As you may have noticed, blogging has been light-to-non-existent for a while around here. That’s because I’ve been preparing to make a big life change. Beginning next week, I’ll be working towards a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, which, with luck and coffee, I should finish by 2017.
My research, in its current vaguely defined state, looks at the way multinational corporations function as governing authorities when their business operations take them to places where the writ of the local state is weak.
I’m especially interested in the way corporate land acquisition – a prerequisite of doing business in resource-heavy industries like oil & gas, mining or agribusiness – shapes the political relations between firms and local communities, placing firms in a position of territorial authority with control over many elements of basic infrastructure that would otherwise be the purview of the state. I’m also interested in the way land use laws in many developing countries reflect colonial legacies, and through this, the structural parallels and differences between the company towns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the colonial corporate fiefdoms of the 18th and 19th centuries.
(Aside: One Day I am going to write an essay entitled, “The British Raj was the First Corporate Bailout.”)
This project grew directly out of my time as a reporter, writing about Chinese mining companies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and Scandinavian agribusinesses in East Africa. Sometime last year, I decided that this was a topic I needed to pursue in more depth than journalism allows for. Around the same time, I discovered that some of my ‘news’ articles were veering off into academic territory, and thought, “Hmm, maybe that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think that’s actually where I want to be.”
I’ve begun by reaching out to sources – activists, corporate strategists, and lawyers who have worked on land use cases – building a rough list of potential cases which I’ll start exploring this year, hoping to combine land and legal records, correspondence, interviews where possible and some data collection on local social and economic development. Because I’m tracking change over time, I’m looking for resource-industry companies with long histories in a particular area and a willingness to let a young researcher inside their archives. Geographically, I’m confining my search to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, both for linguistic reasons and because it’s where I have prior experience looking at these issues.
Methodologically, I’m aware that everything about this is a bit unorthodox. The analysis I do once I have my data and documents is going to be academic, but because so much of this material isn’t in the public domain yet, much of my initial research is going to rely on my journalistic skills. I’m also planning to put as much of my material online as I can, and to build some interactive historical maps of corporate land holdings in the regions I wind up studying.
There has been much chatter about social science research methods since the dustup over NSF funding in the spring – whether political science is too quantitative, not quantitative enough, whether scholars can or should engage in matters of public policy. My small contribution to that debate is to try to do some research that is empirical but not primarily quantitative, policy-relevant while still being theoretically valuable, and critically, as open and transparent as possible.
For the next four years, I’ll be living in Cambridge, but I’m planning to be in London frequently, where I’ll be continuing to oversee my nonprofit Public Business from our U.K. office. I’ll also be writing occasionally, primarily on topics related to my research, and blogging here when I can. But for now, my main hat is going to be an academic one.
Wish me luck!