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Getting the measure of contentious politics and change in Iran

Getting the measure of contentious politics and change in Iran

Spotlight on Research speaks to Dr Paola Rivetti, Assistant Professor at DCU School of Law and Government and Chair of the MA in International Relations. Dr Rivetti was awarded the DCU President's Early-Career Award for Excellence in Research this week.

Congratulations, you have received two major awards in the last two months: the DCU President's Early-Career Award for Excellence in Research and Irish Research Council Early-Career Researcher of the Year. How does that feel?

“It is a great recognition and acknowledgement of my work but while these awards are given to individuals, they are very much a communal achievement.

The research would not be possible without the support of my colleagues in DCU, the IRC, the people I work with when I do fieldwork, and without my undergrad, postgrad and doctoral students who challenge me with difficult questions.

These awards go well beyond myself.”

What is your research about?

“I work on contentious politics in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Iran.

I am interested in how the relationship between the state and society changes the state’s structure. Contention might centre on human rights or workers’ rights and more broadly speaking social justice, and I’m interested in how - and if - this initiate political changes.”

How do you collect your data?

“In different ways. I interview people and I observe and listen to what people are sharing.

I also look at online communications on websites and in newspapers for background understanding and to see how the state reacts to societal pressure.”

What kinds of changes are taking place?

“One example has to do with the recent peaceful protests in Iran, in December 2017-January 2018.

They were heavily repressed by the security forces, but the government adopted a softer approach, declaring that the people have the right to protest and criticise the state.

This is the result of many decades of pressure coming ‘from below’. Sometimes, even in authoritarian countries, contention between society and the state causes the state to rethink and reflect on itself.

Sometimes this translates into the willingness to adopt a more democratic attitude, sometimes, on the contrary, this translates into the securitisation of the public space. It depends on broader dynamics too.”

Has your approach to the research changed over the years?

“Yes, the scope of my research has become more holistic. When I started, I focused on a single social movement of university students in Iran, which is an important political movement.

But every day I was hearing new and interesting things and I moved from a single case study to more holistic topic of political participation and contentious politics.

I also broadened my methodology. I stopped approaching activists trying to distil from them some important reflection on democracy and contentious politics and I started to look at how they ‘did’ politics in everyday life.

That led me to a more inclusive approach and looking to give a meaning to what they were saying. It’s not always easy. I am not Iranian and I am not totally familiar with the culture and history, so I have had to work out a lot.”

What kind of impact is your research having?

“I think it is difficult for a piece of research to have an impact on people’s lives in terms of transforming the environment they are in, but I work a lot with the people I meet.

I build strong connections with them as they significantly contribute to the research.

I think that can have an impact on the way they look at big political questions in their life.

In terms of policy making, I noticed that the role of academics has shrunk in the past decade.

I remember 10 years ago when I started, I could see colleagues more experienced than I was having a direct channel of communication with policy makers.

Today, that channel has been severed because of the very complex situation on the ground, with several wars going on and powerful elected leaders who have strong, not very wise and even ill-informed views about the region.

This makes it much more difficult for academics to interact with policy makers in a way that could lead to impact.”

How did you come to Ireland?

“I did my MA and PhD in Italy, I am 100% a product of the Italian higher education system.

But after my PhD I wanted to leave Italy. It was hard, my generation of researchers really had no option other than to emigrate. I had a number of temporary teaching contracts in Italy and struggled to find a more solid position.

Then I met Francesco Cavatorta, a former DCU senior lecturer who asked me to work on a book chapter with him.

He invited me to DCU to do a presentation and then he suggested to me to apply for an Irish Research Council post-doctoral fellowship. So in 2011 I came to Ireland and in 2013, DCU hired me as a lecturer.

I consider myself very lucky.”

What do you think you would like to do if you were not a researcher?

“I think I would open a bed and breakfast in the Italian countryside and have a couple of horses and grow my own vegetables. Tuscany would be nice.”

16th February, 2018