SSHRC Program of Study

One of the great trials and tribulations of the graduate student and the academic in general is to find, apply for, and be awarded external funding. My latest attempt is to apply for the Canadian academic funding program: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council or SSHRC for short.

Here is the program of study I have come up with to submit along with my application. I plan to mail this in by the end of the week, but if you have any recommendations, revisions, or comments, please do let me know.

 Program of Study

I am a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. My fields of concentration are international relations and comparative politics with a particular focus on the constraining and constitutive effects of international norms on domestic security politics and security arrangements in zones of ambiguous territorial control.

My doctoral thesis will investigate the politics of clashes between international norms of territoriality and domestic conceptions of identity over territories which international society believes the state illegitimately occupies and its impact on domestic security policy outcomes. I focus on the West Bank, Kosovo, and Nagorno-Karabakh where the governments of Israel, Serbia, and Armenia respectively face highly conflicting domestic and international agendas over the political future of these territories. I therefore take seriously the domestic constituencies in these cases that seek to preserve the current situation even as they face international recrimination and varying degrees of local opposition.

My work builds on theories of territorial control amidst global norms that prohibit conquest or occupation yet foster collective political self-determination for those under occupation. These states are anachronistic in the sense that they expanded (or in Kosovo’s case, separated) through warfare and occupation, and they violated post-World War Two prohibitions against unilateral changes in international borders. All of these cases involve major issues related to human security, both for those who live in these areas and in terms of the sustainability of global norms developed in the second half of the twentieth century to contain conflict between states. From internal political perspectives, Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire shows state territorial expansion follows adherence to myths about security through expansion coupled with intense logrolling by domestic coalitions. Hendrik Spruyt’s Ending Empire argues that domestic veto players frustrate anti-imperial territorial retrenchments. Ian Lustick’s Unsettled States, Disputed Lands, argues that territorial withdrawals occur after a breakdown of hegemonic beliefs that the contested territory is an integral part of the state.

Existing theories are lacking in several key respects. They do not address how international pressures affect domestic perceptions of territoriality. Snyder says very little about how the actual moves of foreign actors influence the imperial designs of the state in question. In Spruyt, the international realm is of even less importance given that the decision to territorially contract is driven by domestic perceptions of the (particularly material) costs and benefits of empire. Lustick recognizes that exogenous foreign pressures may help challenge dominant understandings of territoriality, but he does not account for the role of foreign ideas in actually constituting domestic identities and interests which prefer withdrawal over incorporation. In my three cases, domestic perceptions of “appropriate” territoriality are intrinsically tied either in opposition or conformity to international expectations. To understand the debate over territoriality in Israel, Serbia, and Armenia as entirely endogenously determined is to ignore the overwhelming international pressures on these states and the clear internalization of these normative values without which there would likely be no domestic debate.

My research to date indicates that domestic opponents to territorial retrenchment play much greater roles than previously theorized. They are purposeful actors who operate simultaneously in domestic politics and in the realm of international public opinion against core norms that organize international politics. They adhere to different normative conceptions which emphasize self-determination and historical claims to territory which have been rejected as revisionist in international politics. Most international players tend to discount these actors, or in the case of political science theory, limit them to veto-playing roles. My work indicates that these “marginal” parties are hardly marginal at all, but in fact represent undeniably important manifestations of national identity. Indeed, the norms which inform international demands of territorial contraction may be inherently antithetical to those domestic values and identities which demand incorporation. Thus to deny the constitutive importance of the ideas which they seem to represent is to fundamentally misrepresent the nature of the territorial conflict at hand and the manner in which it might be resolved.

My research also focuses on the complex realities which develop concurrently on the ground. Indeed, social relations, demographic distributions, and security arrangements are never frozen as political bodies deliberate over the future of contentious territories. The core of my research, based upon a field visit to the West Bank last summer, and extensive reading about Kosovo and Karabakh, is that domestic groups build parainstitutional arrangements in the absence of official state- building. These institutions consolidate a “parent” state’s hold on that territory, regardless of official policy or international diplomatic pressure. The also put “facts on the ground” which are far from easily reversible and make the conflict over territory even more complex. My research operationalizes this process through close examination of the growth of alternative security arrangements which develop either in tandem with or autonomously from the state which not only strengthen these actors’ effective administrative control, but may in fact challenge the “parent” state’s own exercise of control thus constraining future policy options with regard to the territory.

Much more is at stake in these territorial conflicts than the question of secure borders. These states’ identities themselves are bound up in existing de facto borders and what lies within them. From the West Bank as the heart of biblical Israel to Kosovo as the traditional site of the founding of Serbia to the embeddedness of Armenian history and culture in Nagorno-Karabakh, groups in these “parent” states and contested regions play domestically and internationally for much more than territorial integrity. I contend that the failure of political analyses to understand and explain the conflictual interaction between international pressures, domestically internalized global territorial norms, and local normative attachments to territory leads to unrealistic assessments of the nature and resolvability of these conflicts. Just as content-free analyses based on collective action problem logics in Snyder and Spruyt provide little insight into the actual operation of social and political conflict in these scenarios, so too do ideational perspectives which assume a priori the illegitimacy of parties desiring to retain contentious territories impose on these conflicts unrealistic and overly simplistic strategies for their resolution.

As a second year graduate student, I am still developing my research. I spent six weeks in Israel and the West Bank in which I have conducted over 40 interviews with academics, activists, soldiers, security administrators, and Jewish residents of the Occupied Territories involved in the parainstitutional security establishment. My read of the literature on Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh and consultations with area experts leads me to believe that I will witness similar on-the-ground security organizations and politics. I plan to conduct field research in these regions in the coming two years. I am especially interested in how local actors strategize and conceptualize the sustainability of these arrangements against global and domestic opposition and the uncertainty of their own positions. I have seen evidence in Israel that armed security bodies developed and maintained by residents of the territories in question are foci of conflicting domestic identities which have prevented either incorporation or withdrawal and constrain the ability of officials to negotiate the future of these territories absent significant political participation by those which most theories view as simple “obstacles to progress.”

My adviser, Dr. William Reno, is very supportive of my work and highly experienced in conducting research in the field. While the contacts I have made in Israel and the territories are my own, his work on the ground in Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh will aid my research. I also benefit from the Balkans and Caucasus focus of our campus’s Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies. Ultimately, I plan to produce research that tackles these basic matters of human security and to provide work that is useful to policy makers and scholars of political science theories alike.

2 Responses to SSHRC Program of Study

  1. muhammad says:

    How did your application go? Did this plan of study help you get a SSHRC?

  2. arielzellman says:

    I wish I could say it was successful, but they were not interested. Since I wrote this my research program has gotten much more clean-cut, but unfortunately I am no longer eligible for the SSRHC. Wish you the best of luck in your application.

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