© IWM HTF-2006-007-091

Primary Investigators: Dr Sara de Jong (Department of Politics and International Relations) Mid-Career Research Fellowship

Funder: The British Academy

Project Duration: September 2022 - August 2023 

Rarely recognised as key political actors, brokers are often the lynchpin of social and political relations. Who facilitates the meeting between a military intelligence officer from Kentucky tasked with winning the hearts and minds of Afghan tribal leaders? Who helps a refugee settlement agency adjust their drop-in advice service in a culturally sensitive way after the director realises that only male refugees attend? How is a restrictive migration regime justified to newly arrived asylum seekers by a refugee case worker who also once struggled with having to start from zero again? And how is a violent escalation avoided between a nervous, swearing soldier and a fearful head of the family whose house is searched in Iraq? This research project provides insight into the role of such boundary-crossers, occupying political frontiers and middle grounds.

In an interconnected yet divided world, where ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories are invoked in politics and media, actors who bridge life worlds are central but under-researched political actors. This project shifts attention to spaces of encounter and centres the role of brokers mediating and gatekeeping between communities separated by cultural, social and political boundaries. It draws together different disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, language and development studies, to develop a novel conceptual framework on brokerage.

The work is grounded in two earlier case studies in the areas of conflict and migration,which focussed on

a) local Afghan interpreters working for Western armies;

b) refugee case workers for European migrant NGOs.

The protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the divisive ideologies underpinning the War on Terror, have created deep global fault lines. In response to the so-called refugee crisis affecting Europe, we have witnessed a hardening of social, cultural, religious and political divides. While mapping these widening cleavages is important, this research suggests that it is at least equally necessary to recognise that within these divisive and fraught spaces, some actors play a key role in navigating across those divides. By focussing on brokers, it moves the analysis beyond either top-down or bottom-up politics.

By drawing on the data of two case studies, this research project seeks to show that brokers can best be characterised as powerful yet precarious actors.They are marked on the one hand by social mobility and political power, and on the other hand by accusations of treachery and marginalisation. Through in-depth interviews with military interpreters and refugee case workers, it enables people to speak who have been crucial for communication but whose own words are rarely listened to. It also identifies the costs of brokerage and the re-entrenchment of boundaries by brokers who become gatekeepers. Redirecting the focus to brokering agents and their role in structures of governance sheds new light on the everyday negotiations in the spaces of encounter opened up by global political processes and offers a new vantage point to analyse migration and war.

This research presents not only a new academic research agenda in global politics by focussing on the effects and power of brokerage, but also offers insight into the timely topic of Afghan interpreters working for Western militaries, which will be of considerable interest to both policymakers and the general public.