A crisis of criticality? Reimagining academia in international peacebuilding

Author: Gnoth, Aidan Matthias

Date: 2020

Publisher: University of Otago

Type: Thesis

Link to this item using this URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10523/9990

University of Otago


Intellectuals, particularly within Western societies, occupy privileged positions which enable them to scrutinize the actions of those in power – having the time, expertise, and resources to analyse motives, expose lies, and imagine alternative futures. This ability is not a given however, and it manifests in a multitude of ways as academics’ epistemological and ontological biases, normative interests, and career security are continually renegotiated in the face of increasingly neoliberal rationales. Since the foundation of Peace and Conflict Studies over half a century ago, these pressures have played out along a problem-solving/critical theory dichotomy, in which problem-oriented scholars produce knowledge to improve the current system, while critical theorists seek to transform the entire paradigm and establish more emancipatory and positive types of peace. By assessing how this contestation has played out within the discourse of international peacebuilding, this thesis seeks to understand how critical theorists have challenged the status-quo by exposing and challenging the epistemic, discursive and institutional barriers to radical and transformative peacebuilding critique. To do this, it undertakes a critical discourse and citation network analysis of 111 prominent Peace and Conflict scholars writing on peacebuilding between 2005 and 2017, synthesised by observations drawn from over 40 interviews. It evaluates the scale and limits of critique by exploring the questions and problems that scholars concern themselves with, the extent to which their studies reflect on broader systemic and conflict promoting factors, the alternatives and possible futures that are envisioned, and the ways in which academia and surrounding institutions constrain and dilute radical critiques. By systematically unpacking and assessing the problems addressed by academics and the arguments they make, the thesis identifies a lacuna of radical and imaginative writing which is further diluted and gentrified from within the academy itself as ideas are disseminated, popularized, and utilized. It finds that studies on international peacebuilding are overwhelming focused on perceived problematic ‘post-conflict’ locales within the Global South, and while the actions of Global North actors in these operations are often scrutinized, this does not extend beyond the immediate post-conflict environment. Paradigm critiques and reflexive challenges to institutions such as violence, the Westphalian state, and the international economic system are exceedingly rare and are most often problematized only in relation to the post-conflict paradigm. Furthermore, very few scholars engage with or offer a conceptualisation of peace which extends beyond status quo systems of management and order experienced by those within the Global North. Consequently, the possible futures and types of peace that are envisioned by scholars are iterative rather than revolutionary, seeking to integrate states within the existing international order rather than finding ways to challenge and produce new international orders which are more adept at responding to issues of environmental degradation and social justice. Ultimately, the negotiation between critical and problem-solving theories has erred on the side of caution and reflected the interests of power and order in the face of uncertainty and change. Where more critical work has emerged, its emancipatory intent is overlooked and repurposed by the performances of academia itself which transmit realisable empirical findings and problematize operational elements of peacebuilding at the expense of fuzzy and difficult transformations. More broadly, the subservience of academia to power in the face of neoliberal pressures and self-regulation has relegated the role of speaking truth to power to the subaltern, and while critical scholars increasingly turn their gaze to these locales to amplify their voices and identify alternative orders, these efforts are continually subsumed into the status-quo as interventions delve deeper into the private sphere, placating resistance and reshaping transformation. A radical reassessment of pedagogy is needed that repurposes engagement with the post-conflict other in favour of sincere transformation and resistance, led by renewed and extensive reflexive critiques on the structures and systems of power within the West which exacerbate inequality and promote social injustice. The potential for peacebuilding to offer emancipatory transformation of the international system remains, but post-conflict societies cannot, and should not need to undertake this task without being met by equal reflexive and critical efforts within the Global North.

Subjects: Critical Theory, International Peacebuilding, Knowledge Transmission, Academia, Peace and Conflict Studies

Citation: ["Gnoth, A. M. (2020). A crisis of criticality? Reimagining academia in international peacebuilding (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10523/9990"]

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