The Social Life of Identity Documents in Africa. Meeting Nora Bardelli, a postdoctoral researcher

Nora Bardelli

Nora Bardelli is a postdoctoral researcher at CERI within the ANR PIAF project, 'The social life of identity documents in Africa' under the guidance of Prof Richard Banégas. She has accepted to answer our questions. We are interested in knowing more about PIAF and about her. What is PIAF and what is the subject of this collective project? Who is Nora Bardelli and what are her research interests?

You are currently working within a collective project hosted here at Sciences Po CERI, P.I.A.F. Would you mind presenting us the project?

The PIAF project – The Social Life of Identity Documents in Africa – is a collective project coordinated by Richard Banégas (Sciences Po CERI) and Séverine Awenengo-Dalberto (CNRS, IMAF) and supported by the French National Research Agency (ANR).

The aim is to study “the governmentality of papers” in Sub-Saharan Africa from the post-war period to the current era of globalised biometric identification norms. The starting point of the research was the observation that a vast majority of current crises experienced by contemporary African societies are crises of citizenship, centred around issues of rights and the judicial and political frameworks that recognise them, of which “papers” (such as identity cards, voter cards, residency permits, certificates of nationality, land titles, and title deeds) are a key element. Some conflicts have even been described as “ID wars” (Côte d’Ivoire).

The growing “biometricisation” of societies can facilitate securing rights, yet it also produces new tensions around censuses and the issue of titles. The project thus seeks to interrogate the seeming correlation between identification apparatuses and political violence. This project exceeds an analysis that would be limited to situations of conflict; it also aims to shed light on the use of papers in times of crisis and in times of stability to analyse everyday relations between citizens and the public sphere. The goals are to study practices of citizenship at work and the extent of “bureaucratic reason” in societies often represented as resisting it. Embracing both a historical and sociological perspective, PIAF wants to explore how the “dipositifs” of tangible identification and identity assignation have, on one side, contributed to the project of state formation by including, excluding, or controlling individuals and, on the other side, how such apparatuses have fostered the emergence of new political and moral subjectivities. The project gives full consideration to the historicity and ambivalence of these processes, and explores many institutions producing documents as well as the complex relations individuals develop with such documents and institutions. Moving beyond an analysis of identity documents as a technology of power, PIAF will focus on “the social life of papers.” By relying on a perspective “from below”, the project will contribute to a better understanding of ordinary/everyday practices of citizenship.

This is a collective, comparative cross-case project based on research carried out in a dozen of African countries: South Africa, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Senegal and Chad. PIAF is involving two institutional partners in France (The Center for International Studies – CERI at Sciences Po and the Institut des Mondes Africains – IMAF), collaborations with African Universities (including Wits University in Johannesburg), and fifteen researchers in history, politics, and anthropology, all experts in the study of citizenship and identity in their respective countries of reference. We are now in the last months of the project, and after special issues publications in Genèses and Politique Africaine, we are currently working on an edited book that brings together all the work that we did in the last years. More information can be found here.


Can you tell us a bit about your own academic background?

After a bachelor in social work and social policies at the Université de Fribourg in Switzerland, I realized how important critical thinking was to move beyond preconceptions and common sense explanation of ‘social problems’, inequalities, or other phenomenon more generally in order to seize them more wholly and understand how they can affect individuals and groups in different ways. I chose to do a Master’s in anthropology and sociology at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, as it seemed like a great option to keep working on my critical thinking, particularly at a more global scale.

I fell in love with anthropology. The discipline gave words and concepts to concerns and feelings I had and have about what I find problematic in our societies, and it allowed me to rigorously unpack them. I was particularly interested in phenomena of inequalities or marginalisation related to forced migration in West Africa. I have been working on this context, and particularly with Malian refugees living in Burkina Faso, since 2013 – when I carried out fieldwork for my master dissertation. It was during this research experience that I decided to pursue a PhD, and doing it at the Refugee Studies Centre (part of the International Development Department) at the University of Oxford was a fantastic opportunity.


What was the subject of your PhD? What were your thematic and geographic areas of focus?

My PhD project started from an empirical observation and an intellectual assumption. The former dated from 2013: during the research trip in Burkina Faso I just mentioned, I heard and observed humanitarian workers distinguish (in both discourse and practice) between who they thought were 'real refugees' and those who were not, regardless of their legal status. The intellectual assumption was that a category and a label are not only imposed on people designated as such, but are negotiated by the actors themselves and within their interactions with other actors and their social and political economies. Building on these elements, in my dissertation I explored how hierarchies of refugeeness are (re-)produced, and how, when, and why such (re-) production creates or reinforces inequalities among the refugees. I answered by focusing on different aspects of the construction of refugeeness and the experiences people had and made of 'the refugee' category in the context of Malian forced migration in urban Burkina Faso. More specifically, I looked at the encounter of the refugee regime and the refugees' lives through the study of the reproduction, negotiation, and representation of 'the refugee' status and category.

What I found and showed is how hierarchies of refugeeness can create or reinforce inequalities among the refugees, and how the possibilities to negotiate with one’s situation of “refugeehood” were unequally produced and distributed, locally but also globally. By unpacking refugeeness through the notion of commodification and relying on ethnographic methods and economic anthropology to study humanitarian interventions, I analysed how the encounter between the refugee regime and the refugees' complex, situated, and varied lives can produce inequalities and is experienced unequally by the refugees themselves.


Are you moving towards new themes of research?

Yes, in terms of themes; and no, in terms of the geographic area of focus, the groups I work with, and the broader concerns I want to better understand.

My new research project, which I am at the moment conceptualizing, builds on a topic that I pursued on the side of my thesis in the last two years: biometric registration for refugees carried out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). My research will still focus on Malian refugees living in Burkina Faso. In the last five years, this agency has systematized the use of biometric technologies to register refugees in the course of its humanitarian interventions. Ethical concerns about the use of such technology in registering and identifying refugees were raised even before this approach was systematised and have continued to be raised since. This topic remains yet largely understudied, particularly with regard to the intersection of biometric registration of refugees with the localised social and political dynamics of the lives of refugees. Unveiling this is the main objective of my new project.

More precisely, I am interested in uncovering the implications of the use of biometric registration and data in humanitarian interventions vis-à-vis the perceived and/or real threat of political instability and armed/terrorist groups in Burkina Faso and Mali (and the surrounding countries). This project also originates from empirical observations, and particularly from noticing that individuals' relationships to refugee biometric IDs varied with the ethnic origin of a refugee and the sociocultural valence of that origin in the security context of the region. The literature shows that the outcome of the implementation of a particular identification scheme will depend on the contexts and people to which it is applied, independently of why and by whom it was introduced. Drawing on these pre-existing insights, my research will offer a complementary perspective, showing that those practices are indeed mediated by the context in which they take place, but that more attention needs to be given to the ways in which aspects like ethnic origins, race, gender, age and other identity markers might mediate the effects these technologies have in the everyday life of refugees.


Interview by Miriam Périer

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