Interview with Fiona McConnell

The human geographer talks about her work with stateless groups, the importance of collaboration and why the stereotype of a map-wielding explorer is important in confronting her subject’s imperial legacies

六月 23, 2022
Fiona McConnell

Fiona McConnell is associate professor in human geography at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on stateless communities and how their voices can be heard on the world stage, including the challenges faced by diplomats advocating at the United Nations as well as the political structures and practices of the Tibetan government-in-exile. She was recently awarded the Back Award by the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the development of public policy.

Where and when were you born, and how has this shaped who you are?
Belfast in 1981. My parents live just outside the city, and my younger sister and I went to school in East Belfast. I’ve never done research on or in Northern Ireland, however growing up there has influenced what research questions I’ve been interested in and how I’ve approached my work. I’ve gravitated towards issues of self-determination, conflict mediation and diplomacy, and have a long-standing interest in how marginal and marginalised spaces that have a strained relationship to the institutions of the state function day to day.

Should the average person care about your work?
These days I don’t think I need to persuade anyone that geopolitics matters, but my focus has been on communities, polities and spaces that are on the margins of the international arena, and as a result are usually ignored by mainstream media. My aim has been to highlight not only that conflicts and human rights issues disproportionately affect such communities, but that it is in these marginal spaces that new ideas and creativity about how to “do” politics emerge. I’ve been interested in how, for example, the exiled Tibetan government rehearses aspects of statehood from its base in India, how the Somaliland foreign service mimics formal diplomatic practices in its overseas offices, and how representatives from Aceh use innovative strategies to make their voices heard at the UN. These are in many ways expressions of self-determination, and by bringing them to the fore we can get insights into how the norms of geopolitics are constructed and how they might be contested in order to facilitate a wider range of participation.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
The quips that geographers draw maps or go “exploring” are still around, and point to important imperial legacies that as a discipline we’ve been both reflecting on and challenging in our current practice. In a similar way, the idea that political geography is all about maps of the world with neatly coloured-in states is a useful starting point for thinking about how this view of international politics has been constructed and normalised, and about the messy and hidden geographies that lie beneath it. Indeed, with the current environmental, economic and geopolitical crises, the profile and importance of geography has, I think, grown significantly in the public eye, and we need to continue to encourage and enthuse students to study the subject at all levels of education.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best things are collaborations – with other academics, with practitioners and with students. I found PhD research quite a lonely experience and have really enjoyed working with a diverse group of collaborators in my research since then. I’ve learned a huge amount from working with colleagues in diplomacy studies – inspiring, polymathic scholars such as Costas Constantinou and Noe Cornago; from collaborating with Mongolian colleagues who have decades of experience advocating for the rights of herder communities; and from running skill-sharing workshops with “unrepresented diplomats” from stateless communities. The worst thing is the increasing bureaucratisation of so many aspects of being an academic, which squeezes the time and mental energy we have for just such research collaborations.

What keeps you awake at night?
The climate and biodiversity emergencies, and our seeming collective inability – or unwillingness – to do anything about it. They are the biggest challenges of our times, and in the wee hours I wonder if I should be putting my research energies in that direction. My morning self is more persuaded that my research matters, and that there are amazing people – including many I work with at the School of Geography and the Environment at Oxford – who are tackling these issues with the scientific knowledge and skills that are so urgently needed.

What advice do you give to your students?
I get teased by colleagues for advising new undergraduates about email etiquette (essentially just to err on the side of formality in initial emails), but more importantly I encourage my students to apply and test out ideas on issues that they are passionate about, particularly when it comes to their dissertation research.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Parenting! My children are one and four, so it feels like I currently have a second full-time job. I used to be terrible at keeping boundaries between work and non-work time, but now I’m a lot more disciplined in terms of when my working day and working week finishes and “being mum” resumes. That said, it’s often impossible to get everything done in working hours, and having to get back to emails/marking/editing once they are settled in bed isn’t always easy.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
As a child I wanted to be a mountaineer and, though mountains are where I gravitate towards for holidays, a fear of heights soon put paid to that career. I think if I wasn’t an academic I’d probably be working in the NGO sector, most likely in the field of human rights. I have huge admiration for colleagues who do that work, but I think I’d miss the freedom to pursue ideas where they take me, to spend time reading around subjects, and experimenting with different ways of writing. For all its pressures and challenges, I still think the freedom to think and challenge ideas in academia is hard to beat.


2004 BA in geography, University of Cambridge

2005 MA in geography, Queen Mary University of London

2009 PhD in human geography, Queen Mary University of London

2011-13 Junior research fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge

2013 lecturer in human geography, Newcastle University

2013– Associate professor in human geography, University of Oxford, and tutorial fellow in geography, St Catherine’s College, Oxford


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