Youssef Mnaili

GIAS Fellow

Period of stay:

September 2022 - August 2023 (2022/23)


European University Institute

Project title:

The Political Dynamics of Settlement Projects: The Central State – Settler Relation in Israel and South Africa


When you arrived at the Institute you probably had a concrete idea or plan of what you would like to achieve during your stay. Were you able to pursue these plans? Did there emerge new, unforeseen directions?

My arrival at the Institute coincided with my PhD defense. After the PhD, one wants to work on the PhD for publication while starting new ones. At the Institute, I had the privilege to have the time and serenity to work on my book proposal and manuscript. I also had the privilege of exploring new theoretical and empirical avenues for my research. One notable highlight was the opportunity to organize an authors’ workshop for my forthcoming edited volume on Indirect Governance in the Middle East and North Africa.

More generally speaking, who or what influenced your work and research path the most?

Many people have played a pivotal role in shaping my work and research. Professors Sabine Saurugger and Raul Magni Berton at Sciences Po Grenoble sparked my keen interest in pursuing a PhD. As I embarked on my doctoral journey, I found myself deeply influenced and captivated by rational choice theory through extensive discussions with my PhD supervisor, Philipp Genschel, and thought-provoking conversations with Professor Adrienne Heritier (through the endless tennis games at Florentia Sporting Club). Additionally, the profound knowledge of the region Professor Olivier Roy proved to be immensely helpful in my empirical endeavor prior to and after my fieldwork in Israel and Palestine.

Navigating the shift from PhD to post PhD was quite challenging at times (e.g., Where to publish your first book? Is this or that project worth pursuing? How to fund it? How to make our job talks more appealing?). At IAS CEU, the friendly and caring eye of Prof. Nadia Al-Bagdadi on both my academic work as well as advice on post-PhD life was of an immense help.

To which debates or schools of thought do you see your research contributing?

The school of thought I aim to contribute to is Rational choice theory. At its core the theory is based on self-interest. People are selfish: they want a set of things and try as much as possible to pursue it. Positive collective action (or chaos) is then the result of interactions of various self-interests that motivates individuals and constraints them. This might sound cynical, but it is a powerful analytical approach to explain human behavior.

Specifically, I explore how rulers navigate the challenges posed by potential opportunism, power dynamics, and varying loyalties when engaging agents to carry out their objectives. Let me explain, social life is rarely made of straight lines— preferences and actions, between commands and compliance. The challenge for state leaders is that they cannot rule singlehandedly but rely on intermediaries, agents, and other regulators to pursue their objectives. Yet these subordinates can act unpredictably due to opportunism, greed, and opposing loyalties. It is not only state leaders who face this dilemma. University presidents depend upon their deans; doctors depend upon their nurses and, we can add, virtually every realm of social life— individuals delegate authority to others.

My research aims to contribute to literature on indirect governance and rational choice theory by thinking of institutional designs that minimize agency problems between preferences and actions while steering policies toward the public interest.

How do you see your field of research today? How is it evolving?

The field of political science has undergone significant transformations in recent years, with a growing emphasis on the quantification of research and a marginalization of qualitative research methods. In this context, I share Professor Olivier Roy's pessimism, as expressed in his latest article on the "discourse of non-method," where he discusses what he refers to as "methodological inflation." This inflation tends to shift research in the social sciences away from the real world and towards the confines of theoretical frameworks and delegated methodological instruments such as polls and questionnaires. Personally, I believe in the importance of actively incorporating theory and empirical research. Theory should serve as a guiding compass, shaping the researcher's intuitions, while empirical research serves to refine, enhance, and advance theoretical understanding. Simultaneously, I recognize the significance of actively engaging with the field, which includes conducting in-depth interviews and assuming responsibility for validating the data, as emphasized by Roy in his work (2023).

What’s next for you after IAS CEU Budapest (if we may ask)?

During my second year, I plan to continue my research project as well as finalize the edited volume I initiated at IAS CEU this year. I will spend my second year at the renowned WISER Institute at Wits University in Johannesburg. This interdisciplinary research institute holds a prestigious reputation, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, with a notable focus on global south politics. This opportunity will allow me to collaborate with esteemed experts in my field, benefiting from their valuable feedback and fostering an environment that encourages further intellectual exploration and personal growth.

If there were one book or film you could recommend to the reader, what would be that and why?

I recently had the opportunity to read "Baghdad Central," a novel written by Elliott Colla. Set in Baghdad in September 2003, during the American occupation, the book offers a unique perspective by narrating the story from the viewpoint of an Iraqi nationalist. The protagonist, Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, is a former Baathist cop with a troubled past, tainted by involvement in war crimes. Desperate for medical care for his terminally ill daughter, he reluctantly becomes entangled with the US military as a collaborator. The novel delves into the complexities of military occupation, shedding light on the inherent challenges that arise. It vividly illustrates how occupying forces rely on networks of local collaborators, conscripted from the very population they seek to control. Through the eyes of Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, the story also explores the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by these collaborators, who often find themselves torn between conflicting loyalties.

Roy, O. (2023). The discourse of the non-method. Bulletin of Sociological Methodology/Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 158