I’m currently a principal investigator for two major research projects: a project on amenities in rapidly growing cities, and an H2020 project on the computational analysis of political and cultural conflict. While their thematic foci and methods are different, both projects reflect my long-standing commitment to use relational sociology for understanding conflict and cooperation in historical and comparative perspective.

Between collectivization and enclosure: self-organization and state formation in rapidly growing cities

Many cities in the global South are expanding rapidly, creating pressures on land and fueling conflicts over resources. The growing numbers of urbanites need access to basic provisions like clean water, sewerage, roads, public space, and electricity but governments are strapped for funds and often refuse to attend to the needs of deprived residents in informal settlements. As a result, cities expand much faster than state provisions. This project studies what happens under these conditions. How do residents of rapidly expanding cities succeed or fail to create and access amenities when they can neither count on the state nor on the market? How do residents cooperate and compete as they set up amenities? And how do their practices of self-organization challenge or support state institutions?

The project develops a sociological and geographical approach to examine how people connect or disconnect in the process of setting up and governing amenities. As edifices of collective action, amenities – from plots of bare land used as football pitches to elaborate educational systems – bind people together but also pull them apart: in setting up amenities, collectivities organize and define themselves while erecting barriers to outsiders. To study these dynamics, the project draws on work by Bram de Swaan and Elinor Ostrom, among others. Through literature reviews and case studies of Accra (Ghana) and Istanbul (Turkey), this project charts and explains the uneven development of amenities.

So far I’ve been working with Joris Tieleman, a PhD-candidate at Erasmus University, on Accra’s expansion. In October 2018, I’ll advertise two positions for PhD-students and one for a post-doc.

The project is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Reserach (NWO) through a VIDI grant and runs from 2018 until 2023.

ODYCCEUS: examining cultural and political conflict

This H2020 project brings together scholars from the exact sciences, social sciences, and humanities to develop theories, models, and methods to better understand political and cultural conflict. The project is directed by Eckehard Olbrich of the Max Planck Institute for mathematics in Leipzig and includes partners from Belgium, France, Sweden, Italy, and Germany; see the project website for more information. Within the scope of ODYCCEUS, I’m supervising two PhD-projects together with Petter Tornberg:

  • Livia Teernstra examines political coalitions and divides in 23 countries by applying network analysis to Twitter data. We use newly available data and techniques to revisit long-standing questions on differences in national political cultures. Preliminary findings, reported in this working paper, show that patterns of conflict and cooperation differ significantly between countries and change over time.
  • Anna Keuchenius studies how communities of scholars mediate the diffusion of Granovetter’s hypothesis on the strength of weak ties; preliminary findings are reported in this working paper. This case study is interesting in itself but we also think of it as a model for how to use computational and interpretive methods to examine how theories and beliefs change as they are adopted and adapted by different communities.

Also within the framework of ODYCCEUS, and continuing work of the Cultural Conflict 2.0 project, I’m working with John Boy to study how social media are reshaping social relations within cities. In opposition to commentators who view social media as platforms for opinion exchange, we are developing the hypothesis that they are, first and foremost, stages for the expression and affirmation of status. Using both computational and interpretative methods of inquiry, we seek to illuminate how social media serve to consolidate or contest social hierarchies. Some of our work came out in PLoS ONE, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, and the Nordic Journal of Religion and Society.