Researchers during lockdown (6)

Photo provided by Matthieu Rey

Matthieu Rey is a Senior researcher in Modern History at the CNRS (Centre national de la Recherche scientifique — the main French Research agency). He is an historian whose research themes revolve around state-building and policymaking in the Middle East and in Southern Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Affiliated to IFAS-Research and to the History Workshop at Wits University, he is based in Johannesburg.

Covid-19 progressively permeated our academic life and changed many of its dynamics. This post aims to highlight what difficulties and opportunities emerged from these unprecedented circumstances and how I, as a researcher, coped with them. Writing these pages after three months of lockdown reflects the changes in how the situation has been perceived, how it affected my research activities and what other opportunities it brings. After witnessing the irruption of Covid-19 in Europe, the South African government anticipated a major sanitary crisis and moved into a state of very strict lockdown (in comparison with most countries, even those worst affected such as Italy, the United Kingdom, and France). As soon as the first clusters of affected persons —those who had travelled overseas— had been declared, the South African government announced a complete lockdown as of March 26th. All activities were suspended except for essential services. This level 5 lasted until the 1st of May to be eased into level 4, and then level 3 as of June 1st. However, major public activities remain suspended, among them academic life.

As a researcher, I share my worktime between three major focuses: gathering data; analyzing and producing results; organizing collective scientific collaboration. But, first and foremost, family life came to the forefront when all social activities stopped dead. Taking care of a young child and sharing time in order for both partners to fulfil their roles, especially when both are academics, is an ongoing challenge, involving discipline, organization and creativity. This private element remains important as it also reflected in microcosm what damages Covid-19 and lockdown have done, but also what chances it reveals. This first familial circle and the daily work determined several phases through which my research has gone over the ensuing weeks or months.

Secondly, a key element of our position as members of a French institute in a Southern country is to be placed on several stages at the same time. As a European citizen, I observe and analyze the growth rate of infection in my home country, becoming aware of the next steps in the Covid-19 crisis. As a researcher on Southern Africa and Middle East history, I perceive the weaknesses and changes that the pandemic may spark. My previous experiences also informed my attitude. Between 2011 and 2013, I witnessed the progressive development of the Syrian crisis, travelling in several parts of the country while finalizing my PhD. This previous experience with political troubles erupting into all aspects of life gave me some insights with which to prepare myself for the current crisis. Dealing with disruption needs acceptance of its effects and an ability to readapt to uncertain circumstances.

On a personal level, my research has not been fully impacted as I had done intensive data collection over the past three years. I had also ongoing commitments. The lockdown had the benefit, at least in my case, of alleviating other administrative and collective engagements, and therefore allowed me to finish works in progress. I have therefore completed and submitted the manuscript of my PhD in English to the American University in Cairo Press, something I had been planning to do since 2017. I then focused on another project I am pursuing with Professor Henry Laurens (Collège de France, Paris), preparing a scientific edition of Louis de Torcy’s mission report in Syria in 1880 — a mission in order to survey this Ottoman province on behalf of the French government. This publication will reconsider military and explorer representations of this area and how these writings provided unique insights stemming both from the fieldwork they performed and the imaginaries built from the contexts they encountered. This mission was decisive as it took place when European powers restarted colonization. The second project is a collective book edited with François Burgat on the history of political Islam from the nineteenth century to the present day, from Nigeria to Indonesia.

From the long periods of fieldwork I have conducted in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa in the past years, I have collected hundreds of documents, which I am currently analyzing. Two main issues emerged from this process. On the one hand, in addition to my other research on the Ottoman empire, I focused on the ‘frontierisation’ that is a specific social and political process of the 19th century, characterized by three major dynamics: destruction of old established political units which had solidified during the previous century; populations migrations; and the emergence of new political forms which aimed to control territory through specific infrastructure. The area covering the North West Province and Limpopo in South Africa and the Matopos mounts in Zimbabwe witnessed this intense transformation from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The other thematic is the “time of troubles”, the long transition between 1780 and 1850 during which contemporaneity emerged. Comparing experiences in KwaZulu Natal, South Mozambique, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq helps to achieve a better understanding of what changed before colonization. From these works, I hope to explore in detail what I consider as the advent of contemporaneity in parts of the global South.

These topics are not directly related to the Covid-19 crisis and I do not pretend to tackle this crisis in itself. It is always a dilemma for the researcher to enquire into a new major issue despite the pressure or desire to seize institutional and financial opportunities. However, what would be the “added value” of my research? Positing that I do not tackle the event in itself as an historian and a social scientist and following a recognized predecessor such as the French historian Marc Bloch, another guideline always defines my approach: we always question the past from the present. Therefore, many consequences and dynamics trigger new questions and approaches. Understanding the present entails further investigation into the past, which implies carefully studying the processes around these events.

Some initial insights are about the country, its fundamental elements, territorial, social and economic relations and also its political apparatus. For example, following previous studies on development and public policies and following James Ferguson’s argument (development is a site in which we can analyze tensions between centers of power), the decisions around the lockdown highlight political negotiations in the ANC, between the party and the state, inside the government, etc. Even if, at this stage, we can essentially monitor the news and public reports, this crisis sparks a unique citizen mobilization, with the formation of new groups which aiming at producing new knowledge. As always, the effect of a crisis is to reveal the deep phenomena structuring a society and a state. The crisis awakened the ‘deep’ state in many countries.

This series of events also questions common sense. Are we in a crisis? In which temporalities can we think about this dynamic? To build on the previous example, the Covid-19 irruption took place during a period of intense political debate in South Africa, but also in a period in which its economic model elaborated in 1994 was put into jeopardy. If the sanitary crisis which has spanned from mid-March until now, the economic processes have developed over a longer period of time, probably 25 years, and the political processes in a shorter timespan, etc. These temporalities help us to build our understanding of what is “a crisis”. But is it the right word? Would bankruptcy more adequately grasp the reality of the situation? This disruption – unique in that it took place simultaneously in different continents – forced us to refine our concepts, and bring other insights into our thought.

Certainly, it is not a war, as materially destructive processes did not occur with all their sensory and social effects. Equally it is not only a death as the major consequences are not only biological. This lockdown policy guided by the goal of preventing the spread of contamination and deaths which might result from it produced psychological disorder – how to function in a immobile world when we are used to move; economic manifestations (such as solidarity networks, conversely, harsh constraints on all weaker social spheres); or geopolitical readjustment. Therefore, social scientists need to invent new categories and tools to understand this situation, and, in return, they may be able to refine their previous analyses.

On personal and institutional levels, this crisis has had several main consequences: questioning what a rupture or a milestone in history are, and interrogating how to document it. While studying the “time of troubles” in Southern Africa and the Middle East (1780-1850), a period of destruction and formation, of emergence and collapse, with intense fights over how actors are represented, the present crisis erupted as a live reminder of complexities, multilayered, entangled processes at stake when an event occurs. This event invites us also to expand our view, to catch all the stimuli coming from different points affecting the theatre on which we are working. More than ever, milestones or breaks in history impose a world history approach.

Another challenge is how to document a crisis. It is not the first time that fieldwork has been hard for me. In 2013, working on Syria became synonymous with long distance contacts and electronic monitoring. The civil war forced us to think more rigorously and creatively about how to gather and verify information. Thanks to the History Workshop at Wits University, I gradually become involved in a public history project which constitutes the core of the activities of this major center in South Africa. Compelling communities to write their own history helps to bring in other points of view, determining through local lenses what are the significant variables and the true dynamics. Collecting testimonies and training South Africans to do so expands these experiences.

Certainly, Covid-19 has affected academic life, putting it under pressure and tightening many constraints. But these events can also trigger opportunities to rethink our practices and to suggest new ways to engage with social and historical realities.