One year after

I cannot believe that I have not been writing for this blog for one year! It has been a sort of vicious circle. The more time was passing, the more I was thinking that my new post had to be exceptional, special, and the more I refrained from writing. I have never been the kind of person that easily shares on social networks  whatever comes to her mind. I always have doubts about whether what I think deserves to be shared and I have to somehow force myself to write on a platform like this, where my words are meant to stay and can be accessed by everyone. I am particularly wary of commenting current events, as I feel that most of the time, in spite of my label of ‘political scientist’, I cannot speak as more than as an informed (more or less) and concerned citizen. Yet, I have decided to keep this blog for a reason. I have understood that it is a tremendously effective way to convey certain messages. My last post about the insecurity of life as a ‘migrant researcher’ was read and discussed by most people around me, including my former supervisor.

In the meantime, my life has radically changed. I moved to the UK, where I got a tenure-track position at Loughborough University. It is on the one hand a huge success for me and a big relief after a long time spent looking for work. On the other, it is a challenge, as I have much more engagements and responsibilities than in my past roles, especially with respect to teaching. And I have moved to the UK at what is probably not an ideal time…

2016 has been a complicated year world-wide. We had the Brexit, Trump election, in Italy a new government crisis (this was perhaps the last unpredictable event…). From the rise of populism in Europe, the downward authoritarian spiral taken by countries like Turkey, the success of Bashar al-Assad in recapturing Aleppo, the decision of a number of African countries to leave the International Criminal Court, all signals point out to a crisis of the liberal international order that had taken shape after the end of the Cold War. Given this, it is somewhat ironic to me that a lot of ‘critical’ academic literature seem still focused on attacking the shortcomings and hypocrisies of liberalism. It seems to me that the topic of ‘illiberal peacebuilding’, on which I have been reflecting in the last few years, will be of renewed relevance in the near future. This makes me feel somehow torn between my identity as a social scientist and my conscience as a citizen. For the social scientist, these are interesting times; as a person and a citizen, I am worried – partly for myself, partly for the world as a whole. But perhaps we should not be too tragic: it is too easy to paint an over-negative picture of today’s situation and forget that humanity has gone through the catastrophe of two world wars and the threat of nuclear war in recent history.

Read More

Why I do not know what 2016 will be like

I have not written on this blog for many months. I know that what has kept me from writing has been the fact of not feeling at peace with myself, because of my job situation. I have felt for the first time in my working life quite privileged in the last two years thanks to the support of the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation. But my fellowship expires in April and I have again the feeling of falling into a void. Interesting to notice, although the AvH is well paid, it is not considered a job contract, so, for the German state I have never worked and I am not entitled to unemployment benefits. Since this summer, I am applying for jobs. I have made a few interviews, failed to get one position for a very little margin, haven’t got a job until now. I have also been struggling to write a research project, with which I might apply for funding and extend my stay at the GIGA.

The search for a job has probably taken at least half of my time. It is incredible how much time researchers who have not a tenure spend applying for jobs or funding. A lot of the creative energy that we should spend conducting research and writing is actually spent with cover letters, project outlines and the likes. And it is strange to me to write a blog about research without knowing if I will still be a researcher for very long. Because I do not know if I will have the possibility to continue to do this profession and on which terms.

There are a lot of things that I like about my job, but there are also a lot of things that I do not like. And I think that we have all asked ourself how much are we disposed to sacrify to our career in terms of stability and of peace of mind. At the same time, what has probably kept me in the academia until now has been the fact that I have had enough chances to look around in order to know that the grass is not always greener. Especially for people like me, born in Southern Europe in the ’80s, there is not an ‘easy way’, when it comes to access to the job market.

I know a few people in Italy who have relative job stability, but most of them do not feel happy about their job and have relatively low salaries. Not all of them work less hours than the typical academic – some actually work more and have no fixed working hours. You do not make fortunes today in Italy even when you have a supposedly ‘good job’ in a bank or in a private firm – if you live in a big city and your parents do not help you to buy a house, you might in the best case scenario be able to rent a one bedroom apartment but you won’t save money. And categories of workers that felt once ‘safe’ – for instance bank clerks – are now fearing for their jobs, even when they have permanent positions.

I also know people who work in the humanitarian or development sector, who have interesting jobs but even less security and stability – in both physical and financial terms – than academics. Indeed, the wave of ‘neo-liberalisation’ has affected international organizations and NGOs at least as much – if not more – than the academia. There have been scandals about unpaid internships in the UN, but internships are actually not the worse. Once, the typical entry level job in the UN was a “Professional Level 2 (P2)”. Today, especially in peacekeeping mission, most P2 and P3 positions are replaced by “United Nations Volunteers” – who are not volunteer at all, but professionals with sometimes many years of experience, who work for the UN on temporary contracts for up to seven years for salaries that are one third to one fourth those of the “P” staff.

This is why I am wary of those who paints working conditions in the academia as hell on heart. They tipically belong to two categories: the first are relatively privileged tenured academics who are nostalgically hinting at a mytical time when the profession had not still been corrupted by the neo-liberal virus, but conveniently forget that this was a also a time when there were very few people with degrees and the economy was growing steadily. The other category is composed by PhDs in some branches of engineering or in other very specific fields that are in high demand by the private sector and who have in fact been lucky enough to get a well paid job in the private sector. They tell to other PhDs that green pastures are awaiting them if they free themselves from the chains of the academia, but forget that their experience is hardly representative of that of most humanity and social science PhDs – and even of many PhDs in scientific disciplines.

Surely, there are problems in the academia. According to the Guardian, many academics suffer of depression and anxiety, exasperated by job insecurity and pressure to do always more. Probably most of what it is in the article is true, but I ask myself what about similar issues in the private sector? Could a similar article have been written about people employed in finance, law firms or large businesses? Probably not, because the “weak ones” would have already been expelled from those sector – or would have left voluntarily – during or after their first internship.

In many respects, we are privileged. We have a lot of control on our work, including our working hours. There are very few other jobs that leave so much space to personal initiative and creativity. I have seen how people who work in bureaucracies, even when they are at a very high level, have so little power of decision. Even the Secretary General of the UN is an executor of the will of the Security Council.

But this freedom comes with a cost. Academics do a good job when they have good ideas – which sometimes come easily and sometimes don’t. Our work is potentially open ended – we can always do more, publish more, be better teachers: we can always be smarter. We need a lot of self discipline but also of self confidence in order to navigate in the difficult landscape of today’s job market. And then, we also need luck: for every available place, there are always many people who could potentially do the job well, and it might be nuances that make a difference – the department prefers having people with a certain expertise or a certain methodological approach, you were stressed and did a bad interview, or you were in shape and looked great and confident in the interview.

So, I do not want to complain about my condition. But I do not want to pretend either that it is easy. It will probably not easy if I will continue working as a researcher and it will not be easy either if I will decide to change. During my professional career, I have gone through so many false starts and disappointments. I am sure that I have also done a lot of mistakes, but could I have avoid it?

What I want to say, it is just that I do not have the slintest idea about what 2016 reserves me. I do not know if I will still do the job that I am doing now, I do not know in which country I will live. I do not know if I will have to start everything from scratch again. I do not even know what I wish for myself. I hope that at the end of another year I will be able to understand better what it is good for me and what I realistically can achieve. I wish the same to all the other children of this lost generation – my generation.


Read More

The Monkey Cage on Ivorian elections: local grievances are not what matters most

The Ivorian elections are approaching, and many academics who have worked on Cote d’Ivoire are spreading their thoughts in the blogsphere. Here you find Sophie Rosenberg on Africanarguments and here is Marco Wyss on the LSE blog. While I do not have much to comment about Sophie and Marco’s posts, since I agree with them on most points, I am a bit disappointed by the Monkey Cage piece on the Ivorian elections. The Monkey Cage is a great blog and I am a huge fan of it, but I found the post by Matthew Mitchell and rather superficial when it comes to current Ivorian events.

To begin, they start with the claim that “many analysts and Ivorian citizens believe (or hope) that the economic boom will help defuse political hostilities between the opposition parties, led by the Front Populaire Ivoirien, and President Alassane Ouattara’s ruling party, Rassemblement des Républicains. The underlying assumption is that with a growing economy, the ruling party can consolidate political support and reduce the likelihood of a closely contested election”.

Who are those analysts and Ivorian citizens? Sources are not cited and it is not surprising, because none in Cote d’Ivoire (or who is well informed about Cote d’Ivoire) is making such claim. Especially as poverty has not reduced proportionally to GDP growth – according to a recent survey by the National Institute of Statistics, only 2.5% since 2008. The other problem is that the sentence seems to imply that we should be happy that the likelihood of a contested election has been reduced. While it is true that this is making electoral violence on a large scale unlikely, this is far from being a good new for the future of Cote d’Ivoire.

In a subsequent paragraph, however, the authors claim, quite in contradiction with the previous argument, that “President Ouattara’s efforts to consolidate political support have hampered peacebuilding”. This is on many respects true, but if Ouattara has to be blamed, let’s blame him for what he has actually done wrong. Mitchell and Klaus claim that “the government has sidestepped serious land reforms and avoided prosecuting crimes associated with the post-election violence. And the government isn’t doing much to disarm the former pro-Gbagbo militias, and even less to disarm those that supported Ouattara”.

The first statement is partly true: unfortunately, however, the problem of land reform is so complex and registering rural property so expensive and time consuming that no Ivorian government has done much. In spite of his claims, Gbagbo as well did not advance much with the objective of getting the customary rights of the autochtonous populations (his own supporters) officialized. But land tenure grievances in Cote d’Ivoire  are increasingly intra-ethnic (sometimes intra-familiar) and it is not sure that the connection between land grievances and political violence is so direct as Klaus and Mitchell claim.

About post election crimes, they are indeed being prosecuted: the problem is that only one side up to now has been targeted – the Gbagbo side of course. There has been no “de facto amnesty for elites involved in 2010-2011 electoral violence” and many supporters of the former Ivorian regime are still detained or are awaiting trial – Gbagbo’s wife Simone being the most famous. Biased transitional justice, something I had occasion to comment upon, is not ideal but in the Ivorian context perhaps inhevitable, and it has to be said that the International Criminal Court has been until now not much better than the Ivorian tribunals. Moreover, the relationship between transitional justice and peace is complex and it is not clear why amnesties for human right abuses should be celebrated as a step towards peacebuilding in some countries (South Africa being the most famous exemple) and branded as a recipee for future violence in others. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire the rhetoric of the struggle against impunity has become a convenient excuse to keep pro-Gbagbo militants in jail.

As for DDR, Ouattara has made a substantial effort to address the problem, creating a special DDR authority directly under his supervision. Unfortunately, the authority has inherited a series of fragmentary and poorly compiled lists of former combatants by previous DDR institutions. Nevertheless, it has done efforts to gain the trust of pro-Gbagbo combatants and many of them have received a demobilization package, training and other benefits. I am not claiming that there have not been injustices in the process, with many real former combatants excluded and some false combatants brought in by New Forces commanders and other “gatekeepers”, but to blame Ouattara for failed DDR seems to me unfair.

Klaus and Mitchell are clearly indebted to a very popular recent trend in peace and conflict studies: the “local turn” that emphasizes the importance of local grievances in peacebuilding. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that such a focus is warranted in the current Ivorian context. The article barely touches the (national-level) factors that to me pose the real serious threats for the future of the country: the (re)consolidation of a de facto single-party system, biased and inefficient electoral institutions and growing internal rivalry within the RDR party for Ouattara’s succession. If there will be a future conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, it will arguably not revolve around the cleavages of 2010-2011, but it will most likely involve Northern politicians who have supported Ouattara at the time of the post election crisis in 2010-2011.

Read More

News from the American Political Science Tribe

It is my third day at the American Political Science Association conference. I have presented at the Electoral Integrity Project Workshop and I have no more work to do. So, my feeling is a bit that of an ethnographist just landed in a village inhabited by an exotic tribe – the American Political Science tribe. The fact that the conference takes place in a Hotel is already a bit alienating for me – three Hotels to be precise, because one Hotel could not suffice for the number of participants – more than 7000 are officially registered. Of course, I regularly get lost. I have asked myself and asked other people why European conferences take place in Universities and American ones in Hotels but had no response. Perhaps the Americans prefer holding the convention in a Hotel because in this way they get the feeling that academia is business and thus, in the US scale of value, a serious thing.

As I said in the previous post, my image of American political science was that extreme scientism and quantitative methods would prevail. It is in part true – I have been panels were I was bombarded with numbers and I had actually the feeling that the presenters cared a lot about their regression techniques and little about the issues themselves they were discussing. Lots of papers are based on very complicated and actually economically costly methodologies, but it seems that here people are not affected by the trivial money problems that are a constant obsession in places like Italy.

However, I saw how the community is so big to leave space to diversity and how non quantitative scholars created their spaces of resistance, such as the Qualitative session and the Method Café (which is a sort of moderated group discussion about qualitative methods). There is also some space for the kind of more policy-advice oriented political scholarship, which does not use complicated methodologies but relies on regular contacts with the policy community.

Interestingly, African studies seem better represented here than at mainstream European politics conferences. Yesterday I was at the business meeting and at the reception of the African Politics Conference Group. It seems that the organized sessions are a sort of families where someone can take shelter from the overwhelming magnitude of the conference – the members all seem to know each others.

Another feeling I get here and I do not get in European conferences is this sort of competitive, aggressive spirit. It is full of competitions for prizes – best article, best dissertation, best book etc etc. And, of course, there is a lot of competition for jobs – alas, in this the situation is not that different than in Europe, although my feeling is that the rules of the game for getting a job are quite distinctive: perhaps harsher, but clearer.

In the end, in the social sciences we seem to be further far than in the natural sciences in creating a single transnational community. Does it mean more space for diversity? Or does it mean provincialism on both sides? I leave the answer to the reader

Read More

APSA… here we go!


Tomorrow (today Central European Time, but I am in San Francisco!) I will participate at the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) pre-American Political Science Association (APSA) Annual convention workshop. The APSA itself will start in two days. It is my first conference on this side of the Atlantic , so it will be an occasion to know something more about the American Political Science Community – not a small one since about 8,000 people are expected! Having a look at the programme, I have to said that it is more broad and diverse than what my prejudices suggested to me. Interestingly for instance the APSA has a permanent African Politics group, and qualitative and multimethod research will be a prominent theme debated. It will be five intensive days for my brain! In the meantime, I am exercising my legs by biking on the Golden Gate Bridge!

Read More

Migrant researchers are migrants. Not guests.

This is a post a bit more personal than the previous ones but I feel the need to publish it, because I think it will resonate to many other young researchers. It will probably be also the first of a series of posts that I want to dedicate to the problem of employment (in the academia and not only…).

Since I moved to Germany about one year and half ago, in order to start a post-doc financed by the Alexander Von Humboldt Stiftung, there has been a misunderstanding that might sound innocuous but that has hurted me quite a lot. It seems that, because the VH fellowship is dedicated to foreign researchers coming to Germany for up to two years, once you have it you are attached the label of “Gastwissenschaftler” (guest researcher). You are introduced in meetings as “the guest researcher”, you are put into a “guest researchers office” and so on. Most of people calling me “guest researcher” do not mean wrong. Some of them care sincerely about me, like the senior colleague who told me that being called a guest is a good thing because it means that the hosts are under obligation to receive me in the best possible way.

To me, however, there is a fundamental element in the definition of guest that is lacking in my case. A guest has a home to come back to. Some Von Humboldt fellow do, especially those who take the fellowship at the “experienced researcher” level. They are lecturers or professors in their country, have come to Germany to start a scientific collaboration or to have a period to dedicate to research free of teaching obligations, and after one or two years they come back to their institution. But many others, especially the Von Humboldt post-docs, have no home to come back to. When their fellowship expires, they have to find a job. Most of them do not go back to their country, for the very obvious fact that what has pushed them to leave their country in the first place and come to Germany is that they see very few opportunities there. I know several VH post-docs who were also based in Hamburg or Northern Germany who have completed their fellowship: none of them is back to his/her country.

I am not a guest researcher. I am a migrant. I like to travel and see the world, but let’s not fool ourselfes: if I had had the possibility to do the job that I am doing now in Italy and be decently paid (which to me means, enough to rent my own place and not to have to ask money to my parents for day to day expenses), I will not have moved to South Africa first and to Germany later. I know people who are obsessed by the dream of living in London and New York but I do not have such an obsession.  Nor do I feel bored i I do not move every two years – although in practice I moved more frequently than that. The idea of living in my hometown of Pisa, with the Tuscan countryside and coast at hand, is far from repulsive to me – indeed, is also far from repulsive for many Germans, who are wise enough to keep their jobs in Hamburg or Munich and buy a holiday house in Italy with their savings.

I know that to some extent mobility is a normal thing for researchers. But being forced to move because you perceive that the academic system in your country is blocked and that you have zero chances to get a job no matter how hard you work because you do not have a godfather to parrain you should not be normal. Migrant researchers are migrants. Even if we seem to have far more economic and intellectual resources than the typical economic migrant, we face in the end problems that are similar. Calling us guests does not help, because you typically expect guests to leave: but if we leave we do not have any place to come back to.


Read More

La mia intervista sulla Costa d’Avorio con Yebo / Radio Bullets

Per i lettori italofoni di questo blog, qui trovate la mia intervista con Gaia Manco di Radio Bullets sopra la situazione attuale della Costa d’Avorio. Gaia mi aveva anche chiesto qualche settimana fa di commentare la questione della rimozione dei limiti al terzo mandato presidenziale, che ha recentemente infiammato il Burundi ma che e un problema un po’ in tutta l’Africa (e, stando alle mie colleghe del GIGA Mariana Llanos e Charlotte Heyl, che recentemente hanno presentato una interessante proposta di ricerca, anche in America Latina): qui trovate il podcast. A presto spero di poter aggiornare il blog con le mie impressioni sul fieldwork (raccolte dal nostro servizio di comunicazione) e, finalmente, con un nuovo post originale (quando avro meno impegni o meno pigrizia ;)).


Read More

Our wars are nothing like “their” wars

I have been lazy. Stress, travelling, not the right mood to write, but I am happy to be back. I have been touring through Western and Centre Western Cote d’Ivoire: Daloa (third largest city of the country), Guiglo and Duékoué and Gagnoa.

Duékoué was the theatre of extreme violence in 2010-2011 and is the classic place showered with international peacebuilding aid. It has been quite curious to be dropped from Duékoué to Gagnoa, which is quite the opposite. No foreign agencies (I met some people from the Red Cross, I was expecting them to drive around on fancy 4×4, but I realize that they are volunteers from the local committee and that the ICRC has left several years ago), I am probably the first foreign researcher that most people that I am meeting see. The place is the stronghold of former president Laurent Gbagbo’s FPI party and all the ingredients for a disaster here seemed to be reunited (political polarization, presence of “auto-defence” groups, weapons stolen from the army warehouse), but curiously Gagnoa experienced very little violence in 2010-2011. An Ivorian researcher has written something about this issue, I would also add another element. It is perhaps a superficial assessment, but from its very aspect Gagnoa looks to me as a much wealthier town as Duékoué. The latter looks as a formerly marginal, peripheral town that has known an exaggerated demographic growth in the last few years. And I guess the exasperated competition for resources that has followed probably explains a lot.


 Traditional dance at a political meeting in Gagnoa

There has been a political meeting of the ruling coalition in town and I have watched it as I was interested in getting in touch with some of the participants. From a European/Western point of view, political meetings here are very odd. They are very ceremonial and ritualistic. All the “chefs traditionnels” were participating. First, the land was blessed, then we had a prayer from a Imam and a Christian preacher, then some traditional music and dancing (oddly, alternated with a Beethoven symphony on the loud speakers), then the announcement of the main event to be celebrated (the installation of a coordination of the RHDP coalition, the members of the coordination were called by name one by one, then they took pictures with the chefs traditionnels and with the main guest, Minister of Family and Women Anne Ouloto). The speech of Ouloto – the actual core of the business – arrived only at last. There were now and then some symbolic exchanges of gifts. In one word, it was quite boring, especially if it is not the first time one watches such kind of event.


Apart from events in Gagnoa, I have been thinking in the last few days about something that often comes to my mind with respect to the way we study – and we perceive –contemporary civil wars. A few months ago I was visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw. It is a very celebrative Museum. I won’t blame the Polish for such a rhetorical approach, since the Polish resistance was so much mistreated in the past, both in terms of what happened to the partisans after the war – the few that saved himself from the Nazis were imprisoned and deported by the Soviets – than in terms of memory – under the Communist regime people could not even talk about the Warsaw insurrection. But I was struck about a museum display which reported the appreciation of a foreign observer (a British official I think), impressed by the heroism of the Polish and by the fact that teenagers as young as fifteen were fighting against the Nazis. Now, imagine that the British observer of 1944 is a UN officer cast in one of today’s civil wars. He will write that the partisans – pardon, insurgents – are recruiting child soldiers and will ask for such a barbarism to stop!


The Warsaw Uprising Museum

Perhaps what has pushed me to engage in my research project about the ‘victor’s peace’ has been this perception – that we have a different outlook when it comes to our past wars and when it comes to contemporary conflicts – especially conflicts taking place in developing countries. When we look at our wars, we look at them in political terms – violence was an instrument to enforce decisions about the future of a country and was justified in order to attain a political ideal.

Let’s take another example, the polemics in Italy about summary executions of fascists or suspected fascists by the partisans in the immediate post war years. I had a look at the topic because Italy is in a sense a victor’s peace as well and I wanted to understand what happens to the vanquished after a military victory. A realistic estimation puts the number at 10,000 people killed. Now, it is little compared to what has been done in the same years in terms of war crimes not only by the Nazi fascists and the Japanese but also by the Soviets, Americans and British (see bombing of German and Japanese cities). Still, it is a huge number if one considers that, for the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, 1,000 deaths per year are enough to code a “major conflict” and that most recent wars have barely met that threshold. The reaction of most Italian historians to the (in)famous book of journalist Gianpaolo Pansa on the “Blood of the Vanquished” (Il Sangue dei Vinti) is that such assassinations have to be put in their proper historical context and that Nazifascist brutality should be considered when judging the partisans’ behaviour. I have seen otherwise serious commentators saying that these were a few revenge killings committed by a tiny minority of partisans (yet, not only Pansa’s mediocre pamphlet but also recent more rigorous research disprove the thesis that these acts were merely a response to previous fascist brutality).

I do not like Pansa’s book and I probably do not share most of his ideas about the Italian Resistance and about Italian communism. Still, I cannot help wondering, would have anyone formulated a similar judgement confronted to an analogous wave of post war political assassinations taking place in whatever contemporary developing country? Would have anyone talked about “a few revenge killings”? Human rights defenders would have denounced summary executions and called for “fair trials” even for suspected war criminals (and even if in most war affected countries, as in Italy in 1945, the judiciary is non functioning), while right-wing and even not-so-right-wing journalists would have looked at such acts as a proof of the barbarism prevailing in most of the Middle East or Africa. See the reactions to the recent killing of Muhammar Gheddafi, for instance. “Numerous organizations, including the United Nations and the U.S. and UK governments, have called for an investigation of the exact circumstances of Gaddafi’s death, amid concerns that it might have been an extrajudicial killing and a war crime”. Well, Mussolini’s death was surely an extrajudicial killing, yet most of us are not feeling outraged by it – including myself. I have to admit that since my childhood I have always thought that he had the end that he deserved. My opposition to the death penalty as a matter of principle has not altered this strong feeling.

There are two hypotheses here. The most positive one is that we have today, after seventy years of peace in Europe, advanced in our feelings of humanity and in our coherence in supporting human rights – so that we regard as inacceptable things that we tended to justify at the time of the Second World War. The second, less positive, hypothesis is that we are self-righteous and judgemental when it comes to the wars “of the others” and that we are judging them with a yardstick that we would never apply to European and North American wars. The latters are dolorous, but inevitable, stages in our twofold advance towards democracy and modern statehood. By contrast, contemporary wars in developing countries are not only barbarous but also futile – devoid of meaning. At best, they are a sort of disease, the manifestations of a syndrome called “state failure” or “state fragility”. Mark Duffield has written very well in a book that is now a classic about what he calls “the condemnation of all violent conflict” by the “liberal peace” complex.

When I decided to study victory in civil wars, I wanted, perhaps in a provocative way, to disprove this idea that violence in developing countries is always “bad”, that “their” wars are not worth fighting and that it is always better to stop them. Maybe some people will judge me a warmonger for having picked this topic. But I think that it is a duty of social scientists not to shy away from potentially controversial issues. Now, my problem is how to turn a productive polemics into a productive research – making sense of the material gathered during two months and half of fieldwork.



Read More

About the neo-liberal University and why it is not so bad as they say

Some days ago I had an exchange with my colleague and friend Victor Mijares about the use and misuse of the term “neo-liberal University” in some academic blogs. As an Italian and a Venezuelan respectively, who have worked for several years in our home countries, we had some reserves about labelling the contemporary academia as “neo-liberal”. Now there is a paper widely circulating on social network, titled “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University”. Most of what the paper say is true and reasonable: academics are more and more stressed, they face very difficult working conditions and we should develop strategies of resistance in order to cope with stress and privilege quality over quantity. However, although I agree with most of what the paper says, I have decided to be for once the devil’s advocate.

I believe that I have the right to make this provocation, also because I am in a far less privileged position than the authors of the paper. As they themselves recognize, they are all tenure-track staff from North American Universities, and only two out of eight are relatively junior staff (assistant professors). I gained my PhD in Italy, a country that is at the periphery of the social sciences debate. After having been one year unemployed, my first non tenure track position, paid 12,500 Rands per month, forced me to move to Pretoria in South Africa, before moving back to Europe to take another two-year position in Germany. My current fellowship is relatively well paid but will expire next April and is non renowable. So, I am one of those academics at risk of being expelled altogether from the academic market.

I could focus on the paper’s advocacy for “a collective feminist ethics of care” and how it reproduces the contradictions of most so-called feminist scholarship – in fact embracing gender stereotypes about women as supposedly caring and compassionate, so that being ambitious and career-oriented becomes non-feminine. But my main preoccupation is with the critique of what is labelled the “neo-liberal” academia and with the idea that it is the fact that the academia is neo-liberal that is at the heart of our problems.

Let’s face two inconvenient thruth. First, whatever our salary and working conditions, making a job out of thinking is already a very big privilege, compared to most other possible occupations in a society. This is after all why most of us stick to the effort of getting an academic job, rather than changing career. Second, the main reason why academics face a climate of exasperated competition is that many more young people are today able to go to University and to gain a PhD than it was the case a generation or two ago. In a sense, the academic job market has become more difficult not because of more neo-liberalism, but because of more equality of opportunities in our societies. One of the main reasons why academics of the older generations had a lot of freedom in their work and the possibility to focus on knowledge for the sake of knowledge was that relatively few people went to University. On the one hand, this made easier for those interested in an academic career to find a tenured position. On the other, it meant smaller classes, composed of students from relatively well off and educated families, which were easier to manage. In an even longer historical perspective, societies were a portion of the citizens could indulge in the pleasure of thinking for the sake of thinking were often societies shaped by extremely striking inequalities and by the impossibility, for those born in the “wrong” place, to change their condition and compete with others for more desirable career paths. I cannot avoid wondering, are we academics protesting because we are losing our rights, or are we protesting because we are losing our privileges and becoming more as “normal” workers, subjected to the fluctuations of the market?

The authors of the paper argue against the pressure for continued productivity, and emphasize quality over quantity. This is in principle a very just issue. But this very frequently made remark always stumble against the problem of how we do evaluate quality. Quality is a very subjective issue. Moreover, because the social sciences are less “scientific” than the natural sciences, often “fashion” orients very much our appreciation of quality. The crude quantitative indicators adopted by “neo-liberal” Universities are a solution to this problem. They are arguably a bad solution, but they have at least the merit to protect junior academics from being at the total mercy of the arbitrary and unaccountable assessment of their senior colleagues, when it comes to evaluating their work. And this bring me to talk about the underdiscussed genus in this academic market debate, the neo-patrimonial University.

For the profane, neo-patrimonial is an used and abused label developed from Max Weber’s theory of state legitimacy applied to the study of politics of the developing countries, especially Africa. Let me be very unrigourous and skip most of the recent sophisticated debate on neopatrimonialism in political science. Simplyfing very much, neo-patrimonialism is a system where a facade of modern bureaucratic administration, based on impartial rules, coexist with the fact that personalized relationships and patron-client networks set most of the real “rules of the game”.

The debate on “neo-liberal” Universities is very much dominated by academics based in North America and in the UK. This is to me not only because these countries dominate the social science debate: it is because, arguably, Universities in other countries are not neo-liberal, or are neo-liberal at a lower degree. But are they better because they are not neo-liberal? My answer is no, and I think that many of those who have worked in these Universities would agree.

The University were I grew up with did not fully conform to the picture of the neo-liberal University. There were no quantitative indicators of productivity and most of the tenure track staff did not feel any particular urge to publish regularly or to rise research funding. Moreover, there was a preference for “less useful” disciplines – disciplines without an immediate practical application, such as history – over more practice oriented disciplines, such as contemporary political studies or development studies.

All this sounds like paradise for the critics of neo-liberal Universities, but in fact it was not paradise at all for us living in such a context. Our lecturers cared little about doing good research and producing, either in quantitative or qualitative terms. When they published, it was usually in Italian and in non peer reviewed formats: their work was read by very few people and had little influence on worldwide academic debates. Since senior staff did not apply often for research funding, they did not have the means to do much original work, and in fact they did not do it. For many senior staff, their most famous publication was often a textbook, that they imposed as compulsory reading to their students. Lecturers treated students in a very condescend way. The fact that they did not feel obliged to answer emails (as it allegedly happens to lecturers in neo-liberal Universities) meant that often the emails that received no answer were the students’ emails. (I remember an infamous case, when I sent a very important email to a senior colleague. I received no answer so I had to take a train and travel one hour just to look for her. Once I found her, I discovered that not only she had not answered my email, sent ten days before, but she had not even opened it).

In this type of University recruitment and access to a tenured position was not determined by productivity but access to clientelist networks. If you are under the protection of a senior academic, you will get first a non tenured position (assegno di ricerca) and then a tenure (a permanent researcher position). Since criticism at the system obliged to give at least an appearance of fairness, competitions were held and publications were apparently considered. But often the criteria of the competition were openly designed to make one candidate win. The obligation to have a certain number of publications was solved by making the preferred candidate publishing with a publishing house or a journal that was managed by his patron – this is why there was little attention paid to the publication outlet and the fairness of peer review.

In this context, tenured track staff were secure about their position, wether they worked hard or not, and the stress felt on junior non tenured staff. Most PhD students had in fact learned to exploit the system: since they had little supervision and they had understood early that the quality of their research work had little impact on their future career perspectives, many of them spent their three years with PhD funding looking for alternative career opportunities, preparing for competitions for getting a position in the state administration or doing internships. The worst situation was that of the post docs and of the adjuncts professors. The latter were very much at the mercy of their patron or desperately looking for loopholes in the system when they had no patron.

After getting my PhD, I could not get a job in Italy because I was not integrated in the clientelist networks of the Italian academia. I participated once in a competition for a post-doc. After being relegated to one of the last places in the applicant list, I discovered when I could access the proces verbal that all my publications but one had misteriously disappeared  from the evaluation of my research profile. This episode, which I perceived as not only an injustice but a humiliation, meant for me the end of any further effort to get a job in Italy.

I have eventually got a job because some well reputed peer reviewed journals accepted my articles without knowing me and because my publications have impressed the anonymous reviewers of my application for a post doctoral fellowship. Individual freedom is born out of capitalism and let’s not forget that this emancipatory side of capitalism still exists, even when we criticize its oppressive and unjust aspects. To me, the neo-liberal University is, yes, stressful, over-productivist, anti-humanist. But it is also a University where someone like me, without personal connections, can have a chance, even if it is just a little chance.

I have not written about my experience just to complain or get others to pity myself for what I have endured in the past. I have written this because this political economy of the academic market does not concern just Italy. In a number of continental European countries, as well as in most developing countries, clientelism and patronage still shape much of academic recruitment. I even suspect that the North American academia itself is a bit more clientelist and a little less neo-liberal than it portrays itself.

In my experience, explicit discrimination based on gender or race is rare in the academia, discrimination based on relationships with senior academics and access to patron-clieant networks is widespread. Very often, it is  the unfairness of selection procedures and the fact that those who are inserted into powerful networks get jobs and fundings while those without a patron do not that cause many young academics to leave Universities. The supposedly “gendered, racialized, classed, heteronormative, and ableist structures and daily practices in the academy” are often the product of clientelism, not of neo-liberalism, which, at least in theory, starts from the presumption that, whoever you are, it is your product, your academic outcome that is evaluated.

The debate on neo-liberalism in the Universities is often Western-centric and anglo-centric. Although its proponents aim at being progressist and at denouncing inequalities, they ignore some of the most striking world inequalities and have little to offer to many academics working at institutions outside the global North.

To some extent, I would even argue that Universities are not liberal enough, especially as far as it concerns internationalization. While there is the assumption that the academic market is a globally open market, very often there are explicit or implicit “protectionist barriers” that curtail opportunities to those who have gained their PhD in countries that are not the centre of the social science production.

The reason why there is not so much outspoken criticism of the neo-patrimonial University compared to criticism of the neo-liberal University is that the victims of a clientelist system cannot speak out. For many of them, complaining would mean violating an implicit social contrat, alienate all possible patrons and in fact ending their academic career. At least, the victims of neo-liberalism can defend themselves and ask for things to improve. And this is one of the reasons why, in the end, I think that the neo-liberal University is less bad than the clientelist one.





Read More

Fieldwork: trial and error




My first visit to Côte d’Ivoire took place in the autumn 2009. I was desperately looking for a way out from a personal and professional end of University crisis and for a topic for my PhD. When I met an Italian UN officer working in Cote d’Ivoire at a summer school I basically auto-invited myself in Abidjan. Through personal connections I managed to get in touch with the Africa reporter of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto and I committed to write a reportage about the Ivorian peace process. I travelled with one of my best friends and stayed fifteen days.
We went around in Abidjan using the reportage for Il Manifesto as an excuse in order to get access to diplomats and politicians. We travelled by bus to Yamoussoukro, where we went around as tourists, and to Bouaké, where we tried in vain to meet the famous rebel warlord Cherif Ousmane, and in fact just spent half a hour waiting in vain for him in his office.

I came back to Cote d’Ivoire the summer afterward. I was now officially a PhD student doing field research and I was a bit more prepared: I had read a lot and I had previously been to Paris and gathered with the help of French journalists and diplomats a list of contacts of people that I wanted to meet. Still, I remember my first one and half month of fieldwork as full of improvisation, disorganization and naiveté. I managed to get a professor of the University of Cocody that I had barely met before to pick me up in the middle of the night at the airport. I did not know where I was going to stay, so the professor took me around the day after in order to look for a cheap accommodation in one of the student residences around the University. I settled at the Maison d’Accueil Protestant, in front of the Cocody public hospital. It was a quite improbable place, not only because of the approximate cleanliness and the wore out bed sheets, but also because on Sunday it got populated by a series of pasteurs (preachers) of dubious credentials that spent most of the afternoon shouting, probably trying to chase the devil out of some bewitched believer (I was between two fires, as the holy day started at 7:00 with the Mass chorus at the neighbouring Catholic Church. This is why I was always trying to find some alternative place to my room to spend Sunday).

The University of Florence, to which I was officially affiliated, was probably one of the worst possible places in order to learn how to do field research. For most academics there, the only sources to be used in proper research were Western diplomatic sources. So, I was basically trying to teach myself how to do research. My “method”, if there was one, consisted basically in trying to meet everyone that was even remotely involved in the Ivorian peace process and collect as many documents, books and newspaper articles related to the Ivorian crisis I could find.

There are some moments when I ask myself, what does it mean to be doing field research today, when I am supposed to be an “experienced” researcher, I have got my PhD, done fieldwork in four other countries, collaborated in two large projects and published several peer reviewed articles? Am I really more organized and mature? Do I have a clear idea of what I am looking for and a clear way to how to get there – in other words, a clear “method”? Or are improvisation and confusion inevitable aspects of field research itself?

My feeling is that most of the rules of academic work are about pretending that we are method oriented and organized. We write a research project with our questions and hypothesis, a fieldwork schedule, we are supposed to have our questionnaires and interview guides ready, and so on.

But fieldwork in reality is very much about dealing with the unforeseen. We start with an idea in mind, and than we realize that what we wanted to do does not make much sense, but there is something else we had not thought about that is really interesting. Most pre-prepared questionnaires and interview guides are only of limit usage, because of the sheer diversity of people that a field researcher meets. Ideally, one should prepare a lot of different questionnaires, which would be extremely time consuming. Moreover, in order to prepare the “right” questions, a researcher should be properly informed of the background of the person that he will meet. Google can help to discover more, but is no magic stick.

To all this, I should add the importance of informal conversations and observation. Not only many people prefer to meet researchers in an informal setting, but sometimes a chat with a taxi driver can be more illuminating than an interview with a Minister.

Then, a lot of practical issues end up inevitably orienting our fieldwork. We choose to travel to one city instead of another city because we have contacts there, and without local contacts it is impossible to access a lot of interesting information. Unexpected security issues, an accident such as catching a disease and the availability of accommodation or the needs of other people force us to modify continously our planning.

It is because field research is inherently chaotic that it is looked with suspicious by the worshippers of “scientism”. Yet, I would argue that it is precisely its apparent “chaos” that allows for true discovery. After all, if everything would proceed perfectly smoothly, from formulating our hypothesis to testing them positively, it would be a sign that in reality there was not much to discover – not much to research about.

Read More