PhD Projects

Project themes

We conduct theory-guided empirical research in Africa, South Asia and South East Asia. Our aim is to contribute to, challenge and refine ongoing academic debates on nature-society relations, resource conflicts, ‘new’ wars, state failure, ethical trading and uneven development. At the same time, we collaborate and dialogue with policy makers and development practitioners and establish partnerships with academics from the global South.

AUTHORITY: The politics of nationalizing space in the Ethio-Somali frontier

(Rony Emmenegger)
This PhD research project analyses the production, negotiation and contestation of political authority in the Ethio-Somali frontier. Based on ethnographic field research, it investigates various land related issues in urban Jigjiga and considers the ways different actors and institutions claim urban space, compete and collaborate with each other for its control and regulation. Questions raised include: How are claims on urban land claims articulated? How are claims legitimized and legalized? And from a more geographical perspective: How is urban land demarcated? What are the territories produced by claim making? By answering these questions, the research project aspires to shed light on strategies and technologies developed and deployed as attempts to control geographical space in urban Jigjiga. Through combining the analysis of political authority and processes of territorializaiton, this PhD thesis aims at contributing to a better understanding of state formation processes in the frontier context.

ACCESS:Socio-Economic Relations and the Organisation of Access to Land in the Face of Violence in Eastern DR Congo

(Stephan Hochleithner)
Stephan Hochleithner conducts research on land issues and their interconnectedness with socio-economic relations in Eastern DR Congo. The colonial times under Belgian rule and the following regime of Mobutu and the Kabila governments led to the emergence of a multi-pluralist situation, in which different forms of organisation coexist within the same field. Violence, different legal systems, as well as different modes of production and of organising access shape every-day life in the region. Socio-economic relations thereby appear to be constantly (re-)negotiated in the light of an ever-changing dominance of different actors. As an exploratory field trip indicates, this negotiation seems to be closely connected to the mode, in which access to land is being organised. This indication becomes specifically evident in lives and living of an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) community in the Congolese border town of Lubiriha, settling on land, which belongs to the Virunga National Park.

BORDERS AND BROKERS: the work of religion

(Deborah Johnson)
This PhD project focuses upon the society-religion-politics matrix in Sri Lanka. Geographically focused on the largely Tamil north and east of the island, it is interested in the ways in which religion interacts with and performs boundaries in complex political configurations. In particular it is occupied with the empirical example of catholic priests crossing conflict related boundaries in a manner unusual to other actors, and addresses these movements as a form of brokerage. Theoretically, the research claims that religion in general, and catholicism in particular has a particular interest in the activity of boundary making and transgression, which reveals its powerful relation to and co-implication with the political sphere.

AUTHORITY: Negotiating Public Authority: Local Development and Local Politics in Mid Western Nepal from “War” to “Transition”

(S. Byrne, B. Korf)
This PhD research is concerned with the everyday experience of living under conditions of political violence, civil war and political transformation in rural Nepal. It explores the everyday functioning of public authority in a situation characterised by multiple and overlapping authority claims both during the conflict itself as well as in the process of “transition”. The research asks: How do different authority claimants legitimize their claims? How is authority produced in negotiations between different authority claimants, and what kind of authority emerges from these negotiations? With an empirical grounding in the mid-Western hills of Nepal, the PhD research examines several specific topics, such as the relationship between local government practice and the production of “stateness”, and the resistance and compromise practices of local development workers and community based organisations during the civil conflict. The PhD is funded through the research project “Living with Violence: Rural Livelihoods in Mid-Western Nepal.”

GIFT: Moral Geographies and the Tsunami Gift in Sri Lanka

(P. Hollenbach)
This PhD project is funded by the University Priority Research Program Asia and Europe (UFSP). The project is based on three years of working experiences in the tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction process in Sri Lanka. Using gift theory and the concept of solidarity, he research studies hidden “rules” of humanitarian giving and how it creates an asymmetric relation of reciprocity and power. The project deconstructs how aid is used to transfer and create new “models of living” and how the involved stakeholders govern and modify project goals and project participants in order to achieve their interests. In this context the project traces the multi-local nodes of the aid chain and analyses moral discourse and practices of giving and how these translate into concrete aid practices and rituals. Field work is conducted in Sri Lanka and Germany.

RESPACING: Contested land use changes in the Ethio-Somali borderlands

(T. Hagmann, B. Korf, R. Emmenegger)
This research project synthesizes past and ongoing research in eastern Ethiopia and northern Somalia on contested land use strategies. We look at evolving society-state relations to decipher the rationale and dynamics of current conflicts over rangelands in rural areas and urban land plots in Jijiga, Ethiopia and Hargeysa, Somaliland. We are interested in how the commodization of land intersects with the ongoing process of political territoralization in respacing the Ethiopian-Somali borderlands. In addition to existing studies carried out between 2003 and 2005, field research was carried out in 2012. Our aim is to draw attention to recurrent patterns of the rapid and contested transformation of semi-arid rangelands, which are of relevance to students of agrarian change, political ecology and human geography.

Past research projects

Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (2010-2011)

(Bart Klem)

This evaluation, in which Bart Klem was one of the three core researchers, was commissioned by the Norwegian government (NORAD) and reviewed Norway’s failed efforts to broker a negotiated settlement to the war between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The study was executed jointly with the Chr. Michelsen Institute (Bergen, Norway) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of London University (UK). Interviews were held with a wide range of actors in Europe, the US and India and use was made or previous research in Sri Lanka as well. The study commenced in 2010; the final report was presented in November 2011.

DDR processes and the role of NGOs (2006-2007)

(Bart Klem)

This research project involved was commissioned by the Dutch development organisation Cordaid, which is part of the Caritas group. The main question was whether and how NGOs should be involved with the process of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR).

The purpose of this research was to assist Cordaid in developing its views and policy in relation to DDR by studying the role of NGOs – and Cordaid’s partners in particular – in DDR processes in the field. The project aimed to examine how NGOs can complement parties that normally play a leading role in DDR processes, such as the military and UN agencies. The study was carried out in 2006 and 2007 and encompassed field studies in three countries: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic Congo and Sierra Leone. 

DECENTRALIZATION: Decentralization to the household: The case of the garee misoma in state-led rural road construction

(R. Emmenegger, T. Hagmann)

Ethiopia has embarked on a radical reform of decentralization since the coming to power of the current EPRDF government in 1991. Recently, this newly established four-tiered administrative/decentralized structure has been strengthened by the creation of garee in the Oromia region. A garee consists of a group of households, which is mobilized for development purposes. Its establishment has been accompanied by considerable controversy. While critics describe the garee as a mechanism of control and repression, the government presents it as an answer to popular demand for development. Guided by anthropology and sociology of development, this research explores the role of garee in state-led development activities, particularly rural road construction. Field work has been conducted in 2009; data analysis was mainly conducted in 2010.

TERRITORIES: State failure and formation in the Somali territories of the Horn of Africa after 1991.

(T. Hagmann, Woodrow Wilson Center)
This project elaborates a comparative study of key political and state-building processes in the Republic of Somaliland (Northern Somalia), the autonomous Republic of Puntland (Northeast Somalia), south-central Somalia, the Somali region of Ethiopia or Ogaden and the Northeastern Province of Kenya (Somali region of Kenya). While Somalia is commonly associated with state collapse, recent empirical research demonstrates that numerous state and non-state governance arrangements have emerged in these different Somali entities since the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. The proposed study will provide key insights into the variations of Somali statehood and the reasons why some of these political entities became successful state-builders (Somaliland, Northeastern Province of Kenya) while others produced mixed results (Ethiopia’s Somali region, Puntland) or failed completely (south-central Somalia).

VIOLENCE: Living with Violence: Rural Livelihoods in Mid-Western Nepal During and After the Maoist People's War

(S. Byrne, B. Korf, U. Mueller-Boeker, A. Kern)
This research project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and investigates the impacts of different forms of violence, coercion and control on rural livelihoods in Mid-Western Nepal during and after the Maoist conflict. It studies how different social groups and individuals navigate through the difficult social and political terrain of rural Nepal. This study provides a fine-grained analysis of local political dynamics, livelihood strategies and the broader political ramifications. Our findings suggest that violence in its different guises does not only produce destructive and disempowering impacts, but also induces social change and provides opportunities for certain groups and individuals while hampering or restraining others. A PhD thesis and a Masters thesis are funded through this project.

PASTORALISM: Pastoral Conflicts in the Horn of Africa and Pastoral Development in sub-Saharan Africa

(T. Hagmann, C. Ifejika-Speranza, DIE)
Pasture based extensive livestock production is the dominant land use system in the Horn of Africa. Studies on the proliferation of violent inter-group conflicts in the past two decades have proliferated. Tobias Hagmann Chinwe Ifejika Speranza have edited a special issue that looks at new avenues for pastoral development in sub-Saharan Africa and which has been in European Journal of Development Research in November.

FAITH: Conflict, Community and Development in Sri Lanka

(B. KorfB. Klem, J. Goodhand, J. Spencer, K. T. Silva, S. Hasbullah)
This is a collaborative project with the University of Edinburgh, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka which was funded by ESRC. The project funding has come to an end in 2009, but many activities are continuing in this network, which investigates linkages between aid, religion and conflict in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious east coast of Sri Lanka. From July to September 2010, Dr. S.H. Hasbullah, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka joined our research group again and worked on his field material, while discussions were also held with prof. Jonathan Spencer during his short visit to Zurich. The research group continues to work on a joint book project [in preparation for Pluto Press] with the title “Temple, Church, Mosque and Checkpoint: A collaborative ethnography of war and peace in eastern Sri Lanka”.

CONTESTATION: Space, Contestation and the Political (2010)

(B. Korf, D. Featherstone, Glasgow, J. van Wezemael, Fribourg)

This project engages recent theoretical debates in political theory that signal the reassertion of notions of antagonism and political contestation, taking Chantal Mouffe’s work (and reading of Carl Schmitt) as starting point. From the emergence of networked resistances to neo-liberalism to the persistence of violent conflicts in many parts of the world contestation continues to be important to what can be called “the political.” A workshop organized in February 2009 in Zurich sought to explore what is at stake in these debates over the relations between space, contestation and the political. Selected papers were pooled into a themed issue submitted to the journal Geoforum (currently under review).

STATE: Negotiating Statehood in Africa and Political Orders Beyond the Nation-state

(T. Hagmann, D. Péclard, swisspeace)
Academic and policy discourse nowadays portrays post-colonial African states in virtually pathological categories; they are perceived to be threatened by ‘collapse’, ‘failure’, ‘fragility’ and ‘weakness’. Following a systematic critique of the state failure debate, the objective is to come up with an alternative framework for the study of political orders within and beyond the nation-state in contemporary Africa. In this process Tobias Hagmann and Didier Péclard have co-edited a themed issue on “Negotiating Statehood in Africa”, which has appeared in the journal Development and Change.

DEVELOPMENT: Negotiating Rural Development at South Asia’s Frontier (SNF- ProDoc; jointly with Ulrike Müller-Böker, Human Geography)

(U. Müller-Böker, B. Korf, B. Klem, M. Junginger)
The SNF ProDoc research module on Negotiating Rural Development in South Asia is a joint project with Human Geography and hosts two PhD studies. Bart Klem’s PhD research focuses on the war and post-war transition in eastern Sri Lanka. It takes on a range of interconnected political, ethnic and development issues that feature saliently in this transition. Within this broad canvas of issues, it focuses on the role of the civil service, political entrepreneurs, and religious leaders. In 2010, Bart conducted three months of fieldwork in Sri Lanka and started to draft and submit PhD papers. On a more thematic note, he co-organised a reading and debating seminar on the Anthropology of the State literature, a topic that will be developed further in the coming period. A first article on “Islam, politics and violence” is forthcoming in the Journal of Asian Studies.

AID: Aid and Conflict in Sri Lanka

(B. Korf, J. Goodhand, J. Spencer)
This edited volume compiles papers by eminent peace researchers and practitioners from Sri Lanka and elsewhere on aid and peace building in Sri Lanka after the ceasefire in 2002. In 2010, the editors have done a final review and edit of the book chapters. The book has appeared with Routledge in January is Ethical Trade?

TRADE: Private Governance-Networks in Global Value Chains

(M. Starmanns)
This PhD tries to disentangle the politics of private regulation in global production networks. It analyzes the practices of private regulation, the arguments companies and private regulation institutions use to legitimize their corporate responsibility approaches, and how stakeholders criticize these strategies. Main aspects analyzed are the credibility, the impact and the root causes. On a more general level the analysis might offer a framework that allows differentiating between practices of private regulation and corporate responsibility in global production networks. The research is based on empirical data from global garment chains between Europe, India and Bangladesh. So far, two MA theses have been supervised as part of the TRADE project. The first analyzed how various Swiss companies implement social standards, and the other one focuses on one specific Swiss company and analyses changes in this company in detail.

BORDERLANDS: Bringing the margins back in: war making and state making in the borderlands

(T. RaeymaekersB. KorfT. Hagmann with J. Goodand, SOAS)
This project challenges the received wisdom about contemporary state formation as a centrally guided, top down process. Instead it looks at today’s borderlands as key sites of contestation and negotiation that are central to state-making processes. Taking case studies from Africa and Asia, it gives a central place to the everyday experience with violent conflict and state formation at the border, and the way these affect the making and unmaking of political configurations. In a first step, a workshop was conducted in Ghent in February 2010 where more than a dozen invited papers were discussed. A selection of these papers will be compiled in an edited volume to be submitted to Palgrave in 2011.

OLYMPIC: Swiss Olympic

(M. Starmanns)
The aim of this project "Political CSR at Swiss Olympic" is to developing a strategy that makes Swiss Olmpic's procurement more sustainable. Swiss Olympic is the governing body of Swiss sport organizations. In the project we develop a CSR concept for sustainable procurement that follows a discursive approach. "Political CSR" tries to avoid greenwashing by fully and honestly embracing CSR. Following a Habermasian concept of democracy, one of the key ideas of "political CSR" is to set standards in a globalized economy in a discursive way, i.e., to involve stakeholders in a very transparent way. We thus invite stakeholders to comment the concept and guidelines - and later publish all comments and arguments, to make transparent which comments could be implemented and which ones could not. 

MSI-Centre: Competence centre for multi-stakeholder supply chain initiatives

(M. Starmanns)

The project analyses the possibility of setting up a „Swiss Centre for Multi-Stakeholder Supply Chain Initiatives“ (MSI-centre). The project follows three main aims:

Situation analysis: How are existing MSI-Initiatives in Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands organized?

Development of scenarios: How should a Swiss MSI-centre be organized to meet the needs of Swiss stakeholders?

Evaluation of the scenarios: Which chances and limits are connected with the two scenarios? How do Swiss stakeholder evaluate these scenarios?

CAPRI: Collective Action and Property Rights for Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia

(B. Korf, F. Beyene, B. Hundie, A. Bogale, M. Mealin, with K. Hagedorn, M. Padhmanaban,  R. Meinzen-Dick, E. Mwangi)
This project investigated the nexus of property rights, collective action and fragile statehood in Afar and Somali region, Ethiopia, with a special interest in pastoral communities. The project was a collaborative research endeavor with the Humboldt University of Berlin and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development. The project has been completed in Summer 2007. Outputs from the project include: participation in the Policy dissemination workshop of the overall research programme organized by IFPRI-CAPRi in Uganda (2007); funding of two small field studies in Ethiopia, one investigating the political geographies of resource conflict in Somali region (M Mealin), one studying local resource conflicts (A Bogale); the PhD dissertation of Fekadu Beyene on “Challenges and Options in Governing Common Property: Customary Institutions among (agro-) pastoralists in Ethiopia” (Supervisors: K Hagedorn, B Korf), which has been completed and successfully defended (7 Jan 2008).  

ETHICAL SWISS: How Ethical Correct are Swiss Fashion Labels?

(M. Starmanns)
A student project in cooperation with the Berne Declaration, Fair Wear Foundation, Helvetas, Max Havelaar and Neosys. AIm of the project is to publish a market study on SME Swiss fashion labels, which is presented in Interlaken on the International conference "Organic and fair trade cotton - from fashion to sustainability". The project further aims at initiating a solution-oriented dialogue between fashion labels and diverse stakeholders in the area.

YOUTH: State making in Guinea and Youth as Political Actors

(M. Engeler)
This PhD research project looks at the nexus between youth and state making in Guinée Forestière, a marginal and understudied region of the West African state Guinea. The recent conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire have often been interpreted as youth crises or generational conflicts. However, youth has rarely been related to the state and, more particularly, processes of state making and state formation. This holds particularly true for Guinea, whose political dynamics have been influenced by the past civil wars in neighboring Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire. The aim of this research is to produce an ethnography of both youth organizations and local state institutions as they are manifest in this particular region of Guinea. Both youth and the state are conceptualized as social actors that express and reproduce material realities and symbolic imaginaries in their daily lives. Of particular interest are the social processes by which youth involves in state making and/or fulfills key state roles. The PhD project is now based at the University of Basel, Department of Anthropology.

PhD Theses ongoing

Gelek, Konchok

Working title: Pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Norman Backhaus (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Emily Yeh (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Colorado, Boulder)

Kaufmann, Christoph

Working title: Violent (de-)regulation - informal gold mining in Colombia

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Muriel Côte (Dr. Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Christian Berndt (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Kelegama, Thiruni

Working title: Anxious Integration—Development in Sri Lanka’s post-war frontier

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Norman Backhaus (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Jonathan Spencer (Prof., Dept. of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh)

Shalini Randeria (Prof., Graduate Institute Geneva)
Kern, Alice

Working title: Revisiting Wilderness and the Veddas in Eastern Sri Lanka

Promotion committee: 

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Ulrike Müller-Böker (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Jonathan Spencer (Prof., Dept. of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh)

Rajesh Venugopal (Dr., Dept. of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science)

Kithsiri, Thamali

Working title: Villages without borders - accessing lands in Northern borderland National Park in Sri Lanka

Promotion committee: 

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)


Vogel, Christoph

Working title: Governing (Conflict) Minerals in Eastern Congo

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Timothy Raeymaekers (Dr., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Christian Berndt (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Koen Vlassenroot (Prof., Conflict Research Group, University of Gent)


PhD Theses completed

Bartmess, Jennifer

PhD title: Empty Enough: Indigenous Communal Land Titling in the Oil Palm Frontier of Sabah, Malaysia

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Norman Backhaus (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Christian Lund (Prof., Dept. of food and agriculture, University of Copenhagen)

Byrne, Sarah

PhD title: Becoming a Contender: Legitimacy, Authority and the Power of "Making Do" in Nepal's Permanent Transition. 2015.
Promotion committee:
Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Ulrike Müller-Böker (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Andrea Nightingale (Prof., Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences)

Emmengger, Rony

PhD title: Writing Space and Time: An Ethnography of State Sedimentation in the Ethiopian Somali Frontier. 2016.

Promotion committee:

Timothy Raeymaekers (Dr., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zürich)

Tobias Hagmann (Dr., Department of Society and Globalisation, University of Roskilde)

Paul Nugent (Prof., Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh)
Hochleithner, Stephan

PhD title: Violent Transformations: Nature Conservation, Forced Displacement, and Captalist Expansion in North Kivu, DRC. 2016.

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Timothy Raeymaekers (Dr., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Christian Bernd (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Werner Zips (Prof., Dept. of Cultural & Social Anthropology, University of Vienna)
Hollenbach, Pia

PhD title: The Paradox of Good Intentions: The Biography  of private Giving in Post-Tusnami Sri Lanka. 2014.

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Urs Geiser (Dr., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Christoph Uehlinger (Prof., University of Zurich)

Jonathan Spencer (Prof., Dept. of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh)

Johnson, Deborah

PhD title: Living on the Border. the Catholic Church and the War in Northern Sri Lanka. 2016.

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Jonathan Spencer (Prof., Dept. of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh)

Roland Bleiker (Prof., School of Political Science, University of Queensland)
Klem, Bart

PhD title: In the Wake of War. The Political Geography of Transition in Eastern Sri Lanka. 2012.

Promotion committee:

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Urs Geiser (Dr., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)

Georg Frerks (Prof., University of Utrecht)

Jonathan Spencer (Prof., Dept. of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh)

Starmanns, Mark

The Grand Illusion? Corporate Social Responsibility in Global Garment Production Networks. 2010.

Promotion committee:

Boris Braun (Prof., University of Cologne)

Markus Hassler (Prof., Philipps-University, Marburg)

Benedikt Korf (Prof., Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich)