Multilateralism, Peacekeeping, Norms and Civil-military Relations. Meeting Chiara Ruffa

Chiara Ruffa Professor CERI Sciences Po

Chiara Ruffa joined CERI Sciences Po in September 2022 as Professor of political science, specialising in multilateralism, peacekeeping operations, norms, cultures, and civil–military relations. She has agreed to answer our questions on her career and current research projects. She also answers our questions about a recently published article on peacekeeping operations.

Can you briefly introduce your career and your main research themes, as well as your current projects?

Before joining CERI, I worked in Sweden for more than 10 years: I was first a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow, then an assistant and associate professor within the field of peace and conflict and security studies at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research in Uppsala  and at the Swedish Defence University. Before moving to Stockholm, I did a postdoc at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and completed my PhD at the European University Institute under Pascal Vennesson’s supervision. My research has always been inspired by and closely connected to France, which is why joining CERI and Sciences Po is thrilling. During my university studies, I received my BA and MA in political science at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa (Italy), as well in political sociology at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, where I learned to focus on agents of transnational politics and to do fieldwork.

More generally, my approach and work draw inspiration from research that has been conducted at CERI for a long time, notably work by Guillaume Devin, Didier Bigo, Bastien Irondelle, and many others. All those influences—which in different ways combine a passion for political sociology with IR—have helped me focus on the connections between the micro and macro levels and the importance of fieldwork.

Over the years I have worked in three main research areas, which have been connected by one main theme. Broadly speaking, my research agenda revolves around multilateral governance and management of peace and security across different regions. My two main areas of expertise are (1) multilateralism on the ground and multinational governance and management of peace and security (UN peacekeeping, dynamics of transformations of multinational interventions with increased participation of non-Western contributors, and search and rescue missions at sea in particular) and (2) civil–military relations and the transformation of the state. My first research area has focused on two particular facets of multilateralism: multinational peace and stability operations, including the diversity of mission composition, for their governance and success; and the institutions governing these multilateral activities, in particular civil–military relations on both the national and multinational levels. My second strand of research deals with the relations between the military and civilian decision makers, both in multilateral peace and stability missions (civilian managers vs. military officers) and across different countries (politicians vs. military commanders). I understand this, and the evolution of civil–military relations more generally, as a topic of key importance for contemporary dynamics of peace and security. I study these issues in a variety of regions, notably Mali, the Central African Republic, Lebanon, Afghanistan, as well as in France and Italy.

What will you be working on in the next few years?

Looking forward, my research agenda for the coming years has two main components.
My first research project tries to understand processes of norm contestations and norm erosion. I am currently writing a book in which I theorise about norm decline, exploring the norm of searching for and rescuing people lost at sea and that of military professionalism (and related patterns of militarisation). This is done, again, in the context of multilateral peace and security efforts (such as multilateral search and rescue efforts for people lost at sea). Beyond this project, I am doing conceptual work (with Kristine Eck) on challenging Western-centric norms of military professionalisms and critically engaging with the neo-colonial components of Security Sector Reforms initiatives (with Simone Tholens). Relatedly, another component of my research explores how gender norms and norms of restraint interact. With Andrew Bell, Thomas Gift, and Jonathan Monten, we develop an argument about the relation between gender, education, and attitudes about International Humanitarian Law and how restraint is exercised in war in a paper that combines survey results with oral histories.

Second, I continue to work on different facets of peacekeeping, one of the key tools of multilateralism. I have cowritten a paper about peacekeeping activities (with Sara Lindberg Bromley and Sabine Otto) and am starting a new one about rituals in the UN mission in Lebanon (with Vanessa Newby). Taken together, these studies explore the management of security globally and in a variety of regions and help us understand the rise and decline of international norms and how they are embedded in racialised hierarchies.

Methodologically, my research uses qualitative and mixed methods approaches. I have an expertise in qualitative comparative case study research, combined with ethnographic strategies of data collection, interviewing techniques, and observation in a variety of regions, including Africa, Asia, and Europe. I also really enjoy reflecting on and writing about methods and I have written two book chapters about case studies recently and coauthored an article on what causality means in qualitative case study research (with Matthew Evangelista). All my method-related writing aims at fostering a more inclusive, global, and pluralist debate.

In your work, you are interested in the perception that peacekeepers have of their mandate on the ground, and of the other operational units with which they collaborate. You talk in particular about the concept of “meaning-making”, which you borrow from sociology. Can you tell us a little more about this idea of meaning-making?

Meaning-making is a very common human activity, which we all practise and which has received a lot of attention in other disciplines beyond International Relations. In this paper, we borrow the concept of meaning-making from the sociological literature, in which it is often used to refer to the human and common process through which individuals give meaning to their surrounding context. Meaning-making is common because “humans constantly seek to understand the world around them, and that the imposition of meaning on the world is a goal in itself, a spur to action, and a site of contestation” (Kurzman, 2008: 5). Meaning-making is particularly likely to occur when the surrounding context is ambiguous, in other words when it is open to more than one interpretation. While meaning-making happens constantly, it becomes particularly crucial in times of stress and ambiguity. We specifically explore processes of meaning-making by peacekeepers in the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to document the process through which soldiers from the Global South and Global North translate an ambiguous mandate into action. We focus on one dimension of peacekeeping practices that has become increasingly important, namely, how peacekeepers relate to other peacekeeping contingents with whom they are supposed to implement their mandate. Such interaction is crucial for today’s peace missions, which have seen a substantial increase in the diversity of units deployed, and thus, in the need of interaction to implement their mandate. Unveiling meaning-making and its different types helps us understand how to enhance coordination and collaboration among contingents serving together in multinational contexts and how to dismantle racialised hierarchies.

You have developed three schemes to qualify these interpretations and interactions between units: Voltaire’s garden; building bridges; othering. Can you present them to us very briefly?

We systematically documented how deployed peacekeepers display three different meaning-making strategies: Voltaire’s garden, building bridges, and othering. We label the first Voltaire’s garden, following Candide’s habit to tend his own garden (Voltaire, 1759). Here, soldiers try to focus on narrowly defined terms of the mission. The Voltaire’s garden type of interpretation entails that soldiers respond to ambiguity by explicitly and strictly focusing on their day-to-day tasks and activities and ignoring perceived absurd or strange things that may be happening. We find that Voltaire’s garden is associated with behaviour that does not improve other troops’ efforts and is ultimately diminishing the ability to fulfil the mandate. While Voltaire’s garden is about how (narrowly) a unit interprets the mandate, othering and building bridges are about how a unit understands and interacts with other ones. We label the second strategy building bridges: ambiguity is dealt with by activating several informal connections with other troops or units. Building bridges may lead to a more creative interpretation of the mandate, thereby helping soldiers to adopt a problem-solving approach. The third strategy is othering, or the distancing of a group—the high-tech Western troops in this case—from the rest of the mission, hence making it less likely to overcome inconsistencies. “Othering” ultimately reinforces identity differences, thereby diminishing peacekeepers’ ability to implement the mandate. As such, othering and building bridges lie on two extreme ends of the spectrum of the us/them divide, Voltaire’s garden by contrast relates to the extent to which the peacekeepers abide by the mandate: strictly or not. When facing the mission’s structure, peacekeepers developed three distinct ways of interpreting the reality surrounding them. Each of those strategies leads to distinct modes of cooperation, with implications for mandate implementation.

How did you come to develop these patterns, and from which fields of observation?

My coauthor and I embarked on extensive fieldwork in the UN multidimensional mission in Mali. The main goal of the project was originally to shed light on variation in operational styles between Swedish and Dutch peacekeepers. What we found in our first session of fieldwork, however, made us fundamentally reconsider the aim of our enquiry. Tensions, prejudices, and misperceptions of peacekeepers from the Global North about peacekeepers from the Global South made us want to expose those racialised hierarchies. We adopted a pragmatic, exploratory, and inductive approach. Our study necessitated a focus on how the peacekeepers understood and made sense of their mandate, how they talked and reflected about it and its interpretation. To be able to study meaning-making, we embraced an interpretive sensibility. We acknowledge that “the ‘view from nowhere’ is an illusion [. . .] We rather get to ‘reality,’ or make sense of it” (Kurowska and Bliesemann de Guevara, 2020: 3). Much like interpretivists, we emphasise the impossibility to completely distinguish the “world out there that can be objectively known and that the researcher is not enmeshed in” (Kurowska and Bliesemann de Guevara, 2020: 12–13; see also Yanow and Schwartz- Shea, 2006). The nature of the evidence and the accidental way in which it was collected obliged us to be pragmatic, humble, and aware of the limits of our approach. We have let “the meaning of key concepts and the concepts themselves ‘emerge’ in situ as the researcher learns what is meaningful to situated members, rather than being defined a priori and brought to the field to be tested” (Kurowska and Bliesemann de Guevara, 2020: 12– 13). Our approach has been iterative as well as accidental and we have let the field speak to us.

But how did we collect the data? To understand how peacekeepers gave meaning to the mandate, we relied on two main data sources. First, we conducted 120 interviews between 2014 and 2019 with deployed peacekeepers of eight different nationalities, although Dutch and Swedish respondents are over-represented since they made up the majority of those Blue Helmets performing intelligence gathering. Our interview template included open questions to gauge peacekeepers’ ways of interpreting the mandate, interacting with other contingents and their day-to-day practices without priming them. As a second source of data collection, we carried out multi-sited observations during multiple pre- and post-deployment sessions as well as on the ground in Mali observing the work of the UN peacekeepers in Bamako and Gao, their interaction with each other, and their distinct ways of making meaning of different contexts. Meaning-making was observed and recorded via formal and informal conversations.
The presence of the researchers probably affected certain interactions, which is a widely acknowledged and recurring phenomenon in ethnographic research. This is a question I would love to discuss with my colleagues at CERI during seminars, such as the "back from the field one", among others. I very much look forward to engaging in conversations and discussions in such as stimulating, rich and diverse academic environment.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI.

List of references

Bell, Andrew, Gift, Thomas, Monten, Jonathan and Chiara Ruffa, “Gender, Education, and Attitudes toward Violence in War: Survey Results from West Point”, working paper.

Kurowska Xymena and Berit B. Bliesemann de Guevara (2020), “Interpretive approaches in political science and international relations”, in Curini Luigi et Franzese Rob (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Research Methods in Political Science and International Relations , London : SAGE, pp. 1211–1230.

Kurzman, Charles (2008), “Meaning-making in social movements”, Anthropological Quarterly 81(1) : 5–15.

Lindberg Bromley, Sara, Otto, Sabine and Chiara Ruffa (2022), "What do peacekeepers do, really? A review of peacekeeping activities", Working Paper (available on demand).

Ruffa, Chiara and Matthew Evangelista (2021), “Searching for a Middle Ground? A spectrum of views on causality in qualitative research”, Italian Review of Political Science, 51(2): 164-181.

Ruffa, Chiara and Sebastiaan Rietjens (2022), “Meaning making in peacekeeping missions: mandate interpretation and multinational collaboration in the UN mission in Mali”, European Journal of International Relations:1-26.

Wibben, A. T. R. (2020, April 15), “We already know what to do”, Duck of Minerva, available at

Yanow, Dvora and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea (2006), Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn , New York: M.E. Sharpe.

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