Performing Peace-building: Conferences, Rituals and the Role of Ethnographic Research

Hi all,

It is always great to see a final product after a long and winding publication process! As part of a special double issue of the IDS Bulletin entitled 'New Perspectives from PhD Field Research', my latest article 'Performing Peace-building - Conferences, Rituals and the Role of Ethnographic Research' is finally available!
As always, an un-gated pre-print version of the paper is available from as well.

My article is based on my PhD research and the advantage of revising, shortening and rethinking some of the theoretical and empirical issues behind it is that the outcome should be a reasonably readable article-in line with the mission of the IDS Bulletin to publish scholarship in an accessible way.

This article explores performance and ritual theory in the context of anthropological research on peace-building institutions and knowledge discourses, as well as the process of writing up an ethnographic PhD thesis. Based on fieldwork in Germany and Nepal, the article’s aim is to expand the theoretical scope of ‘aidnography’ and apply it to knowledge management, workshops, global conferences and the author’s performance in these spaces. The article analyses how a potentially critical and contested concept such as liberal peace-building has been absorbed by an emerging ritual economy of indoor events, policy papers and transnational actors. These strategies of organisational and professional self-promotion create depoliticised action and products in the context of global aid chain management.
The basic idea is to apply classic anthropological concepts such as 'ritual' and 'performance' to the expanding spaces where peacebuilding is non-happening, i.e. indoor events, workshops and conferences. As the excerpt from the conclusion indicates, the emerging 'ritual economy' of organizations and experts has become an important and powerful part to sustain a dominant discourse around liberal peacebuilding...and we need to conduct more organizational ethnography ;)!

From the conclusion

The article is also a first inroad into broader issues on the emerging ritual economy of peace-building: in addition to working on ‘real’ social change, many critical concepts such as peace-building seem to have been absorbed by indoor rituals and events, replacing contested, public spaces ‘out there’ with the power of arranging, or in a Foucauldian sense disciplining, a group of professionals around a PowerPoint presentation, scheduled coffee breaks and a twenty-five page report.
A broader question emerges as to what extent do well-managed, but depoliticised events have a real impact on how development is conceptualised, debated and ultimately implemented. My research in post-conflict Kathmandu suggests that Western and capitalist concepts of liberal peace-building quickly filled the void that the old royal regime left and that there was very little time for more localised discussions on the future of Nepal.
The article is also a reminder that anthropological research is always a self-reflective endeavour and that reflection on performance or rituals also applies to the researcher. Meeting the expectations of the academy with regard to performing a PhD thesis is difficult in a complex and fluid context of research that responds to the flow of events, people and globalised ideas.
Last, but not least, becoming immersed in professional communities is still a challenge for researchers, despite increasing popularity of ethnography in qualitative development research especially as informants have the power and agency not to get as excited as the researcher about critical deconstructions of their professional life-worlds (p.27).
Enjoy the paper!

Tobias Denskus (2014): Performing Peace-building - Conferences, Rituals and the Role of Ethnographic Research, IDS Bulletin,
Vol. 45, No. 2-3, 18–28,


  1. 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.


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