Riggan Looks at Institutions That Shape Emerging Nations

By Purnell T. Cropper | February 23, 2010

Dr. Jennifer A. Riggan, Assistant Professor of International Studies, chaired a panel that looked at institutions that help emerging nation-states transition from concept to reality and the role of new ethnographic research methods in international studies on Friday, Feb. 19, at the International Studies Association conference. Her panel was titled “Intimate Institutions, Everyday Encounters and Imaginaries of Power: Contributions from the Ethnography of the State to International Studies.”

“Political ethnographers are increasingly exploring how states are reified (turned from concept into reality) through complex global, national and local imaginaries,” Riggan says in the panel abstract. “This imagined state becomes tangible through everyday encounters in intimate institutions that are ideally examined through ethnographic methods. The increased ethnographic interest in the state is paralleled by a shift in International Studies toward perspectives that deconstruct the norms and worldviews that have long shaped understandings of international politics. These approaches necessitate consideration of research methodologies that allow for subjective exploration of life worlds, processes of meaning making, and the infusion of power relations in both. Rethinking methodologies is thus an essential component of thinking about how we study political phenomena, particularly as it relates to the relationship between theory and practice.”

For the panel, Riggan presented a paper on “The Intimate State: Eritrean Teachers Navigating the Carcereal Nation.” Eritrea is a nation in Eastern Africa with coastline along the Red Sea, between Djibouti and Sudan. Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia effectively in 1991 and officially in 1993.

In her paper, Riggan looks at how teachers are playing a societal role in shaping this emerging nation. “This ethnographic study suggests that by dissecting the state, its institutions and the actors charged with its production, we see that states are embedded in and deeply intertwined with societies,” she says. Her paper examines the Eritrean state as constituted through intimate relationships between teachers, communities and students, and argues that the imaginary of the nation-state is subsequently reproduced and altered.

“A country in which emigration and movement within the country are severely limited and citizen lives are highly militarized and regimented, Eritrea is governed through the carcereal logics of spatial, temporal and bodily discipline and constant surveillance,” Riggan adds. “Schools have been incorporated into this biopolitical, militarized nation-making project. Teachers, however, produce an alternative to the ‘prison state’ through relationships that are intimate rather than biopolitical. This intimate state is encapsulated in the space of the school, but draws on and develops social relationships, roles and hierarchies that extend beyond the school walls. It draws on tropes of familial relations, positioning teachers as authority figures who link home, classroom and nation. Through this intimate state, students are socialized as an ‘educated elite’—an identity that carries with it particular notions of ‘civilization’ and ‘development’ that in turn allow them to reimagine the nation.”