The Local, the ‘Indigenous’ and the Limits of Rethinking Peacebuilding

#WR2050 7 / April 2021

Author: Elisa Randazzo, CHIP researcher

How local can the turn to the ‘local’ really get? Given critical peacebuilding theory’s decade long love-affair with post-positivism, it is perhaps unsurprising that contextualism and relativism remain essential pillars of theoretical engagements with the subjects of peace. Imperatives to listen to the voice of the local are now unmissable starting points in nearly all scholarly work on peacebuilding. If, then, ‘where’ to look to study peace is a question that has been somewhat steadily been answered in critical circles for at least a decade (longer, if you happen to be a Galtung fan), what remains for critical peacebuilding to radically rethink and how? Admittedly, critical peacebuilding theorists (myself included) have been at this critique-of-critique game for some time, constantly chasing the waves of the next radical tide.

Many scholars have now pointed out that this critique-of-critique game has primarily concerned itself with calling out what remains modern despite wanting to not be so. What can be next, then, for a peacebuilding theory that wants to be radical? Indeed, to look beyond the modern (and annexed conversations about what is or isn’t modern), and not just with a view to localise peace subjects, or to use a relativized and contextualised notion of locality to stand as a proxy for the opposite of ‘international’. To go beyond the modern is to push the debate in epistemological and ontological terms: beyond entities, beyond subjects, beyond the elementary boundary-giving exercise essential to modernist world-making. To go beyond the modern is to look at worlds and cosmologies sitting somewhere ‘other than modernity’. It is then no wonder, that the critical search for conceptual mechanisms that can sabotage modernity even more than the local turn has, has now turned to Indigeneity, Indigenous experiences, thought and worldviews. These are believed to be able to contribute not only genuine engagement with alterity in all its shapes, but to dislodge deeply seated understandings of ontology (beyond the human), and push the boundaries of epistemology to dethrone the Western techno-scientific search for absolute knowledge that has so far given us the liberal peace in all of its hubris. And whilst scholars are careful to clarify the dangers of co-option, manipulation and appropriation, and to warn against the manner in which liberal actors (especially organisations and states) merely rhetorically engage with Indigeneity, the rush of the coming radical moment appears irresistible.

So, is this the next radical wave? Yes, it’s already happening. Is it worthwhile chasing it? Yes, if it can undo some of our assumptions about the world, including pushing us to think about peacebuilding interactions as relations rather than as a sum of static actors, entities, agents. Can it transform peacebuilding theory? Here’s where the radical hope dims and falters: this transformative dream can hardly be realised. It requires a level of rethinking peacebuilding as a concept that might undo categories to a point that peacebuilding scholars might be uncomfortable with, that is, to the very point of questioning the essence of what we call peace and indeed questioning the need, appropriateness and relevance of peacebuilding in the first place, and even of using (and indeed manipulating) Indigenous concepts and worldviews to carry the weight of our (navel-gazing) critical self-reflections. Do we risk falling into the trap of constant critique-of-critique? Possibly, but this may ultimately be necessary. Disrupting certainties, whilst uncomfortable, is an invaluable gift of critique which needs to remain a key tool to honour true efforts to open up to radical possibilities, even if (especially when!) this means asking being faced with uncomfortable but fundamental questions about the very nature of what we do, research, and write about.

For a full exploration of this, read my latest research article “The Local, the ‘Indigenous’ and the Limits of Rethinking Peacebuilding” in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding