Interview with Thomas McGee

1st Jun 2022 12:00 - 30th Jun 2022 12:00

1. How did you end up in the academy?

In 2009, I moved to Syria and was living there until the intensification of conflict in late 2011 made it necessary to leave. Thereafter, I did a Masters in Kurdish Studies and then worked with international and Syrian humanitarian organisations, both operating in Syria and in neighbouring countries. While involved in this work, I was conducting research on various topics (displacement, rights violations etc) as a bit of a side project … for about a decade. Eventually, I felt it was time to make research my priority and took up a PhD at the University of Melbourne focused on statelessness in Syria.

2. Where do you situate your scholarship?

Within my PhD, I deal with how legal and bureaucratic frameworks impact their subjects (as well as subjects deemed to be outside these frameworks). As a non-lawyer working in a Law School, I seek to bring social sciences approaches into the study of law. I therefore locate my scholarship around the intersections between law, sociology and anthropology. More specifically, I identify with an emerging movement of scholars looking to introduce new methodologies and approaches to the study of statelessness. To this effect, a colleague and I have established the CriticalStatelessness Studies blog as a venue for discussion of new directions in the field. I feel very lucky that my centre (within the Law School) has been so supportive in promoting interdisciplinary approaches to the study of legal issues, as this is not always the case elsewhere. 

3. Which thinkers have had the biggest impact on your work? 

In broad terms, the works of Foucault and Bourdieu have influenced my study of systems of power and order, and the impacts these have on affected subjects. Alongside that, I have found that Liisa Malkki’s work on refugee identity and positionality provides useful parallels when considering the experiences of stateless people. Most recently, I am exploring thinkers – largely within social geography – who utilise the concept of thematic “landscapes” as a construct to understand the complex and enmeshed legislative, institutional and bureaucratic architectures and practices that produce statelessness and determine its meaning in context

4. What methods do you use? 

As mentioned above, my work draws on inter-disciplinary approaches and employs quite mixed methods. In fact, different chapters of my PhD foreground quite different approaches. In some, I rely more on close reading of legal texts and case law analysis, while elsewhere I focus more on ethnographic approaches and participant observation within activist movements calling for change on the issue of statelessness. I find that this mixed methods approach enables me to cover the various dimensions of Syria’s changing statelessness landscape, though it can sometimes be challenging to draw these different strands of data together into a coherent argument.

5. Why did you want to join SEPAD? 

I have been aware of SEPAD and its work for some time, and had followed its events from a distance. Through participating in the “Citizenship, Sectarianism and Belonging” at the end of last year, I was able to interact more directly with the SEPAD community. Being based in the Law School at the University of Melbourne (albeit remotely), I have had strong engagement with those working in the legal (and more specifically statelessness) sector. However, I have long felt that I could benefit from greater academic exchange with scholars focusing specifically on the MENA region. I therefore hope that joining SEPAD will facilitate this. I’m also currently based in Manchester so hope that I might be able to connect with some of the SEPAD community in Lancaster, given how valuable face-to-face interactions are these days after multiple lockdowns.  

6. What is your workshop on? 

The workshop that I am working on putting together is on “Statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa: Emerging Movements for Change.” Coinciding with the recent emergence of a MENA Statelessness Network working to advance advocacy and research, the workshop seeks to showcase the movements actively working for change across the region. Beyond simply describing instances of statelessness in the region, contributors are encouraged to focus reflections on the obstacles faced, and emerging opportunities, in advocating for change on the issue. Participation from researchers with lived experience of statelessness are particularly welcome.

7. What is your favourite novel? 

A novel that had a big impact on me is “La Dernière Impression” (Last Impression) by the relatively little-known Algerian author Malek Haddad. His work highlights the impacts of everyday alienation produced as a result of colonial legacies. For me, the novel is very powerful as it mirrors the life of its author who eventually gave up writing altogether due to the discomfort of working through the language of the coloniser. The book also prompted me to reflect on various important questions as a Western researcher working on the Middle East.