#ScholarSunday with Anastasia Shesterinina

By Amna Kaleem














For our #ScholarSunday feature this week, we’re speaking with Anastasia Shesterinina, a Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. Anastasia’s research focuses on understanding mobilisation in armed conflict and raises interesting questions about policymaking in conflict and post-conflict zones. Before taking up her position at the University of Sheffield in 2017, Anastasia was postdoctoral fellow affiliated with the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. Anastasia is currently supervising PhD students, conducting doctoral training, and finishing up her book ‘Mobilizing under Uncertainty’.


In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Anastasia discusses her work on conflict mobilisation in Abkhazia, the challenges of conducting fieldwork, and offers advice to doctoral and early-career researchers. 


Could you tell us about your research on the dynamics of mobilisation and armed conflict?

First and foremost, I'm a scholar of mobilisation, I'm mostly concerned with the question of why in difficult situations, especially when you don't expect a situation of violence, do some people choose to get engaged in different ways whereas others choose to protect themselves by fleeing, hiding, or pursuing other options. So, this is the main question that has motivated me for over a decade.


It also has a much broader motivation behind it. When I started my studies in political science, I was immediately interested in civil war because I grew up in the former Soviet Union and watched all of these crises unfold. I knew I needed to study these situations of political violence, especially the ones that reach the extreme points of civil war, genocide, or ethnic cleansing. However, despite wanting to study civil war, I didn't quite know how, so I started by thinking that I would explore post-war situations. My PhD application was centered around the notions of peace-building, specifically the use of political theatre in peace-building, as I come from a theatre background in Russia. My thinking changed dramatically as I started going further in depth into my reading and the more I read about peace-building and violence, in particular, the more I understood I needed to dig into a much broader spectrum of questions around political conflict and focus on the most puzzling question to myself: why do people participate? So, that's how, having started from post-war, I actually decided to rewind and focus on almost pre-war and early wartime period for my thesis, resulting in my focus on mobilisation. However, I also like to think that some of this knowledge will help me understand post-war peace-building and protection of civilians in armed conflict better, and that's why my parallel project focuses on Responsibility to Protect, norms of protection, and United Nations peace-keeping.


You have talked about mobilisation as a process which is not just limited to taking up arms. Could you explain how you have conceptualised mobilisation through your research?

There are two ways in which we can start thinking about the concept of mobilisation. One way is in terms of conceptualising mobilisation as an on-going process of participation and organisation of political activity. We first realise that mobilisation is not only about the decision of a person to fight or not fight, it is about a range of everyday, organised processes, that precede any moment of decision-making. Secondly, when we think of mobilisation as an on-going process – that starts from before the war and takes an individual's trajectory in different ways when the war starts, as it unfolds and as it ends – we also need to understand that there is then a spectrum of different options that people hypothetically might have. They may not even think about these options but once we analyse the different trajectories that people are engaged in, we see that we can put individual actions especially at the war's onset along a spectrum of self-regarding actions such as fleeing or hiding in the locale where the intense fighting is happening, but not engaging in that fighting at all. So that's on the more self-regarding side of the spectrum of the continuum.


Further down the spectrum, there are ‘other-regarding’ ways of participating, which include fleeing together as a family, hiding together with the family or friends i.e. with the quotidian networks. After that, we have fighting or engaging in the support apparatus, which is an important component of the civil war mobilisation, in ways that would protect your family, household or your village. Moving forward, there is mobilising with the idea of a wider collectivity in mind, just to protect the broader idea of a nation or a group and going to fight outside your village or areas of most intense fighting. So, this takes us away from the simple fighter/ non-fighter dichotomy, it also adds a theoretical component to our conceptualisation of mobilisation where we not only think about options but also attach these options to the social environment: ‘who you are mobilising for’ is the question that guides my thinking in this regard. Are you mobilising to protect yourself primarily, or are you mobilising to protect broader aspects of your collectivity which of course will shape your decisions in different ways?


How has your conceptualisation of mobilisation as a multi-faceted process helped you understand individual responses to armed conflict?

Once we have realised that it's not only about fighting or not fighting, it's a much broader spectrum of roles that people can undertake, we need to then think about how the decision-making process actually takes place. So, in looking at the literature, what I have realised is that most of the literature on mobilisation starts with the assumption of risks, that individuals understand the risks that they are facing and make their decision to mobilise, in whichever way, based on those risks. However, what I found in my research was that people don't always understand the risks immediately and they recognise these risks in very different ways. So theoretically I ask how does that happen? What I start with is not the notion of risk but rather the notion of uncertainty, that people actually don't know what we assume they know at all times. This leads me to then try and understand how people come to understand the situation that they are facing. How do people come to understand whether the Georgian advance into Abkhazia is actually the beginning of a civil war, a policing action, an action that is not at all related to the Abkhaz people, or maybe something related to the internal conflicts in Georgia. Collective threat framing helped me understand exactly that.


Can we use this model to understand mobilisation in other conflicts, such as the situation in Yemen?

My first takeaway from this research context to other contexts, even those where it’s not a situation of civil war per se, or perhaps a situation of political violence, is that we cannot understand individual decisions as calculations of risk and benefits. We have to start thinking about the Yemeni mobilisation from the point of ‘how did people come to understand the situation which they are faced with?’ As a result, what happens then is that the questions we might ask would be different questions to those that we would have asked in the past. I would urge scholars to ask what kind of information was available to individuals when they were making their decisions, what kinds of social networks did they reach out to, how did they discuss whether to mobilise and in what way, was it a risk-benefit calculation or was it something else, was there some kind of information filtering process?


By asking these different questions, what we see is that the frames might be different, the nature of political violence might be different but the appeal of individuals to their social networks would probably be the same, and the way in which information gets consolidated in quotidian networks of family and friends will probably be very similar. Others scholars have found similar processes in Syria but at particular moments. In their book, Civil War in Syria: Mobilization and Competing Social Orders, Adam Baczko and Gilles Dorronsoro have found very similar process at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, rather than further down the road, when it was clearer what the situation was. So, when we start from the point of uncertainty rather than the point of complete understanding of risks and benefits, we theorise things differently, we ask questions differently, and I think that's the biggest contribution for other contexts that my work could make.


What are some policy recommendations you might make based on your research on mobilisation?

In terms of policy work and recommendations, this is tricky. As a researcher who cares deeply about ethics, I have tried to stay away from articulating policy recommendations particularly based on my work on mobilisation. So much of it can fall into counter-insurgency planning, so I am incredibly cautious in this regard. However, I have developed policy recommendations from the side of things of the intervener. This relates much more to my work on United Nations peacekeeping. I am comfortable drawing up these recommendations from the observations I make on how the United Nations peacekeeping forces have intervened to protect civilians in armed conflicts. When I was thinking about the patterns of protection of civilians, what we see is that the protection of civilians in armed conflict is a pillar of the legitimacy of the United Nations. However, in most contexts where the United Nations peacekeepers have intervened to protect civilians, this has been done in a particularist way. Whereas the overall statement is to protect all civilians, usually what happens is protection is actively given to those groups of non-fighters who are of interest to the United Nations peace process, for instance, local leaders, leaders engaged in the civil war, who could be brought to the table, government officials. This means that protection of broader layers of the civilian population is much more rhetorical than actual.


There has been a lot of advancement in this regard, but what it comes down to is the assumption of who should be protected for the peace to last longer down the road, and I think this is where my recommendations would come in handy. To suggest that we need to recognise this highly political dynamic of protection and suggest that for individuals caught up in the conflict, the situation is much more complicated. They are faced with intense uncertainty and people who might not want to fight will end up sometimes taking up arms or participating in the support apparatus. For individuals who have tried to flee and cannot and have to stay in the area where the fighting continues, very often, they understand the situation much better than anybody who intervenes from the outside. And in terms of policy recommendations, as a result, what I try is to shift the focus almost on civilian self-protection strategies, rather than any rhetorical protection that the United Nations might afford to broad groups of civilians. This means reconceptualisation of the support, of how can organisations such as the United Nations support the decisions of civilians to hide or flee alone or with family and friends.


Coming back to your research project, how important is it to take an interdisciplinary approach for a project like yours?

Methodologically it is absolutely critical. I have tried to incorporate aspects of sociological research, anthropological methods, historical analysis in my methodology, which are reflected in my broader perspectives. I look at 100 years of conflict which means that for some aspects of my research it could not rely on interviews and participant observation, I had to do archival research and rely on historical texts and texts of historians and the debates that happened there. In terms of strengthening the sociological component of my work, I had to rely on anthropological methods of observation which have helped me make my questions better, situate myself in the context of post-war Abkhazia in a way that will inform my interpretation later down the road. However, having had these interdisciplinary influences, I am still a political scientist at core, which means that I engage with fundamental debates on structure and agency, on power to a lesser extent, and particular debates within the fields of civil war studies on whether it is cost and benefit analysis, social norms, social networks, or security calculations that individuals have in mind when they mobilise. 


Speaking of methods, what were some of the challenges of conducting fieldwork in Abkhazia?

There wasn't an ongoing war when I conducted my fieldwork, but it is an incredibly challenging environment. It is a de facto state, a breakaway territory of Georgia that is difficult to access. It is incredibly isolated and as a result, you feel isolated when you conduct research there. It is a territory that has been marked by post-war violence for decades now, less so since its recognition by Russia and the support it has got from Russia in 2008, but still with the Georgian-Abkhaz border area being characterised by a variety of different forms of clashes, guerrilla activity, underground economy etc. So, in this context, you not only feel isolated but you're also faced with a range of situations that are terrifying and that of course impact the way in which you engage.


Despite these challenges, how did ethnographic research in Abkhazia help shape your understanding of conflict mobilisation?

I tried to embed myself in every community that I worked in and participated in every war-related activity that I was aware of. I also participated in daily life, celebrations, weddings, dinners, coffees, all the rituals that people engage with. As a result of these conversations, I learned that some answers in the interviews that I conducted were actually by virtue of the social context and I needed to probe further. So, for instance, women would speak on behalf of men, even if I knew that they participated in the war and this was one of the ways in which they could cope with their loss. I had to be incredibly respectful and engage in a conversation on behalf of men for as long as the respondents wanted or needed me to before I could ask questions about their own trajectories. So, this challenging environment, as a result, cultivates an immense amount of empathy with certain participants once you understand the challenges, the difficulties of decision-making when horrendous conditions such as the war's on-set hits. You also start to empathise with people in ways that you didn't expect yourself to. I explore this in my journal article Ethics, empathy, and fear in research on violent conflict. On the one hand, it is an incredibly challenging environment, on the other hand, it is an environment that helps you learn by virtue of being there, not only about the complexities of political violence and participation in it but also in your own reactions to that, in your own humanity almost.


What are some of the most influential books or texts that have helped develop your research approach?

There are so many inspirations that I have had in the course of my research, but two of the main inspirations, whose work I have engaged with and with whom I was fortunate enough to work at Yale University during my post-doctoral fellowship, are Elisabeth Wood who wrote Insurgent Collective Action in El Salvador and Stathis Kalyvas, who wrote The Logic of Violence in Civil War. These are very different texts and they motivate different aspects of my thinking but I have drawn upon these two fundamental sets of ideas. From Elisabeth Woods' work, I have focussed on how people engage with incredibly high-risk situations of mobilisations, and from Stathis' work I have looked at the systematic patterns that might shape these decisions.


Of course, there are multiple other inspirations. Sarah Parkinson has been a role model throughout my studies, especially in thinking about the social network component. Her article Organizing Rebellion: Rethinking High-Risk Mobilization and Social Networks in War and her work in Lebanon is probably one of the most important inspirations for me to focus on the social dynamics and the importance of quotidian networks – the term that I draw from her work.


There are so many other sociological works such as Jocelyn Viterna’s treatment of women's mobilisation in war, which has helped me understand how pre-war backgrounds might interact with war-time decisions. One mentor, whom the discipline, unfortunately, lost recently and whom I have cherished in terms of her advice, has been Lee Ann Fujii, whose work has certainly penetrated every aspect of my thinking about the research process, about the ethics of research and about the group dynamics in the really complex processes of political violence which could be easily missed otherwise. I could go on forever in terms of influences, but these are the key influences that I have had.


You are currently finishing work on your upcoming book Mobilising under Uncertainty, which is based on your doctoral research, what advice would you give to Early Career Researchers who are in the same process of adapting their theses into books?

I would suggest writing up the book as early as you possibly can. In a way, it is a trade-off between allowing yourself to further develop your ideas, your concepts, your theories, before they become reformulated as a book. On the other hand, it is a matter of clarity and communicating the message that you spent years on in your dissertation, in the most accessible way for the audience that might not even come from political science, that might be diverse. So, in this trade-off, you can either focus on further nuancing your theory, your concept, your empirical contribution or try to distill that one very important message that you have; in my case, for instance, my message is about questioning our assumptions about risk and instead focussing on uncertainty. If I were to re-do this, I would start writing the book almost immediately after my dissertation because that idea was on the tip of my tongue for most of the post-doc, but it got first articulated most clearly in the APSR journal article Collective Threat Framing and Mobilization in Civil War, which came out of my doctoral thesis.


Finally, what advice would you give to doctoral students who are about to start their research, especially, if they plan to do qualitative research, or research on a sensitive subject?

First of all, follow your heart. This is incredibly difficult work and researching what you are truly, deeply interested in is going to help you overcome some of the challenges of the work ahead.


Second, be very systematic about what you do, especially when it comes to sensitive questions. Ethics of research should be the first thing on any researcher's mind, which means not only protecting the human subjects you're engaging with but also taking care of yourself, and thinking through any potential risk, vulnerability, disturbance that the research might bring into the relationship between yourself and the human subjects in particular. It helps dramatically when you are prepared, especially in sensitive contexts which are where situated knowledge, sensibility, understanding of the context, might actually save you from asking wrong questions or getting into situations that might compromise your own security or the safety of your respondents.


And finally, don't shy away from things that don't make sense: embrace them. Things that don't make sense from the theoretical perspective that we currently have are the things where you can contribute, where you can be innovative, where you can say ‘wait a minute, this is not how the literature talks about this issue, what's going on here?’. This is where seeds of theoretical development come from, so I would suggest embracing these kinds of opportunities that torture you at night because they don't seem to make sense. Try to make sense of them, because that's where your theory or conceptual development will emerge from.



Amna Kaleem is the Deputy Editor of Global Policy: Next Generation.

Image credit: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/politics/people/academic/anastasia-shesterinina