Conflict Politics Violence

Transition Development Territory

The state Policy Research

Identity Sovereignty

Bart Klem


Politics, state institutions, de facto sovereignty and public authority in (violently) contested environments are my main themes of interest. These concepts have normative connotations, but what is interesting about conflict-affected contexts is that received wisdom about legitimacy, legality or morality often gets turned on its head.

For example, the self-evident nature of the state often gets called into question, purportedly illegal political formations manage to craft some legitimacy, and the presence of violence does not equal plain anarchy or disorder. And this in turn raises interesting questions about what we tend to consider ‘normal’ contexts, where normative schemata about what is natural or just are more clearly scripted and rehearsed, but not necessarily more accurate.

This becomes particularly clear at moments of drastic flux, such as the socio-political transition around the end of war. We see forms of change as well as continuity, and a persistent process of recalibrating and renegotiating what we may call the ‘rules of the game’ or ‘everyday norms’ exposes some of the interesting paradoxes political life more generally. What makes a rule and what an exception? When does transgression become the norm? What keeps conflict within certain bounds? And is it a sense of order that guides and constrains behaviour, or is it the everyday practices that make such forms of order?

These questions may seem purely academic, but they actually raise some pertinent issues with regard to policy-practice as well. Interventions in conflict-affected environments (aid, diplomacy, and military, and the shades in between) become part of the context they try to influence. They are not privileged in the sense that their relevance or legitimacy can be taken for granted or dealt with separately.

The echelons of policy-making, the sites where policy gets ‘translated’ to practice, and the ways in which such practice connects to ‘local beneficiaries’ or ‘interlocutors’ are social arenas, just like any other, that can be studied ethnographically. Policy is as much a discursive form political performance aimed at crafting legitimacy, as it is an instrumental rationality connecting interests, objectives and means.

Contemporary violent conflicts are numerous, highly diverse and often difficult to fully understand. Modesty is thus in order for any analyst in conflict and development studies. I am skeptical about the tendency in some parts of social science to prioritize grand causal links over everything else, particularly when this implies subjecting contextual diversity to reductive quantitative models.

While grand theory, overall patterns and solid quantitative date can be useful and inspiring, I believe it is important to understand conflicts (and politics more generally) at different levels and in different manifestations. I thus tend to advocate in-depth analysis and contextualised knowledge. While desk studies can be useful, I feel it is crucial to study ground realities (and policy realities) by visiting ‘the field’ (and ‘the policy environment’).

More concretely…

Now what does this high prose, and elevated principles expressed in it, actually mean in practice? For an overview below with examples of my previous activities: click here.

For more detail on my expertise and experience, see: Curriculum Vitae.