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Demystifying Doctoral Research Fieldwork – “Expecting the Unexpected”

By CEID Blogger, on 12 February 2024

By Vanessa Ozawa

I feel so tired, physically and mentally, I am seriously tired. I dream of the day I finish all these stressful days… November 22, 2022, 18:20, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Field journal

Regardless of the level of planning and preparation, for doctoral scholars with limited resources, notably time and budget, the fieldwork realities can take an emotional toll. However, those struggles are rarely discussed in the increasingly competitive neoliberal academic space. In this blog piece, I reflect on my experiences as a doctoral scholar, to demystify doctoral fieldwork and call for more humane scholarly space, where researchers’ struggles and vulnerability are more empathically recognised as much as their research originality and innovations.

My research explores the educational experiences of Uzbekistani youth and the formation of their national identities. More precisely, it aims to understand how formal educational processes, including their experiences at school environments, shape their national identities through the intersectional lens, accounting for their ethnicity, gender and religion as key national markers. Given the complexity around formations of national identity and cultural diversity in Uzbekistani society, the research adopted an ethnographically informed qualitative approach, involving participant observation, oral history interviews, photo-elicitation and focus group discussions with Uzbekistani youth, mainly enrolled at public universities in Tashkent, aged from 18 to 20, who had just completed their compulsory school education and whose memories of schools were still relatively fresh. In my mind, my fieldwork plan was impeccable at that time, however, once I started my fieldwork, it did not take too long before my confidence was quickly disenchanted. Notwithstanding that, I had gained several prior fieldwork experiences in Uzbekistan both as a Masters student at UCL Institute of Education and then as a development practitioner associated with an international agency, which had enabled me to appreciate the unpredictable nature of fieldwork and its “messiness”. However, challenges I faced for my fieldwork as a doctoral student this time were beyond my expectations that I could have fathomed with my prior experiences.

The dichotomous understanding of researcher’s positionality as insider or outsider often disregards researchers’ complex identities and the messiness of the research setting. More importantly, the power dimensions in social relations in research contexts, and researcher’s positionalities need to be understood as situational, reciprocal, and fluid. For me, as an international researcher, conducting the study in a non-native setting triggered a myriad of methodological, conceptual, ethical and logistical difficulties and dilemmas. Whilst any researcher would inevitably experience difficulties unique to each context, foreign and local scholars face divergent advantages and disadvantages during fieldwork due to their different or similar cultural and social obligations, expectations and familiarity with the research context. Once I was exposed to the realities of the fieldwork, for the first time, I truly understood the meaning of a “research proposal”, which had made through the viva stage. As the fieldwork began, I realised that I was better prepared for methodological hurdles than for the practical difficulties. Throughout my four-month long fieldwork in Uzbekistan, I kept a daily digital journal, a personal space where I could candidly reveal my thoughts, reflections, and emotions. Among those, the most recurrent topics included the struggles to recruit an interpreter and participants and how to retain them. The repeated failure to even find a reliable interpreter and loss of initial few weeks in this process led to concerns about completing the fieldwork within the timeframe. The recruitment of participants was also delayed as I had to completely rely on gatekeepers and employ a snowball sampling method. Moreover, the selected participants often canceled meetings at the last minute or dropped out altogether after a couple meetings, a common struggle in an ethnographic study with youth, causing huge stress at times. This was coupled by the anxiety of exceeding my budget for fieldwork. As soon as I started working with my interpreter, who not only helped me navigate social and cultural complexities but also introduced me to some participants, I was finally able to regain my excitement and enthusiasm though my concerns, struggles and frustrations continued. What I learnt from this phase of ordeal was the importance of flexibility, patience, resilience and persistence when plans fail, and one has to adapt to the unpredicted situation in the field.

Whilst these were not the only hurdles I encountered during my fieldwork, and all researchers are likely to get tormented by similar issues, being a non-resident foreigner, female and basic speaker of the languages of the research context amplified my challenges. I also did not have the luxury to extend my stay beyond the four-month period due to limited finances which were all consumed in international flights, interpreter’s salary, accommodation, gifts for gatekeepers and bills for occasional restaurant and café with my participants. It was also the time when there was an influx of Russians in Uzbekistan to avoid Russian government’s “partial mobilization” policy to involve in the Ukrainian conflict. This meant that accommodation rents in Tashkent suddenly skyrocketed. My hostel unexpectedly decided to raise accommodation charges, which I had to dispute with the hostel manager. I almost had to sign a new lease for an apartment outside Tashkent through random people I had met on the day of crisis. Even though I agreed to a renegotiated price, I needed to borrow cash from my local acquittances since the hostel accepted payment only with local bank cards or cash which I did not have. Although these incidents might seem private logistical matters and not academic enough to be considered within the scholarly discussions, these were very much part of my fieldwork which were simply underrealised during the pre-fieldwork phase. After a few months in the field, I was simply exhausted, realising how underprepared I was for these practical eventualities and my “readiness” for the fieldwork was simply not good enough.

Now, that I have completed my fieldwork and am approaching the final stage of my doctoral journey, I sometimes get asked what my advice would be for those who are preparing for fieldwork. I always answer with the phrase – “expecting the unexpected”. Whilst the quote seems obvious, we often tend to forget it in the research planning processes as mostly, the focus is on scholarly debates on theories, methodologies, ethics and methods. For most doctoral students, the approved research proposal, for which we spend months and years, acts upon our mind like the ultimate guidebook for fieldwork until one faces the chaos of the fieldwork adventures. Nevertheless, although often not discussed enough, the bumpy realities of fieldwork are a path that no one can avoid; it is an integral part of research, which mentally and emotionally affects the researcher and research processes, exacerbating the adverse effects of already isolating doctoral journey. Although all scholarly work is usually built upon unspoken hardships of the scholars, there are rarely any spaces to reveal and share the personal stories of hurdles and struggles. What is expected of early career researchers is their display of flawless intellectual capacities and high-quality research approaches and findings, within the competitive neoliberal space of the higher education community. However, the realities of fieldwork, particularly in social sciences and education research, are never “neutral nor hygienic”, as it is embedded “within networks of power”, inevitably eliciting a range of “unexpected”, influencing and altering research processes.

Hence, academic space needs to be more open to humanistic debates where scholars, especially early career researchers, can safely share their personal experiences relating to their fieldwork without fear of being judged and labelled as “incompetent”. As education researchers, we should embrace the messiness of human interactions and our own vulnerabilities thus, the experiences of the fieldwork. Otherwise, how can we advocate and mobilise for a just society as a scholarly community?

Vanessa Ozawa (vanessa.ozawa@nu.edu.kz) is a doctoral scholar at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.

London Review of Education Article: Libyan teachers as transitionalist pragmatists

By CEID Blogger, on 29 June 2023

Conceptualising a path out of the peacebuilding narrative in conflict-affected contexts

By Reem Ben Giaber

I often question whether my research fits in with the work of other colleagues at the Centre for Education and International Development (CEID). I am from Libya and Germany – the former is often defined as a ‘conflict-affected’ country, and I am trying to explore teachers’ perceptions there of the roles that schools play in turbulent societies like Libya. Yet the questions I ask could be asked of any teachers in any country so, epistemically, I sometimes think that my research is more in the philosophy of education camp than in the education and international development camp. Or can it be both? Mindful of Gur-Ze’ev’s (2001) critique that much of peace education is driven by ‘good will’ more than ‘theoretical coherence or philosophical elaboration’ (p. 315), which leads to mainly unchallenged and unevolving practices, I propose a pragmatist philosophical approach (familiar in political science and political philosophy disciplines) as worth looking into, to see if the two camps can benefit each other. My first published article in the London Review of Education is a cautious conceptual re-examination of pragmatist philosophy in the fields of Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) and peacebuilding education. It is available [here].

The dominant analytical and programmatic frameworks used when writing about conflict-affected contexts such as Libya in Global Northern academia belong to the interdisciplinary field of PACS – an umbrella term that includes peace education (PE), critical peace education (CPE), peacebuilding education (PbE) and education and conflict  to name a few. Within PACS, education is increasingly gaining attention as a tool for building peace and developing social justice and democracy. Yet, caught in the epistemological and methodological nets their work entails (neo-colonialism, blind universalism, organisational impact metrics, white saviourism, structural violence etc), many scholars in these fields are themselves calling for a more context-specific and ground-up approach to education for peace or social justice (Bajaj, 2019; Davies, 2017; Kester & Cremin, 2017; Zembylas & Bekerman, 2013). As such, this trajectory to involve local stakeholders in thinking about the links between school and their society, brings the project back to the philosophy of education discipline, drawing upon centuries of thought and scholarship.  This is the integration, or even shift, I am proposing in my doctoral research because what is needed here is cultural criticism and transformation – a sensitive topic where one’s own positionality is significant.

My article takes a deeper look at the American philosopher John Dewey’s pragmatist approach to politics and education, and his conceptualisation of a ‘public,’ his understanding of enquiry and his views on teaching for peaceful and democratic living. When Dewey (1916) famously described democracy as not a political system, not a form of government, but as a way of living and communicating with others in our community that best allows for individual and social flourishing, he made it a cultural and pedagogical phenomenon.  This is meaningful to the field of PACS because it situates the design, inquiry and action that can be taken at the local level. For PACS projects to be effective, PACS scholars and practitioners would share their expertise as facilitators and capacity builders – not deliverers, consultants or implementers.

Throughout my paper, I argue that a pragmatist philosophy is a worthwhile pedagogical project in a challenging and unsettled context such as Libya, as it is an internal and ground-up discourse, compared to the often externally-initiated and top-down discourses of peacebuilding. I speak as an ‘adjacent and connected critic’ (Koopman, 2009), because I am both a Libyan and a German researching a problem in Libya to which I hope to find potential proposals by engaging with discourses and practices in an academic institution in the Global North. As such, to describe Libya’s socio-political situation, I prefer to use words such as ‘unsettled,’ ‘changing,’ ‘turbulent’ or ‘evolving’ rather than ‘conflict-affected.’ One reason for this is to ensure a disentanglement from PACS education frameworks that activate organisational mechanisms from fundraising to pre-packaged programmes to metrics to impact evaluation reports.  Another reason is for socio-linguistic considerations.

Speaking to Libyans, it is clear that ‘conflict-affected’ is too definitive, confining and suggestive of a state where common everyday occurrences like meeting friends in a café or taking your children to play in the park are excluded.  Libyans would not describe their society as ‘in conflict’ or ‘conflict-affected’ because that would suggest to them that there is what Galtung would call direct violence (i.e. war) all the time. What Libyans might recognise is Galtung’s structural and cultural violence and that, again, takes us to culture critical projects which can, understandably, only be initiated by Libyans. Finally, from a pragmatist perspective, ‘conflict’ and ‘peace’ are locked into a dualistic tango of end-states. We either have one or the other and this denies that both are possible at the same time and that the only way to ensure any transitional amelioration in the situation is to keep working democratically (beyond programme end dates). There is no ideal (capital P Peace or capital D democracy) or destination to be reached; there is just continuous inquiry and work to be done with an ‘end-in-view’ (Dewey, 1916) that drives action.

Analysis: The history of secret education for girls in Afghanistan and its use as a political symbol

By CEID Blogger, on 31 August 2022

Writing in The Conversation, Professor Elaine Unterhalter (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society) explores the history and past shortcomings of efforts to educate girls in Afghanistan, ranging from development efforts in the 1960s to secret schools under the Taliban.

In August 2021 the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, and since then secondary education for girls in the country has been banned. However, there have been reports of clandestine girls’ schools operating despite the ban. Teenage girls are reportedly taking extraordinary risks to attend lessons. Their teachers bravely share knowledge, even if they do not have extensive experience or the backup of an education system.

Education for girls was also banned during the previous era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001). In this period, too, girls attended secret schools.

Not much was known about these schools during Taliban rule. A 1997 report noted that the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan supported 125 girls’ schools and 87 co-education primary schools and home schools. An article in the Guardian in July 2001 stated that aid agencies had estimated 45,000 children were attending secret schools.

After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, the educational work of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which they carried out during Taliban rule, was much documented.

Before 9/11, there was very limited international knowledge of these secret schools for girls. But after 9/11, the misogynistic actions of the Taliban regarding women’s rights and girls’ education became a pillar of the argument for the US War against Terror.

When visiting Afghanistan in December 2001, UNICEF executive director Carole Bellamy referenced secret schools as part of a call for aid funding. The existence of these schools exerted considerable symbolic power.

Since the 1960s, the education of girls has been promoted in international development and aid policy as a way to limit population, address economic growth, or attend to political stabilisation. Girls and their education have been portrayed as a development intervention and a “good buy” for project funding. The argument runs that when women are educated and in work, they contribute to reducing poverty, enhancing the health of their children, and promoting social and cultural cohesion.

But these policies can fail to address or inquire into the needs, rights or capabilities of girls themselves, or the wider conditions of gender and intersecting inequalities. They are often promoted without any sustained engagement with wider policy goals for gender equality or women’s rights.

A commitment to women’s education can be hampered by nsufficient long-term funding for broader gender equality initiatives, as well as and inadequate representation of gender equality concerns in peace-making discussions. They mean that even when girls return to school in large numbers, practices inside and outside education can still reflect the social divisions and gender inequalities that preceded the conflict.

In November 2001, Laura Bush, the wife of US president George W Bush, made a high profile radio address condemning the “severe repression and brutality against women in Afghanistan”. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” she said. War was justified because of the Taliban’s ban on girls’ access to school. A narrative emerged of the need to “save” Muslim women.

One consequence of this was the risk that conservative groups in Afghanistan could link the education of women and other women’s rights measures to American aggression and colonial or geo-political ambitions – meaning that a future anti-American movement could also look to restrict these rights.

Nevertheless, in the post-Taliban era (2002-2021), a huge expansion of education took place in Afghanistan, with many important initiatives in girls’ education and women’s rights. Profound social divisions remained, though, and many girls still lacked schooling.

The Taliban seizure of power in August 2021 halted the growth of secondary and tertiary education for young women that had taken place over two decades. Promises made by the Taliban about reopening schools in 2022 were retracted.

In contrast to the limited reports on clandestine girls’ schools in the 1990s, many accounts are now circulating of secret schools. The more extensive reporting may come from better opportunities to share information using new technologies, or from the initiatives of educated girls and women.

But, to date, there has been no systematic analysis of these reports. There are reported divisions among the Taliban leadership on how, or under what conditions, girls should be in secondary school and university.

The fragmentary reports mean it is difficult to know who can and cannot attend clandestine schools, what the girls in these schools can and cannot do, and who is financing them.

In the 2000s, education for women became part of the narrative behind the War on Terror. Today, the positioning of girls’ schooling, gender and women’s rights in the process of peacebuilding remains a work in progress.

Key international organisations which oversee the allocation of funding and consult widely on strategic direction regarding education and gender equality are developing more wide-ranging policy on gender equality and women’s rights. An example of this is the UN’s Education Cannot Wait. According to its website, Education Cannot Wait is active in Afghanistan.

But one kind of initiative is seldom enough. Many coordinated processes are needed. These processes of global cooperation and policy direction are cumbersome and far away from the pressing needs and wishes of girls locked out of school in Afghanistan, but they are a necessary step.

The debate continues as to whether girls’ education alone is an approach which will allow other transformations to follow – or whether is just a limited intervention, which can be undertaken without engaging the politics of peacebuilding that would secure a stronger foundation for women’s rights.


This article was originally published in The Conversation on 23 August, 2022.

Quick thoughts on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and among its neighbours.

By CEID Blogger, on 27 February 2022


By Brad Blitz

As Putin’s assault on Ukraine continues, hundreds of thousands of people will seek safety in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary. Only Poland has some recent experience of receiving mass flows of refugees, which was not handled well.

The outpouring of support and sympathy from Ukraine’s neighbours is most welcome, but there are urgent matters to consider if European states and their partners are to manage this impending humanitarian crisis.

First, we have entered a zero-sum game for the future of a sovereign Ukraine, which is likely to lead to mass and long-term displacement. This then begs the question of refugee integration, which should be considered now.

The creation of reception centres especially in Poland is vital but no one should see this as anything but a temporary and emergency measure. Centres should be open, allowing movement in and out, but need to be secured too, not least because the inflows are largely from women and children.

Reception centres, camps, and collective housing are generally not good for refugees. Especially during a time of Covid. They can quickly become sites of conflict, infection, and insecurity. This raises both public health and security risks, which need to be managed from the outset.

Reception centres may also undermine people’s agency, something that the neighbouring states have sought to protect in their decision not to treat incoming Ukrainians as asylum-seekers. However, as time goes on, their agency will be challenged unless opportunities are created to empower refugees and to prevent the loss of skills and networks that occurs when people are displaced not only from their homes but from their livelihoods and careers.

The best possible option for incoming Ukrainians is to find ways to permit them to continue to live in family units, including in small-scale developments – we should do all possible to avoid the creation of large centres, however efficient it might seem for the receiving states. Despite the tremendous solidarity shown by Greeks, the Italian model of reception was much better for refugees during the Mediterranean crisis, than the reliance on UNHCR managed refugee centres as seen elsewhere.

The highly gendered flows into Poland, also raise other matters of concern, including for the safety and wellbeing of women and children, who have been separated from their husbands, fathers, and brothers. This is not simply a military or operational matter. The receiving states and humanitarian agencies will need to mobilise female staff, including health experts, social workers, psycho-social experts, and educators to name a few. Antenatal care should be prioritised – and pregnant women and mothers should not be placed in temporary reception centres, but moved to secure locations in neighbouring cities.

Families will need to log locations, mobile numbers, and contact information for those still in Ukraine. They should consider using secure servers, and encrypted email systems like ProtonMail and Telegram.

Copies of identity documents, school and university certificates, medical and personal information should be scanned and uploaded to secure sites. Those still in Ukraine as well as refugees should consider sending copies to themselves using secure systems like ProtonMail.

Children have specific needs, including the mitigation of trauma due to family separation, war, and discontinuation of their education. Social activities, such as we saw in Greece, are helpful but they do not replace schooling. Short-term interruptions of schooling may be acceptable but it is vital to minimise disruption to children and to facilitate their integration in the host state. We must remember that among the displaced will be Ukrainian teachers who are best suited to help refugee children and to design a transition from one system to another. Schooling also helps parents, by giving them time to grieve privately away from their children and to focus on their own needs.

Given that this is a war about an identity conflict, where Putin is seeking to erase the political identity of a sovereign state, educational provision in the host state should affirm Ukraine’s distinct identity and democratic traditions through the preservation of historical, cultural, and social activities as informed by refugees themselves and refugee teachers.



Brad Blitz is Professor of International Politics and Policy in the UCL Institute of Education. He has recently served as principal investigator on projects on refugee reception and the protection of communities conflict in the Mediterranean and Afghanistan. 



Gde sobaka zaryta: A problem of translation

By CEID Blogger, on 7 February 2022

By Alexandra Lewis

When I was a child, growing up in France in a Russian-English family, I had to attend Russian language and music classes on Sundays. Every week, my homework included memorising a poem, usually one in some way evoking the natural beauty of the homeland and linking this implicitly to the indomitable Russian spirit. Every class would then start with me writing out this poem, and I would be graded on the accuracy of my memory, spelling and penmanship. Each time I effectively spilled a poem out onto a blank sheet of paper (usually having memorised it fifteen minutes before class), it would promptly be erased from my brain forever.

One day, when reading over a new poem that I would have to take home with me at the end of a lesson, I came across a word I did not know – ‘mosh’’. I furrowed my brow in confusion.

“What is it?” my teacher asked. She was in many ways a stereotype of the Russian education system – strict, serious, proud – but also, as is far rarer, very kind and quick to laughter when her students behaved themselves. She had a deep and sonorous voice, which she used to great effect as a folk singer, entertaining wealthy expats in Russian restaurants on Friday nights when she would wear bejewelled traditional clothing and extravagant headpieces that brought out her pale complexion, oval cheeks and bright crystal eyes. She could fill any room with her presence.

“What does ‘mosh’ ’ mean?” I asked her.

She looked around for a moment, considering.

Suddenly, she slammed the palms of her strong hands flat on the desk before her, threw her shoulders back, and with absolute certainty proclaimed in a powerful tenor:

“‘Mosh’ ’ – eto ya!” – “‘Mosh’ ’ – is me!”

Afterwards, she began searching for synonyms and further definitions. I laughed and said it was unnecessary. I had understood perfectly once and forever what the word meant.

A quick search in the dictionary today tells me that ‘mosh’ ’ is translated into English to mean ‘power’. Yet, to me, ‘mosh’ ’ will forever be associated with something grand, something dignified, and something distinctively untranslatable. It is, for instance, totally different in meaning to ‘vlast’ ’ – also meaning ‘power’, but referring rather to the power of authority, or ‘sila’ – meaning ‘strength’. ‘Mosh’ ’ is mighty.

Academic texts on Russian politics and society (including those I am currently working on myself) are full of references to such allegedly distinctive Russian concepts. The most frequently cited example is ‘toska’ (meaning sadness), which Nabokov famously described as an untranslatable word. “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska”, Nabokov believed: “At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. … At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom” (1990). Yet there is something inherently elitist and exclusionary about this assessment. The English concept of ‘sadness’, for instance, can easily incorporate the full spectrum of meanings embodied by Nabokov’s ‘toska’, for these meanings can be inferred from its context: “I feel as though I have for months been drowning in an all encompassing sea of sadness”, versus “I feel a bit sad when I’m on my own and don’t know how to entertain myself”, or simply “a sadness comes over me whenever it rains”. We can nitpick the subtle nuances that are lost in translation, but by referring to ‘toska’ as ‘sadness’, it is certainly possible to be understood in English. (Incidentally, ‘toska’ without context would likewise lose all of its complexity.)

Russian studies based in English are riddled with Russian words. The propensity to include them stems in the first instance from Russian scholars themselves, who imply that no other words can fully capture the nuances needed to explain the Russian condition. The practice is further entrenched and reproduced by foreign researchers, not to be outdone or left out, who use Russian words in order to justify the legitimacy of their writing by demonstrating their assimilation of the culture. Until recently, I never questioned this approach. On the contrary, I played along to demonstrate my own ‘insidedness’. Then, something forced me to pause and reconsider.

On the morning of January 30th, I logged onto Twitter and was offered a totally random post “based on my interests” from an account I did not yet follow. In it, Michael Idov wrote sarcastically:

“My favorite type of Russia essay is when they take a regular-ass word like ‘boredom’ (skuka) and go ‘To truly understand the Russian mind, you must familiarize yourself with the concept of skuka. To stave off skuka, a Russian might take a walk, or play a game on a ‘smartfon’” (2022).

This made me laugh perhaps more than it should have, because it so aptly called out the book I am currently working on. Deferring to the Russian language has become a habit for many analysts, supporting the notion that to understand Russian culture, society and politics, one must operate within a totally different frame of reference than that generally used within English language social sciences. Obviously, the ability to speak and read Russian is a massive advantage in understanding Russia, for this gives a researcher access to policy, laws, official statements, critical commentary, and homegrown debate in their original form. However, is such an understanding translatable through academic writing into English? What interests me most in this question is whether there is any harm caused by an over-reliance on Russian words in Western academic discourse, and what such harm may be.

I am at heart a Foucauldean scholar, because I believe in his notion that human beings internalise the ways of thinking that we are routinely forced into through repetition and discipline (1975). I believe therefore that there is an implicit assumption, which Russia scholars internalise whenever they are forced to import Russian words into English to debate Russian society, and it is this: that Russian politics, culture and thought are inherently alien, other and untranslatable, that the “Russian mind” differs from the (often implicitly more civilised or more logical) Western one. On the Western side, this leads to the Barbarisation of Russian culture, and on the Russian side it amounts to what we frequently call at home “good old russkii chauvinism“. Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punish, would lead us to conclude that this assumption of difference provides a conceptual stranglehold, forcing analysts to keep returning to a fundamental partitioning of Russia from the Western world, which determines in many ways the political chasm growing between the two.

Few would dispute that there is a state-led war of ideas and ideals building between Russia and the Western World. In January 2022, as I was scrolling through Twitter, I was mainly looking for indications as to whether this war was about to turn violent, looking for signs that would indicate whether Russia was about to (re)invade Ukraine. Analysts and Twitter folk were divided: there were the obvious ideological splits between those in favour of war and those against, those buying into Putin’s narrative of the conflict and those rejecting it, those critiquing Biden and Europe, those wanting peace at any cost and those wishing to protect Ukrainian sovereignty. However, a more fundamental split across these camps could be seen between those who claimed Russia would invade because Putin did not want to appear weak by backing down from confrontation, and those who claimed that Russia would not invade because Putin was too risk-averse a President to initiate a war with an uncertain outcome. I am, of course, oversimplifying these positions. Most analysts highlighted the extreme unpredictability of the moment. Yet many argued that those in the opposite camp to themselves did not fully understand Russian domestic affairs: that those disagreeing with them were doing so simply because they did not understand Russia.

The Russian Federation is currently embroiled in what has been deemed by multiple observers to be a game of ‘History Wars’ (see, for example, Kolesnikov, 2021; Edele, 2017; Emmerson, 2014). Through these History Wars, the Russian state is competing with other nations and, in some cases, with its own historians to establish the preeminence of its authorised discourse of the Second World War in particular, as well as of other adjacent events. Most of this discourse is in line with the teaching of World War history elsewhere in Europe, though placing a stronger emphasis of course on the role of the USSR in the conflict; just as British schools would emphasise the leadership of Winston Churchill and the movements of British soldiers; American schools of the American involvement; and so on. However, aspects of Russia’s discourse are proactively argumentative, going against dominant academic thinking.

The Russian elite are divided “between those who see the past as something to be liberated from, and those who deeply regret the loss of a golden past” (Gjerde, 2015, p. 157). The state for its part is striving to reform this relationship by promoting a discourse of history that builds national pride in the present, which is a distinct trajectory emerging from between these two positions. It is doing so in the face of more internationally recognised narratives emerging from the West and former Soviet bloc that are highly critical of the USSR, and this has led to Putin’s aggressive rejection of much mainstream academic historic consensus.

Russian history reform under Putin has coincided with a similar yet discordant wave of reforms in the post-Soviet bloc, one that emphasises how Russia’s neighbours suffered under Soviet repression. “Tendencies in these countries to equate Nazi and Soviet occupation,”  summarise Bækken & Enstad, have helped to justify Russia’s securitisation of history to protect its internal social cohesion by preventing the spread of these discordant narratives into Russia, where comparing the USSR to Nazi Germany is now outlawed (2020). Bearing this wider context in mind, Putin’s positive history provides an insulating cocoon to protect against foreign criticism while incubating national unity and pride.

An essay on ‘The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ written by Putin in 2021 is a perfect illustration of this rebellion against mainstream history. Here, Putin writes that:

“the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity. … Hence the attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another.” (12/07/2021)

On the surface, this part of the address calls for unity and understanding, but its message of friendship has been severely undermined by Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border.  Underneath what is written, there are therefore other interesting things happening in the essay:

  1. We must note the term “historical and spiritual space”, which, in the Russian version of the essay appears directly as “odno istroricheskoye i duhovnoye prostranstvo“, or a “single” space. This extends the Russian spatial terrain to its past Soviet historical reaches, disregarding any present day confinement by territorial borders. In a departure from common state political discourse, the essay then frames this space as comprising “russkiye zemli” – ethnic “Russian lands”, rather than “rossiiskiye” lands (or lands pertaining to all peoples of the Russian Federation). The word choice is targeted towards the conflation of “Ukrainianness” with “russkii-ness”, negating the former by subsuming it into a singular ethnic Russian grouping;
  2. Ukrainian independence from Russia is depicted as unnatural and its more recent estrangement as the goal of Russia’s enemies. The present renewed Ukrainian political turn away from Russia is, according to Putin, the product of “a forced change of identity” on the Ukrainian side: “Russians in Ukraine are being forced … to deny their roots” in favour of a “path of forced assimilation”, and “the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us [Russians]” (ibid). It is essential to note that what Putin conceives as an artificial segregation is also to him an ideational construct that speaks to the need to tightly control heritage and history discourse in the region in order to protect Russian (“russkii”) people from both overt ethnic cleansing and subtler erasure by their enemies;
  3. Conversely, Ukrainian independence is explained to be the product of a Russian mistake: “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era”, writes Putin later on (ibid). Russia, as the “legal successor of the Soviet Union” (Malinova, 2017, p. 44), bares ultimate responsibility for allowing Ukraine to exit from its administration, and Ukrainian independence is not seen as reflecting any Ukrainian agency or legitimate political will;
  4. Further, though this may seem to be a contradiction to point 1, the essay notes that Russia must not simply be thought of as a territory for ethnic Russians and must not be divided by “the national question”. Instead, it stretches to include all territories with which it shares a “spiritual unity”; and,
  5. The people of the Russian and former Soviet territories (especially ethnic Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians) are, Putin believes, “one people” with a common Russian core, and all other divisions that have followed are arbitrary products of historical accidents.

With his emphasis on the strength of the Russian state and pride in Russian history, it is clear that Putin is writing more to an internal audience than to his Ukrainian neighbours. Putin’s dismissal of Ukrainian sovereignty is totally at odds with European history discourse and NATO understandings of contemporary geopolitics.

Putin’s essay is evidence that the Russian state is in the process of fully delinking its teaching of history and support to the study of geopolitics from Western academic discourse. Increasingly, voices that stand in opposition to the state view of history as prescribed by President-historian Putin are silenced, labelled to be foreign agents, pressured into leaving the country, or imprisoned and in some cases poisoned (or poisoned and then imprisoned, as was the case with public enemy #1). Underneath the authorised cannon is an insidious assertion: we are in conflict with the Western world and they are in conflict with us because they do not understand our history or our identity. This is a classic “clash of civilizations” dichotomy underpinned by an inherent assumption of Russian exceptionalism.

Sen writes that the notion of a “civilizational clash is conceptually parasitic on the commanding power of a unique categorisation along so-called civilizational lines”, a categorization based on the “imagined singularity” of the identities of those on both sides of the divide that is designed to obscure their shared humanity (2006, p. 9). Accordingly, Russian exceptionalism is both artificial and largely imagined. I believe this is chiefly a political divide, one that is carefully maintained through education, academic discourse, media, history, aesthetics and heritage. As academics, we sometimes contribute to the problem. It begins with the very tools that we use to engage with Russian politics: it begins with language and the idea that any analysis of Russia, written in any language, requires its own terminology, rooted in Russian itself, to highlight Russia’s otherness and division from the world. Vot gde sobaka zarytathat’s where the dog is buried.

How do we monitor violence affecting schoolchildren and efforts to reduce it across the world?

By CEID Blogger, on 30 November 2021

by Jo Heslop, Jenny Parkes and Lucia Quintero Tamez

Violence against children occurs across the world in different contexts, affects all demographic groups, and causes serious harms to their rights, education, health, wellbeing and flourishing. In low and middle income countries, children face multiple forms of violence in and around schools, yet evidence needed to inform effective responses is still limited and uneven. Our team has created a guide for policy makers, practitioners and researchers to assess data availability and utility at country level in low and middle income countries.

Research has highlighted how violence is a social practice, shaped by relationships, norms, structures and conditions in the contexts in which violence occurs. For example, the #MeToo movement has brought to public consciousness how rape is connected to everyday sexual harassment, with both forms of violence situated within power inequalities (and associated impunity) based on gender, wealth, age and status. Similarly, violence affecting children in and around schools taking the form of corporal punishment, bullying, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and child abuse, can be particularly acute in contexts with high levels of gender inequalities and poverty, which often underpin weak accountability systems in education, justice and child protection. It is important to collect data that reflect these multiple forms and contexts of violence.


COP 26 and gender equality in education: mobilising data for sustainable change

By CEID Blogger, on 9 November 2021

By Helen Longlands, Elaine Unterhalter and Rosie Peppin Vaughan

As global leaders, practitioners and activists meet for COP 26 in Glasgow, the impacts of the worsening climate crisis coupled with the effects the Covid-19 pandemic on education systems are sharply evoked. These processes have gendered effects, which are particularly profound for the poorest and most vulnerable individuals, communities and countries. The reductions in aid and the failures of rich countries to deliver on the promises made at COP 25 have not helped progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the global community in 2015 in order to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all people and the planet by 2030. Indeed, this vision seems increasingly out of reach.


What do we mean by gender equality in education, and how can we measure it?

By CEID Blogger, on 18 May 2021

By Helen Longlands

Gender equality in education is a matter of social justice, concerned with rights, opportunities and freedoms. Gender equality in education is crucial for sustainable development, for peaceful societies and for individual wellbeing. At local, national and global levels, gender equality in education remains a priority area for governments, civil society and multilateral organisations. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and 2020-2030 Decade of Action commit the global community to achieving quality education (Goal 4) and gender equality (Goal 5) by 2030. The G7 Foreign and Development Ministers, meeting this summer in the UK, have made fresh commitments to supporting gender equality and girls’ education, which build on those they made in 2018 and 2019. Yet fulfilling these agendas and promises not only depends on galvanising sufficient support and resourcing but also on developing sufficient means of measuring and evaluating progress.


Alternative Histories of Education and International Development #006 – Solaiman & Corbishley

By utnvmab, on 26 April 2021

Critical Thinking and Safe Spaces: A Dialogue  

by: Haya Solaiman and Rachael Corbishley

During the first session of the CEID Alternative Histories of Education and International Development Discussion Café, we shared some thoughts and reflections around ‘decolonising education.’ When it was suggested afterward that we write a blog to share some of these thoughts we had such mixed feelings.

On one hand, “I’m white, I grew up in the UK, only speak English, and am increasingly aware of my privilege. I’m not sure I felt comfortable writing about decolonising the curriculum as a white student. I am still not sure whether I feel comfortable about this” (Rachael).

On the other hand, “I come from Syria, a country in conflict, yet I consider myself ‘privileged’ as I can continue my education, and even pursue my studies abroad when many of my compatriots are enduring hardships back home and in the diaspora as refugees. However, when asked about decolonising education I also felt uncomfortable as the idea of censorship haunts me whenever I want to express my thoughts” (Haya).

Our contrasting backgrounds made our perspectives on decolonising education rather different. However, we both felt the need for space where we can share our critical thoughts freely and safely. Previously, our peers, Shola and Albina, talked about “creating a safe space”. They reflect that the safe space of the Discussion Café was enabled through “placing everyone at the same level … where everyone’s voices can be heard…” Here we decided to share some of our dialogue; some of our reflections, positionalities, and definitions of safe spaces in academic settings. The following text captures our conversation. We hope that these reflections will enable us to contribute to a wider discussion on safe spaces in academic settings and the hierarchies of knowledge production.

Reflecting on our own backgrounds and positions on safe spaces:

he Art of Conversation by René Magritte 1963

The Art of Conversation by René Magritte 1963


Alternative Histories of Education and International Development #005 – Hajir, Kurian & McInerney

By ztnvcnu, on 8 February 2021

Decolonial work: Moving Beyond Simplistic Approaches to ‘alternative knowledges’

by Basma Hajir, Nomisha Kurian and William McInerney, University of Cambridge

The pervasive, systemic, and fortified configurations of coloniality within contemporary education contexts necessitates that decolonial resistance remains a deeply challenging practice. As a result, we believe it is important to acknowledge and unpack the many ways engaging in decolonization work can be complex, nuanced, and possibly even counterproductive if done uncritically. Specifically, we are concerned about the ways some decolonial work engages in overly-simplistic approaches to ‘alternative knowledges’ in resistance to colonized curricula and pedagogy. We fear uncritical work here, even that which is well-intentioned, can produce a dangerous context for binary thinking and cultural essentialism that might ultimately reinforce colonialism in education rather than deconstruct it. To unpack this challenge, we discuss three problematic aspects that we see emanating from uncritical glorification of alternative knowledges. 

Uncritical Glorification: Erasure, Relativism, and Difference  

First, uncritical glorification of alternative knowledges can unintentionally contribute to erasing history. For example, prompted by a desire to unpack western domination in education, to remain attentive to the limitations of grand narratives, and to point out what has been silenced, some postcolonial and decolonial scholars engage in critiquing the pre-eminence of what they refer to as ‘western metaphysics’, ‘western modernity’ or ‘western rationality’. We applaud their efforts and we wholeheartedly agree with the premise of their pursuit. Ultimately, interrogating western domination as a symptom of the alliance between power and knowledge is the core of decolonial work.