Paul recently received his PhD in International Development and Environmental Studies from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and his primary research interests are the (dis)functioning of international institutions, international hierarchies and discourse analysis. Having just submitted their Caspian paper for review, we checked in with Paul to ask about how Corona affected his research, to get a sneak preview of their findings, and for his reflections around publishing as an early career scholar.
NUPI: 'Your PhD - and book project - explores how international status competition manifests in domestic politics, how does that research inform your work on the Lorax project, and specifically studying the environmental cooperation around the Caspian Sea?'
'To answer this, it is useful to back up a bit and outline the Lorax project’s broader research agenda. In short, the Lorax project investigates the growing phenomenon of transnational “ecosystemic politics”. That is, international cooperation anchored in ecosystems that cross four or more national borders. Rather than evaluating whether ecosystem cooperation works and how effective it has proven in protecting ecosystems, the project systematically seeks to identify the social and political side effects (whether local, national, regional or international) - that are produced by this relatively new but growing means of organising regional governance. The overarching theoretical framework of Lorax - which Elana has published in an article in Political Geography - conceptualises these potential knock on effects in terms of norms, networks and hierarchies. My job on Lorax, together with Elana (who is fluent in Russian) was to explore whether, how, and to what extent ecosystem cooperation generated new, revised, or thickened, hierarchies structuring relations between Caspian Sea actors (the project leaves as an open question what sort of actors may be involved in the norms, networks, and hierarchies, meanwhile, we work with a very “broad” notion of hierarchy as patterns of inequality, not just formal authority).
Now back to the question, while my PhD explored status competition in very different empirical contexts than the Caspian (from Norwegian education policy to nuclear arms control), the literature that it addressed is what might be called the new(ish) wave of hierarchy research in IR (See Zarakol, 2017), which inspired the Lorax project’s concern with ecosystem related hierarchies in the first place. Moreover, although I would not characterise the Caspian states cooperation around the ecosystem as “status competition”, my PhD was heavily influenced by thick-constructivist work that studies the relationship between policy discourse, legitimation, and practice (e.g. Hansen, 2006; Jackson, 2006). This background theoretical and methodology expertise proved invaluable when seeking to make sense of the IOs working in the Caspian region. Finally, although not focused on the Caspian or environmental institutions, a red line through my research has involved studying the empirical manifestations of liberal institutionalism and their efforts to solve problems or help states “progress” (e.g. OECD’s PISA tests, the NPT, the EU), and many of the same liberal-assumptions underpin the Caspian Sea cooperation, and the various IO’s projects to facilitate ecosystem cooperation. Hence, my prior research provided a great deal of useful theoretical and empirical background knowledge that facilitated my research with Lorax.'
NUPI: 'You spent part of the covid 19 pandemic wandering around the digital corridors of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF, pronounced, happily, Jeff), the UNEP and the UNDP. What was it like to do ‘digital fieldwork’? What did the these organisations look like from their digital imprints?'
'Haha, I like the term digital field work; definitely preferable to “desk study”, or what Iver Neumann once dismissed as armchair analysis. But anyway, Corona certainly pushed us towards a particular research design and focus on IO and elite discourse, and led us to engage with the IR literature on the construction of governance objects and policy fields (e.g. Allan 2018). I suspect we would likely have gone in this direction anyway, but Corona probably led us there quicker.
Regarding these organizations’ digital imprint, the first thing to note is that I was extremely thankful that they keep relatively good digital archives, even if they are not always the easiest to navigate. Moreover, say what you want about liberal-instutions, but they tend to place considerable stock in producing textual description and legitimation of their activities, which as a discourse analysts I am incredibly thankful for. With a little digging, I could identify a fairly comprehensive and detailed paper trail (dating back to the 1990s) documenting UNEP, GEF and UNDP work in establishing and developing Caspian ecosystem cooperation. Meanwhile, the Tehran Convention which resulted, also provides a comprehensive digital archive. Obviously, one must read these documents sceptically - you certainly do not get close to the full picture of how well their activities have achieved their aims, or what the broader or even “real” impact of their activities have been - but you certainly get a window into how they legitimate their policies, how they conceive of the problem, and why embark upon particular policies (and not others). Moreover, with the help of secondary literature, you can get a decent window into what is excluded from view - or rendered very fuzzy in diplomatic language - in the policy/project documents.'
NUPI: 'A red thread in a lot of studies is the meeting of technocratic conceptualizations of environmental cooperation and sometimes quite gloves-off power political positioning (especially amongst states involved). Did you see any of this dynamic (or tension) in the Caspian case?'
'The IOs involved in getting the Caspian environmental cooperation going seemed from the outset to try to keep the policy field insulated from potential economic or geopolitical tensions. Indeed, the policy/project documents reflect a similar discursive mode to what Ferguson 1994 famously termed the Anti-politics machine quality of development discourse. Here, conflicting interests are downplayed and elided from view, and political problems are rendered technical, such that they can be solved through technical solutions. For instance, in the Caspian Sea they envision that that ecosystem management better information and coordination between states- actors, while downplaying the different social-economic interests in for instance, illegal fishing. Meanwhile, broader tensions in the region are alluded to, but never addressed directly. While better information and coordination are of course necessary to protecting an ecosystem, there are limits which they policy and project documents struggle to fully acknowledge. Though of course, this is far from unique to the IOs’ efforts in Caspian, afterall, “international organizations hate politics”
But at the same time, the IO’s discursive practice - or perhaps strategy - of downplaying political disagreement among the Caspian states, especially the broader geopolitical issue of rights to the oil under the Caspian - was almost certainly crucial for getting the ecosystem cooperation off the ground (signing and ratification of the Tehran Convention, and the development of its 5 Additional Protocols). Moreover, as Bayramov (2021) has compellingly argued, the relatively de-politicized and low-political nature of Caspian environmental cooperation and the practices it engendered, built trust and cooperative habits among Caspian states that likely facilitated cooperation in other more contentious areas later (e.g. Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea). Indeed, it is worth noting that until very recently, the post-cold war Caspian has usually been seen by IR as tinder box, of rising tension and competition where authoritarian states are embroiled in a new “Great Game”. While Bayramov (2021) and area studies researchers are often at pains to point out, this image is at best myopic and arguably eurocentric, few would suggest that environmental cooperation was likely to be straightforward, and depoliticizing habitus of the IOs may have been the best if imperfect way of facilitating cooperation (though the jury is still out on whether it will prove effective long term).
Regarding great power positioning more broadly, I’m going to be careful and say that with our evidence and our discursive conceptualization, we cannot claim to have identified strategic instrumental uses of environment cooperation. However, what we can say - based on our ongoing research - is that the ecosystem cooperation has enabled the drawing of sharper spatial boundaries between Caspian Sea insiders and outsiders, has provided useful discursive resources for legitimating that in-group and excluding outsiders from the Caspian, and for generating a positive regional “Caspian 5” identity. It has also spawned a host of practices at the domestic level that are geared towards making the Caspian sea and regional identity salient for citizens. Elsewhere, our paper also documents how politics, or perhaps political expediency, shaped the ostensibly “natural” boundary of environmental cooperation. Going over back over the genesis of the Caspian Sea environmental cooperation, it becomes apparent how natural science guidance for where the Caspian ecosystem began and ended reached beyond the Caspian littoral states, and that it would have made sense to include these states in the cooperation. Yet, for what the documents call “practical” reason, non-littoral states were excluded, and the political boundaries of the “ecosystem” cooperation would become reified in the diffuse and multifaceted ecosystem management practices that ensued.'
NUPI: 'You are technically an early career scholar, having recently finished your PhD. Yet you have already published a lot. Any 1-2 core pieces of advice you would give to those working on their first journal article submission?'
'Technically and practically - I am certainly not “mid-stage”! Though I am certainly a little haggard, that has at least as much to do with my 2 young children than my career stage. Before I answer, I think it is important to acknowledge that everyone is different and moreover, as a native English speaker I have some (unfair) advantages in publishing. With those caveats in mind, I am happy to share what works for me and what I have learned in my ongoing struggles to publish.
One thing I have noticed amongst early career scholars and especially PhDs that I think is counter-productive, is a tendency to avoid sharing early drafts with peers. My suspicion is that this is likely the result of fear of ideas being stolen or being embarrassed about what is very rough research. But while I would agree that it is unwise to post-online your working papers (plagiarism does happen), I am convinced that sharing your ideas and super-early drafts with trusted friends and colleagues (not only in your field) both helps make your ideas better, but speeds up the whole process: by helping you find related literatures quicker, helping you avoid dead-ends, etc.. My approach is therefore to get words on paper early, in the form of a crude literature review, an outline, or a drafted introduction of the paper you imagine you’ll write (I write intros in the form of Swale’s “Creating a Research Space” model), and get feedback as early as possible. This worked well during my PhD, but also has proven useful as a postdoc, working under a PI. Indeed, the three PIs I have worked under, all seemed to appreciate this method.
That would be the main advice I would have that I have not seen emphasised online so often. Other advice I would give are more standard: use conferences as a way of setting deadlines and making time to get a first draft done. THe nature of writing a PhD monograph is such that there will never be an ideal time to write articles and if you do not have a deadline, potentially great ideas may remain just that, a figment of your imagination. While conferences have been useful for other reasons (most notably networking/making friends), I would say their most important function in my career has been to giving the impetus to papers that would later become articles. I would also recommend studying the craft of academic writing: Study systematically the academic writing websites and blogs dedicated to the technical side of writing (from structuring advice, to micro-techniques to improving clarity). I am not sure if this is underrated, but I know a lot of PhDs are surprisingly lacking in academic writing training and do not seem to prioritise it. My view is that without the academic writing training I received at NMBU during my master thesis, I would likely not have published half of what I have (and possibly nothing at all), and would likely not be employed in academia now.'