Ethnography reaches the parts of politics that other methods cannot reach. It captures the lived experience of politics; the everyday life of political elites and street level bureaucrats. It identifies what we fail to learn, and what we fail to understand, from other approaches. The Centre aims to rescue ethnography from its current void in political science and build the UK’s first centre for ethnographic research in politics and administration. It will be an interdisciplinary platform for colleagues nationally and internationally who are interested in ethnographic research in politics and administration. It will practice the ‘art of translation’ for multiple audiences.
By Pia Riggirozzi, Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton
Venezuela sits on the world’s biggest oil reserves, but in terms of GDP growth per capita, it’s now South America’s poorest economy. It is mired the worst economic crisis in its history, with an inflation rate in the region of 500%, a volatile exchange rate, and crippling debts that have increased fivefold since 2006.
The economic crisis is inflaming a longstanding “economic war” between the government and the business sector – and a dangerous cycle of protest and repression is further polarising Venezuela’s already divided society.
In this scenario, violence of all sorts is approaching what could be a point of no return. The very ability of democracy to combine forces of transformation and resistance is at stake.
The crisis in Venezuela has also taken centre stage in regional organisations. The Union of South American Nations and the Organisation of American States are gravely concerned with the weakness of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, its culture of impunity, and the criminalisation of dissent. But they’re overlooking one of the biggest tragedies of the crisis: the crumbling of Venezuela’s health and welfare systems, which not long ago were beacons of hope. This collapse is truly dangerous and is affecting Venezuela’s women particularly badly.
For more than a decade, Venezuela was a focal point in the continental promise of a more direct and inclusive alternative to dominant marketised approaches to development and democracy. At the end of the 1990s, governments across South America began embarking on various “post-neoliberal” experiments – and for more than a decade, those experiments seemed to work.
Between 2000 and 2014, the region nearly halved the proportion of its people who lived in poverty, and the bottom 40% of its the population saw their incomes rise dramatically. In Venezuela, social, political and economic reforms between 1998 and 2012 helped cut poverty by a spectacular 50%, and extreme poverty by 65%.
Venezuela also became a regional health and welfare pioneer, greatly expanding the number of primary care physicians in the public sector and offering millions of poor citizens better access to healthcare than ever. Under a flagship programme titled Oil for Doctors, Venezuela subsidised oil exports to Cuba in exchange for deployments of Cuban medics and medical training programmes. The Barrio Adentro programme was set up to provide free basic medical care; Mission Miracle provides free eye care to people across the region, and other Venezuelan initiatives tackle the needs of people with disabilities across Central and South America.
But these remarkable projects all depended on revenue from Venezuela’s oil bonanza and accumulated reserves. Once the country was hit by an international oil industry downturn, the result was a string of shortages, outbreaks and widespread social deprivation – and a spiralling socio-political crisis.
Today, thousands of patients cannot receive essential medical treatments – and thousands more are on the waiting list to undergo vital surgery because doctors do not have the necessary resources. Likewise, diseases such as malaria and diphtheria – previously eliminated or controlled – are now on the rise, with disastrous results.
These assorted crises have implications for all Venezuelans, but women in particular. Their rights and choices are affected in distinctive ways, especially when it comes to reproductive rights, sexual health, and gender-based violence.
Women’s rights and dignity
Even before the economic collapse, Venezuela had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. To tackle the problem, the socialist government rolled out entitlements to contraception – but the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimates that since 2005, the country’s stocks of contraceptives have fallen by 90%. This is fuelling a rise of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV, and more and more women are seeking out illegal abortions and even sterilisations.
According to Amnesty International, between 2015 and 2016 maternal mortality increased by 65% in Venezuela – wiping out recent advances and returning to the situation that prevailed 25 years ago. Among the main causes are the lack of medicines and basic medical tools and equipment, and the ever-falling number of medical personnel, many of whom are either emigrating or simply unable to work without equipment or pay.
Women find themselves in desperate situations and who fear dying in childbirth are fleeing to give birth in neighbouring Brazil and Colombia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the overall number of arrivals in neighbouring states steadily increased to 5,000 a day as of early 2018. More than 56,000 Venezuelans crossed the borders in January alone – 40% of them were women.
So far, Venezuela’s South American neighbours and the regional multinational organisations have responded to the crisis principally as an economic and fundamentally a constitutional problem, justifiably worried as they are by the Maduro’s rapidly expanding authoritarianism. They have focused on isolating his government, condemning Venezuela’s farcical elections, recalling their ambassadors and even moving to suspend the country from organisations such as the Organisation of American States. But this is a humanitarian disaster, not just a democratic one. It’s time for other countries to step up and address the crisis’s disastrous effects on women, their rights, and their dignity.
The conflict in Ukraine effectively began between 6.30pm and 8.30pm on November 28 2013. This is when Ukraine’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych, confirmed that he was not going to sign an association agreement with the EU – a deal that the Russian government held in contempt. The result is well-known: mass pro-European protests in Ukraine, the ousting of Yanukovych, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the protracted war in eastern Ukraine. But why did this happen, and why did it unfold in the way it did?
People have been asking these questions since the Ukrainian conflict began. When Yanukovych made his decision, Herman Van Rompuy, then president of the European Council, reportedly vented his frustration: “You are acting shortsightedly. Ukraine has been negotiating [the EU Association Agreement] for seven years because it thought that it was advantageous. Why should that no longer be the case?” Despite the years of political upheaval, revolution and war that followed Yanukovych’s decision, no single clear answer is forthcoming.
For anyone interested in the future of Europe’s relationship with Russia, grappling with the question of why Ukraine changed course is a crucial part of understanding not just the roots of the Ukrainian conflict, but the deeper geopolitical dynamics that have played out in Central and Eastern Europe for centuries.
As always, in 2013, Russia was worried about the future of its influence in its “near abroad” – the term used in Russian political language to denote former Soviet republics. Towards the end of the year, Russia went out of its way to discourage Yanukovych from signing the agreement with the EU, even resorting to threats; Vladimir Putin’s representative, Ukrainian-born Sergey Glazyev, explained to Yanukovych that “the association agreement is suicide for Ukraine”.
The EU, meanwhile, faced a fiendish dilemma. The situation was neatly summarised by Alexander Kliment of the Eurasia Group during a 2015 House of Lords hearing on the future of EU-Russia relations: the question was whether it was “more important for the European Union to expand its political and economic influence in the former Eastern bloc countries” or “to have a functional, stable and growing relationship with Russia”.
In other words, the EU had two options: to stay as unified and assertive as possible while pressuring Russia to stop its arguably expansionist behaviour, or to accept that Russia was just “different” and try to influence its foreign policy by forging links where possible. And despite the events that followed in Ukraine, the EU has yet to make a choice.
As I argue in my recent book, European Security in Integration Theory, this dilemma has deep roots; in fact, it dates back at least to the period after World War I.
Friends and foes
In 1918, the severely weakened European powers had to face a new, potentially mortal threat in the east: Soviet Russia. As they tried to figure out how to safeguard European security in this new environment, they had two options almost identical to the ones Europe has today.
One idea is associated with the approach called European federalism; the other idea is associated with the approach called international functionalism. The ideas behind these two approaches are quite simple: whether the best way to face down an external threat is to unite Europe as closely as possible in opposition, or to engage the threatening power (namely Russia) openly, through forging functional links where possible – on trade, say, or culture – in hopes of changing its behaviour.
One of the most famous advocates of European federalism was Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, a Japanese-born Austrian aristocrat and politician. Between the two world wars, he promoted a close integration of European countries, just as the staunchest advocates of the EU’s “ever closer union” do today. What’s interesting is how he justified it. Writing in 1926, he painted a dark picture of a Europe under threat:
The world hegemony of Europe is overthrown for all time. Once feared, Europe is now pitied. From its dominating position, it has been thrown back upon the defensive. Threatened in a military way by a Russian invasion; threatened economically by American competition.
Today, calls for further European integration are often justified not in hopeful terms, but by references to the threatening “external environment”.
The current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has warned that “the challenges currently facing the European Union are more dangerous than ever before in the time since the signature of the Treaty of Rome” – and pointed out that whereas European countries can’t on their own do much to counter Russia and China, a properly united EU is “a partner equal to the largest powers”.
But today as in decades past, there are many who take the opposite view. Back in the 1930s, one alternative was advanced by the Romanian-born British thinker David Mitrany.
Mitrany argued that international relations should not be organised around regional integration blocs, but based on the functional idea of “binding together those interests which are common, where they are common, and to the extent to which they are common”.
According to this mindset, Europe would be better off engaging Russia on matters such as counterterrorism co-operation, hoping that the cumulative effect would make Russia more accountable and peaceful. One modern organisation taking this approach is the EU’s CBRN Centres of Excellence, a worldwide network of local experts and collaborating partners concerned with addressing chemical, biological radiological and nuclear risks. Also choosing the co-operative style are the specialised agencies of the United Nations, such as the International Labour Organisation.
For all that the last 100 years have transformed the continent, Europe is still in the same Russian bind. Its thinkers and politicians have spent nearly a century debating Russia’s proper place and different ways of co-operating with it. If the 21st-century’s European players re-examined these old arguments over the limits of integration with their eastern neighbour, they would be better equipped to deal with the problems they face today.
Selen Ercan (University of Canberra), Carolyn Hendriks (ANU) and Soton’s own John Boswell were last week awarded the prize for Best Article in Policy & Politics in 2017. The blog post below highlights the key messages in the paper – but you can read the full version, open access for a limited time, here.
Deliberative democracy is one of the fastest growing fields of normative political theory and empirical research. Over the past 15 years, it has expanded in at least two directions. The first expansion occurred as a result of the ‘empirical turn’ in deliberative democracy. It has seen a growing number of empirical studies on deliberative sites both within and outside of the institutions of representative democracy. The second significant expansion occurred as a result of the ‘systemic turn’ in deliberative democracy which views public deliberation as a broader communicative activity, taking place within and beyond discrete forums. For the most part, these two ‘turns’ in deliberative democracy—the empirical turn and the systemic turn—have pulled in different directions. Empirically, deliberative democrats have been increasingly fascinated with the micro-dynamics of deliberative forums, while, theoretically, the push has been to expand understandings of public deliberation beyond the forum into the public sphere. In other words the conceptual expansion has not necessarily been accompanied by a methodological expansion. Many of the tools and techniques developed to examine deliberation in structured forums are not well-suited to understanding the complexities and dynamics of entire deliberative systems. Furthermore much of the empirical research on such forums have been grounded on what Mark Bevir and Nabil Ansari label a ‘modernist’ research tradition. Derived from the natural sciences, a modernist approach to Political Science sets out to make ‘value free’ observations of the social world, subject hypotheses to empirical testing, identify causal relationships between the dependent and independent variables and, ultimately, develop generalizable laws to explain past events, or predict future ones. The limitations of this research tradition has become particularly visible as notions of public deliberation have expanded from ‘a forum’ to a ‘deliberative system’.
In our recent article ‘Studying Public Deliberation after Systemic Turn: The Crucial Role for Interpretive Research’ we argue that understanding the complex world of deliberative systems requires empirical researchers to go beyond the modernist research paradigms, and look for alternative ways of defining and studying public deliberation. A conceptual expansion without methodological expansion may easily fail to capture the uniqueness of the new concept. Considering the unique characteristics of the notion of deliberative system that sets it apart from the prevailing understandings of deliberation, we argue that interpretive research methods are particularly well suited to study the deliberative systems in practice. Interpretive research methods provide an in-depth, close-up, context-specific understandings of a phenomenon or experience that is ‘in the dark’.
A central challenge for empirical studies of deliberative systems is to identify the various components of the system and its boundaries. By drawing on existing and emerging studies we show that interpretive research can help 1) to identify and portray deliberative sites, agents and discursive elements in a deliberative system, 2) study connections and transmissions across different sites, and 3) understand the broader political context of both small-scale deliberative forums, and entire deliberative systems. We acknowledge that this list of roles that interpretive research can play in the study of deliberative systems is not definitive but it represents some of the most significant contributions that interpretive methods can make to empirical studies of deliberative systems.
Selen A. Ercan, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance
Carolyn M. Hendriks, Australian National University, Crawford School of Public Policy
John Boswell, University of Southampton, Politics and International Relations
Many students in political science, public policy and public administration who decide to undertake qualitative or interpretive research feel they are unqualified to do so. In particular they feel that interpretive approaches lack the type of specialised training that has become commonplace in quantitative political science.
The PSA’s Interpretive Political Science Specialist Group, in conjunction with the National Centre for Research Methods, seeks to redress this gap. Our inaugural methods course, held at the University of Southampton, 9 – 11 May 2018, will:
- Situate the interpretive approach in relation to other ways of doing political science research by reference to the philosophical, epistemological, and methodological assumptions on which these approaches are based;
- Provide the theoretical and analytical tools students need to design and conduct their research project;
- Outline the toolkit of methods used by interpretive scholars to collect data, including ethnographic and interview-based methods;
- Provide a series of standards that will both ensure results are reliable and maximise the impact of findings; and
- Offer guidance on the norms and principles used to analyse data in an interpretive project.
Led by Southampton’s Prof. R.A.W Rhodes, the course is primarily aimed at PhD students and early career scholars of political science, public policy and public administration. It will be very hands-on, and is set up as a dialogue between the theory and practice of interpretive research. Most fundamentally, the course is organized around the participant’s own research. It does not provide a mere toolbox of analytical instruments to be applied, but will introduce participants to, and let them practice with, the approach, enhancing their skills in research design, data collection and data analysis in the process.
Information on registration, costs, bursaries and registration can be found here: bit.ly/NCRMPoliticalScience
Last week the University of Southampton hosted around 200 experts on Latin American Studies from all over the world who gathered at the 2018 Society of Latin American Studies’ Annual Conference to reflect on the history and current state of Latin American Studies in the UK and around the world.
A team of ten students from Social Sciences and Humanities were part of the organising team, based at PAIR, and efficiently run this two-day event at the Winchester campus. For most of these students, it was their first experience on a professional academic event of this size and prestige. They enthusiastically combined work experience with attendance to panels and networking with the experts in their favourite topics.
Full information about the conference programme, keynote lecture, closing plenary and more pictures can be found at http://generic.wordpress.soton.ac.uk/slas2018/.
The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute presents the Best Student Paper Award to the “author/authors of a student essay that is outstanding for its theoretical and empirical contributions.” The winner receives $500 USD and is invited to present the paper at the annual V-Dem Conference, with travel and accommodation generously provided.
The 2017 award was won by Alexander Blums, a student in the department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. The theme for the competition call was “Causes and Effects of Democratization.” Blums won with his paper entitled, “Electoral Democracy and Corruption: A Cross-National Study,” based on his dissertation research at the University of Southampton. The paper was subsequently published as an official Working Paper in the V-Dem Working Paper Series.
We asked Alexander to tell us about how this played out:
I decided to do my dissertation on cross-national predictors of corruption because I thought it was an interesting subject and my dissertation supervisor Raimondas Ibenskas is an expert in comparative politics. My main thesis was that controlling for other variables, the quality of electoral democracy explains corruption in the long and short-term. For data on democracy, I chose to utilise the V-Dem dataset. After submitting my dissertation, Raimondas (my now former supervisor) noticed that V-Dem was running a student paper competition. I made some minor modifications to better fit the requirements of the competition and a few months later received the good news about the prize. My paper was published in the ‘Users Working Paper’ series, I was given a cash prize and invited to take part in an annual conference on Democracy in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Congratulations to Alexander Blums for this much-deserved award. The Department of Politics and International Relations is very proud!