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Politics and International Relations (PIR): Events


Research Seminar on Contemporary Iraq, with Professor Toby Dodge

Research Seminar on Contemporary Iraq, with Professor Toby Dodge
Speaker: Professor Toby Dodge # London School of Economics
Hosted by
Introduced by
Date and Time
4th May 2018 17:00 - 4th May 2018 18:30
6th Floor Staff Room, CMB

‘Structure, agency and Bourdieu: rethinking political identities in contemporary Iraq’.



" ... one is not to be misled by the effects of the work of naturalization that every group tends to produce in order to legitimate itself, to justify its own existence, one therefore has to reconstruct in each case the historical labour of which the divisions and the social vision of these divisions are the product."


Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups’, Theory and Society, Vol. 14, No. 6 (Nov., 1985), p. 739.


Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its violent aftermath, political mobilisation across the country has been dominated by those deploying divisive ethno-sectarian rhetoric. This was certainly the case in the two separate national elections held in 2005, and the two that followed in 2010 and 2014. Beyond electoral contestation, Iraq’s descent into a post-regime change civil war was explained, and the violence this entailed justified, by those deploying sectarian rhetoric.  However, viewed over the longue durée of Iraq’s history, not just the past fifteen years since the invasion, the dominance of the post-2003 political field by ethno-sectarian rhetoric looks puzzling, even an historical aberration. Since its creation under a League of Nation’s Mandate in 1920, Iraq’s political field has certainly been riven by ideological contestation.  However, for the majority of that time the main fault lines were between those deploying different understandings of a broadly secular nationalism, with different memberships and boundaries.


What then explains the apparent demise in unitary nationalisms after 2003 and the rise to prominence of religiously based political mobilisation?  This paper will seek to answer that question by firstly examining the strengths and weaknesses of modernist theories of post-colonial nationalism, arguing that what was to become Iraq and with it the wider Middle East was indeed transformed during a ‘modernist moment’, when the area was integrated into a globalising economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, this moment did not lead to the unambiguous triumph of secular unitary nationalisms.


The paper goes on to examine both ethno-symbolic explanations of ethnic and sectarian political identities and instrumental ones, both in the abstract and how they have been deployed to explain the increasing contemporary influence ethno-sectarian mobilisation in Iraq and across the wider Middle East. The paper identifies explanatory value in both ethno-symbolic and instrumental explanations but finds their focus on either ideational structures or individual rationality too narrow to provide a comprehensive explanation of what happened to political identities in Iraq after 2003.  As an alternative, the paper deploys what could be termed a ‘Bourdieusian method’, in an attempt to get beyond the polarities of structure and agency.  To do this Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptions of symbolic violence, field and capital are deployed to explain the dominance of ethno-sectarian political mobilisation in Iraq after 2003. 

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