Why the Social Sciences Need Professor Roland Marchal

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As part of the campaign to free Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard reflect on his contribution to the social sciences. To support the campaign, follow @FaribaRoland on Twitter.

In 2014, while we worked on our edited book, Making Sense of the Central African Republic, we proposed to Roland Marchal that he contribute a chapter about regional politics to help the uninitiated understand the importance of actors in the sub-region to the historical trajectory of the CAR. We expected a chapter that would address each of the countries in the region in turn, and their relationship with the CAR. That is how most scholars would have approached the task. Instead, Roland’s analysis wove the relationships among key regional actors together in a way that was vastly more analytically accurate and insightful, capturing the nuanced complexity of regional politics in Central Africa, while making that complexity accessible to those new to the region. It was not the easiest way to tell the story, but the most intellectually rigorous.

We also planned to have a chapter on the political economy of CAR. But at a meeting to workshop the first draft of our book at Sciences Po in 2014, Roland cautioned that most such analyses tended to focus on the political economy of elites and that we needed to also capture the lived realities of everyday Central Africans, including the importance of social and ethnic capital, and the value of witchcraft. He volunteered to write that chapter, too, and we took him up on his offer. Roland’s two chapters are by far the most cited in our book.

This is our experience of knowing Roland as fellow researchers. He challenges, dazzles, and inspires by virtue of his ability to connect seemingly disparate people, events, and trends through an analytical thread that most have not considered. I [Lombard] recently rediscovered notes from a conversation with Roland about my doctoral dissertation research in July 2009. Roland recommended that I devote three months to a “lecture sauvage” of the history of the Central African region in the 19th century, a period of immense upheaval and change. He was sure that understanding this early history would illuminate many of the contemporary dynamics, provided one let the mind “wander” in a way at once rigorous, directed, and free. The wisdom of this approach has only become more apparent to me over time. It was probably the most helpful piece of research advice I received.

His advice for Louisa’s dissertation and to our co-edited book gives a sense of the methods Roland uses. He brings his sharp intellect to a study of history that is at once free and pointed in its aims, and in so doing makes connections that help people better understand issues for themselves. Through the years, many students have benefited from his targeted and practical advice and insights. I [Carayannis] have jointly advised graduate students with Roland and can attest to his commitment as an academic advisor. Roland is particularly adept at asking students the kinds of pointed questions that challenge them to look at the world more deeply, and in new ways. I have seen first-hand how much students need the kind, experienced guidance and tough intellectual mentorship that Roland provides. His absence is felt most acutely by the most junior of our colleagues, and his current (and future) students are eagerly awaiting his return.

We have also worked with Roland through the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF), a program of the Social Sciences Research Council in New York City, which I [Carayannis] direct. CPPF serves as a “think bridge” between expert analysis and UN leadership to help international public servants better understand the places in which they are engaging. Roland has been a frequent participant in CPPF discussions, and a frequent critic of international policy in Africa. Despite this, UN participants have come to appreciate Roland’s critical perspective, even if sometimes grudgingly, and recognize that he makes practical suggestions for how to improve international public policy. This is a rarity for academics, as we tend to be better at policy critiques than at recommendations for how to fix problems.

For example, during the early months of what has been called “the crisis” in the Central African Republic in 2013, at a CPPF-convened expert brainstorming for the UN Peacebuilding Commission, Roland recommended that aid money be used to pay civil servant’s salaries, arguing that increasing liquidity would be a bulwark in favor of peace, particularly in the CAR capital where much of the violence was being perpetrated. While this was considered completely unorthodox by aid agencies, the World Bank and UNDP heeded Roland’s advice, and averted an economic collapse that could have deeply exacerbated the violence in the CAR.

Roland does not come with a political or ideological agenda. In academic and policy meetings alike, Roland is, above all, intellectually honest. Even if it makes people uncomfortable, he would rather voice an awkward truth than present an analysis that is not truly his own. While attuned to how the past shapes the present, Roland is also a dedicated ethnographer (though he usually refers to himself as a “humble sociologist”). He is a supremely dedicated and rigorous fieldworker. His analyses are thus always based on a solid empirical base.

Intellectual heft, commitment to evidence, and analytical integrity are part of why Roland has friends who respect him everywhere he does research – from taxi drivers and bartenders, to fellow professors and high-level policymakers. The craft of social science has much to learn from Roland, and we eagerly await his return to the intellectual and methodological debates we have come to expect from him.


Tatiana Carayannis is Program Director at the Social Science Research Council.

Louisa Lombard is Associate Professor of anthropology at Yale.

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