“Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Back in September, I attended the Conflict Research Society annual conference in Brighton. CRS is one of my favorite conferences, and I have previously attended in Oxford and Birmingham. The Brighton conference was great, with the same warm and collaborative spirit as the previous meetings. But one awkward, and perhaps important, moment stays with me, and I think warrants reflection.

I shared my dissertation research as part of a panel on narrative and ideology. The room was full, and there were a lot of questions from the audience. One response took the form of a long series of barbed more-of-a-comment-than-a-question points, aimed at the discussant, another panelist, and me. Those comments culminated in a challenge directed to me: “Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Although this is the type of comment that most presenters dread, I was fortunate to have an easy answer. “Thank you for your feedback, I am in fact just back from my fourth trip and tenth month of research in Mexico. Apologies for not spelling that out. Now moving right along…”

That is the easy answer, and perhaps the best that can be done with a rather lengthy comment during a rather short panel. Behind the question, however, was an important point. The commenter may have missed the mark with their question, but their expectation that I wasn’t spending time in Mexico highlighted a problem with my presentation. I had gone too technical with my analysis. I had tables and counts, but I was not telling a story. I wasn’t animating the numbers by showing what they looked like on the ground. I had made my research look like something that could be done from a distance.

The comment also left me wondering just how often I should be in Mexico. Another answer to the question would be that I wasn’t in Mexico because I was in Brighton, presenting at a conference, hobnobbing with other scholars that for the most part conduct research in one place, and discuss that research in another.

In this sense, the question should be an uncomfortable challenge for our whole way of doing academic work. Why weren’t any of us in our respective field sites? Because regardless of how deeply we embed during our research, our work is more structured by academic conventions than by the people and places that we research. We write into academic genres, we present our work in standard formats, to rooms of similarly socialized and educated researchers.

There is another uncomfortable answer back there too. Why wasn’t I in Mexico? Because funding at my institution comes with a lot of strings attached. Even those of us with decent funding packages are obliged to be in New York every semester, to teach or assist or just to confirm that we are indeed working. I managed to wrangle a semester in Mexico, but doing so involved a long struggle against the overlapping bureaucracies of CUNY.

At conferences, we present our research as though everything is a matter of intention, of making the best choices for doing the best research. We don’t say very much about the way our research is structured and shaped by the limitations – bureaucratic, disciplinary, conventional – of academia itself. We might benefit from spending more time in the field, but we definitely need to present our work to the right people. We might engage fluently with the culture and customs of our field sites, but we absolutely need to be fluent in the bureaucracy of funding institutions. We make a successful career based more on what we do in academic spaces, than on what we do in research spaces.

Why aren’t you in Mexico? A harsh question for someone of higher status to toss at a panel of students, but a useful one to carry with me. I will spend more time in Mexico, but not as much time as I would like. Rather than worry about how much time I spend there, however, I should be focusing more on bringing Mexico back with me. On doing justice to the lives and stories that I encounter in my research. On finding ways to make the field (whatever that is) less subservient to the ivory tower.

The Conflict Research Society Conference, Birmingham edition

After my experience last year at the Conflict Research Society’s annual conference in Oxford, I was eager to cross the pond again, and plug back into the vibrant CRS community this year. I sweated on my acceptance to the conference through the spring, worried that the conference conveners would decide that they were being entirely too lenient in admitting my rambling Mexico papers. The conveners certainly are too lenient, but they still haven’t realised.

This year’s conference was at the University of Birmingham, and having learned my lesson in Oxford, I booked a room as close to the university as possible. This closest option also happened to be a particularly lovely one, in a cosy home on a tree-lined road. The house even came with bonus colleagues; I was one of three conference attendees lodging there.

Like any good campus, that of the University of Birmingham is an absolute mash of styles. Bells gurgled in the red brick clock tower on the hour, while a brutalist beehive squatted silently nearby. This far norff, yellow leaves were already skittering across the lawns in the chill morning breeze.

Within the conference venue, the atmosphere was very much as I remembered. To the clink of coffee cups on saucers, attendees exchanged warm greetings and new introductions. There is very little self-sorting into the usual academic hierarchies at this conference; new students, doctoral candidates, postdocs, junior faculty and established professors mingle and share ideas openly. Maybe this is a trick of the name tags, which don’t list rank. Maybe – and to the eternal chagrin of the American academy – this is characteristic of academia in the UK. Used as I am to more rigid distinctions of rank, I found myself stumbling over introductions – and also that it didn’t really matter.

Beyond this welcoming vibe, there were a few conference highlights for me. Marsha Henry’s opening plenary included a fantastic overview of critical perspectives on peacekeeping. I am going to be picking over the reading suggestions in her slides for a long time to come. Henry was also a very generous invited speaker, who was present and available throughout the conference (even though, as she proudly declared, she is a relative local). Ana Arjona’s presentation of her (CRS award-winning) book Rebelocracy was also great, and thrust the book even higher up my reading list (what self-respecting Latin America scholar would even admit that the book is not on their already-read list?).

I was also impressed and humbled by the quality of the work of my fellow graduate students and doctoral candidates. Among the many examples of great research eloquently presented, was Robert Nagel’s talk on sexual violence and civil war. Having recently returned from field research, and with a very rough presentation on what I had found, I was challenged and inspired by my peers to lift my work way up to their level.

One final highlight was the conference dinner, at which scholars of all ranks shared tables and bottles of wine. Perhaps most memorable of all, however, was the near insurrection on the part of my fellow vegetarians, over the diminutive size of the meat-free main dishes. We are, apparently, a force to be reckoned with (especially after a full day of conferencing, and with empty bellies).

The Conflict Research Society Conference

Last week saw me dozing on flights, stumbling through airports, and taking the tube to a train to a bus to another bus to another train, to arrive in Oxford in time for the Conflict Research Society Annual Conference.

This was my first time attending the CRS conference, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was one of the best conferences in which I have participated. The easy-on-the-eye setting at Pembroke College certainly didn’t hurt; it wasn’t only jetlag that, between sessions, had me scuttling out to bask in the sunny quads. And I couldn’t resist the utterly unnecessary Hogwarts analogies, when presented with the formidable array of desserts in the college dining hall

More to the point, however, the thematic, rather than disciplinary, focus to the conference, coupled with its modest overall size (only two days – quite the relief after some of the more monstrous conferences), meant that it was easy to meet, and to get to chatting, with other academics interested in similar topics. Perhaps most importantly, this was also a conference in which (post)graduate students, doctoral candidates, and junior and senior faculty intermingled readily. There was little of the sense of hierarchy that at other conferences can see attendees sorted or sorting themselves according to the letters after their names.

There’s also something refreshing about crossing the pond (the actual sleep-depriving, jet-lagging crossing notwithstanding), and getting a taste of how academia is done in other places. While we might study the same topics and read the same scholars, some of the frames of reference shift, some of the assumptions and fixations diminish. An important reminder that, as massive as it is, American academia is not the full extent of academia.

The paper that I was presenting includes a fairly detailed case study of the Zetas criminal organization in Mexico. From what I can see, mine was the only paper on Mexico at the conference. Despite ten years of raging violence, Mexico doesn’t quite have an agreed upon ‘conflict’ status yet. At the opening plenary, Prof. Anke Hoeffler drew a distinction between collective and interpersonal violence, with the implication being that the former refers to conflict or war, and the latter to crime. The levels of violence in Mexico, however, are almost inconceivable as interpersonal crime. Rather, part of the problem appears to be proliferation of highly armed collectives, willing to target each other and civilians.

Still, it is a testament to the sense of the community that the CRS has knit together, that some interloper, who doesn’t even study a proper conflict, was welcomed to the conference. And that the other attendees found plenty to ask about, and plenty to share.