Tuesday, 21 October 2014

UNHCR 2014 Statelessness Research Award interviews... Jason Tucker

"Statelessness challenged my preconceived notions about citizenship, which I naively assumed everyone had. Statelessness facilitated a new way to consider citizenship, the nation-state and global citizenship. However, as I learnt more and encountered the devastation that statelessness causes to people’s lives, what began as an intellectual challenge, quickly turned into an all consuming cause".

In this series of blog posts, we will be asking the students honoured in this year's UNHCR Award for Statelessness Research about their experiences studying the phenomenon on statelessness and their research findings. First in the series is Dr Jason Tucker, whose doctoral thesis entitled "
Challenging the tyranny of citizenship: Statelessness in Lebanon", which earned him his PhD at the Department of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Bath (United Kingdom), was chosen by the Jury as the Best Research in the Doctoral Category.

Could you summarise, in 2 or 3 sentences, what your research was about?

Nation-states, are a relevantly new concept. They are fluid, arbitrarily conceived and being constantly contested. Similarly, citizenship, as a legal bond between and individual and a state, can be seen in the same light. Statelessness, it is argued in my research, is a consequence of the linking of these two much contested concepts. By viewing the nation-state, citizenship and global citizenship through the eyes of those trying to address statelessness, we gain a more nuanced understanding of them individually as well as their relationship.

What first got you interested in the problem of statelessness?

I was doing research on Sudanese refugees in Cairo in 2010. The women I was working with could not access their consulate, register the births of their children and didn’t even have refugee status. Later, on learning about the succession of South Sudan, I began to consider the impact this would have on these women. How would they claim/confirm their citizenship? Would it be in Sudan or South Sudan? Would they have a choice? And what would happen if they ended up with no citizenship at all?

At the time there was very little written about statelessness, and trying to grapple with the idea provided an irresistible intellectual challenge. It challenged my preconceived notions about citizenship, which I naively assumed everyone had. Statelessness facilitated a new way to consider citizenship, the nation-state and global citizenship. However, as I learnt more and encountered the devastation that statelessness causes to people’s lives, what began as an intellectual challenge, quickly turned into an all consuming cause.

Why did you choose this particular research topic?

Lebanon, with many stateless populations, provided a rich empirical setting to undertake my research. It also allowed me to include the stateless Palestinians, who at the time were peripheral in statelessness debates. I am glad to see that this is changing slightly as of late. Empirical richness was needed as the research was exploratory, and required contextual complexity and various large stateless groups with differing claims to compare. Further to this, while there was some information about statelessness in Lebanon, much more information was, and still is, needed. It is a vast problem in the country, a problem that is being insufficiently tackled.

Could you briefly describe how you went about your research? E.g. did you base it on existing sources – and were they easy to find? Did you do fieldwork or interviews – and what was that like?

Global citizenship was the main theoretical current in my research. So initially it was to the abundant literature on this that I turned. However, a theme soon emerged, one that I thought was in danger of weakening the foundations of the various global citizenship theories. People who act as global citizens were implicitly or explicitly assumed to have citizenship of a state/political community in both modern and more classical conceptualisations. The contemporary models see citizenship of a nation-state as a means to judge a person’s act of citizenship as one that is global, having an expanded moral obligation beyond their nation-state into the trans-national/global realm. The stateless had not been adequately considered, so 10 million people in the world could not act as global citizens under many of the dominant theories. If global citizenship excludes the stateless, how can it be global?

This, however, did not lead to my rejection of global citizenship, in which I place great value. A new approach was therefore needed to overcome these theoretical concerns. By considering global citizenship through the eyes of those addressing statelessness in Lebanon, some of whom are stateless, I was able to provide a new theoretical approach to assessing acts of global citizenship. I spent three months in Lebanon undertaking interviews, participant observation and engaging with the many stateless communities and key actors.

What was the greatest challenge you had to deal with in undertaking your research?

Initially it was the lack of existing literature on statelessness. However, this provided an opportunity as well as a challenge, as there was a gap that needed filling. The work available at the time could be divided into legal analysis, which often left out the human element, or work on the human element that often ignored the legal analysis, and as a consequence labelled many groups stateless, who actually were not.

This division was never more obvious than when presenting my research. When speaking to those in the social sciences they would often question why I had such a ridged legal definition of who is stateless. When speaking to lawyers they would wonder why I treated citizenship and the nation-state as such ambiguous and arbitrary terms. The middle ground, linking the human and the legal was a challenging and highly rewarding place to be. 

Could you briefly summarise your main findings or conclusions – or what you think is the most important outcome of your research?

The main findings on a theoretical level was a new means by which we can conceptualise global citizenship that includes the stateless. However, the more pragmatic findings were of greater interest to me. Statelessness highlights the weakness of the current ‘ownership’ of citizenship by nation-states.  This is a relatively modern link, and I shifted the burden of justification for discussing the concept of citizenship outside of the nation-state, on to those who assume this to be citizenship's natural place. In fact, citizenship does not have a natural place within the nation-state. Nation-states have laid claim to it and present the current system as if it was ahistorical. But the existence of statelessness highlights that this is by no means a natural place for citizenship to be. Nothing shows this more clearly than protracted cases of statelessness, where generation after generation languish outside of the nation-state system. Statelessness, is a consequence of this flawed relationship, and highlights the weaknesses of the current nation-state system. To strengthen itself, it is argued in the research, the nation-state system, individually and collectively, should look to end statelessness.

What tips would you give to students who are getting involved in statelessness research to help them? E.g. are there particular questions you think they should be looking at or methodological issues they should consider?

I would advise to look at it using an inter-disciplinary approach. It seems like a buzzword now, but I think there is enormous value in it for understanding statelessness. This is because it stems from a legal phenomenon, however its impacts are human and have a significant impact from the level of the individual, their family, their community, the countries they reside in and the international community. To tackle statelessness we need more research, a greater level of understanding of the causes and consequences, and this is most achievable if we embrace varied and diverse perspectives. 

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