“Although I have ‘Doctor’ in front of my name, I am actually a curious person,” Rita VermontFootnote 4 declared at the very beginning of her opening speech at a conference on statelessness that I attended. The conference was held in the UK in 2018, and it carried the pairing of “theory and practice” in its subtitle. I listened closely: Is having a PhD somehow supposed to preclude being curious? I wondered. The audience of roughly 250 participants had gathered at a downtown university campus in London for 2 days in order to, according to Rita, “have conversations amongst each other that maybe don’t happen often enough.” We were to “start relationships, help start projects, continue projects and make our work more effective.” This was not to say that we should not talk to the people we had come with or already knew, Rita clarified, hinting at the tendency to stick to the people one already knows at such events, but it was clear that the conference was set up in a way that would allow for new dialogues and new knowledge to emerge: “speed dating,” impromptu poster sessions, fishbowl discussions, and other interactive and didactically innovative formats were offered, alongside the more traditional panels that were flagged out as “theoretical” or “practice-oriented” and that focused on particular case studies or on strategic litigation.Footnote 5 The participants came from academia, legal clinics, corporate law firms, and the NGO sector, and also included some individual stateless persons.Footnote 6
After this event and over the course of my ongoing research, I kept bumping into more or less the same people. Advocating an end to statelessness in Europe occurs within a social group whose members know each other well, who cooperate with one another, read each other’s publications and reports, and attend each other’s public events. And yet, the practitioner–scholar dilemma struck me even before members of this group spoke to me about it. As it turned out, many of my interlocutors made it part of their very introductions—sometimes right at the beginning of their presentations, as Rita did above. Why was it so important to emphasize that differentiation?
After Rita had opened the conference, the person she introduced next was a scholar to whom she assigned the task of “giving us an introduction to statelessness”—an interesting move, given the fact that we were all, in one way or another, already experts on the topic. Simone Anderson thus began her talk, picking up on how Rita had introduced her: “I will be giving an introduction on statelessness, but from my position … say, [highlighting] some of the problems I think we need to be working on together.” She then confessed to having written a different presentation, “but [I] then decided that it was way too academic and looking only at theoretical work,” and so she decided to talk about something else instead. Before she began, she must have felt it necessary to declare the following:
I feel humbled because I am sitting here with people who actually are making important differences in the world. And as I see it, people who are working on theory have the luxury to raise problems without really having to find solutions. So what I am going to show here are some of the problems that I think there are … where I think we can be working together. What I am going to do is look at the interrelationships of theory and practice. (Simone Anderson 2018)
Since Rita had announced that Simone would be giving an “introduction to statelessness,” she felt compelled to provide a definition of the concept, starting with its legal definition as laid out in the international conventions and adding “group statelessness,” which affects whole “communities,” as well as “spatial statelessness,” which refers to geographical areas outside the effective control of any state and the individuals confined therein. “Introduction out of the way,” she then declared, and began her actual talk, in which she introduced four understandings of statelessness. The first three were rather standard ones that conceptualize statelessness as an anomaly, as one encounters in most of the scholarly literature and the reports of NGOs. Such understandings were also in line with most of the “practitioners’” stances on the topic, as I would find out later.Footnote 7 The fourth understanding Simone mentioned turned the established perspective on its head by asking what it would mean to regard citizenship as the anomaly instead, and how we should account for the fact that many stateless people have come to embrace statelessness as an integral aspect of their identity. These questions and the theoretical assumptions behind them were of interest to many of the scholars I met that day and in other venues at later stages of my research, and I personally found this approach interesting and challenging as well.
After Simone’s talk, it was Michelle Owen’s turn, a practitioner, apparently, as she declared at the very beginning, “I will take you from the theoretical back to the very practical.” In this way, she also indicated that she had classified Simone’s talk as “theoretical” and that Simone’s intention to recast her talk to better suit the audience and to address “the interrelationships of theory and practice” might not have been so successful after all. At the end of Michelle’s talk, and much to my disappointment, the panel ended without an opportunity to engage in any open discussion; everyone dispersed for the coffee break. As a consequence of attending these opening talks, over the course of the full 2-day event, I paid particular attention whenever my interlocutors stressed their practitioner-ness or their scholar-ness. The discussion I had been looking forward to finally came about after a panel that consisted entirely of scholars who focused on what Simone had labeled the “fourth understanding” of statelessness. I personally felt quite inspired after the four talks, as I had never before heard, for example, a legal scholar demanding “the end of the state” or a political theorist questioning “the privilege of citizenship” and shouting, “We should all be stateless!” to an audience at least half of which were people trying to get rid of their statelessness, thus of the very thing the scholar just announced as desirable. But as one of the four panelists clarified, these revolutionary notions were easier said than done:
We are not ready to let go of our own privileges. It is easy to put it out there, but many of us have struggled to think it through: all the stuff you have to let go – language, concepts, evidence – a lot of that goes back to the state.
The panelist had identified a crucial point: how is it possible at all to think of statelessness without thinking of the state? This, for me, is a key question that needs to be asked when it comes to statelessness, as the very word assumes the state as the status quo, and those who are subjected to statelessness as essentially lacking. Here the Gramscian concepts, which cannot be detached from the state, are most useful. For Gramsci, subalterns (such as stateless people) never exist in isolation from the state. The nature of their subalternity, writes Kate Crehan, is in large part defined by the specific ways they are incorporated into the state (Crehan 2016: 16). In Gramsci’s reasoning, class is equally linked to the state. State formation and class formation go hand in hand; they are both historical phenomena that are inherently dynamic and co-constitutive of each other. For a new social group to acquire the requisite cultural and moral skills to establish hegemony, a conception of the state is necessary—Gramsci termed this “statolatry” (1971: 543–544). This phase in the historical development of a social group allows for an “initiation to autonomous state life and the creation of a ‘civil society’ which it was not historically possible to create before” (Gramsci 1971: 268). Thus, the state—the actual state apparatus as well as conceptions of what “the state” is—is needed for any social group to succeed in its goal of eventually assuming a hegemonic position.
Drawing on Gramsci, we can say that the state as the current hegemon always needs to be factored in, not even in the case of social movements whose aim is to overthrow the current state order or who question the very naturalness of a world divided into states, as in the ethnographic material I present in this article, but especially in such cases. This point is crucial when addressing statelessness in a context where, on the one hand, practitioners aim to incorporate stateless people into states by helping them acquire citizenship, while, on the other hand, scholars question the very naturalness of the state and of citizenship, and envision a radically different world.
In the same panel, another self-declared practitioner stood up and voiced the constraints she felt were imposed on her: “We are practitioners,” she declares. “If we are not to see a lack [in statelessness], where should we take our thinking? What should we do?” By asking where she should take her “thinking,” she made it clear that, although she is a practitioner who is preoccupied with finding “solutions” and “doing,” she also, of course, thinks deeply about the very phenomenon she is trying to get rid of. That there is no practice without theory is something the practitioners, some of whom have PhDs and all of whom have higher education, are aware of. But why downplay one and prioritize the other? The expert activists I am working with have been socialized in an environment where they have learned how to become experts. They have also learned how to represent a certain body of knowledge to others in an expert manner, which allows others to recognize them as experts in their field of practice. Finally, they have been approached as experts, and it is through such public recognition by others—whether stateless people or those representing them—that they have come to accept that label. All of the people I work with are members of organizations, no matter how small and informally organized they might be. They do not present themselves as individually motivated actors, yet they also do not necessarily act exclusively in the name of or as an organization. They do not, in other words, let the organization speak for them. Rather, being a member of an organization allows them to communicate more effectively what it is they do as expert activists. The frame of the organization thus helps them present particular types of interests and practices as expert knowledge rather than as individual viewpoints. My interlocutors would frequently say, “We at [organization’s name] engage in …,” but would not personify the organization itself as doing something. While an individual’s situated speech can become “devoiced” as an expert opinion (as shown by Summerson 2010: 25, drawing on Mehan 1996), it is not the organization that is speaking on the individual’s behalf. Rather, it is still the individual who is now speaking as an expert, thus, as a member of a group, as a carrier of expertise itself. However, they do so from opposite ends of the practitioner–scholar dilemma—something they are aware of and frequently reflect on. Coming back to Gramsci’s differentiation between senso comune and buon senso, I argue that the practitioners have embraced the conservative part of common sense, which focuses on the state as a necessary aspect they have to factor in rather than work against. Their petitioning, appealing, litigating, awareness-raising, and pressuring are aimed at integrating stateless persons and groups into existing nation-states. They are aware that, logically as well as practically, it is this very institution of the state that allows statelessness to exist in the first place, and they know that the majority of stateless people are made stateless by states, which is as true today as it was in colonial times. Nevertheless, the practitioners’ practices sustain the theoretical concept of the state precisely because statelessness is regarded as an anomaly that should not exist in the first place. They thereby naturalize the state and do not question or challenge its existence, and only highlight its inadequacies. This contrasts sharply with the very task the scholars have set for themselves: they dare to be idealistic—revolutionary, even—when they cry out, “We should all be stateless!” They have embraced what Gramsci termed buon senso in that they imagine—in their scholarly writing as much as in their public presentations during these events—a world without states, where “noncitizenism” (Bloom 2018) would be the new norm(al). Or at least it would be a “normal” in which the category of citizenship gets scrutinized and treated as the problem rather than as a solution to statelessness (see Bloom and Kensington 2021; Cole 2017).
It is important to emphasize that both camps want to change the current status quo. They all want to change a de facto existing political problem from an informed position. None of them wants to withdraw into the ivory tower or, conversely, to focus exclusively on action to the complete neglect of thinking. But, both camps have voiced a feeling of being “stuck” or dissatisfied—the practitioners because no satisfactory solution ever seems to materialize, the scholars because the revolution never seems to come. Simone Anderson’s “interrelationships between theory and practice” were often mentioned in the fora I attended, but rarely productively discussed, let alone successfully achieved. Rita Vermont took the first step at addressing the practitioner–scholar dilemma head-on during the London conference when she said:
There has been a lot of progress in protecting people’s rights as stateless. If we go into philosophical questions of going beyond the nation-state, I want to hear practical solutions: How do we envision a world beyond nation-states? How do we vote, for example? (Rita Vermont 2018)
Another member in the audience challenged the four panelists:
The answer cannot be to abolish the nation-state because the only place where people can come together and exert democratic rights is within the state. We can’t renounce that and give it up to a few international courts. We have to create universal solidarity among the people within a state. (Unknown woman 2018)
These are pertinent questions and relevant objections that draw attention to the crucial role the state plays, independent of where my interlocutors stand as expert activists. Their practitioner–scholar dilemma is, I suggest, more than a manifestation of different emic understandings of practice and theory and how the two are related. Following Gramsci, one could argue that the two different aspects of common sense cancel each other out, resulting in neither of the camps achieving an upper hand. While wanting to help the stateless because they are “suffering” individuals or by perceiving them collectively as an alternative model of sociality, my interlocutors avoid another difficult discussion that must be had among themselves, a discussion not only about how theory and practice actually relate to one another, but about the fact that most of them speak from a standpoint that is different from that of the people they are advocating for or writing about. They separate their kind of knowledge into more “applied” or more “academic” because in neither case is it “first-hand” knowledge. In fact, they go to great lengths to clarify that they do not “speak for” the stateless; they are thus themselves acutely aware of their own “lack” in this regard—they themselves are not stateless. As such, neither “practitioners” nor “scholars” fit the criteria of Gramscian organic intellectuals, who are always members of the social group that they represent. This is not an issue that can be “fixed” by altering one’s standpoint, even though it is crucial to take approaches from critical migration studies and feminist standpoint epistemology into account when it comes to researching statelessness. Gramsci is helpful in understanding statelessness in Europe (and elsewhere) because his concepts alert us to the structural constraints the state imposes on us even when expert activists are actively trying to transcend them.