Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal

I am proposing to research the causes of humanitarian intervention because I would like to find out why states and/or international organizations pursue (or do not pursue) military intervention in response to humanitarian crises, in order to help my reader better understand why some humanitarian crises result in military intervention while others do not.

Initially, the observation that not all humanitarian crises result/resulted in military intervention seemed to me a curious occurrence. Notably, the distinction of military intervention is an important one. Some humanitarian crises have provoked a variety of responses ranging from standard naming and shaming to economic sanctions and embargoes to unilateral military intervention and United Nations peacekeeping operations. To make this question more manageable, I have sought to focus on only military interventions (including those that are unilateral or those that involve coalitions or UN peacekeeping). Among these responses, it is interesting to notice how some humanitarian crises, despite receiving massive media attention, have only resulted in naming and shaming. Why is that so? Implicit in that question is why there hasn’t been a greater response, including military intervention. Therefore, the question also begs: what level of severity corresponds to (or at least legally warrants) greater action?

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty or the (ICISS) labels this concept the “Just Cause” threshold.[1][i]The 2001 report’s “Responsibility to Protect” (ratified by UN member states in 2005) discusses states’ obligation to protect the human rights of individuals in other states. This responsibility includes three pillars with the first being the responsibility of host states to protect and respect their citizens’ human rights and the second involving the obligation of the international community to assist those states in fulfilling their responsibilities should they be unable to meet them (an example could be delivering aid to a state that cannot meet the first pillar on its own).[2][ii]The third pillar, and perhaps most controversial, includes the Responsibility to React which involves the previously mentioned ways of intervening, which also list militarily as a last resort.[3][iii]This of course is a very concise summary of the most relevant dimensions of the Responsibility to Protect to the research question, though the report mentions other responsibilities “to prevent” and to “rebuild”.[4][iv]The third pillar, in assessing how to react, must refer to the Just Cause Threshold to determine the appropriate course of action proportionate to the severity and persistence of human suffering and the host states’ responsiveness to the international community and its own obligations to uphold human rights.[5][v]The “puzzle” in this question is not whether or not the international community has these thresholds/guidelines for action (however perfect or imperfect they may be) but why there has been such a variation in responses to different crises and by different states to the same crises (which could be said pre- and post-ratification of R2P). The question is not one regarding the existence or non-existence of international legal architecture, but one problematizing actor behavior in reaction to acute humanitarian crises. Additionally, considering the fact that despite the overall decline in number of interventions (by major and non-major powers) from during and after the Cold War (1945-1989 versus to 2005), there is also a puzzling increase in number of interventions by International Organizations, the causes of humanitarian intervention are not so easily answered.[6][vi]International organizations went from accounting for 57 interventions or (a mere 8.3%) to 87 interventions, which is an astounding increase to 20.5% of all interventions from 1989-2005[7][vii]. One must note, however, that these figures supplied by the source does not distinguish between humanitarian and non-humanitarian interventions. Still, this is even more puzzling when one attempts to speculate reasons behind such an increase. If one is lead to believe that the end of the Cold War meant less need to intervene by the US and the USSR/Russia in proxy wars, this may well explain the overall decline in interventions but not the subsequent increase by those initiated by international organizations. An unsubstantiated speculation could be an evolution of humanitarian intervention norms, but it is only that – speculation. This why studying the reasons states/international organizations intervene is ever more pressing and puzzling. Not only is the “puzzle” of extreme significance (as it concerns both theoretical concepts of peace/war and human rights as well as and material consequences on international peace and security), it is also one that is hotly contested by scholars.

The common assertion among realists is that the pursuit of humanitarian intervention (or any intervention for that matter), is an act solely meant to advance self-interest. While this may be a popular belief among human rights skeptics and anti-imperialists alike, it does not carry well into research. Seldom do complex social processes lend themselves to such reductive truisms. While interest and realities of cost/outcome may factor in to constrain the likelihood of an actor’s desire to intervene in humanitarian crises, scholars like Bellamy and Negrón-Gonzales point to social norms as playing a primary, if not central, factor in this calculus.[8]For instance, Bellamy observes the change in humanitarian intervention norms in Darfur as they have evolved since the US’ intervention in Iraq. He looks at how the status of the United States and the United Kingdom as “norm-carriers” has been diminished and how the language of R2P is more present in Darfur.[9]Importantly, Bellamy’s reference to norms is critical because the very way in which R2P was invoked suggests that this the phenomenon of intervention extends beyond straight-forward considerations of interests. Bellamy illustrates how states used the language of R2P’s Just Cause Threshold to argue in support and against intervention by arguing that the responsibility to protect has or has not been transferred form the host state to the international community; an interesting development that at times has been at odds with even states’ own stances on the issue (ie: the US was in favor of intervention but was against the transfer of the R2P from Sudan to the UNSC which would legitimate intervention).[10]Negrón-Gonzales builds on this by observing how states responded to the very norm of R2P in various ways ranging from of rejection, hard/soft feedback, and endorsement in the UNSC (without neglecting to observe how both high and low-salience states reacted by looking at how their interests in Libya and/or Syria informed their decisions vis-à-vis norm response).[11]Curiously, Binder broadens the scope from norm-actor interactions to looks at causal paths/processes using “fs/QCA to compare the SC’s response to more than 30 major humanitarian crises after the Cold War”, identifying the “testable explanatory conditions… [as] (1) the extent of a humanitarian crisis (2) the level of international media attention (3) the strength of spillover effect (4) the strength of countervailing power, and (5) the level of previous institutional involvement in the crisis.[12]While Binder looks considers “sunk costs” and path-dependence in service of the final variable, this study’s analysis is neither exclusively within the domain of rational/cognitive decision-making variables nor does it neglect/over-emphasize the role of norms or interest.[13]The sheer variety of ways scholars have approached this question, as well as the elusiveness of a single conclusion enjoying consensus, attest to its puzzling nature.

Finally, I will discuss my second question concisely. Bellamy observes how the US – despite the presence of legal legitimations of self-defense pursuant to Chapter VII, Article 51 of the UN Charter – “felt obliged to argue that Operation Enduring Freedom would improve humanitarian conditions inside Afghanistan”.[14]US Secretary of Defense Rumsfield’s, referring to the intervention in Afghanistan, reiterated this, saying, “that the Taliban and the al Qaeda made a practice of doing harm and repressing the Afghan people. The Afghan people were starved in some measure because the Taliban and al Qaeda stole humanitarian food aid and kept it from them” and that “[e]ven before September 11th, the united States had been the larger [sic] donor of food aid to the Afghan people…”.[15]As such my second asks why the United States used moral/normative justifications of humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan despite the existing of legally legitimate framings invoking self-defense.

Again, my questions are:

Why do states and/or international organizations pursue military intervention in response to humanitarian crises?

Why did the United States use moral/normative justifications of humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan despite the existing of legally legitimate framings invoking self-defense?

Another possible question could also be: What explains the substantial increase in number of interventions initiated by international organizations after the Cold War despite the massive decrease in overall number of interventions initiated by major and non-major powers?

[1]International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. “The Responsibility to Protect.” Responsibility to Protect, 1–87.

[2]“About R2P.” 2019. About R2P: Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Accessed September 27.

[3]International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. “The Responsibility to React.” Responsibility to Protect, 29-35.

[4]Ibid19, 39.


[6]Pickering, Jeffrey, and Emizet F. Kisangani. 2009. “The International Military Intervention Dataset: An Updated Resource for Conflict Scholars.” Journal of Peace Research 46 (4): 597.


[8]Bellamy, Alex J. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq.” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 31–54. Negrón-Gonzales, Melinda, and Michael Contarino. “Local Norms Matter: Understanding National Responses to the Responsibility to Protect.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations20, no. 2 (2014): 255–76.

[9]Bellamy, Alex J. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq.” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 32.

[10]Ibid 46-47.

[11]Negrón-Gonzales, Melinda, and Michael Contarino. “Local Norms Matter: Understanding National Responses to the Responsibility to Protect.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations20, no. 2 (2014): 262.

[12]Binder, Martin. 2015. “Paths to Intervention.” Journal of Peace Research52 (6): 724, 716. doi:10.1177/0022343315585847.

[13]Ibid 715.

[14]Charter of the United Nations, Chapter VII Article 51.

Bellamy, Alex J. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq.” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 37.

[15]Federal News Service. 2019. United States Department of Defense. Accessed September 30.

This also in turn reflects the sentiments in Mutua, Makau W. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal42, no. 1 (2001): 201–45. It would be interesting to synthesize how Mutua’s SVS metaphor operates within a case, for instance.

Research Portfolio Post #4: Article Comparison

Both neo-positivist sources are situated within the same conceptual grouping analyzing social norms as the primary factor in intervention, though both acknowledge that norms interact with interests/strategic concerns. Even in considering this however, these sources do not apply cognitive/decision-making lenses on intervention, but rather concentrate mostly on social norms. Both sources also look at the Right to Protect in similar and complimentary ways. Bellamy observes through small-n cases the salience and appropriations of R2P as a norm and observes the role/status of norm-carriers like the US and UK.[1] Bellamy interestingly notes the states’ need to invoke established normative framings of human rights to justify even legal wars. The most important contribution from this source extends beyond its observation of the diminishing status norm-carriers and highlights the subjectivity of the threshold for transfer of the R2P from the host state to the international community as well as the observation of the contradictory invocations of R2P to argue in support and against intervention. Negrón-Gonzales and Contarino’s article expands on this by acknowledging the diversity of ways states engage with the norm through different types of “feedback”. The sources’ methodology “summaries governmental positions on R2P, as expressed at 2012 UN Interactive Dialogue on R2P and in a few other UN discussions as well as the voting of Security Council members during the Libyan and Syrian crises” which is then used to articulate states’ postures vis-à-vis the R2P norm into either “rejection”, “hard feedback”, “soft feedback”, and “endorsement”.[3] The point of the source is to understand the relationship between state’s interests and international norms by looking at how those most affected by the norm (high-salience states) respond versus those that are low-salience.

I use the readings for key theories/definitions within the same school of thought of social norms and for insights into the logic of case selection/size for my research. Though both case-sizes mostly retain the same ontological assumptions, they produce different data types whereby large-n illustrates generalized patterns of probabilistic/causal inference and small-n allows for greater scrutiny of the necessary and sufficient conditions of variables and their elaboration/explanations. These sources prompt the study of feedback to norms, but topically consider cognitive/decision-making lenses – a possible site for exploration in my research. This literatures also informs my understanding of the conversation and provokes further questions concerning how states seek to mobilize/diffuse norms of intervention besides investigating norms as one of other explanatory variables behind intervention decisions.

[1] Bellamy, Alex J. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq.” Ethics & International Affairs19, no. 2 (2005): 31–54.

[2] Negrón-Gonzales, Melinda, and Michael Contarino. “Local Norms Matter: Understanding National Responses to the Responsibility to Protect.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations20, no. 2 (2014): 255–76.

[3] Negrón-Gonzales, Melinda, and Michael Contarino. “Local Norms Matter: Understanding National Responses to the Responsibility to Protect.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations20, no. 2 (2014): 261.

Research Portfolio Post #3: Philosophical Wagers

Ontology concerns the reality of the world. Before considering the means with which we know, or the ends to which we apply our thinking, we must first decide what reality and being are. For instance, our ontological assumptions about the state of the social and natural worlds necessarily influence how we approach them. If as objectivists we are to believe that the social world is similar to the natural world in that it is governed by universal laws that operate regardless of whether or not we have discovered them, then we are likely to believe that the social world can be measured and that the “footprint” of the researcher is minimal as meaning exists external to the human actor. In this sense, our ontological assumptions motivate us – or perhaps even permit us – to seek transcendental positivist knowledge with the intention to predict. If on the other hand, we depart from a constructivist ontology (of which I find myself persuaded), we would consider ourselves to be thoroughly embedded in and inseparable from our research as actors and producers of meaning.[1] Because of our own role in the study of and creation of meaning, the very role of the researcher is not that of an objective observer but that of an active manufacturer and consumer of meaning. Schwartz-Shea and Yanow put this quite succinctly when stating that “In interpretive research, human beings are understood not as objects, but as agents”.[2] This, of course, includes the researcher. Thus, the researcher’s ontological assumptions impose themselves on what she or he would consider valid knowledge. While an objectivist would think social processes and conditions such as poverty or war operate according to particular “laws” and would therefore seek to measure and predict these phenomena on a universal scale, the constructivist scholar would argue that our understandings of things such as poverty and war are contextually-dependent and informed by different discourses. Instead of seeking to predict things such as war, the constructivist would opt for the study of specific grammars/structures of meaning that define what war/poverty is and how it is understood by a group of people in a specific space and time. Though both neo-positivists (largely composed of objectivists) and interpretivists (consisting mostly of constructivists) can study “issues” or “topics” ranging from war, poverty, marriage, women’s rights, etc., their respective assumptions color the methodology or research decisions to be made. The type and purpose of knowledge generated, as well as the methods (where method is a specific tool used – such as ethnography for example – methodology refers to the totality of choices made in one’s research, including a variety of decisions such as selection and operationalization of variables, etc.) are implicated by our ontological assumptions.

As already discussed, at this moment, I consider myself an intepretivist. Perhaps due to bias as a result of my appreciation for “post-colonial” and post-structuralist scholarship, I find myself very sensitive to the lack of a singular, objective truth, especially due to the mentioned role of the scholar as agent and consumer. Looking at things such as the persistence of Orientalist discourses as well as the long-standing imperviousness of race science and the conditionality of humanity in European intellectual history (ie: Hegelian non-history of the non-white “savage”, eugenics, etc.), I recognize that knowledge itself can often be an exercise of power by asserting one’s authority on the subject/object studied.[3] As such, I gravitate towards interpretivism not because it is contextualized (as Neo-positivism can be cognizant of context as well) or because it is necessarily “harmless”, but rather because its goal implicitly recognizes a multiplicity of meanings and also, to a certain degree, because of the researcher’s self-presence. This is a rather awkward way to say that though Neo-positivism is just as rigorous with all its hypothesis testing and its own set of methodological choices, the criteria for knowledge production as per interpretivism includes things such as “cultural competence, contextually, reflexivity, and trustworthiness/credibility” which more directly or more transparently situate the researcher and their relationship to the subjects under scrutiny.[4] In relation to what can be studied, I am (at this point in time) of the opinion that though things can be real (ie: that Pearl Harbor happened) the meaning(s) attached to occurrences or events are more subjective. In this vein, I do not have a fully-fledged list specifying what things I believe can or cannot be studied, though I do think that, departing from a constructivist ontology that perceives meaning as a result of continuous and dynamic social processes, meaning is also therefore situated as these social processes necessarily differ from place to place and across time. This means that for my research, I am interested in understanding localized constructions of meaning through an interpretivist lens. That being said, I am really excited to try methodologies that depart from other ontological assumptions so as to more critically vet my own.

[1] Abbott, Andrew Delano. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics For The Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Pages 43, 46-47.

[2] Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, and Dvora Yanow. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts And Processes. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2012. Page 47.

[3] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

[4] Class Discussion September 10, 2019.

Research Portfolio Post #2: Mentor Meeting

I met with Professor Scott Freeman on Wednesday, September 11 for roughly 20 to 30 minutes. Professor Boesenecker had already recommended Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons” and I was eager to further expand the readings I was doing.[1]Professor Freeman proved to be an immense help in doing so and was a great resource as I begin familiarizing myself with the conversation(s) and puzzles in my topic. We started by discussing how research was to be approached this semester (ie: I would “try on the hats” of both neo-positivist and interpretivist research and would therefore benefit from consuming diverse types of data). Because of the fact that I would need “cases” for both case research as well as interpretivist study, and also because it is essential to investigate concrete instances of commons and their use, Professor Freeman and I spoke at length about specific locations and time periods that could be examined. I already had rough preliminary sketches of places that I might be interested in looking at, but was curious about how cases would even be selected and the way that the definition of “commons” itself would necessarily influence what qualifies for study. The conversation was much more conceptual than it was methodological. We did not particularly discuss how cases themselves would be selected (and which ones would and would not) but rather simply considered different viewpoints of what qualifies as commons (and whether commons could be defined that way if they are excludable).

Ultimately, what ensued was a very informative conceptual foundation that began raising further questions as well as situating them within the context of those asked by other scholars. For instance, in a very basic sense, we identified major points discussed such as population (which could be a control variable across cases) and government/market/institutional action. If a puzzle is whether Tragedy of the Commons is inevitable should humans be left to their own devices, such a question should be answered having controlled for things such as population size and relative size of the commons being consumed, technological capacity (ie: people with industrial capacities will be able to exploit a resource at a significantly larger scale than those who do not have these capacities), and other relevant variables.

We also generally mapped out the scholarly conversation insofar as mentioning the two main camps/approaches/bodies of literature being an economic perspective on the commons (Ostrom) and political ecology. Under the latter, a wealth of disciplines operate by introducing the crucial variable of power, with a critical subset that includes anthropology and geography. We discussed briefly some of the assumptions and the different kinds of knowledge/data generated by the two larger approaches and generally had a very thought-provoking meeting, ending in the recommendation of a fascinating reading of locally-controlled fisheries in Mexico which looked at practices, pressures, and rituals of land use in commons.[2]Currently, we are in correspondence as Professor Freeman is emailing me further notable authors for study. All in all, the meeting with my mentor went really well and was very productive.



[1]Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[2] Basurto, Xavier. 2005. How Locally Designed Access and Use Controls Can Prevent the Tragedy of the Commons in a Mexican Small-Scale Fishing Community. Society and Natural Resources 18(7): 643–659.

Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests

I am interested in examining the role social norms/identities play in shaping actor behavior, particularly in the context of global commons. I am intrigued by the question of whether the competitive (and ultimately destructive) self-gain patterns theorized in the Tragedy of the Commons need be considered inevitable or whether different conceptions of culture, self, norms, and property/ownership might influence consumption patterns of shared resources. On a more meta-level, I am really curious as to why actors do the things they do, as I am not completely satisfied with realist or liberal conceptions of self-gain as a sufficient explanatory variable on its own. Whether my research happens to apply this problem to commons or any other case, I am most excited to understand this “puzzle” of international and human/sociopolitical conduct.

Because I considered my research on the topic of the Tragedy of the Commons tentative, I have read broadly over the summer. Firstly, I have of course read foundational texts like Garrett Hardin’s frequently cited article in Science “The Tragedy of the Commons” and then sought to understand the surrounding discourse via “Property in the Commons: Origins and Paradigms” which contextualized the previous work and describes the ongoing conversations of the topic and relevant conceptions of property.[1]A few questions that came to mind, especially in light of class readings/discussions on situated/transcendent knowledge[2], include the observation that the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons is very much tethered to the specific context from which it was derived, namely Europe/England. Hardin cites William Forster Lloyd’s lectures in 1833 in Oxford where he discusses hypothetical herders who each endeavor to “rationally” maximize self-gain and thus inevitably deplete the common pastures.[3]In citing this, the argument Hardin makes nods to privatization as a necessary solution to offset the selfishness intrinsic to the human condition. Needless to say, this “evidence” is not sufficiently problematized, distinctly echoing Abbot’s definition of semantic explanation where things are – for a lack of a better word – “reduced” to the “final realms” of explanation where we take things as plainly “true”. For instance, in the Tragedy of the Commons, “[t]hey go no further because they think selfish behavior is self-evident; it needs no explanation”.[4]This factor, among others such as differences in social norms/identities, cultures, property and varying access to the resources (commons or otherwise) by individuals, begin to further flesh out my aforementioned “puzzle”.

In keeping with my curiosity about actor behavior and the problematization of motive, I find it relevant to briefly mention my readings on the alternative topic of human rights intervention, including Mutua’s “Savages, Victims, and Saviors” which inspects the discursive frameworks that justify human rights intervention.[5]


[1]Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science162, no. 3859 (December 13, 1968): 1243–48.

Obeng-Odoom, Franklin. “Property in the Commons.” Review of Radical Political Economics48, no. 1 (September 2015): 9–19.

[2]Abbott, Andrew. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: Norton, 2004. Page 9.

[3]Lloyd, William Forster. Two Lectures on the Checks to Population. Oxford University, 1833.

[4]Abbott, Andrew. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: Norton, 2004.Page 50-51.

[5]Mutua, Makau W. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal42, no. 1 (2001): 201–45.