I am driven by a deep motivation to understand the intersection between locally-anchored social dynamics, transnational politics, and global development agendas. My research thus examines the relationship between citizens, different forms of authority they encounter, and related dynamics of security and insecurity. I conduct this research in areas at the political, social and territorial margins; these areas are often characterised as having ‘no-war-no-peace’ scenarios. Grounded in empirical work, I seek to advance theoretical understanding of how people navigate these margins and what this tells us about power relations in the world.
People’s perceptions of—and relations with—different forms of authority form the basis of my social anthropological analysis of wider geopolitical developments, such as the intertwining of international agenda’s on security, climate change, and migration. Although these agendas may seem far removed from the rural peripheries of central and west Africa, they permeate the politics of everyday life, for instance in the domains of mobility, livelihoods and local security. In settings such as border crossings, village markets, and government buildings I observe the mundane performances of international, national and local, state and non-state actors (sometimes armed) and their relations with citizens. Although the nation state remains the dominant frame of reference, I actively focus on local force fields through a transnational lens because people often share political and social margins beyond borders. This shared experience often intimately connects to dynamics of insecurity that also span such borders.
I have used this perspective in different research projects over the past few years. My Ph.D. research at the African Studies Centre in Leiden investigated the territorial margins of Sudan’s southern part that was at the time seeking secession. I studied South Sudan’s political transformation through the everyday performances of power and authority of state agents at its borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I argued that the process of South Sudan’s state building could not be understood in separation from how power was locally exercised. I also showed how state agents’ claims to authority originated in their individual trajectories during the years of the liberation war, instead of relying and building on formal mandates. This research has led to various publications, for instance in the leading French journal Politique Africaine, Security Dialogue, and the edited volume The Borderlands of South Sudan published by Palgrave Macmillan, co-edited with Christopher Vaughan and Mareike Schomerus.
More recently, I have combined insights from the territorial fringes of South Sudan with those from the peripheries of the Central African Republic. With colleagues at GIGA-Hamburg, I have looked at how local institutions managed dynamics of security and insecurity in the two countries’ hinterlands. The social and political marginality of the six case studies revealed great variation between and within the two countries. The cases, however, all highlighted that while people are subject to different forms of armed violence, they felt largely left to their own devices when it comes to organising security and justice. Andreas Mehler, Tim Glawion and myself are in the process of publishing articles on our findings. An initial spin-off was a published report on the crisis in the Central African Republic for the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit. With colleagues at Wageningen University and Radboud University Nijmegen, I have developed a project on how land shapes the relationship between people and their authorities. This project on land demonstrated the salience of history and local powers when making land claims, especially after violent conflicts. We also learned how intervention logic may trump local dynamics of power. Both projects reveal that the margins of society cannot be marginal to our analysis. In fact, by paying attention to marginal spaces and their people, we can better understand how local security concerns can grow into regional or global challenges and how interventions in local arenas may alter balances of power. Such a lens on the marginal spaces also illuminates the extent to which a national state and capital-dominated perspectives limits our understanding of messy global interest in the margins.
In my new position at Wageningen University’s Sociology of Development and Change Group, I seek to further develop my research into these different margins. The African continent alternates vast peripheral areas with marginal economic activity like subsistence farming and pastoralism with highly-connected, thriving corridors where commercial, natural resource, and geopolitical interests are vested. This variation is not bound by national borders but cuts through so-called fragile and ‘better’ performing states.
Rooted in my fascination for the powers of borders and borderlands, I continue to develop an explicit transnational perspective towards studying dynamics of marginality, vulnerability, and insecurity. My research in the coming years will thus critically assess Africa’s asymmetrical developments from the perspective of the poorly-populated empty lands that are often confronted with transnational sources of insecurity. I aim to illuminate how people navigate the social and political fabrics in the peripheries of our interconnected world. Considering that the renewed interest in the margins as a source of insecurity—for instance of fear for terrorism, organised crime and migration flows—is mainly driven by Western self-preservation, I am committed to critical scrutiny of the geopolitics that ensues.
Through a combination of research, teaching and societal engagement in different fora, I hope to contribute to ensuring that the concerns and livelihoods of people in the political and economic margins of the world remain at the centre of our academic debates.
State-society relations in (post-) conflict settings | relationship between vulnerability and crisis | transnational security governance in borderlands | bottom-up African regional integration | ethics and methodology of fieldwork.