Performing Peace-building–Conferences, Rituals and the Role of Ethnographic Research

This article explores performance and ritual theory in the context of anthropological research on peace-building institutions and knowledge discourses, as well as the process of writing up an ethnographic PhD thesis. Based on fieldwork in Germany and

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  1  The rise of ‘aidnography’ The politics and relationships of aid have becomeanother thriving area of qualitative,ethnographic research with ‘veterans’ of the aidindustry using anthropological writing to reflecton their own institutions and practices. Mosseand Eyben are two of the prominent voices andtheir writings have sparked ethical andmethodological debates around conducting‘aidnographies’ and the politics of critically engaging with development projects andknowledge management as anthropologists(Mosse 2005, 2011; Eyben 2010). In short, asStubbs summarises, ‘aidnography’ ‘seek[s] tosituate aid and development “projects” and“programmes” in the context of social, politicaland economic relations and power imbalancesbetween “donors”, “implementing agencies”,“recipients” and all manner of intermediary actors and agencies’ (2005: 1).Ethnographic studies have also been expanded toother sub-fields of development, for example,humanitarian aid (Marriage 2006) or electoralassistance and democratisation processes (Coles2007); although they have been largely absentfrom the recent stocktaking and expansion inboth the anthropology of development andorganisations. Micro-level studies are availableand they often focus on local communities.Hilhorst and van Leeuwen offer ethnographicinsights into the dynamics of local peace-buildingthrough a women’s organisation in southernSudan (2005), Pouligny’s reflections on the roleof civil society in donor organisation’s peace-building efforts (2005) and Richmond’sobservations on the longer term impacts of peace-building on Cambodia (2007) are threeexamples that critical research on institutionaland organisational processes is becoming part of peace research. However, ethnography stillseems to be largely confined to peace-building inSouthern contexts (  cf. Goetschel and Hagmann2009). My research was able to include Northern,Southern and transnational contexts of peace-building activities, following the aid knowledgechain through multiple sites which enhanced theresearch significantly.This article focuses on several stages of whichmany development interactions are performednowadays, for example, indoor performances of meetings, workshops, trainings and conferences.Focusing on research and policy performanceshighlights the potential of performance theory and ritual approaches to enrich theorganisational anthropology of aid. The article will be introducing short vignettes from my  18 Performing Peace-building – Conferences, Rituals and the Role of Ethnographic Research  Tobias Denskus* Abstract   This article explores performance and ritual theory in the context ofanthropological research onpeace-building institutions and knowledge discourses, as well as the process ofwriting up an ethnographicPhD thesis. Based on fieldwork in Germany and Nepal, the article’s aim is to expand the theoretical scope of ‘aidnography’ and apply it to knowledge management, workshops, global conferences and the author’sperformance in these spaces. The article analyses how a potentially critical and contested concept such asliberal peace-building has been absorbed by an emerging ritual economy ofindoor events, policy papers andtransnational actors. These strategies oforganisational and professional self-promotion create depoliticisedaction and products in the context ofglobal aid chain management. IDS Bulletin Volume 45 Number 2–3 March 2014 © 2014 The Author. IDS Bulletin © 2014 Institute ofDevelopment StudiesPublished by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UKand 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA  research on conferences, meetings and workshopsin Germany and Nepal to establish a context in which some of my key methodological, practicaland performative challenges are highlighted. Thearticle concludes by outlining initial findings of an emerging ‘ritual economy of peace-building’that is potentially relevant for other areas of theaid industry where self-, organisational- andknowledge-marketing go hand in hand with onthe ground development work. 2  The role of performance and rituals inethnographic research The following section introduces the two coretheoretical elements for my analyticalframework, performance and rituals. According to Hymes, performance is a specialsubject of conduct in which one or more persons‘assume a responsibility to an audience and totradition as they understand it’ (Hymes quotedby Carlson 1996: 12). Presenting my doctoralresearch in a thesis (tradition) to the reader(audience) can be regarded as a performance,because as Carlson notes ‘there has been generalagreement that within every culture there can bediscovered a certain kind of activity, set apartfrom other activities by space, time, attitude, orall three, that can be spoken of and analyzed asperformance’ (  ibid. : 13).Methodological reflections and personal learning with a qualitative concept such as ‘performance’may evoke associations around ‘play’ or actionsthat were happening on a ‘stage’ and involved an‘audience’; such an approach may also expose my research to criticism as it may appear that I didnot take the challenge seriously by putting thequest for a perfect research performance beforepaying attention to the flow of events. I wish thatI had already come across Goffman’s wise wordsthat he shared at a seminar in 1974  before Iembarked on my fieldwork:But you have to open yourself up [duringfieldwork] in ways you’re not in ordinary life. You have to open yourself up to being snubbed. You have to stop making points to show how‘smart assed’ you are. And that’s extremely difficult for graduate students. (1989: 128)I was confronted with my attitudes, behaviourand beliefs throughout my research. But theperformance metaphor also hints at the corechallenge of conducting ethnographic researchas an activity and reflective process at the sametime, because it is not an innocent ortransparent process, but another way of howknowledge is created and legitimised, as Carlsonpoints out (1996: 207–8). In other words, criticalreflections on ethnography not only should havean auto-ethnographic component, but need tobridge the notion of a ‘perfect performance’ withthe complicated nature of performativity that‘points to the impossibility of separating our lifestories from the social, cultural, and politicalcontexts in which they are created and the waysin which performance as a site of dialogue andnegotiation is itself a contested space’ (Holman Jones 2005: 774).Performance is also an important and usefulconcept when it comes to the production of thefinal ‘perfect’ product, the thesis. Performancemay evoke ideas of a physical environment, astage, audience and activities, but the creativeprocess of writing (up) ethnography becomes itsown stage of the performance because time,temporality and events are (re-)structured inorder to create a coherent narrative. My articleis one attempt to highlight the paradox of narrative closure that a successful PhD writingprocess and bound thesis requires whereas many debates and reflections on the ‘backstage’ of theexperience will only become public afterwards.My research focus on workshops and conferences  emerged  during fieldwork, but it only became acentral theme of my thesis during the writing-upprocess. In some ways I have been trying toaddress the challenge of linking history andaction by not subsuming ‘the eventness of beingby narrative closure’ (  ibid  .: 14), but the task of  writing a thesis in an academic setting makesnarrative closure necessary to prove thesuccessful completion of the academicrequirements. Therefore, I cannot make theclaim that the fieldwork performance necessarily led to performative writing in a way Holman Jones understands it: ‘when we invite anaudience into dialogue as we write, speak, andperform the words on the page, in our mouths,on our bodies, and in the world’ (2005: 774).However, by outlining some of my challenges,shortcomings and understandings of the researchprocess in this article I am able to lift the‘curtain’ of the backstage and can acknowledge IDS Bulletin Volume 45 Number2–3 March 201419  the performative nature of ethnography andshine light on the non-linear evolution of fieldwork, writing and learning.Closely linked to research on performance is theresearch on ritual theory, for example, Bell(1992), Rothenbuhler (1998) and Knottnerus(1997). They not only provide a historicaloverview over the evolution of the concept, butalso provide a comprehensive review of relevanttheoretical elements.Rothenbuhler defines ritual as ‘the voluntary performance of appropriately patternedbehaviour to symbolically effect or participate inthe serious life’ (1998: 27). Bell’s insights intothe relationship between ritual and powerhighlight important theoretical elements for theanalysis: ‘[R]itualization  is  very much concerned with power. Closely involved with theobjectification and legitimation of an ordering of power as an assumption of the way things really are, ritualization is a strategic arena for theembodiment of power relations’ (1992: 170;emphasis in srcinal). When meetings,presentations and conferences are organised andtake place it is necessary to explore the strategicarena around them, and the different spaces thatmake up the arena – from presentations to coffeebreaks – as well as the preparation ordissemination of findings. A key aspect that Knottnerus’ theory stresses is what he calls ‘strategic ritualisation’ ‘in whichactors utilize or manipulate a system of ritualized practices in order to realize certainoutcomes [that] can have profound consequencesfor members of society’ (Knottnerus 1997: 275). After initial reflection on doing fieldwork inGermany and Nepal, the remainder of my article will unpack the research performance along twocore themes: first, data collection throughinterviews and, second multi-sited ethnographicresearch on and in different conference settings. Additional reflections on my personal learningand how I would have performed differently if Ihad to start all over again will form the final partof this article. 3 Familiar spaces as research sites: re-enteringGermany and Kathmandu My fieldwork took place in three main phases andat three different sites. First, I unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a longer research internship atthe headquarters of a German Aid Agency (GAA)during a training workshop I observed. Second, Iconducted field research in Kathmandu as a visiting anthropologist at the offices of theUniversity of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute.Third, during the writing-up phase in the UK, Iattended two international conferences inBelgium and the Netherlands. In addition, Iconducted interviews with a group of informantsin Germany, Nepal and globally via Skype.During the completion of my first year of thePhD that led to a University-approved researchoutline, I decided to contact the GAA and discussthe possibility of a research internship. I learnedfrom a consultant that she was organising athree-day workshop at the GAA headquarters.She offered to introduce me as her researchassistant and that I could spend one or two daysmore after the workshop to introduce myself andmy research project as well as present my research outline officially in a staff meeting.GAA staff listened politely, mainly because of my affiliation with the consultant, but declined my request for a research internship mainly on thegrounds that my research was missing a clearhypothesis and that it focused too much on ‘usand our ways of working rather than the peace-building projects’. ‘We don’t need an outsider tosnoop around and criticise our work’, one middle-level manager said, ‘because we don’t have thetime for such games’.In this early episode it appeared as a conflictbetween GAA staff and an outside academicresearcher, but during the course of my researchI realised that spaces are opened or closed basedon interactions that often involve a particularperformance by the researcher to keep themopen. Demanding clarity, hypotheses andresearch questions, GAA staff made theirunderstanding of a ‘perfect’ researchperformance very clear. In the end, granting ananthropological researcher ‘all area access’ may have threatened the power that the divisionbetween performer and audience carries.However, the main question that bothered meafter this episode was whether I could haveperformed better, disguising my curiosity in the‘back stage’ better and entering the stage underthe pretence of accepting the traditional modelof performance. I chose to be fully open andtransparent about my intentions adding to the Denskus Performing Peace-building – Conferences, Rituals and the Role of Ethnographic Research 20  performative aspects of my research project by creating boundaries between ‘insiders who wouldnot allow access to a critical outsider’.GAA staff made a clear distinction between theirorganisational cultures and my approach towardsethnographic research. Castañeda’s observationon the ‘invisible theatre of fieldwork’ and thecomplex roles members of the ‘subjectcommunity’ play resonate well with my ownchallenges conducting ethnography and how my (failed) engagement was to some extentdetermined by the (un)willingness of the ‘subjectcommunity’ to let me ‘in’:Members of the subject community exercisetheir agency and control over the extent to which they engage the fieldworker andparticipate as subjects, distant/disengagedobservers, active or occasional participants,collaborators, interpreters, critics, publicly orprivately vocal nay-sayers, assistants in orenemies to the research process. [ … ] However,the assumption governing successful grant writing [ … ], and defense of dissertations isthat the researcher determines, controls andimposes not only the definition of the researchproject but designates who is involved assubjects of research (Castañeda 2006: 84). After my experiences in Germany, my fieldworkexperience in Kathmandu felt more ‘at home’than the experience in Germany – even if it tookplace in a situation of political instability andtransition.When I arrived in Kathmandu in mid-April 2006the political situation was fragile, even tense andmy first week there was marked by a curfew thatusually lasted for most of the day. The People’sMovement (Jana Andolan-II) was in full effect,demanding the return to a democratic processafter the King had dissolved the parliament andpeace talks with the Maoists. Only when the Kingresigned did it become clear that Nepal was on its way to a democratic transition from conflict topeace and that this groundbreaking step could bethe beginning of the end of the ten-year longconflict that had so far cost the lives of approximately 13,000 people. After thebreakdown of previous peace initiatives, this wasan important step forward and it seemed that thepressure from the people’s movement on thestreets had contributed to a similar landslidepolitical change as in 1991 when civil-society pressure led to Nepal becoming a multi-party democracy. Amidst the Nepali enthusiasm aboutthe peaceful future of their country, theinternational donor community was caught by surprise about the quick, peaceful transition;shifting from a situation nearing a humanitarianemergency to a post-war situation wheredevelopment assistance could resume and normaldevelopment work would be possible again.Within the first two weeks my initial researchproposal became obsolete as donors no longer wanted to talk about peace-building strategies toend the conflict or their organisationalapproaches during the conflict. They quickly embraced the new situation and started to planthe post-war peace-building and reconstruction work. To go with the flow of people, events anddiscussions I had to adapt my field research andit quickly became clear that an internationalmachinery had started to get into gear – sendingheadquarter people, consultants and experts toprepare Nepal for this transition phase. As my thesis analyses in detail, the social,cultural and political spaces in Kathmandu weremet with traditional approaches of the donorcommunity. Potentially open-ended discussionsabout post-war development, a new constitutionor economic priorities were curbed by well-knownglobal performances of outside experts whoarrived in town in large numbers and in quicksuccession to inform, but also to entertain the aidindustry inside the vacuum of political transition.Rather than staging an ‘invisible theatre’ andengaging the donor audience in critical debatesthe visiting consultants reassured donors that thetransition could be managed based on ‘bestpractices’ from other post-conflict scenarios. Dueto the focus of the article on fieldwork reflections,a comprehensive review of critical debates onliberal peace-building in general and the case of Nepal is not possible. However, earlier articlescritically explore the peace-building change-of-behaviour phenomenon in more detail (Denskus2007, 2009).On a practical level, the situation in Kathmandualmost always felt more accessible and open thanmy research in Germany. My previous workexperience in Nepal may have helped me to ‘play the native card’ in the international developmentand peace community a different way than I was IDS Bulletin Volume 45 Number2–3 March 201421  ever able to do in Germany. Jacobs-Huey stressesthe limiting factors of ‘playing the native card’approach as potentially ‘non-critical privileging of [the anthropologist’s] insider status’ (2002: 791),but I found it to be a more positive approach thathelped me to be regarded as authentic and ableto blend with the transnational community that was used to visitors, researchers and consultantsas part of their professional experience asexpatriate aid workers in Nepal. In transnationalaid spaces many of the neat categorisations of home and away or native and foreign areconstantly in flux and create new identities forglobal researchers and practitioners withdifferent, new and accumulating understandingsof identity and positionality that also affectnarrative structures or the use of culturally embedded concepts such as irony.My approach evolved along the lines of Gusterson’snotion of ‘polymorphous engagement’,emphasising ‘interacting with informants acrossa number of dispersed sites [ … ] collecting dataeclectically from a disparate array of sources inmany different ways [such as] … formalinterviews … extensive reading of newspapersand official documents … careful attention topopular culture’ (Gusterson 1997: 116).My ambitious assumptions about criticalanthropological work in large aid organisationsand the staff’s willingness and curiosity about‘reflective practice’ were abandoned very quickly in the context of German aid organisations. Amajor challenge that persisted throughout my research was that I had chosen an inductiverather than deductive framework for my research that consisted less of hypotheses that would be proved or disproved which often put meat odds with the predominant paradigm inGerman peace research and policymaking. My field research was not simply a negotiation foraccess, but elements of my performance playedimportant roles in how certain spaces opened upor remained closed to me. Neither organisationalethnography on the peace community inGermany, nor the concept of self-reflectiveresearch and writing are well known andacademically accepted in Germany and often theresearch at home in my native country felt alienand distant compared to the research experienceabroad in Nepal. I had envisioned moreopenness, but the reality was that some peopledid not want to be part of my project. 4 Multi-sited research on and in events While limitations did exist, the followingparagraphs analyse key aspects of the research I was able to conduct: by focusing on some of theoutputs of academic research, aid organisationsand thinktanks, I followed the flow of informationand knowledge to some of the key sites where Ithought knowledge and policy would be broughttogether, discussed and negotiated – at events where different groups regularly gathered. Inaddition to the GAA workshop I attended fivemore workshops and conferences during my fieldresearch in Germany. Many of the workshopsbrought together a core set of usual suspects asparticipants, and my primary interest in them wasabout the contents,  what  was presented anddiscussed and only later on about  how such events were organised. It took me a while to treat theseevents as fieldwork sites, but the large number of them, the efforts in organising them and the firmbelief that they contributed to results andinfluenced policymaking subsequently interestedme as vehicles to maintain an epistemiccommunity and facilitate knowledge in certain,surprisingly unchallenging, ways. The workshopspace as a particular social space of a community became important because of the value andimportance organisers and participants attributedto it and to the ways in which it naturaliseddebates and interactions as Hastrup points out:  A social space – be it a nation-state, auniversity-conference or a construction site –has no ontological status  as a whole apart from what is collectively attributed to it and mademanifest in action. Conversely, social spacesare naturalised and allowed to exert physicalforce over individual action (Hastrup 2005: 11).I attended five workshops, two academicconferences and one weekly donor meetingduring my fieldwork in Nepal. Additionally, Iorganised my own workshop at the end of my stay to discuss some preliminary findings withinterested colleagues who had contributed theirtime and opinions during the research. Inaddition to attending workshops officially, I alsospoke to junior staff or interns from variousorganisations who had spent considerable timeon organising different events – mostly in one of the half a dozen four- or five-star hotels in thecity. This was so much the norm that sometimesI would just stop by one of the hotels in themorning when I could see a variety of cars with Denskus Performing Peace-building – Conferences, Rituals and the Role of Ethnographic Research 22
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