil wealth is correlated with a risk of war as is wealth in diamonds and gas if a different regression model and different data is used. He then, in his most recent book, again belittles the risk of oil as triggering factor for civil wars alltogether, stating “When oil-producing states fall prey to civil war, oil is never the only factor; it is sometimes not even the most important factor” (145). In this strand of research, whether oil is important for the onset or the duration of conflicts does not depend on what people make out (or don’t make out) of oil wealth but on the data rows the researcher uses.

Yet, asking these questions is, again, not enough as I have argued in my post on Weinstein’s and Humphreys’ ill conceived survey of former combattants in Sierra Leone. It is how you ask questions. Peters summarizes this very concisely in his study of young fighters in Sierra Leone when he asserts the necessity for an empathetic encounter which takes the subjective understandings, thoughts and feelings of the object of analysis seriously. However, Peters’ book also epitomizes the practical and methodological difficulties of such research: it requires extremely good knowledge of the society under investigation, including language skills, and access to the population that is observed over a longer period and based on trust and, at least in parts, intimate knowledge of what Charles Tilly called “local scripts”. Most of the literature that provides deep insights into civil wars like Elliotts “Vietnamese War”, Wood’s “Insurgent collective action” or Mats Utas’ “Sweet Battlefields” are the result of years if not decades of work within the communities. Of course these difficulties exist for all deep sociological work, but in cases of collective violence they are aggravated by the sheer brutality of conflicts, the strain their observation puts on the observer who might become witness to extreme cases of violence and who, in any case, will have to take note of the devastation of wars.

Instances of collective violence are furthermore particularly difficult to define and delimit (see my post on Syria) as these rarely take place in all the territory and covering the totality of the population. As Charles Tilly already noted in 1969, collective violence is a particularly ill-bounded social phenomenon, and all tentatives to establish clear definitional boundaries to the categories of violent events observed necessarily allows the influx of normative theorizing about political authority, its legitimacy and the legitimacy of contesting and protesting against it. The risk of being thwarted by the phenomenon observed is clearly recognizable in Carolyn Nordstrom’s work which presents masses of empirical materials, asks extremely well formulated and challenging questions but gives only very little answers or conclusions.

Furthermore, going into the field cannot and must not be the only way to collect data as this would make all historical research futile. Bourdieu himself was, indeed, very critical of history as science (although one might say that this has been ascerbated by the French media/academic context and that most of these debates are rather personal feuds). When dealing with the reported experience and sources, reflexivitiy becomes not only an ethical requirement but an epistemological necessity. There is no language, no experience and no concept that is not shaped by social domination and none has a meaning per se. Only if we ask ourselves what we understand by the words we use and how we understand how others use them, are we able to decipher those social structures of meaning that “make” the world. Empathy is essential but not sufficient; reflexive empathy is necessary if we want to grasp the full meaning of people’s thoughts, motivations, actions and words.

This said, the idea of “authentic” voices, sources or, more generally, data becomes critical. In fact, such “authentic” data does not exist per se; it is interpreted as such by the observer (and then, of course, not “authentic” anymore). In order to show the own meaning that subjects concede to their world, the observer has to render their words “authentically” (e.g. verbatim, as Bourdieu chose to do in La misère du monde) yet these same words also need contextualisation, analysis, dissection and critical examination (in the Kantian sense of “critique” as proof, test, check etc.). Writing about these experiences, rendering subjective thoughts and critically discussing them in the light of objective regularities becomes a challenge of scientific inquiry in its own right.

For conflict analysis this means that we do not forcibly need “more” and “new” data and the tendency, that can be observed particularly in US research, to accumulate more and more interview hours, surveys, datasets etc. is actually detracting the observer’s critical sense from a deep analysis of meaning. Yet, for meaning we need a deep understanding of contexts and this is rather often lacking. We can find for instance dozens and dozens of surveys on about any aspect of the life of Bosnians during and after the war, but we have very little critical, contextual and reflexive-empathetical literature on the lives of Yugoslavs before the war. The same can be said for other societies up to the point that a colleague who is a specialist on Algeria had the one 2013 new year’s resolution of “breaking the 1962 barrier” (i.e. wanting to write a history of Algeria AFTER 1962).

A critical and reflexive-empathetic treatment of data also opens another way of data collection as much more than the politically spoken and written word can become a source once it is reasonably interpretable as expression of meaning. Even the observer’s own experiences may become a source of understanding if they are systematically, critically and empathetically reflected in the context of the analysis. Participant observation hence obtains an epistemological importance that positivist approaches cannot grant.