30 October 2018

Congo: A State Ecosystem

The “postcolonial African state” is still generally seen through the lens of state failure and fragility within International Relations. In her PhD thesis, Stéphanie Perazzone presents alternative narratives. Building on several months of fieldwork in urban DR Congo, she argues that “the state” in the Congo and elsewhere is a broad, multilayered ecosystem, in which patterns of state formation remain surprisingly strong precisely as “the state” continues to be institutionally weakened, conceptually ambiguous, and always contested. More details with Dr Perazzone on “Congo: A State Ecosystem”.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

As a child I grew up in Kinshasa, the capital-city of the DRC. My family had been there for decades, and the history of colonialism and the place of privilege I come from always played a role in how pressing it felt that research be conducted in different ways so that we can contribute to producing alternative narratives about the lives, struggles and politics of those who live in places like the Congo. Always connected to a “Heart of Darkness” through the tropes of barbarism and reified readings of its cultural contributions and political and historical dynamics, the postcolonial African worlds, and the DR Congo in particular, are still “stuck” between lingering Afropessimism and over-optimistic (and fallacious) discourses of “emergence”. Precisely because issues of poverty, conflict and political order in postcolonial Africa often revolve around the issue of “the state” – and, in general, its failures and fragilities – I endeavoured to deconstruct and reconstruct what state-society relations look like and what governing might mean, not merely from various theoretical standpoints across academia, but through the real-world experiences of those who continue to make and unmake the state at an ordinary, everyday level.

What did this deconstruction-reconstruction lead to?

While developing my methodological approach throughout the process of writing the dissertation, I tended to three interrelated aspects of politics: (1) the mundane practices of my informants as performed on a daily basis from the early hours of dawn to night time; (2) the contemporary manners of “ordinary” and banalised violence – from the violence inherent to survival to that of state officials and policies on a quotidian level; and (3) the potential colonial “debris” (see Stoler’s “Imperial Debris”) that may be reactivated within the former two. These empirical observations can be lumped into three key dimensions of the broader theoretical inference I termed a “state ecosystem”: the socio-material practices, systems of significance and historical traces that emerge from the routinised interactions between and among ordinary citizens and street-level bureaucrats. The first one, socio-material practices, entails what people simply do “on the ground” and what/how objects mediate these doings; the second, systems of significance, involves dynamics of intersubjective sense-making through discourses, norms and ideas; and the last, historical traces, is collected via archival research and sees history not as something fixated on the past, but as individual and collective memories activated into the present, within the contemporary practices and sense-making activities documented through fieldwork.

These three components evolve in a consistent “back-and-forth” relationship, and the microprocesses and dynamics (retrieved from fieldwork) that compose them produce in turn much broader “state effects”. Based on the works of social scientists such as Timothy Mitchell, Michel Foucault, Manuel DeLanda and Bruno Latour, this thesis – with these three constitutive dimensions – carries two main academic contributions: (1) it hopes to transcend the traditional micro- versus macro-levels of analysis in international political inquiry by elaborating on a relational approach to the state; and (2) the “state ecosystem” allows for the systematic integration of the contextual and historical specificities of the society in which it is empirically embedded, and offers a generalisable framework to be potentially applied anywhere for the purpose of presenting further comparative perspectives on processes of state formation. This could be done, for instance, in countries like Switzerland, Ghana or China, where the researcher may, in a similar methodological fashion, document and analyse the broader effects of the socio-material practices, systems of significance and historical traces enacted within the daily relationships between Swiss, Ghanaian or Chinese ordinary citizens and low-level civil servants.

In less conceptual terms, my analysis of the socio-material practices, systems of significance and historical traces in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma demonstrated, first, how “the state” is continuously generated – albeit sometimes in violent forms – in both its performative and ideational dimensions. Field data, secondary sources such as mémoires and history books, and archival research show how colonial durabilities generate contemporary patterns of state anxieties (including violence and fragilities) entrenched in the modes of governance of Belgian Congo, therefore unravelling the ideas conveyed through discourses of state failure that a functioning, strong state ever existed. Second, the practices and intersubjective meanings observed during fieldwork suggest that adherence to formal bureaucratic procedures and objects, or “officialism” – even in its most absurd and exaggerated guises – does not merely conceal widespread recourse to informal practices for good measure, but produces in fact a strong re-creation of distanciation between the state and society. Finally, and ambiguously, the same data reveals microdynamics of mediation by which state agents and citizens aim to fix routine administrative issues, intercommunal and family quarrels, or property disputes, promoting thereby pacific coexistence and a sense of belonging to the broader Congolese community as active, responsible citizens who not only have a voice, but make use of it: this broader outcome of mediation, or “problem-solving” activities, is what I termed state intimisation.

The main analytical take of this all lies within the fact that “the state” should be questioned epistemologically and ontologically so that we can understand and conceptualise its content and contours as ambiguous phenomena that constantly emerge through and from societies and history. This, in turn, allows for a better grasp of the various sites where it is simultaneously contested and adhered to, transformed and stabilised.

Can you give an example of the policy relevance of your thesis?

The international community is spending millions in materials, logistics and human resources to conceptualise and implement interventionist schemes – both in the shape of development and military interference – and has been, as a result, heavily criticised for misrepresenting, and at time even damaging, the agency, voices and experiences of those it has aimed to supposedly “fix”. Repopulating intervention and, in general, global politics with the real-life practices and narratives of subaltern voices may assist civil society actors, policymakers and international organisations in discriminating between the socio-political arenas showing inclusionary governance and provision of collective goods (state intimatisation) and those showing exclusionary governance and provision (state anxieties and distanciation). This may help avoid the risk of weakening or antagonising peaceful and collaborative social interactions in environments prone to societal and/or armed conflict through ill-devised international development and military policies, In addition, and most importantly, this may offer a political space for peoples - whose lives and experiences are traditionally regarded as unimportant in international relations - to reclaim their right to membership in, as Ferguson rightly pointed out, “a spectacularly unequal global society”.

What are you doing now?

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Global Studies Institute of the University of Geneva and work on a project led by Senior Lecturer Didier Péclard on “Civil Wars and State Formation” in Angola, South Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire. Next year, I will begin a new postdoc research programme of my own at the University of Antwerp with a great team of professors and students, thanks to an SNSF Early Postdoc.Mobility grant. The programme will seek to “localise” international security sector (SSR) reform by crafting a microsociology of police work in Kinshasa, in a bid to interrogate the conceptual promises and implementation failures of SSR as it’s been performed by the European Union in the DRC.

Stéphanie Perazzone defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science on 19 September 2018. Associate Professor Annabelle Littoz-Monnet presided the committee, which included Professor Keith Krause and Professor Riccardo Bocco, thesis co-directors, and Professor Dennis Rodgers, who was then Professor at the University of Amsterdam and has recently joined the Graduate Institute.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Perazzone, Stéphanie. “Congo: A State Ecosystem.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2018.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office
Front picture: Neighbourhood Chief, Kinshasa. © Stéphanie Perazzone 2015.