As a British, white and male PhD candidate doing research in Somalia in the field of ‘African studies’ the recent furore surrounding the #CadaanStudies has left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
This is no bad thing.
The debate which has been generated around the ‘whiteness’ of scholarship on the region (and, while we’re at it, the continent at large), its colonial baggage and lack of reflexivity is extremely relevant. The way it has coalesced around and been magnified by the power of the ubiquitous hashtag says a lot about the discursive zeitgeist of the twitter-sphere, and is both remarkable and progressive. These are serious issues and it has been fascinating to see this outpouring of critique towards the structures of academia and the wider global inequalities which they reflect or, it could be argued, reinforce through the knowledge/power dynamics of academic institutions and policy-making.
From this debate has emerged a particular hate figure who, it has been argued, epitomises exactly the type of euro-centric and un-reflexive scholarship which was being taken to task in the first place: Dr Markus Hoehne. His facebook message response to the originators of the #caddaanstudies campaign was, indeed, ill-judged and clumsy: to the point where the language used could be read and interpreted to have racist overtones.
I’m not writing now to defend Dr Hoehne’s comments – he attempted to do so here and his response is worth a read – and I would like to point out, before I continue, that I am not a personal friend of his nor have we worked together in an academic NGO/policy capacity (nor do I have any association with the unfortunately titled Somaliland Journal of African Studies). However I have met Dr Hoehne on a couple of occasions: once, briefly, a few years ago in Hargeysa when I lived and worked there, and once again about a month ago (before #Cadaanstudies took off) whilst I was doing in research in Garoowe. It was on this latter occasion that I watched him deliver a lecture to the students and faculty of Puntland State University on – guess what! – social science methodology (particularly in a Somali context). In his lecture (delivered in English and Somali) Dr Hoehne covered many of these precise issues which have come to the fore in the debate surrounding #Caddaanstudies: the power dynamics of researcher/respondent; the implication of the field of anthropology in former colonial systems of governance; the need for reflexivity on the part of the researcher and the dangers of bias and prejudices of the researcher in the ‘writing’ of the social realities to which he/she is an outsider. In short, Dr Hoehne demonstrated both an awareness of the issues which are now being so strongly critiqued and an ability to articulate these clearly to an interested academic audience in Somalia. His lecture then moved on to his own research on the politics of state formation in the disputed areas between Somaliland and Puntland and I watched the audience become engaged and engrossed (as well as highly amused) by his detailed knowledge of the micro-politics of these contested borderlands and, yes, the intricacies of the clan and sub-clan politics which are an important factor in this particular conflict.
I do not offer this anecdote to serve as a defence for Dr Hoehne’s comments on Facebook, I simply do so to give an alternative perspective on an academic whose lecture I was (by coincidence) able to attend whilst I was hanging out in Puntland. It was an interesting experience for me as an observer not least to see the dynamics of a white academic engaging with a Somali audience (in Somalia) on his research about ‘their’ political reality. Also, as a moment of ethnographic observation/participation it was fascinating to watch both the speaker and the audience in this particular setting – one that itself was charged with political meaning and significance (if you consider that this was the ‘state’ university of one of the several parties to the conflict which was being discussed and that much of the discussion focused on an opposing side, in this case Somaliland).
Anyway, my point here is that I believe Dr Hoehne is actually a ‘serious’ scholar (to use his own unfortunate phrase) working on Somalia. I’ve read his academic work in the past and felt it to be based on in-depth and extended experience and fieldwork inside Somalia, and presenting one particular perspective on the political dynamics of regions which do not usually get studied in such depth. There is, I believe, a relative lack of good scholarship on Somalia and this was illustrated very succinctly by one contributor to the hashtag, Ayan Mahamoud (@Gobannimo), who noted: ‘many consultants and few scholars #cadaanstudies. little scholarly work, too many commissioned papers’. This really hits the nail on the head for so much of what is wrong with Cadaan ‘analysis’ of Somalia: most of it isn’t based on solid fieldwork in Somalia and so often I can sense the detachment of these writers from the social reality of modern Somalia. Security concerns are the usual limiting factor for researchers but it is important to remember that the political fragmentation (and mistrust) across the multiple regions and administrations of Somalia also affects Somali scholars, in the sense that research across all parts of the country is often difficult (this observation is based on numerous conversations I have had with Somali scholars and analysts in Somalia).
Serious scholarship on Somalia (whether by local, diaspora Somali, or foreign researchers of whatever colour) is an important corrective to so many of the ill-informed and prejudiced depictions of the region which permeate both foreign news media narratives, and often, the ‘analysis’ of (perhaps well-meaning) humanitarian actors. That ‘Somalia is not just a country of terrorists and pirates’ is a common refrain of many people speaking to me in Somalia (as a white outsider) and there is a clear desire for new discourses interpretations to be explored in regard to the rich and complex social, cultural, economic, political and religious realities of Somalia. Where there are cadaan studies which are permeated by the power relations of academic institutionalism, prejudice, reductionism, or pure racism then these should be called out and critiqued. #Cadaanstudies has made an impact on this process of critique and I hope it moves towards even more extended engagement with specific academic texts – something that cannot be done properly in 140 characters or less. I hope all ‘serious’ scholarship on Somalia is encouraged alongside rigorous critique, because I really don’t believe that most foreigner researchers engaged in academic work in Somalia are would-be neo-colonialists with agendas of domination and subjugation (or theft) of local knowledge: one thing I did agree with Dr Hoehne in his facebook message is that doctoral researchers working in Somalia (at least in my experience) are not in it for the money or glory: for the record I’m doing research in a country which my government tells me no to go to under any circumstances and I’m not being paid for it (the fact I can do research in Somalia is down to the support of many wonderful Somali friends and colleagues across the region).
Once again, anything that makes a social sciencist look critically at him or herself and re-energises questions of knowledge and power relations in academia is to be applauded. I’d like to think, in my research, that I can write up a particular perspective on my topic of interest (which happens to be in Somalia) and that this can be based on rigourous and appropriate data collection and a continued reflexivity on my part as to the very processes and power dynamics of research itself in the context.
I look forward to your critiques.
Photo: @petechonka: School, Burco