Key Contributions & Summary

Abstract (French/English)


Ce travail s’inscrit dans une démarche scientifique exploratoire qui cherche à examiner et redéfinir les contours et le contenu de ce qui aura jusqu’ici été théorisé comme un État moderne Wébérien, y compris dans les contextes postcoloniaux où la gouvernance d’État est fréquemment décrite en sciences politiques comme en RI, en termes de faillite ou de fragilité. Afin d’interroger le prémisses intellectuels et conceptuels de cette notion hégémonique qu’est devenu ‘l’Etat en faillite’ sur la scène internationale, ce manuscrit développe une approche théorique et méthodologiquerelationnelledes processus (historiques) de formation de l’Etat à travers la notion ‘d’Etat comme écosystème’. Localisé dans trois milieux urbains de la République démocratique du Congo (RDC) – Kinshasa, Lubumbashi et Goma – cet écosystème de gouvernance étatique se compose schématiquement de trois éléments analytiques constitutifs : de pratiques socio-matérielles, de systèmes de signifiance collectifs, et de traces historiques. Une fois conjugués, ces éléments produisent ce que Mitchell (1991) nomma des ‘state effects’, dont trois d’entre eux sont détaillés dans ce travail : de manière ambiguë et contestée, mais profondément ancrée dans la société ‘locale’ et ‘globale’, un État à la fois 1) anxieux, 2) distancié et 3) humanisé est re-produit et re-légitimé en RDC. Fondée sur une approche ethnographique de terrain, la recherche de documents d’archiveset la (co)production de matériel photographique, l’analyse de cet écosystème – à la fois stable et mobile, fragile et résilient – présentée ici propose de théoriser les processus au travers desquels les relations entre lieux, espaces, individus, objets et temporalités participent à la régénération violente, discrète mais continue de l’État, sous ses formes à la fois performatives et idéelles.

This thesis studies the ‘postcolonial African state’ still generally seen through the lens of state weakness within IR. Employing a relational approach to studying state-society relations in urban Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I argue ‘the state’ continues to be re-produced and re-legitimized through a set of diffuse yet pervasive socio-material practices, systems of significance and historical traces. These three elements are constitutive of an analytical concept I term the ‘state ecosystem.’ The state ecosystem is a device through which to explore the emergence and societal solidification of the imaginary of the ‘state.’ It does so by tracing out how objects, times, spaces, and humans are composed together in their quotidian interactions to produce numerous ‘effects’ (in the case of the DRC: state distantiation, state humanization, and state anxieties) that define the fluid contents of what a state constitutes at any particular moment in time. In the case of the DRC, unpacking these ‘effects’ (Mitchell 1991) provides a different lens on its contemporary political and social situation. Rather than seeing the DRC as fundamentally ‘failed,’ a state ecosystem perspective allows us to uncover ambivalent yet striking instances of negotiation, accommodation, perseverance, and – ultimately – ‘progression’ in its trajectories. More broadly, a state ecosystem perspective thus provides a conceptual framework through which to reposition the figure of the postcolonial state as part of a global social and political system that is fundamentally intertwined in its evolution. Rather than relying solely on ‘western-centric’ concepts of what the state ‘should be,’ this thesis lays out what the state is, in one particular context, and provides a framework applicable to multiple other contexts.

Key Contributions (Edited and published by The Graduate Institute, Geneva)



The “postcolonial African state” is still generally seen through the lens of state failure and fragility within International Relations. In her PhD thesis, Stéphanie Perazzone presents alternative narratives. Building on several months of fieldwork in urban DR Congo, she argues that “the state” in the Congo and elsewhere is a broad, multilayered ecosystem, in which patterns of state formation remain surprisingly strong precisely as “the state” continues to be institutionally weakened, conceptually ambiguous, and always contested. More details with Dr Perazzone on “Congo: A State Ecosystem”.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

As a child I grew up in Kinshasa, the capital-city of the DRC. My family had been there for decades, and the history of colonialism and the place of privilege I come from always played a role in how pressing it felt that research be conducted in different ways so that we can contribute to producing alternative narratives about the lives, struggles and politics of those who live in places like the Congo. Always connected to a “Heart of Darkness” through the tropes of barbarism and reified readings of its cultural contributions and political and historical dynamics, the postcolonial African worlds, and the DR Congo in particular, are still “stuck” between lingering Afropessimism and over-optimistic (and fallacious) discourses of “emergence”. Precisely because issues of poverty, conflict and political order in postcolonial Africa often revolve around the issue of “the state” – and, in general, its failures and fragilities – I endeavoured to deconstruct and reconstruct what state-society relations look like and what governing might mean, not merely from various theoretical standpoints across academia, but through the real-worldexperiences of those who continue to make and unmake the state at an ordinary, everyday level.

What did this deconstruction-reconstruction lead to?

While developing my methodological approach throughout the process of writing the dissertation, I tended to three interrelated aspects of politics: (1) the mundane practices of my informants as performed on a daily basis from the early hours of dawn to night time; (2) the contemporary manners of “ordinary” and banalised violence – from the violence inherent to survival to that of state officials and policies on a quotidian level; and (3) the potential colonial “debris” (see Stoler’s “Imperial Debris”) that may be reactivated within the former two. These empirical observations can be lumped into three key dimensions of the broader theoretical inference I termed a “state ecosystem”: the socio-material practices, systems of significance and historical traces that emerge from the routinised interactions between and among ordinary citizens and street-level bureaucrats. The first one, socio-material practices, entails what people simply do “on the ground” and what/how objects mediate these doings; the second, systems of significance, involves dynamics of intersubjective sense-making through discourses, norms and ideas; and the last, historical traces, is collected via archival research and sees history not as something fixated on the past, but as individual and collective memories activated into the present, within the contemporary practices and sense-making activities documented through fieldwork.

These three components evolve in a consistent “back-and-forth” relationship, and the microprocesses and dynamics (retrieved from fieldwork) that compose them produce in turn much broader “state effects”. Based on the works of social scientists such as Timothy Mitchell, Michel Foucault, Manuel DeLanda and Bruno Latour, this thesis – with these three constitutive dimensions – carries two main academic contributions: (1) it hopes to transcend the traditional micro- versus macro-levels of analysis in international political inquiry by elaborating on a relational approach to the state; and (2) the “state ecosystem” allows for the systematic integration of the contextual and historical specificities of the society in which it is empirically embedded, and offers a generalisable framework to be potentially applied anywhere for the purpose of presenting further comparative perspectives on processes of state formation. This could be done, for instance, in countries like Switzerland, Ghana or China, where the researcher may, in a similar methodological fashion, document and analyse the broader effects of the socio-material practices, systems of significance and historical traces enacted within the daily relationships between Swiss, Ghanaian or Chinese ordinary citizens and low-level civil servants.

In less conceptual terms, my analysis of the socio-material practices, systems of significance and historical traces in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma demonstrated, first, how “the state” is continuously generated – albeit sometimes in violent forms – in both its performative and ideational dimensions. Field data, secondary sources such as mémoires and history books, and archival research show how colonial durabilities generate contemporary patterns of state anxieties(including violence and fragilities) entrenched in the modes of governance of Belgian Congo, therefore unravelling the ideas conveyed through discourses of state failure that a functioning, strong state ever existed. Second, the practices and intersubjective meanings observed during fieldwork suggest that adherence to formal bureaucratic procedures and objects, or “officialism” – even in its most absurd and exaggerated guises – does not merely conceal widespread recourse to informal practices for good measure, but produces in fact a strong re-creation of distanciation between the state and society. Finally, and ambiguously, the same data reveals microdynamics of mediation by which state agents and citizens aim to fix routine administrative issues, intercommunal and family quarrels, or property disputes, promoting thereby pacific coexistence and a sense of belonging to the broader Congolese community as active, responsible citizens who not only have a voice, but make use of it: this broader outcome of mediation, or “problem-solving” activities, is what I termed state intimisation.

The main analytical take of this all lies within the fact that “the state” should be questioned epistemologically and ontologically so that we can understand and conceptualise its content and contours as ambiguous phenomena that constantly emerge through and from societies and history. This, in turn, allows for a better grasp of the various sites where it is simultaneously contested and adhered to, transformed and stabilised.

Can you give an example of the policy relevance of your thesis?

The international community is spending millions in materials, logistics and human resources to conceptualise and implement interventionist schemes – both in the shape of development and military interference – and has been, as a result, heavily criticised for misrepresenting, and at time even damaging, the agency, voices and experiences of those it has aimed to supposedly “fix”. Repopulating intervention and, in general, global politics with the real-life practices and narratives of subaltern voices may assist civil society actors, policymakers and international organisations in discriminating between the socio-political arenas showing inclusionary governance and provision of collective goods (state intimatisation) and those showing exclusionary governance and provision (state anxieties and distanciation). This may help avoid the risk of weakening or antagonising peaceful and collaborative social interactions in environments prone to societal and/or armed conflict through ill-devised international development and military policies, In addition, and most importantly, this may offer a political space for peoples – whose lives and experiences are traditionally regarded as unimportant in international relations – to reclaim their right to membership in, as Ferguson rightly pointed out, “a spectacularly unequal global society”.

Stéphanie Perazzone defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science on 19 September 2018. Associate Professor Annabelle Littoz-Monnetpresided the committee, which included Professor Keith Krause and Professor Riccardo Bocco, thesis co-directors, and Professor Dennis Rodgers, who was then Professor at the University of Amsterdam and has recently joined the Graduate Institute.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Perazzone, Stéphanie. “Congo: A State Ecosystem.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2018.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office
Front picture: Neighbourhood Chief, Kinshasa. © Stéphanie Perazzone 2015.


Originally published on the Graduate Institute, Geneva website.