Statelessness, expert activists and the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’

Judith Beyer

November 2022

In this blog entry, Judith Beyer, Professor of Social and Political Anthropology at the University of Konstanz, describes and analyses a central characteristic of many ‘expert activists’ working in the field of statelessness: they struggle with what Beyer calls a ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’. Despite the fact that they often do cross disciplinary boundaries and fields of practice in combining scholarly and activist work, they position themselves on one side of an imagined divide. Drawing on Gramsci, Beyer argues that the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’ originates in the way the state system structures the very possibilities of engagement with the issue of statelessness. She credits one newly emerging group of expert activists with the possibility to overcome this dilemma.

In the field of (critical) statelessness studies, most of us act in the capacity of ‘expert activists’: we are combining expert knowledge and scholarly analysis with activist praxis. In my ongoing ethnographic research, however, I found that many of my interlocutors, self-identified as either scholar or activist. In consequence, they often voiced a sense of “feeling stuck” in their work which required both aspects of engagement. In a longer article I have referred to their dilemma as the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’ and suggest that the main reason lies in the structural limits the state system imposes on everyone working on the issue of statelessness. In this post I concentrate on material that I have gathered at workshops and policy meetings in Europe from 2018 onwards. This material is part of a larger anthropological research project in which I set out to develop an anthropology of statelessness.

Expert Activists

In contemporary anthropological literature, activism and expertise are understood mostly as praxis, that is, as something people do rather than something they are. Yet the two bodies of literature on expertise and activism are rarely brought together (but see Frickel 2011 for sociology). In the field of statelessness, however, members of NGOs, lawyers, social workers, scholars and others regularly combine their professional skills with an activist outlook. They see the world as something that is not only in dire need of improvement, but as something that could actually be improved through their engagement. This is what the concept of the ‘expert activist’ stands for. Nevertheless, I detected a discrepancy in what I observed my interlocutors were doing versus how they presented themselves to others, to me or to each other; thus how they conceptualized who they and others are. I refer to this phenomenon as the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’, and it seems essential to understand its characteristics and where it originates from.

At a conference on statelessness in 2018, one person who was identified as “scholar” by the moderator of the panel was assigned the task of “giving us an introduction to statelessness”. This seemed odd as we were all familiar with the topic. The speaker began their talk as follows: “I feel humbled because I am sitting here with people who actually are making important differences in the world. And as I see it, people who are working on theory have the luxury to raise problems without really having to find solutions.” Having been introduced as the one who was to provide “theory”, the speaker must have felt compelled to reiterate a definition of statelessness first. With that “out of the way”, as they put it, the rest of the talk focussed on the “interrelationships of theory and practice”. Nevertheless, the following speaker, who self-identified as “practitioner”, began their talk with the disclaimer that “I will take you from the theoretical back to the very practical”. From where does this delineation between the two “camps” of the practitioners and the scholars derive?

The practitioner-scholar dilemma

From early on in my ethnographic fieldwork, I noticed that many of my interlocutors distinguished between “practitioners” on the one hand and “scholars” on the other, locating themselves firmly in one of the camps first before then acknowledging that they were also a bit in the other – an activist, or someone with a PhD, respectively. One marked difference that I found was that those conceiving of themselves as “practitioners” mostly embraced the state as a necessary agent they had to factor into their work, rather than rebel against. Such a stance indirectly sustains the theoretical concept of the state, since statelessness is classified as a “problem”, and statelessness as something that needs to be “solved” or “ended”. For practitioners, statelessness is an anomaly. Many of the self-identifying scholars, however, dared to be idealistic and imagined a world without states or at least one in which the category of citizenship was to be scrutinized and treated as a problem rather than as the obvious solution to statelessness. For such scholars, statelessness is an opportunity – if only “good to think with”. But as they either seek to help suffering stateless individuals or perceive them collectively as an alternative model of sociality, my interlocutors avoid a difficult discussion that must be had among themselves, a discussion not only about how theory and practice actually relate to one another, but about the fact that most of them speak from a standpoint that is different from that of the people they are advocating for or writing about. They invest considerable efforts to categorize their knowledge into a more “applied” or more “academic” domain, and thus justifying their praxis in the field of statelessness specifically because in neither case it is “first-hand” knowledge. In fact, many go to great lengths to clarify that they do not “speak for” the stateless. They are thus themselves acutely aware of their own “lack”. Reducing the ambiguity of their positionality gives them a place to stand and speak from at least. Drawing on the work of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, one can classify most of my interlocutors as intellectuals, but not as “organic intellectuals”, that is, not members of the very group they claim to represent: most of them have never been stateless themselves.

Gramsci’s concepts are helpful in understanding statelessness because they point towards the structural constraints the state imposes on every one of us who has been socialized into statehood and thus have a hard time imagining what it truly must feel like to be stateless. While anthropologists have cultivated the method of participant observation and of being as close as possible to the lifeworlds of the people they study, when it comes to statelessness, this is not easy. Stateless individuals and groups are not comparable to other migrants, for example. What defines statelessness in the common view at least, is a lack at the very centre of an individual’s being. One is defined through that what one does not have, but what is mostly taken for granted in a world of nation states. And as a non-stateless individual – no matter if “practitioner” or “activist” – you simply cannot mimicry your way into emulating such a position. Much current engagement with statelessness – by not fully reconciling scholarly vision with activist commitment – thus does not actually challenge the constraints imposed by the state system. This, I argue, is not because of a lack of effort, understanding or empathy – on the contrary –  but rather the consequence of the very way the state system is structured.

Stateless expert activists

True change might be coming, however, from stateless individuals who have begun to set up NGOs and networks of their own, most of whom are engaging in expert activism, too. Being in touch and working with some of them, I experienced a very strong group spirit that stems from positioning themselves not only in opposition to state systems, but also at some distance from the field of statelessness studies and advocacy as it is currently organized and by which they have until now been represented. But it remains to be seen whether these stateless expert activists will become “organic intellectuals” in the way Gramsci envisioned, whether they will align themselves with either operative “practitioners” or more revolutionary “scholars”, or overcome this artificial divide altogether.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

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