How peacebuilding has become a ritualised space-Summary of my PhD project

After a long journey, I am finally able to share my doctoral thesis How peacebuilding has become a ritualised space-An aidnography from Germany and Nepal with you.

In the unlikely event that you are not as excited as I still am and you don’t want to jump straight to the full 233 page document here [see 'Update' below], this post provides a more accessible overview.

The post comes in three sections, starting with the brief abstract of the project, followed by a short-ish summary of findings that you can also download here as a pdf file. Finally, there’s the table of contents as a teaser to what to expect should you add the thesis to your reading list.

I also sent out a Thank You Email to many friends and colleagues who contributed information, advice and sometimes ‘just’ an open ear to the process and I’d like to extend those Thank You’s to the development blog community as well!

If you have any questions, comments or require more reading ;) –just drop me a message! 

Update 28 June: The full version of the thesis is no longer available from the University of Sussex website and this is unlikely to change any time soon. One of the organisations from Germany is concerned with my research approach and I am currently working with the university on ways to keep the thesis accessible in the public domain. In the meantime, send me a direct message if you are interested in the full document and we can try to work something out.


This research uses structural ritualisation as an approach to study peacebuilding communities in Germany and Nepal. Based on anthropological and sociological literature a ritual theory framework is used to emphasise the importance of symbolism, liminality and performances for the ethnographic study of aid (aidnography). The analysis of the fieldwork in Germany starts with the peace research community and their workshops, conferences and trainings. Ritualisation processes around acceptable forms of knowledge are the basis on which new policy institutions operate; leaving discourses unchallenged. For example the PEACE network that aims at facilitating learning and knowledge management on peacebuilsing inside German development institutions. Detailed organisational ethnography of the PEACE network and a training event at Germany’s technical cooperation agency provide interesting answers to questions of agency, liminal learning spaces and structural ritualisation. In post-conflict Nepal the research also analyses workshops and conferences as powerful spaces in which stability is maintained during the social transformation processes in the country. Additionally, ethnographic vignettes offer insights into the capillary system of the peacebuilding economy comprising of public, professional and private spaces. Ritual entrepreneurs reinforce capitalistic exchange processes on physical and virtual marketplaces in Kathmandu. In the end, this thesis attempts to use a self-reflective ethnographic approach to highlight the complexities of transnational development professionalism within the discourse of liberal peacebuilding. It also engages with core anthropological concepts of agency and positionality that include the researcher in the research process, thereby highlighting the interaction between traditional anthropology and multi-sited research in the global realm of transnational development work.

Summary of findings
(You can download a slightly longer pdf-Version of the findings from my profile)

In addition to the detailed conclusions at the end of each chapter, the final conclusion will address the five main hypotheses and research questions outlined at the beginning of the thesis:

1. The theoretical literature on rituals and performances can expand our understanding of organisational and development anthropology and development discourses. How can ritual theory be applied for understanding organisational rituals in peace research and peacebuilding policy-making? Can ritual theory also contribute to a self-reflective research process?

Based on anthropological ritual theory and performance studies, analysing micro-organisational processes in peace research in Germany, knowledge management discourses in a large aid organisation in Germany and peacebuilding policy-making in Nepal, a range of ritualisation techniques were revealed. What my observations from two conferences, excerpts from interviews with German academics and the analysis of relevant historic texts indicate are that structural ritualisation is a suitable concept to capture the ‘stability in change’ that has been taking place in the German peace community. Additional and related concepts such as liminality and performance help to foster a better understanding of the historical shifts that have taken place from an activist-led to an expert-led peace research community and the increase in ritualised professional patterns I observed at conferences and events.
Ritual entrepreneurs take advantage of the needs of professional communities and offer a marketplace for material and immaterial goods or personal exchanges. In Germany, academic conferences and the routines around theoretical papers have become institutionalised by a small group of organisers and venues, fostering ‘indoor rituals’ rather than and ‘outdoor’ peace movement that was active in post-war Germany for many years. In Kathmandu, ritualisation techniques not only comprise work-related events such as conferences and training workshops, but they also interact with events of consumption (e.g. at the weekly organic food market) or leisure activities (e.g. the evening at a popular bar). As hotels in Kathmandu encourage workshops and conferences with special offers and have made them part of their business model, there are indications of an emerging ‘ritual economy’; although, more research needs to be done to better understand the applicability and depths of the concept to development processes or reveal economic activities in more detail. In the end ritual theory, for example Knotterus’ theory on structural ritualisation, provides approaches to better understand the agents of ritualisation and their symbolic practices. Ritual legitimators, entrepreneurs and sponsors work inside the system and use symbolic practices to increase their social capital inside the peace community, but also their economic capital through the organisation of events and its interlinkages between funding, networking and follow-up projects. Knottnerus’ four key elements of structural ritualisation – salience, repetitiveness, homologousness and resources – can be applied in my research context to show how repeated event formats or documents that appear in very similar ways, appeal to a group of insiders and are symbolic evidence of activity and use of resources.

Researching rituals of communities, analysing performances and linking it to the subject of peace research and peacebuilding can only be interpreted within a self-reflective framework of my own performances and the rituals of academic research and thesis writing.

2. Development anthropology and peace research do not take spatial dynamics into consideration. Can anthropological research on the infrastructure of research and policy making (e.g. offices, hotels, conference and workshop venues) reveal links between the infrastructure, contents, process and outcomes of meetings and events? Can anthropological research reveal new or unexpected places where research and policy-making ‘take place’ outside the ritualised infrastructure?

The empirical data from Germany and Kathmandu show that rituals and performance reveal some links between physical the infrastructure of conferences and workshops, the broader professional and personal space and ‘the body’ as part of discursive relations. The case study of a conference at the Radisson Hotel in Kathmandu revealed a spatial symbolism of a carefully managed space, including seating arrangements, the centrality of IT presentation technology and flows of participants during coffee breaks that resonated with early ethnographic fieldwork by Victor Turner from the 1950s and 1960s. Similarly, the case study of a training workshop inside the GTZ headquarters revealed detailed time- and agenda-management along ritualised expectations that participants had regarding the interaction with the external trainer and researcher. The study of geographical or architectural design promises more interesting insights into the capillary system of power in which the diffusion processes between research, policy and practice take place. The rituals and discourses, however, are not ‘forced’ upon participants by the venue, but they have been rehearsed professionally and personally before and they enable performances along well-known artefacts and symbols, e.g. the arrangement of the room or the flipchart in the background. Furthermore, my research from Nepal highlights that these are not solely philosophical or aesthetical challenges. The dynamics in the conference rooms have consequences for peacebuilding policy or the perceptions of civil society or economic development in rural areas.

My research also challenges the convenient dichotomy of front-stage and backstage performances. Whether inside the PEACE offices, during a training workshop or during an informal after-work get-together the ritual dynamics prove very powerful in replicating ‘mini front- and backstages’. The dinner after a workshop or the coffee break during a conference may appear as informal or outside the dynamics of the official event, but very often they replicate the dynamics of knowledge management, professional behaviour and institutionalised symbolism (e.g. by sharing stories from ‘the field’, inside the policy sphere or any other stage with limited accessibility). It is too easy to treat the conference panel as a front-stage, a theatre for a semi-public audience and office routines as a back-stage area where the ‘real’ work is conducted. The capillary system of development and peacebuilding has created spatial arrangements that permeate routines, discussions or meetings and act upon people. Finally, as an external researcher it was not possible to access all the internal spaces where liminality and creative discussions could be observed, similar to the example of the ‘corner bulge’ in a hospital where creative solutions outside medical hierarchies and professional discourses were observed.

3. Post-conflict societies and international peacebuilding efforts provide dynamic spaces for debating the future of transitional countries, e.g. Nepal. How was the transitional space in Nepal right after the official end of the violent conflict used by the international peacebuilding community? How do transitional dynamics diffuse into research and policy-making in Germany?

My research analysed a variety spaces in which peacebuilding was discussed – ranging from internal training workshops to high-level meetings in Kathmandu and international conferences. Most of the time, any open, transitional space was quickly occupied with ‘business as usual’ ideas that oftentimes were adopted from other countries; the ritual spaces mostly did not allow for genuine liminal spaces to emerge where ‘out of the liberal peace paradigm box’ thinking occurred.
The anthropological research that has been taking place at the rural margins of the state in Nepal suggests that Maoist conflict was not simply a disruption of the progress and growth narrative, but that it had the potential to open up a liminal space in which transformational learning about poverty, modernity or gender identities could have taken place. But even though many of these issues have been core themes of the development discourse, international organisations remained immersed in the Kathmandu space free of violence and uncertainty. ‘Civil society’, ‘value chains’ and other ‘buzzwords’ of conflict analysis and liberal peacebuilding theory are also part of the spatial, verbal and cultural arrangements that govern development interactions in Nepal, creating a globalised ‘there’ rather than a complex local ‘here’.
In Germany, GTZ’s engagement with an outside consultant who has critical insights into the international aid system or the dynamics of an institutionalised network of organisations that is supposed to share knowledge from a broad range of organisational experiences, diffusion of local expertise and experiences is met with routines and rituals of bureaucratic information dissemination and learning. In the end, the complexities of post-war societies are not met with equally complex or innovative ideas and concepts, instead liberal peacebuilding is discussed within a bureaucratic, stable framework and its institutions and spaces influence the way fragile environments are seen.

4. International peacebuilding and development elites and their work- and lifestyles form a relatively homogenous transnational discursive community. In the case of Kathmandu, how homogenous is ‘the expat community’? What is the relationship between different aspects of expatriate life, e.g. work, entertainment or consumption?

Arguments about a ‘global elite’ that shapes peacebuilding thinking and practices always need to be grounded in local realties. For example, there was very little ‘globalised’ thinking in Germany. Instead, the ritualised debates were mostly grounded in the German post-war peace research political science consensus. The empirical data from Kathmandu revealed a transnational elite that comprised not only the professional sphere, but also the semi-private sphere of consumption (i.e. the organic food market) or entertainment (i.e. the Liquid Lounge). Ritual theory can help us to better understand how post-modernity (flexible work arrangements such short-term consultancies or research visits, globalised culture and consumerism) is (re-)produced in ‘new societies’ after conflict. The capillary system of liberal peacebuilding and development creates spectators, active members and ‘desiring machines’ (cf. Case and Selvester 2006) in complex and multiple ways: With the help of the Kathmandu-based Nepali elites, a ‘mini-centre’ is created and maintained in the capital of Nepal and other ‘mini-mini-centres’ such as exclusive bars or expensive hotels create meeting points for Western elites. Transnational professionals pass through different ‘bubbles’ as the spatial layout of post-conflict Kathmandu is reconfigured. The big, international hotels have become a key site where Western ideas, lifestyles, conduct and knowledge are translated into acceptable narratives for the context of a ‘modern’, post-conflict Nepal. The transportation, hospitality and cultural industries have adapted to the demands of transnational professionals and help to promote a symbolic order of everyday professional and private life that blends in with the fluidity of global work- and movement-flows. The symbols and rituals may include passive interactions at ‘non-places’ like a Western-style supermarket or traffic jams, but they also include dynamic rituals that cover recreation (tango or salsa dancing, yoga), watching cultural performances, travelling in country and abroad and mingling at a bar for after-work drinks. And they are all tied together by the institutions of development and its architecture that, as Foucault pointed out, have the ability to govern individual behaviour and professional conduct. However, more research is needed to understand the spatial dynamics in more detail, especially in rapidly changing urban centres and capital cities.

5. Critical anthropological research on peace and development has become a more accepted practice to engage with large aid organisations; self-reflection and critical learning approaches have gained organisational momentum as part of regular knowledge management and organisational learning efforts. Is there evidence that institutionalised learning and knowledge management initiatives contribute to behavioural change in the context of the German policy-community? How, if at all, are ideas around ‘reflective practice’ discussed in research and policy-making and what are the limitations of anthropological research to uncover them?

At the beginning of my research process I was very excited to discuss reflective development approaches and qualitative methodologies within the context of my doctoral research with informants. However, there was wide-spread scepticism in Germany about organisational ethnography and external research (see my methodological reflections in chapter 3); neither the GTZ nor the PEACE network were interested in alternative forms of learning and knowledge sharing beyond traditional training workshops and knowledge products. However, there was more openness towards research and researcher in Kathmandu, but the pervasiveness (see research question 4) of transnational work- and lifestyles in which the researcher blended in as an expatriate transnational himself made it difficult to assess how and where critical learning takes place. Instead of a rite of passage, ritual spaces and symbols almost always aim at confirming the familiar, known and expected. Rather than using liminal spaces as opportunities for new approaches or critical learning, the challenges of such spaces are either silenced inside the organisation or replaced with more comfortable rituals, often linked to producing publications and ‘more of the same’ products such as newsletters or round-table discussions. Since the research did not focus on a single organisation and the researcher did not have access to all internal meetings, it was difficult to get a sense where progressive liminal spaces, the equivalents of the ‘hospital corner bulge’, are and how they are maintained outside the more rigid framework of formal meetings and professional interactions with organisational outsiders. Including auto-ethnographic reflections from organisational insiders as well as an action-research-focussed approach focussing on one particular organisation or small group of experts could be promising approaches to enhance our understanding of some of these spaces in future research.

Table of contents

1 Introduction. 12

1.1 An E-Mail from Kathmandu.

1.2 Frank’s E-Mail and ‘the bigger picture’

1.3 Chapter outline.

2 Outlining the theoretical framework. 19

2.1 Overview of the chapter.

2.2 Ritual theory: From modern anthropology towards a ritual economy of peacebuilding.

2.3 Religion, ritual and anthropology – The foundation.

2.4 Rituals, reflexivity and the capitalist society – The 1970s and early 1980s.

2.5 Ritual communication and the postmodern challenge – The 1980s and early 1990s.

2.6 Approaching definitions and the usefulness of ritual theory for the ethnography of aid and its institutions

2.7 Symbolism, Turner and Liminality.

2.8 Performances, everyday dramas and Goffman’s ‘total institution’

2.9 Ritual analysis in practice: Of world conferences and micro policy analysis.

2.10 Hypotheses and research questions.

2.11 Concluding remarks.

3 Doing ethnography – a performance. 38

3.1 Overview of the chapter.

3.2 The role of performance in ethnographic research and reflective writing.

3.3 Aidnography: The multi-sited ethnography of aid.

3.4 Researching transnational professional elites.

3.5 Research at home and ‘at home’ – re-entering Germany and Kathmandu.

3.6 Data collection.

3.7 Multi-sited research on and in events.

3.8 Reflections on personal learning.

3.9 Conclusion.

4 The evolution of peace research in Germany – From informal exchanges to the rituals of influencing policy 63

4.1 Overview of the chapter.

4.2 The protestant education academy in Loccum.

4.3 The evolution of Loccum – a discussion with the former director.

4.4 Loccum in action – how workshops work.

4.5 Wolfgang Meinhardt as a ritual legitimator.

4.6 Peacebuilding after the end of the Cold War.

4.7 The context and impact of the German peace movement in policy-making.

4.8 Peace research and peacebuilding policy-making since 1998.

4.9 Positivism, constructivism and influencing policy in German peace research.

4.10 From the barricades to the conference rooms – the structural ritualisation of the German peace community

4.11 Final conclusions.

5 Peacebuilding discourse management in German policy institutions. 101

5.1 Overview of the chapter.

5.2 Researching the GTZ.

5.3 Das Unternehmen GTZ.

5.4 A workshop on Peace and Conflict Assessment (PCA).

5.5 Analysis.

5.6 Daily routines in the PEACE working group in Bonn.

5.7 From peacebuilding to transitional justice and on to Corporate Social Responsibility in Nepal – the published discourse under permanent construction.

5.8 Analysis.

5.9 Conclusion and outlook.

6 Development and peacebuilding rituals in Kathmandu and Nepal 140

6.1 Overview of the chapter.

6.2 Where coffee and tea taste the same: A workshop in the Radisson Hotel

6.3 Analysing the Radisson workshop.

6.4 Five decades of development in Nepal in a time lapse.

6.4.1 Development ‘discovers’ the modern Nepal – the early years of development.

6.4.2 The 1970s and 1980s: The emergence of ‘failed development’

6.4.3 Democratic change in 1990 and the rise of a critique of the ‘development mindset’

6.4.4 The 1990s and the beginning of the Maoist insurgency.

6.5 The Maoist conflict - New challenges for development and peace are met with old analyses and mindsets

6.6 The donor discourse.

6.7 Writings by Nepali authors – local expertise within transnational peacebuilding narratives

6.8 Conclusion.

7 From workshops to parties - the emergence of a post-conflict ritual space in Kathmandu. 173

7.1 Overview of the chapter.

7.2 Good morning Kathmandu!

7.3 Something with ‘civil society’ – another workshop, more presentations.

7.4 A peacebuilding training on value chains, conflict trees and handmade paper.

7.5 Schematic representation of the spatial symbolism of workshop rituals.

7.6 French Independence Day – An evening in the Liquid Lounge (July 14, 20:00-23:30).

7.7 Buying groceries, buying into expat culture – The food market at the Summit Hotel

7.8 Conclusion.

8 Conclusion. 213

8.1 Summary of findings.

8.2 Avenues for future inquiry.


  1. Seems like a very lengthy research you have here. It's such a shame that your full thesis ideas aren't available! But I must say, what you have here is substantial as it is. I'd love to see your theoretical framework once it becomes available, no rush, just curious.

  2. Many an afternoon has been enjoyed by a family, bonding over the discussion of liberal peacebuilding. Given that its influence pervades our society, there are just not enough blues songs written about liberal peacebuilding. Since it was first compared to antidisestablishmentarianism much has been said concerning liberal peacebuilding by the easily lead, who form the last great hope for our civilzation.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

Happy retirement Duncan Green!

Links & Contents I Liked 500

Artificial Intelligence (AI) & ChatGPT in development and humanitarian work-a curated collection