My particular research interests lie in the field of international security and conflict studies, with a focus on research on intelligence services, flight/migration and international relations in West Asia ('Middle East'). My research utilises qualitative, empirical research to develop innovative, theoretical explanations of international politics. In the area of methods, my experience lies primarily in archival research in Germany and abroad, long-term ethnographic research, as well as various forms of interviews and oral history.

Information on these and other projects can be found on the projects page

Below you will find an overview of Prof. Sophia Hoffmann's research topics and projects. A complete list of publications can be found on this page.

Research projects

Knowledge production in German foreign politics (KNOWPRO)

Funded by: German Ministry for Education and Research.

Funding sum: EUR 1.5 million.

This joint-research project, carried out with partners at the University of Bremen and the University of Kiel, investigates how the knowledge, upon which German foreign politics are based, is produced.

Press release (in German) here:


Learning Intelligence: The Exchange of Secret Service Knowledge between Germany and the Arab Middle East 1960 - 2010

Funded by: Volkswagen Foundation

Funding sum: EUR 780 000

The research group Learning Intelligence investigates and analyses the exchange of secret service knowledge between German and Arab intelligence agencies between 1960 and 2010.

Methodological framework: International political sociology; sociology of organisations; surveillance studies; intelligence studies.

Research Methods: Archival research; interviews.

Research Aims:

  • Develop a theory about intelligence as a transnational practice.
  • Develop an argument about the influence of intelligence practice on contemporary world affairs.

My aim is to develop a theory about intelligence as a transnational practice of knowledge circulation, which has a significant impact on world affairs. My empirical focus lies on German (East and West) and Arab (Egypt, Syria and Iraq, primarily) intelligence agencies. Firstly, I compare these agencies according to parameters such as bureaucracy, ideology, language and specific operational activities, and secondly, I analyse how knowledge circulated between these agencies.

Given that intelligence research is necessarily historical, my research method for this project consists primarily of wide-ranging archival research (public archives in Germany, the United States and the UK, private archives in Germany, and wide-ranging documentary and literature excavation). In addition, I carry out interviews with former intelligence practitioners, diplomats and selected experts.

In this project, intelligence knowledge is conceptualised as modus operandi, as the knowledge about how to organise and run an agency, and as the practices, technologies, norms and beliefs that are applied in an agencies' day-to-day work. Further, knowledge is conceptualised as the self-understanding of intelligence agencies and its officers, in the sense of how their purpose is presented and infuses their activities. Here, the project wishes to address the question of how intelligence agencies themselves understand their work, and on what kind of concepts they draw on to explain the importance of the knowledge they create and mobilise. We proceed from the hypothesis that secret service knowledge is closely entwined with the theory of raison d'etat, and of how raison d'etat has evolved since its inception during the renaissance.

Humanitarian Action and Security in the Middle East

Methodological framework: Normative governance; critical security studies; migration studies.

Research methods: Ethnographic observation; expert interviews.

Research aim:

  • What impact are humanitarian security concepts and practices having on local environments in the Levant region?

With this project I addressed a gap in theories about humanitarian governance. Further, I investigated the under-researched question of how humanitarian actors address multiple security challenges, especially security threats to themselves and their projects. The project combined cross-disciplinary academic debates about the governance function of humanitarian action and innovatively applied critical security studies to a Middle Eastern region. Further, I produced empirical insights into issues of high political relevance at the time, especially regarding the condition in Jordan's newly built refugee camps for Syrians.

Empirical research proceeded in two phases. The first phase applied media research and expert interviews with humanitarian security managers to understand the concepts and knowledge through which humanitarian actors approach security in the Middle East. The second phase consisted of ethnographic fieldwork in and around the Al-Zaatari and the Al-Azraq refugee camps in Jordan, to observe how security practices were carried out by different actors. Analysis focused on the connection between transnational, humanitarian knowledge and local, humanitarian practice.

Disciplining Movement: State Sovereignty in the Context of Iraqi Migration to Syria (PhD Project)

Methodological framework: Anthropology of the state; theories of sovereignty; migration studies.

Research methods: Ethnography; participant observation; oral history interviews; expert interviews.

Research aims:

  • Contribute to theories about state sovereignty as practice.
  • Provide insights into how the Syrian state exercises sovereignty.
  • Compare liberal and illiberal sovereign practices in the migration management of Iraqi migrants in Damascus.

In this project, I researched and analysed the management of Iraqi migrants in Damascus through state and humanitarian institutions. I showed the daily-life bureaucratic and violent practices through which state sovereignty became a reality in the lives of Iraqi migrants. The analysis emphasised that state sovereignty existed on the one hand as an imagined ideal and as a normative framework, as reflected in international law and theory. On the other hand, sovereignty existed as a context-dependent, lived reality of practice. The differences between the way that liberal, humanitarian agencies considered Iraqi migrants through the lens of the normative ideal of sovereignty, and the way that the illiberal Syrian state governed Iraqi migrants according to very concrete practices, which contradicted the liberal norm, highlighted this argument.