chapter  1
18 Pages

Introduction: disputing Weberian semantics

ByNICOLAS LEMAY - HÉBERT , NICHOLAS ONUF AND

After two decades of evolution towards more ‘integrated’, ‘multi-faceted’ or, simply stated, more intrusive statebuilding and peacebuilding operations, a critical literature has slowly emerged on the economic, social and political impacts of these interventions. Scholars have started to analyse the ‘unintended consequences’ of peacebuilding missions, analysing all aspects of interventions, and not only those traditionally accounted for by the peacebuilding actors themselves (Aoi et al. 2007; Paris and Sisk 2009). Others have developed a critique of the liberal peace framework, questioning the wider normative framework of interventions and the values promoted by these interventions (Campbell et al. 2011; Chandler 2006 and 2010; Pugh et al. 2008; Richmond 2005, 2011; Tadjbakhsh 2011). To a certain extent, the debate has revolved around the Coxian dichotomy of ‘critical scholars’ and ‘problem solvers’ (Cox 1981, based on Horkheimer 1976), where ‘problem solvers’ are believed to focus on performance issues, while ‘critical scholars’ are more inclined to question the inherent assumptions underpinning the liberal peace (for a book bringing together the two strands, see Newman et al. 2009). These theoretical and empirical debates have been extremely fecund, and can be credited, for the most part, for a bona fide renewal of the broader field of peace studies (Mac Ginty 2011: 22-25). While building on this burgeoning critical literature, this volume aims to take the discussion outside the strict confines of peace studies and political science, to fully engage with philosophical, sociological, historical and economic perspectives. In the process, contributors shed a new light on the ‘bundle of practices and meanings’ (Chandler 2010: viii) that statebuilding is, shifting attention from statebuilding as a professional practice to meanings associated with it. Central to the process is our understanding that language is both the most important tool for building anything of social significance and the primary repository of meanings in any social setting. Hence, this volume contributes in its own way to exemplify how the multiple realities of state, state fragility and statebuilding are being conceptualised in the mainstream literature, by highlighting the repercussions this conceptualisation has on ‘good practices’ for statebuilding, demonstrating how the semantics of statebuilding ‘construct, reproduce and maintain particular visions of order’ (Bellamy 2005: 33). But additionally – and this is perhaps one of the defining features of this collective volume – we do so by

striving to emancipate ourselves from the normative straitjacket that has been imposed by the orthodoxy in the literature, broadening the scope of the debate to reach theoretical dimensions often left unexplored by preceding works on the subject. A specific focus will be placed on language and meaning associated with statebuilding. In this volume, language is understood as a medium, a way to store and convey information about the world as we experience it. Language and other media are means to exchange information with others, in the process altering and rearranging the common stock of information, and language impacts what people do with the information conveyed to them. Using language is a complicated undertaking, dependent on rules to assure mutual intelligibility (grammar, syntax) and to convey our wishes (pragmatics). Yet language is not just a fancy storage locker, conveyor belt and sorting device. It bestows meaning, but only insofar as we give meaning to what we say and find meaning in what we hear. In the study of language, meaning is the province of semantics. Linguists have developed a formidably technical language to talk about semantics – to harness meaning’s meaning. In everyday usage, semantics is the study of how and why language users bring together sundry, relatively meaningless or apparently unrelated bits of information so as to give them meaning, both as a whole and as parts of a whole. To focus fully on meanings – on what goes on inside people’s heads to the exclusion of all else – is to take a phenomenological stance. To focus just as fully on language as a more or less reliable medium – a thing outside minds with fixed properties and ascertainable content – is a positivist and perhaps (depending on meaning) materialist stance. The contributors to this volume go to neither extreme. Instead we look for the meaning that social practices and material conditions have for the people engaging in these practices. We do not presume actors’ intentions or have direct access to the conditions in which they find themselves. Our task is to sort out what they find meaningful on the ground, so to speak, and render it meaningful at a distance. Such a stance assumes that meaning always matters – socially and materially – in making our world what it is.