Florian Weigand (@florian_weigand), a PhD at the Department of International Development, recently passed his viva. His PhD was on legitimacy and authority in conflict zones, which he explored through research in Afghanistan. His recent publications include ‘Afghanistan’s Taliban – Legitimate Jihadists or Coercive Extremists?’ and ‘Intervention at Risk: The Vicious Cycle of Distance and Danger in Mali and Afghanistan’ (with Ruben Andersson).

First of all, congratulations! How does it feel like to leave PhD life behind?

Thank you very much! Actually my life hasn’t really changed much at all as I started a new research project right after my viva. But having worked on one topic for many years it is exciting to begin something new.

What was the puzzle in your research?

What underpinned my research was the question of why people in conflict zones, where force is not monopolised and there are competing authorities, consider any authority – whether that of the state, insurgents, warlords, community authorities or otherwise – to be (il)legitimate. Framed differently, I wanted to know what an authority in a conflict zone needs to do to construct public support and legitimacy. Is it sufficient to provide public services, do people want elected representatives, do they expect them to act according to their traditions or a certain ideology or does it need some sort of shared identity? Many policy interventions in conflict zones are ultimately based on assumption of what people expect. Instead, I wanted to ask them.

How did you investigate this?

My research focused on Afghanistan and I explored the question through interviews with members of the public and the various authorities in different parts of the country. In my thesis I compare these perceptions and investigate the reasons that underpins notions of legitimacy and illegitimacy. For instance, there are cases where people all over the country consider a certain authority to be illegitimate, but people in one or two villages consider the same authority to be legitimate. Such cases allowed me to gain a better understanding of how legitimacy is constructed.

Why is your PhD research important and to whom?

Well, conceptually speaking, I think that my research helps to adjust our static understanding of legitimacy to the dynamics of a conflict zones. In a more practical sense, I would argue that gaining a better empirical understanding of legitimacy is crucial for actually building legitimacy, whether this is in the context of an international interventions or, quite simply, in order to help the state to respond to the expectations of its citizens. In Afghanistan, the state is currently not doing a particularly great job in living up to the expectations of the people. In a way, it delegitimises itself. I hope that my research can contribute to take countermeasures.

You must have been to strange places. What was the most memorable event during your time in Afghanistan?

It is difficult to identify a specific event as I had many memorable experiences. There were odd ones, like a warlord describing himself as an ‘hero of peace’, and disarmingly honest ones, like an attorney general outlining his fear of the corrupt police.

But what I particularly enjoyed was the ability to travel the country comparatively freely for my interviews, without the tight security restrictions that most foreigners in Afghanistan face now. This way I was able to explore and enjoy the country – the buzzing urban life in Herat, the Buzkashi matches in Balkh and the juicy pomegranates in Nangarhar – and, thanks to unbelievable hospitality, had great conversations and encounters over uncountable cups of tea.

I certainly do not want to romanticise the picture. There is an ongoing violent conflict. The sound of fireworks still makes me think of gunshots first. And since I finished my research in Afghanistan the security situation has deteriorated further, also in Kabul. Because of the security situation many international organisations have pulled out of the country or considerably scaled down their operations recently, even the ICRC (Red Cross). This is likely to make the situation for many Afghans even worse.

But Afghanistan is not just war and violence only. It deserves attention for so much more.

You’re a seasoned PhD now. What advice do you have to our readers just starting their doctoral research?

I enjoyed doing my PhD because I worked on a topic I was very keen to explore. That motivated me and kept me going. So my advice would be to always make sure that the research project is truly yours and remains yours throughout the process of doing the PhD. Even though it obviously makes a lot of sense to consider the advice of others – of your supervisors, more experienced colleagues, conference participants, friends and so on – stay confident and ensure that you do not get pushed down a pathway which you don’t want to follow. I think that this way you will care more about your project and enjoy working on it, making it also more likely that you will complete it.