Global Governance Centre
23 February 2023

PhD Student Highlight: Leandro Gabriel Montes Ruiz

Leandro Gabriel Montes Ruiz is a third year PhD Student in International Relations/Political Science, now working as a research assistant for Annabelle Littoz-Monnet’s SNSF project, De-blackboxing the Production of Expert Knowledge in Global Governance. In this interview, Leandro chronicles how he came to study global drug policy-making at the Graduate Institute and his passage into a dynamic research team.

Originally from Uruguay, you completed a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Colorado College before coming to the Geneva Graduate Institute for your postgraduate studies. Of all the universities in the world, why did you decide to study here?

When I finished my undergraduate studies, I did not feel ready to embark upon a PhD project, as is common in the United States once you graduate from college. Along with the usual doubts that go with making such a big decision, I sensed there was more to the study of politics than I could find in most American Political Science programmes. The liberal arts education system in the US is by its very nature quite interdisciplinary and accommodating of curiosity. However, I felt that what was understood to be International Relations (IR) in the US, that is a subdiscipline of Political Science, did not really suit my research interests, nor did the more predominant methodological approaches being used. So, after lengthy exchanges with some professors who played a fundamental role in my studies, I decided to look at schools and universities elsewhere. 

It just so happened that during an exchange semester at Sciences Po Strasbourg I heard about the Institute. After a bit of research, it seemed like an obvious place to look into given its size and format but also its curriculum. The possibility of securing a scholarship for my Master’s was also a crucial element. I ended up applying to the International Relations/Political Science program because of the plurality of approaches and interests that coexisted within a relatively small department and because I could easily complement my studies with coursework from other disciplines. In my first year, I took Annabelle Littoz-Monnet’s courses on Politics of Knowledge and Global Governance Narratives, Anna Leander’s courses on Qualitative Methods and Practices of World Politics, Elisabeth Prügl’s course on Gender and International Relations and courses in the Anthropology and Sociology department with Jean-François Bayart. Having been pleasantly surprised that there was so much more to the study of IR than I had been taught as an undergraduate, I decided to stay at the Institute for my PhD.


In your doctoral research, you explore the production and mobilisation of knowledge in contemporary debates about drug control and psychoactive substances. Where did your original curiosity in this topic stem from and why did you decide to dig deeper?

I must go back to the second semester of my Master’s studies to answer this question. At the time, I was taking Keith Krause’s Critical Security Studies course and Annabelle Littoz-Monnet’s Politics of Knowledge course. Coming from Uruguay and having lived through the legalisation of the recreational cannabis market, some of the themes I was studying in those two courses strongly resonated with political debates I had witnessed in my home country. I decided to write my Master’s thesis on this topic, initially focusing on how the legalisation discourse participated in the enactment of a novel securitisation of cannabis.

The framing of the project took on a different shape as the writing and research process advanced: In my Master’s thesis, I looked at the construction and articulation of governance narratives on drugs in the ongoing case of Uruguay. What struck me was that those arguing in favour of the legalisation of cannabis used evidence produced by international institutions, think tanks, and advocacy groups to make their case; and in turn, Uruguay began to attract global attention as a ‘case study’ which was then used by the very same organisations producing evidence claims as a success story.

I then became interested in the epistemic dimension of governance narratives on drugs, especially those on the ‘dissenting side’. In my PhD thesis, I am exploring the mobilisation of the ‘evidence-based’ mantra not as a tool of governing used by certain inter-governmental organisations such as the OECD or the World Bank, but instead as a tool of opposition and dissent used by activists, social movements, and organisations. I am also interested in the interplay between ‘depoliticisation’ and ‘repoliticisation’. On the one hand, drug policy is depoliticised when it is being debated in terms of facts, data, studies and knowledge packages that come to constitute ‘evidence’. On the other hand, it becomes repoliticised when certain actors or organisations start to question how the problem is framed, how policy agendas are set, and what can legitimately be said or done, also through the mobilisation of ‘evidence’.

Moreover, I think the issue of international drug control and prohibition has received scarce attention from IR scholarship, which either covers the legalistic dimensions of international agreements or focuses on the necropolitical aspects of the nefarious war on drugs and its effects. Consequently, scholars have largely overlooked the very constitution and application of the term ‘drug’ to some substances as opposed to others, the recent (in historical terms) association of drugs with the realm of the ‘deviant’ and the complex apparatuses that sustain what Eva Herschinger calls ‘the drug dispositif’. As put by Harry Levine, most people do not think of the prohibition of drugs as a political decision; it is just how things are. This means that groups trying to problematise certain aspects of prohibition have to debunk or denaturalise the dispositif and, at the same time, make their alternative propositions or stances credible.  


In September 2022, you were hired as a research assistant for a four-year Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) project led by Annabelle Littoz-Monnet that investigates how expertise is produced and stabilised in global governance. What is your main role in this project?

I am one of the research assistants of the project, alongside my colleague Astrid Skjold. On my end, I have been contributing to the research project by conducting literature reviews, transcribing interviews, mapping interesting conferences, and planning next steps together with the team. The project is still in its early phase and we are thus planning collaborative research efforts that will involve primary research, co-authored publications and conference participation in the years to come. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet’s recent research has focused on the meso-level processes of knowledge production in global governance that shape the articulation between ‘knowledge’ and ‘politics’ in a way that is suitable for governing and for privileging certain modes of actions over others. It is also focusing on the role of philanthropists in knowledge-making practices, the politics of evidence-making in global health and practices of epistemic disciplining. Given my own interests and research, I have notably been conducting a review of the literature on practices of epistemic dissent and resistance in global governance.

The project focuses on themes closely linked with my PhD thesis. In my contributions to it, I hope to add to debates in critical IR theory about the notion of a ‘transnational/global/international civil society’, a term that I see as ridden with shortcomings, and its role as a counterweight or an enabler of certain modes of governing. By investigating knowledge production from a perspective of contestation or dissent in its interaction with governing practices, I am hoping to gain a better understanding of the ritualised processes that can produce truths accepted by actors in more dominant positions, which are oftentimes exclusionary and inaccessible to many. The fixation on truth(s), its production, engineering and welding as well as its political effects is something that I want to explore further as part of the project.


Photo of Leandro wearing a brown shirt on a grey background.
Through the Centre and thanks to the talks and events it organises, I get to connect to a much larger and interdisciplinary community of scholars that goes well beyond the Graduate Institute.
Leandro Gabriel Montes Ruiz

To what extent does the theoretical, methodological, and empirical focus of the project overlap with some of your more general research interests?

There is a clear affinity between my own research interests and those examined by Annabelle Littoz-Monnet in and beyond the project – which is what brought me to ask her to supervise my Master’s thesis and then the PhD. Her work on the articulation of knowledge and politics in the constitution of expertise overlaps with themes I am exploring. I also share her desire to understand the complex, iterative meso-level processes present in the praxis of making expert knowledge, which operate between the spheres of ‘knowledge’ and ‘politics’. While these processes are oftentimes very mundane and part of the everyday practices of certain social spaces, they shape the ways through which expert knowledge is assembled, formulated and disseminated. Embedded in power dynamics, these processes have salient political implications, as they ultimately trace and retrace the boundaries of the possible, the sayable and the doable. Expertise then informs the making of policies based on ‘truths’ or ‘evidence’, which are framed as being ‘beyond politics’ and therefore more difficultly subject to debate. Obscure yet powerful, these dynamics deserve very close examination. 


What kind of practical skills have you or do you expect to hone in relation to your research assistantship?

Most of the research I have conducted so far has been through text, by examining reports, papers and public statements, but I will also be conducting interviews this coming semester. I feel the scope of this project allows us to do a lot more than that, whether it is visiting sites or delving into more detailed analyses of the material infrastructures through which knowledge claims are produced and making sense of their relevance and relationality with the sites, discourses and practices that sustain their production. In her recent work, Annabelle Littoz-Monnet has paid attention to crossing points, that is the meetings, conferences, and encounters in which given actors interact, deliberate, and oftentimes try to align their differences. Some of these sites are not accessible, but others are partially open to the public and I am hoping that I can visit and conduct participant observation in spaces that sustain the articulation and making of knowledge claims, and notably where the ‘interaction’ between rule and resistance is present, as problembatised by Deitelhoff and Daase


The ‘De-blackboxing the Production of Expert Knowledge in Global Governance’ project is housed at the Global Governance Centre, where you now enjoy an affiliation. What are the benefits of being attached to a research centre and how would you describe everyday work life at the Centre?

Being affiliated with a well-established research centre in Geneva is undoubtedly hugely beneficial. Firstly, because the affiliation definitely helps in terms of gaining access to certain sites, material and people that would otherwise be more difficult to reach. Indeed, I hope to take advantage of being situated in Geneva, where there are enormous opportunities within walking distance. The Global Governance Centre also has a vibrant community of researchers with whom I regularly discuss and exchange. As a doctoral student, I can definitely witness the collaborative mind-set and desire to share that is present in all of my colleagues. Through the Centre and thanks to the talks and events it organises, I get to connect to a much larger and interdisciplinary community of scholars that goes well beyond the Graduate Institute. As a result of this, it has become almost commonplace for me to meet and discuss in person with many of the people I read and cite, which is in fact a luxury. I hope to keep on learning from all of these opportunities and to make the most of the casual as well as more formal instances in which I get to exchange and discuss ideas with friends, colleagues, and scholars from within and outside the Institute.