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Interview – Priya Lal

This interview is part of our Black History Month features. The interviews speak to the fundamental aims of Black History Month and discuss current research and projects, as well as advice for young scholars.

Priya Lal is an Associate Professor of History at Boston College. Her first book, African Socialism in Tanzania: Between the Village and the World, tells the story of Tanzania’s ujamaa socialist experiment of the 1960s and 70s. She is currently writing a book entitled Human Resources about the training, labor, and circulation of educational and medical professionals in and beyond Southeastern Africa since independence.

Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in your field?

African history is a big and somewhat fragmented field, but in the last fifteen years it has seen an explosion of scholarship on the decolonization and postcolonial eras. With this have come a few welcome thematic and methodological trends. One is toward exploring Africa’s transnational or global connections, especially to the African diaspora, the Global South, the socialist world, and international organizations and institutions. Another trend is toward urban history, and there is also an important emerging cluster of scholarship around the history of science and technology.

But I think the most interesting current debate in the field is still implicit; it deals with the limits of the African nation-building project. By this I mean less the internal failures of postcolonial African states than their inability to escape from global structures of power. Historians of Africa are long past the point of triumphalist narratives of African independence, but we haven’t yet adequately addressed the persistence and even intensification of global inequality after decolonization. Older concepts like neocolonialism and analytical frameworks like world-systems theory tried to reckon with this issue, but we need new approaches. I hope to see more research on African political economy and state policy in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that engages with new transnational histories of neoliberalism. There are also many cultural and social histories of popular experiences of economic hardship or decline that remain to be written for this era. Given the contemporary pressures of climate change on the continent, I also hope to see more scholarship on African environmental history attuned to themes of political power and social transformation. It’s important to pay attention to the continent’s many histories, but I think these specific areas of inquiry will better equip us to make sense of the present.

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

Big question! I’ve been preoccupied with the fact of global inequality in one way or another since I was quite young. I had a very privileged childhood in material terms, but my parents came from a part of the world with crushing levels of poverty, and that affected me deeply. Growing up relatively near the U.S.-Mexico border, that marker and maker of hemispheric disparities, was also formative for me. In college, I sought explanations for why some parts of the world were so much poorer than others, and ways to correct this injustice. Reading a bit of Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon showed me the value of thinking about these questions historically. Before I began graduate school, I spent some time working for local rural development organizations in India and South America. These experiences taught me a lot about the limits of conventional development interventions, which seemed so futile in the face of colonialism’s crippling legacies and the monstrous structures of global capitalism.

When I got to graduate school, I was especially inspired by anthropologist James Ferguson’s scholarship on southern Africa – both his critique of the international development regime as an “anti-politics machine” and his ethnographic study of Zambian mineworkers’ experiences of economic decline. In a search for political alternatives, I was also taken by the writing of many African leaders and activists of the decolonization era. Two who stand out are Steve Biko and Julius Nyerere. I still admire the clarity and elegance with which they connect abstract concepts like colonialism and capitalism to the relatable realm of everyday human experiences, relationships, and ethics. My first book and my current book focus on African national development projects, including Nyerere’s own, out of a desire to better understand what transformational possibilities existed at the moment of African independence and what happened to them in practice. I still care about these issues, but these days I’m also reading and thinking a lot about climate change, a subject that is fundamentally altering how I see the world. The fact that our species has set into motion such destructive planetary forces that exceed our control is unsettling some of my core assumptions about the potential for human progress in the present and the recent past. I’ve already completed most of the research for a third book on nature and education in the decolonization era that will hopefully help me think through some of this more carefully.

How do the aims of Black History Month speak to your field/discipline? What can be done to forge a more equal discipline?

In the U.S., we celebrate Black History Month in February. In the spirit of this tradition and the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a lot of discussion of race and power in academic circles here lately. Among leftists there is something of a consensus about the need to “decolonize” the study and writing of history, but it’s not always clear what that means. Symbolic acts like removing statues of slaveowners from college campuses, institutional initiatives to hire more professors of color, and the revision of standard curricula to highlight the historical experiences of black people have been important areas of emphasis.

But unfortunately these reforms do nothing to address the most obvious problem of my field: the fact that scholars based in North American and European institutions have close to a monopoly on the production of and access to contemporary knowledge about Africa’s past. A lot of my colleagues seem resigned to this obscene reality, but it’s a bit absurd to speak of intellectual decolonization without taking it on. The key is finding an effective point of intervention. Historians like me don’t have much control over the material conditions of knowledge production on the African continent, where many universities face long-standing institutional challenges that make it difficult for their staff and students to sustain active research and publication agendas. But scholars based in the West do have the power to intervene in the realm of African access to knowledge, by finding alternatives to the profit-driven academic publishing industry to circulate our work. Normalizing open-access publication would greatly benefit African readers, many of whom can’t afford expensive books and database subscriptions. It wouldn’t cost us a lot, and it would force a rethinking of some arbitrary professional norms that are probably long overdue for questioning anyway.

The subtitle of your book African Socialism in Postcolonial Tanzania is “Between the Village and the World”. Can you explain this phrase, and how the Tanzanian ujamaa project fits into it?

Thank you for this question! I wanted “Between the Village and the World” to be the book’s main title, but my publisher thought it was not literal (i.e. marketable) enough. The phrase has several meanings. First, it captures the internal logic of Tanzania’s ujamaa experiment of the 1960s and 70s, which sought to resettle the country’s rural population into socialist villages that would form a radical template for new sorts of political community at the national, continental, and even global scales. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere believed that socialist development should begin with a process of subjective transformation, a remaking of personal practices and social norms on a small scale, rather than a state-enforced program of mass industrialization. At its most ambitious, ujamaa villagization aimed to cultivate a socialist ethos among rural Tanzanians that could ultimately change the world. Second, the phrase reflects my desire to depict the rural subjects of my fieldwork, people usually rendered as actors on a minor “local” side stage of history, as figures engaged with ideas and institutions and processes that we usually think of as “global”: socialism, capitalist markets, the Cold War. Put simply, I tried to de-provincialize the Tanzanian village and place it at the center of twentieth-century world history. Third, “Between the Village and the World” plays with theories of historical geography that emphasize how certain spatial categories can reinforce prevailing power dynamics by naturalizing or concealing them. One of these categories is the unit of the nation-state, which I deliberately sought to bypass or disaggregate from the inside and the outside. Hence, the Tanzanian nation is simply one of a range of spaces “between” the local and the global.

How do you think scholarly work on African socialisms contributes to a more multifaceted history of global socialism?

When I started working on my first book, there was very little scholarship that took African socialism seriously as a political project. Most scholars implicitly dismissed it as a poor copy of Soviet-style socialism, an absurd fantasy doomed to failure, or a crude rhetorical cover for sinister power grabs by postcolonial leaders. By contrast, I found the writings of some of African socialism’s main architects to be fascinating works of political theory with a distinctive set of shared themes and a unique underlying logic. When examining how their policies played out in different national cases, too, I identified common patterns making up a previously overlooked continental repertoire of African socialism. I hope that by highlighting this repertoire and paying close attention to its content and effects, I have helped open up a story of mid-to-late twentieth-century politics that escapes the blinding but oddly persistent binary frameworks of the Cold War. There were many socialisms, and we are only starting to understand some of them.

Can you tell us a bit about the book on postcolonial development and professional labour you are currently working on?

My book starts with a question: how does a newly independent country build a welfare state when, due to colonial underdevelopment, it has hardly any citizens qualified to staff its institutions? I examine how the governments of Tanzania and Zambia navigated this dilemma with regard to professional manpower in the spheres of education and medicine. The book begins with 1960s state efforts to train an entire workforce of African professors and doctors on a limited budget and in a compressed timeframe, in both local and foreign institutions. I then follow these professionals into the new national universities and teaching hospitals where many of them would spend their careers. The rest of the book explores the difficult working conditions they faced – involving acute resource shortages, institutional breakdown, and tensions with state authorities that worsened in the late 1970s and 80s – and their efforts to serve the public, maintain their professional integrity, and meet their own basic needs in the face of these challenges. Throughout the study, I show how the effort to staff African welfare states was a transnational production, involving money and people and knowledge from across the world. I also argue that these national projects were ultimately undermined by global dynamics that drove local economic decline, fostered devastating rates of professional emigration, and promoted a destructive politics of austerity.

How does your historical work on national development in Southeastern Africa challenge existing narratives of development and progress?

I’m almost halfway through a draft of the book, but I’m reluctant to answer this question until I’ve written the whole thing, because I’m still working out its interventions as I go! For now, I can say that my book underscores the centrality of the human resource question to the fate of African national development projects. It’s very odd how this point has evaded significant scholarly attention. In the 1960s, socialist planners and development economists alike were obsessed with the issue of skilled manpower: they thought that building and supporting an African professional workforce was an imperative condition of economic growth and popular welfare. In the 1970s, this belief began to wane, and by the 1980s cost-cutting and economic efficiency had replaced social investment as the overriding priority of most policymakers. Today, the human resource question is still as urgent as ever, but we have very little good scholarship with which to make sense of it. We have still fewer studies that try to approach this topic from the perspective of African professionals themselves, as my book does. This scholarly blind spot has profound contemporary implications. For instance, without an adequate understanding of the historical roots of African medical labor shortages and the mixed effects of past efforts to correct them, we can’t grasp why the health care systems of many African countries are so poorly equipped to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the most important advice you could give to young scholars?

Perhaps because I’ve spent so much time studying academic labor, I’m reluctant to dispense traditional professionalization advice. A lot of senior scholars with successful careers like to tell junior scholars or students that they should read a certain type of book, or write a certain type of dissertation, or pursue a certain path to publication. If the younger scholars simply follow these instructions, the myth goes, they’ll end up just like the successful senior scholar: with a comfortable tenured job and the freedom to spend their life pursuing exciting intellectual projects. However, the truth is that – at least in the U.S. – the academic job market is completely broken. Brilliant scholars doing extraordinary work are grinding themselves into the ground competing for fewer and increasingly exploitative teaching contracts. Given this, I urge younger scholars to be wary of anyone who believes that academia is a meritocracy and who gives advice based on that assumption. I’d rather direct my own suggestions, as presumptuous as this may be, to my tenured peers and more well-established colleagues. If we want to support younger scholars, we need to pay attention to the conditions in which they work and our role in sustaining them. We need to ask uncomfortable questions about why universities resist efforts at graduate student unionization, why growing ranks of adjunct professors are paid poverty wages while tuition rates skyrocket, and why so many of us cling to the myth of a functional system of academic training and hiring in the face of all this. And then we need to do something about these problems.

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Interview – Xymena Kurowska

Xymena Kurowska is Associate Professor of International Relations at Central European University in Vienna and Budapest. She received her doctorate in political and social sciences from European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. She works within international political sociology, with particular focus on security theory, psychosocial and anthropological approaches in the study of politics, relational and interpretive methodologies, and the ethics of academic practice. She also practices interpretive policy analysis and has recently served as a rapporteur for a cyber diplomacy project, EU Cyber Direct.  

Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in your field?

We do not have ‘grand debates’ anymore and I find it liberating. In the past, grand debates, at a disciplinary level, were too often conducted within pre-determined hegemonic parameters, and in the end very few were eligible to speak. The downside to this may be fragmentation and polarization, the infamous camp-structure of IR, and some inwardness of scholarly engagement. It is gratifying to speak to those with whom one shares a worldview.

I am most interested these days in the “necessary fictions” that hold international society together, in normative subversion and in relationality, including how we produce knowledge about them. Research on stigma by Rebecca Adler-Nissen and Ayşe Zarakol, for example, shows the coercive character of norms but without reverting to the simple version of realism as we might know it from some introductory texts to IR. Maria Mälksoo develops on the concept of normative threat to contextualise the return of the entrenched trope of Central Europe as being somehow subversive of  the western European subjectivity. Such discussions see norms as a form of politics and confront the self-flattering liberal narrative of multilateralism and global governance, without valorising grievances and resentments which pervade illiberal rhetoric. I am drawn to these scholars’ appreciation of tensions and ambiguities, although a certain risk remains that the analytical category of stigma may reduce actors to unidimensional types. Cynthia Weber, for example, points out how the stigma lens singularizes what are always plural subjects (‘plural’ in the sense of accommodating apparently contradictory logics of behaviour, not in the liberal sense of pacific accommodation of differences). The emerging research agenda on rituals goes towards a pluriversal approach in world politics that I am keen to explore in this context. In a collective article that we just published in Critical Studies on Security, we think about ritual in conjunction with image as simultaneously ordering and involving potential disruption. The ritual angle confounds logocentric and mono-normative frameworks of analysis and engages the simultaneity of the concrete, situational and affective in world politics.

Another conversation I am drawn into, and part of my own research focus, is the question of what it means to think relationally in IR. Relationality is not a new question in IR but it is undergoing radical reconfigurations. These reconfigurations come from two directions in my view, posthumanism and narrative IR. As Milja Kurki argues in her recent book, IR’s ontology of relations tends to privilege the study of ‘things,’ such as types of actors, against ‘backgrounds,’ such as material resources or environment, thus reducing relations to interactions. It also favours humans. Kurki proposes instead to think of relations as ‘thoroughgoing’, as ‘shooting through’ constellations of more-than-human enmeshment. Enmeshment radicalises the constructivist idea of mutual constitution, because here entities do not pre-exist as such but materialize in intra-action. This is a challenge to intersubjectivity understood in terms of public, transparent and discursively formulated relations which can be examined for regularity of patterns. Posthumanist understandings also reconfigure the standing concepts of international politics in the era of digitalisation. In AI and machine learning, for example, rationality, strategy, leadership, diplomacy, etc. both crumble and unleash renewed efforts to discipline and govern.

What for me brings together the posthumanist and narrative relationality is attunement to affect, that is, to the embodied and pre-discursive. Such relationality both decentres and embeds the human that cannot easily unmask the relations that produce her, which injects interpretive humility. In contrast to IR approaches that understood narrative as an analytical tool that renders the world more intelligible and thus epistemically controllable, here narrative is an affective mode of expression that interweaves personal experience with structural conditions. It becomes a site for thinking through the workings of power, knowledge, and ideological formations while acknowledging limits to knowledge and critique. Narrative confronts dissonance, disavowal, and irreducible conflict at the core of any personal and social project. This understanding of narrative helped me probe and express the implication of the critical academic subject in neoliberal conditions of possibility and the ambiguities of knowledge production in fieldwork. The papers appeared in two new journals, Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences (PARISS) and Journal of Narrative Politics edited by Elizabeth Dauphinee at York University, both exceptional venues for rethinking modes of expression in IR.

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

My doctoral years at EUI were no doubt transformative. First, and quite literally, I acquired a conceptual and academic imagination; second, EUI is a site of unique exposure where all sorts of characters cross paths. Unaware of the rules and rituals of the academic world, I did not back then understand how lucky I was in this respect and how much this contingency structured my trajectory. My advisor, Fritz Kratochwil, has a way of thinking about the social that marked these beginnings. I was socialized into “IR” through what Tanja Aalberts, with reference to Fritz, calls “counter-disciplinarity as interdisciplinarity proper.” She defines it, inter alia, as non-imperialist cross-disciplinary encounters without a roadmap, and this sounds like an uncannily apt description of my academic journey. With no roadmaps indeed, and fewer words than one would expect from a prolific writer, Fritz instigates an attitude rather than setting up a framework to be further developed, undermined, or emancipated from to acquire one’s own voice. The hallmark of this attitude, the way I absorbed it, is a disposition towards a ruthlessly critical (self-)engagement, actually rarely an asset in the neoliberal academia, and a very complicated relationship with theory. Kratochwil is known as a grand theorist of International Relations but he has also been busy subverting that discipline by confronting its fantasy of theory. And yet those uninterested in social theory will find his writing alienating. From among peers at EUI, I have the strongest and most long-lasting bond with Patryk Pawlak who chose the path of praxis and policy analysis and helped me make sense of that minefield with nuance and a critical edge, remaining ever vigilant, so to say.

Dvora Yanow must be credited with introducing me to interpretive research, which happened at the precarious moment of connecting dots between theory and field. Not only did I get an introduction to interpretive data generation and analysis, something that back then nobody taught IR doctoral students, but she also introduced me to Cecelia Lynch whose work has shaped my engagement with interpretive IR ever since. These early career encounters were happening thanks to the openings in the aftermath of the EU enlargement (and my home country, Poland, joining the EU) but also in its obscure shadows. I am currently trying to make sense of the latter in a current book project on liberal affect in the semi-periphery for which I develop a psychosocial approach inspired by relational psychoanalysis. Recently, a research fellowship at the Department of International Relations at Aberystwyth was an important reinvigoration. It made me (re-)discover IR as counterdisciplinary, thanks in no small way to the diverse early career research community there and the creativity of Milja Kurki and Berit Bliesemann de Guevara. Milja and Berit helped me revitalise my research, ethical academic practice, and mode of expression, even if I cannot fully reform anymore.

Much of your writing is of an interdisciplinary nature. How does this influence the way you research and write articles?

I came to think of it as a position of an embedded situationist. Inspiration comes from a situation and I build on that in substance and style, while minding that the event is part of a larger social formation. The situation may involve myself. An interlocutor’s joke, a wink, can instigate a lengthy deliberation on ‘post-enlargement’ subjectivity, for example. Empirically, this somewhat resembles Lee Ann Fujii’s ‘accidental ethnography,’ although I don’t claim to be an ethnographer and I reach out instead to psychosocial studies. In both our approaches, however, one cannot plan or engineer insight. It comes in unexpected ways while fleeting moments and seemingly subjective impressions contain traces of social practice. Thinking from a situation does not necessarily involve direct participation. In a recent piece on trickstery and Russia as a trickster, written with Anatoly Reshetnikov, we analyse two situations that happened in autumn 2018: an interview on the pro-Kremlin TV channel RT with the alleged poisoners of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and Russia’s bid in a UN General Assembly committee for a new UN resolution on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. Engaging thinkers from anthropology, semiotics, and the study of religion, we piece together what trickstery may mean in contemporary international society. The research strategy, if I may call it like this, is to work ‘in the midst of things’ and take rather seriously glimpses and slippages. Writing is then a process of searching at length, counter disciplinarily, for a vocabulary to convey what I think I have learned. The above is perhaps a slightly metaphorical description in lieu of saying that I neither test IR theories nor transpose the thought of any one social theorist to elucidate an IR problem. There is a downside to it: If one does not follow stylistic templates and conceptual conventions of any one way of theorising, one is seen as lacking a coherent research agenda or politics, somewhere between being wooly, contrarian, and co-opted.

How does International Political Sociology benefit our understanding of International Relations?

This is a subject that many in IPS have debated and I would not be able to do justice to these debates here. I think that IPS has changed (critical) IR, fractured it, as many IPS scholars may prefer to call it, opened it up. This helped see critical research as a legitimate way of studying global politics in unorthodox ways. It made many hidden hierarchies come to the fore, broke through more than a few orthodoxies, and made it less taboo to speak of who gets to say what that is agenda-setting and ‘professional.’ IPS integrated the margins, in other words. The latter can of course be seen as taming radical critique and showing IPS’s own pursuit of social capital and status (see a recent contribution). But I prefer to see the long way IPS has gone legitimating the kind of work that previously struggled to be accepted, including that counterdisciplinary disposition which I would not know where to take otherwise. IPS is also an ever-vigorous space of a relative freedom of style and of transversality, the concept which I find most productive.

A component of IPS is its emphasis on decentering the dominant modes of knowledge production. Why this is important?

The normative and epistemological come together in the purpose to decentre. Decentering gets us closer to what some have called pluriversality. To be centred on something is to be fixed, rigid and detached. It is, in effect, a sort of “flight from reality”. Undermining this fixedness not only adds dynamism but it also makes possible complex plural engagement; plural understood in the way I signalled before, that is, not as merely tolerating an apparent difference but as able to bear contradictions and incommensurability. Such engagement will always be porous and fragmented and for this very reason unsatisfactory but, I would claim, less prone to fantasy and dogmatism. This is also how I see the link between IPS sensibility and practice, even policy practice, although many IPS scholars reject such direct linkages as uncritical when policy practice pulls to re-centre and control.

How does using an interpretive approach enhance our understanding of EU foreign policy?

Briefly, I think about it as sorting out the narratives that actors, here EU foreign policy actors, tell themselves and each other in their political projects, as part of broader and conflicting structures of signification. The (EU foreign policy) ‘practitioner’ is, in this respect, a subject beyond being an individual but she is not a mere mechanical throughput of a structure working behind her back. An interpretive approach can start in controversies by asking what frameworks (narratives) the practitioner uses to make sense of her situation. She is a site of many influences that she tries to reconcile in her narratives, and interpretivists have means to observe such struggles. The purchase of an interpretive approach is that it can analyse tensions in lived political phenomena rather than resolving them by a theoretical or political fiat. There is scepticism there about any claims to consistency and transparency, and attunement to pluriversality of meaning despite seeming equivalence of language. Joe Soss’s chapter in the volume Interpretation and Method edited by Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwarz-Shea offers an excellent conceptual and methodological elucidation of this analytical purchase.

The narrative of the EU as a ‘normative power,’ as worn-out as it may seem, is a deep well for interpretive analysis. It is a term that refuses to die and travels across policy areas in different reiterations. Currently, it is being repurposed in the cyber domain in connection with the EU as a global (normative) leader in data protection regulation. EU (foreign policy) actors attach different meanings to it in different contexts, they are both dismissive and protective of it, with slippages that signify interesting entanglements. Try announcing that the EU is not a beacon of progressive norms in global politics on a panel on EU foreign policy supported by EU-affiliated institutes. Despite all the jaded criticism of incoherence, lack of political will and capacities, etc. it has an effect similar to the use of the ethnomethodological method of committing a social blunder in order to understand the local social rules. You do get to see them operate, at a significant social cost. The interpretive approach has worked for me in the study of policy because it is both wary of claims to competency by others and sees research as learning from others. In the realm of eloquent EU diplomats and bureaucrats, that analytical attitude is useful to maintain suspicion towards “being-in-the-know” by any party.

What are the pedagogical challenges to teaching interpretivist methods? How can these be overcome?

I have been confronted with this question ever since I started teaching methods in 2010. Interpretive methods are anti-foundational, cross-disciplinary, holistic, and thus counterintuitive and initially frustrating at least in three respects: First, disciplines come with discipline-specific methods. In an IR classroom, we often teach with examples from across social sciences and humanities and this raises the question how such examples can be useful for IR problems. This bafflement grows exponentially as students are still mostly expected to perform disciplinarily in their research papers. We seem to end up telling them ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ A way forward could be to teach with IR examples only, but this reinforces disciplinarity and the pattern to borrow from elsewhere and IRise.

Second, participants in methods classes expect a procedure to follow, a template how to reproduce neatly delineated steps that lead to a methodologically rigorous research paper, that is, to science. The lack of interpretive template is exasperating. The misconstrual of technical instructions as systematicity, certainly not only in the classroom, does not help. This is a long discussion on the conflation of science and neoliberal measures that I cannot go into here, except to signal that the engagement with Science and Technology Studies has added much nuance to this debate in IR. Crucial, I think, is not to fantasize from the successful experiment, so to say, but to confront the organized hypocrisy of research design, as we ponder with Berit Bliesemann de Guevara in our chapter for E-IR’s Fieldwork as Failure: Living and Knowing in the Field of International Relations, a volume edited by Katarina Kušić and Jakub Záhora which has much to say about interpretive sensibility.

Third, and connected, interpretive methods are seen as subjective, a misunderstanding in my view, and thus often felt as uncomfortable at the personal level and with respect to being scientific. Indeed, in the interpretive approach, the researcher is asked to engage with her own position in order to make sense of where she speaks from: Claims to objectivity and epistemic superiority are scrutinized as political claims since we always speak from somewhere. While we cannot fully grasp the complexity of our own implication, and interpretivists are modest about the extent of their penetrating gaze, we nevertheless ought to continue probing. Cecelia Lynch conveys most lucidly how the researcher is part of the hermeneutical circle and research questions emerge within particular socio-political conditions. Asking why we decide to pursue a particular problem is then part of the picture. This must not be conflated with confession and I am careful discussing positionality in research projects. We are incompletely embedded in ideologies and hierarchies and there is no automaticity to what positionalities mean. For example, “I was born and raised in Poland in a particular historical period and in a particular social and cultural milieu and therefore…” may be factually true but it does not in and of itself settles my positionality. It may be a statement off the mark, a deflection, as well as manipulation of cultural intimacy. Further, we must not demand confessions; not only because they can masquerade for reflection but also because we never know what trauma we are stepping on. In this context, the interpretive method and task is not only epistemic but also normative and thus never fully realizable in a vulnerable environment of a classroom. The acknowledgment that a template for analysis does not work in practice is insufficient, however. The pedagogical challenge is to convey that the biggest weakness of interpretivism is also its major source of productivity. Specifically, systematicity comes from engagement not detachment, one learns from being together with others and from confronting one’s urge to instruct and control, not from being taught. How to approach it in a methods course, with looming deadlines for paper submission? Not easily and with effects mostly after the submission.

In 2014 you wrote about Russia’s contestation of liberal norms and its self-perceived responsibility to contain Western dominance. Has this changed in the age of Trump and an increasingly fragmented liberal world order?

One may expect that if the world order has become less liberal, Russia’s protestations against it could also lessen. The opposite seems to be the case. So, one may entertain a conclusion that it has been pure realpolitik all along and the substance of a particular ideology does not matter, beyond providing convenient parameters to perform rivalry. This does not seem accurate either, in the sense that ideological differentiations matter. The role of individual rights and social dialogue have different currencies in different contexts, for example. The paradox is that the contestation has intensified and Russia’s position and image have strengthened without Russia becoming stronger, which in my view can be seen against the background of the mythology of the liberal world order. Not to diminish the implications of Russia’s conduct in global politics, the reaction to this conduct reveals the failure of liberal democracies to live up to the liberal ideal globally. In this context, Russia’s contestation of liberal norms is useful for the purposes of highlighting the dangers to the rules-based international order and confounding the irony that liberal democracies try to prosecute by law and sanctions, or govern by global institutions what is, in essence, a political problem. Crucially, this is not only the issue of self-subversion and hypocrisy over hierarchy in international society. It also relates to the historical observation that the successful liberalisation at the global level undermines liberalism itself, as Beate Jahn writes most lucidly.

Your recent research has focused on cyber diplomacy and Russia. How does this fit into Russia’s broader foreign policy?

Cyberspace has become a central geopolitical arena where Russia enjoys an overblown status. Russia has been active in cyber matters not only as a troll, hacker and curtailer of Internet freedoms, but also through diplomatic efforts at global regulation of the Internet that it initiated in the late 1990s. There are distinct continuities of Russia’s foreign policy tropes in its cyber posture. Russia’s initial proposal to regulate the Internet was modelled on the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime. This was partly because Russia sees information as a weapon, a position which is reflected in its narrative of information security promoted at the regional and global level. The regulation initiative was from the outset geared towards containing the US dominance in the cyber domain, importantly through curbing global business registered in the US for which non-regulation was a source of significant profit. The main controversy in cyber diplomacy nowadays surrounds the question of a separate cyber treaty or treaties. Russia is advocating in favour, arguing that this would keep in check the exploitation of the cyber domain by Western states, a rather familiar trope of ‘democratization’ which in practice resembles a pursuit of the balance of power between US-Russia-China. The majority of Western democracies argue against a treaty and try to specify how the existing international law applies to cyber space to prevent treaty negotiations. Russia is portrayed in this process as a spoiler that obstructs “governance by cyber norms” and the rules-based international order more broadly. This is a fascinating clash of narratives. What gets under the analytical radar is that Russia and liberal democracies operate with different meanings of global norms and the role of international law in ordering international society, as I try to explain in my recent chapter on Russia’s cyber diplomacy.

What is the most important advice that you would give to early career scholars studying international relations?

Above all, I’d say that one needs the minds of others to think and one can only grow with and through others, minding not to make this process extractive. The reciprocity is about the time and attention you give to others and their work. This does not necessarily equate with harmony and may be ridden with conflict and disappointment. In other words, my one piece of advice is: Find yourself a community, or (overlapping) communities, or a changing constellation of a few people who will read your work with loving ruthlessness, including in editorial terms, who will get you unstuck or send you into (in the long run) productive turmoil, sometimes by saying two words or making a face, and sometimes by making you restructure your abstract so that you finally figure out what your paper is about. You will forge better ties with some in that community while some will misconstrue you completely, in your interpretation, although you hoped desperately to pick their minds. Some will think that you pick on them, and perhaps you do. Those that do not seem to understand you may be very important as they occasionally connect the dots you did not know existed. Finding this sustenance (feedback) and being able to use it productively is paramount and most difficult, because of the neoliberal pressures that structure academia, clashing personalities, and our own and others’ follies. But it is worth it. Finding your thinking mates is not the same as networking, however, which is another advice that I should give from pragmatic positions. Networking can help get a job, if the stars and the departmental politics align, which is also sustenance of course. It may be necessary for finding your thinking mates, too, but it will not necessarily make your thinking thrive.

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