18 January 2018

PhD on knowledge practices in the monitoring of UN sanctions


Political knowledge is commonly assumed to be the product of a coherent political strategy. A recent PhD thesis challenges this assumption by pointing to the “messiness” behind such production. More details with Dr Aurel Niederberger on “The UNSEEN: Expert Networks and Knowledge Practices in the Monitoring of UN Sanctions”, a microsociological analysis codirected by Professor Thomas Biersteker and Associate Professor Grégoire Mallard.

How did you come to study the production of political knowledge?

Most approaches to political knowledge are discursive or linguistic, analysing knowledge with the aim of identifying a strategy behind it: in this view, knowledge is a tool of “those in power”, an assumption which entails the promise that by deciphering pieces of dominant discourse we can reconstruct strategies and goals of those in power. These approaches reveal important insights, but they come with a downside: they risk overestimating the directive capacity and homogeneity of governance and underestimating the “messiness” behind the production of political knowledge, which is all the more a problem when studying the little-consolidated domain of global governance. By “messiness” I mean the concurrence of different social dynamics, ranging from the competition between different expert networks over access to certain positions, to encounters between experts and other actors in their field of investigation.

These dynamics are processes of social ordering within the transnational domain and are thus of relevance per se, which is why I focused immediately on them, rather than on the discourses that they produce.

I wanted to adopt a perspective on political knowledge that does not start by looking at texts, but by looking first at the individuals who write those texts, second at their social context. Third, I asked what it means to those individuals to make certain claims in a certain way, to pose certain questions, or to follow certain methods: I therefore took their methods neither as primarily epistemic practices, nor as necessarily political practices, but first and foremost just as interactions with an immediate social environment. In other words, experts do certain things to live up to their social role as experts within their social context. The spin here was to think about pieces of political knowledge on the backdrop of the more immediate social environment in which they are produced rather than directly on the backdrop of the big politics to which they speak. My hope was to understand, within a very limited scope, more about underlying social forces that influence what we consider to be political knowledge. It is also necessary to see the approach as a supplement, not a substitute, to the aforementioned discursive approaches, because it is strong where those are weak and vice versa.

To what exactly did you apply this uncommon perspective – and what did you find?

I applied this perspective to a monitoring organ in international politics, the Panels of Experts (PoEs) that are mandated by the United Nations Security Council to monitor UN sanctions. I focused on those PoEs that have been working on sanctions applied in response to conflicts in Africa, which has been the original task of PoEs since their first mandates in 1997 (Rwanda), 1999 (Angola) and 2000 (Sierra Leone). Sanctions monitoring is not associated with one particular discipline or practice, so when PoEs were created, basic questions were still open, such as who should be on the PoEs and how should they proceed. There were different groups that could claim some relevant expertise and got a foothold on PoEs – military persons, researchers from specific think-tanks, regional experts, human rights experts, customs officials, law enforcers. The creation of PoEs, and with it the creation of a demand for a particular knowledge, caused competitive dynamics among these groups, but also assimilations of practices as they had to cooperate with each other once they were on the PoEs.

I analysed three dimensions of the social context of PoE members: their professional networks; the relation to the broader audience for their work (which includes their professional network as well as the mandating authority, that is, the UN Security Council); and the immediate interaction context during investigations. On the first dimension, I traced how professional networks of PoE members have shaped PoE practice from within as well as from outside the PoEs. In a dialogue between inner and outer parts of the networks (i.e., those individuals of a network that work on PoEs and those that remain outside), monitoring practice is developed, technicalised, and also legitimised.

This ongoing dialogue also creates difficulties for PoE members, and here we must turn to the second dimension of the social context. PoE members often find themselves simultaneously observed by multiple audiences that hold different expectations: on the one hand, there is the usual audience for their work, including their professional network, and on the other hand, there is the mandating authority, that is, the Security Council. That can be difficult, especially if you usually perform the role of “independent expert” in a think-tank and now have to perform the role of Security Council investigator on top of that. Even though PoE members are said to be independent, too, different role expectations are linked to the mandate by a political organ. This situation is common to many cases where experts are mandated by political authorities. The concerned experts react to this by carefully balancing their performances, injecting their performance on PoEs with little actions that signal distance and independence. Crucially for us, these actions – such as “speaking out unwanted truths” – again are played out in the field of knowledge production.

As a third dimension of the experts’ social context, I analysed relations of power that experts encounter during investigations with victims, perpetrators, witnesses, diplomats, politicians, and so on. Knowledge production practices are also strategic at this level in the sense that they relate to these imminent social relations that experts enter during their investigations: for instance, which investigation paths to follow and which not, with what kind of data to work, which topics to address and which to ignore, which kind of informants to talk to and which to leave aside. All these are means for experts to respond to pressures in their immediate environment, and at the same time shape the political knowledge that is later to be found in public reports and forwarded to the UN Security Council.

The thesis thus shows that, in significant parts, the production of political knowledge is contingent on social dynamics at the expert level, which challenges the assumption that this knowledge is the coherent prolongation of any single political strategy: rather, it is the product of a clash of strategies at different social and political layers. This mainly holds implications for approaches that presume such a strategy would exist – as is often the case with discourse analysis (which has its merits in other ways). Given that this constitutes an exploration into an understudied field through a perspective that is uncommon to the study of international politics, I view my thesis as laying the foundation for my further research.

Given its subject, your thesis must be politically highly relevant.

A noteworthy effect of working closely on the social experiences of involved individuals is that you produce an understanding that is often more relevant to the daily routine of practitioners than approaches that build on abstract agents such as nation states, or structural units such as discourse. Nevertheless, as long as fundamental research remains to be done, I am more interested in listening to the involved persons than in telling them how they could be doing better. In the long run, that should lead to a deeper understanding that might benefit the practitioners without necessarily being prescriptive.

There is another particularity about working on political experts. These persons themselves often have a background in social science, and it is often part of their job routine to carry out a literature research, read through lengthier texts, and come up with an opinion on them. The professional world of the social analyst and of the analysed social groups are more intertwined here than in many other types of studies. Therefore, even when I don’t go on tour with policy advice, there is the possibility (and, methodologically, the risk) of a feedback loop, where some of my work informs how the experts will speak to me about their work in future.

What are you doing now?

Thanks to two consecutive grants, I can further build up on my PhD research. Until the end of 2017 I was a junior visiting fellow at the IWM in Vienna, sponsored by the IWM and the Graduate Institute, and now I am doing a postdoc at McGill University with a grant by the Swiss National Science Foundation under the supervision of Vincent Pouliot, who has conducted crucial work on practice in international politics and laid several foundations for my own work.

Full citation of the PhD thesis: Niederberger, Aurel. “ The UNSEEN: Expert Networks and Knowledge Practices in the Monitoring of UN Sanctions.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2017.

Dr Niederberger defended his thesis in International Relations/Political Science in September 2017. The jury was composed of Associate Professor Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, president and internal reader, Professor Thomas Biersteker and Associate Professor Grégoire Mallard, thesis codirectors, and Professor Vincent Pouliot, external reader from McGill University, Montreal, Canada.