Sociology Professor Andreas Wimmer – DT007
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
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About the Episode
Andreas Wimmer is the Lieber Professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy at Columbia University. Andreas is the author of many books both in English and in German, including, Ethnic Boundary Making: Institutions, Power, Networks, Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation, and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World, and Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together While Others Fall Apart.
Professor Wimmer speaks with Dean Harris about his research on and definitions of nationalism and ethnic exclusion, his turn from anthropology to sociology, and why he uses a wide range of methodological tools to make sense of nationalism, war and ethnicity.
Lieber Professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy at Columbia University
Sociology Professor Andreas Wimmer – DT007
Andreas Wimmer is the Lieber professor of sociology and political philosophy at Columbia University. Andreas is the author of many books both in English and in German, including Ethnic Boundary Making, a book that examines how ethnic and racial groups emerge in societies. He’s also the author of Waves of War, which traces the development of the nation state and its proliferation internationally, and Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together While Others Fall Apart.
I invited Andreas to The Dean’s Table to talk about his work on the timely topic of nationalism, reflect on his turn from anthropology to sociology, and to give us some insight into his decision to use a wide range of methodological tools to make sense of nationalism, war, and ethnicity. Welcome to The Dean’s Table, Andreas.
Andreas Wimmer: Thank you, Fred.
Fred: So, let’s begin at the beginning, not quite the beginning, but your journey as a political sociologist appears to have had some twists and turns. Let’s start with your experience with growing up in Switzerland, a nation many consider to be homogeneous and historically devoid of nationalism. For instance, Switzerland, as you know, is known famously for its neutrality during World War II, as not succumbing to the type of nationalism that evolved in Germany. How did growing up in Switzerland influence your insights, if at all, on nationalism and the role that ethnicity plays in societies?
Andreas Wimmer: Yeah, I think it has deeply influenced me, in the way that how I think about these topics. In a way, Switzerland is an exceptional case. It has three major language groups — German speakers, French speakers, Italian speakers — and there has never been a secessionist movement among these different groups. And in fact, you could say that the language issue is almost not politicized; there’s not a single party speaking for the French speakers, for example, like the Parti Quebecois in Canada or a Scottish Party in the UK. And so, it’s a case where ethnic divides have never really become politicized. And so, growing up, I kind of — and then the Yugoslav Wars came and all of that — so, I kind of always wondered why don’t people just do it the Swiss way?
Andreas Wimmer: Why is there so much conflict along racial, ethnic, and so on, divides around the world? And how can we explain why in some countries it’s much more pronounced and has turned violent, while in other countries such as Switzerland, but also there’s a range of other ones — India has remained relatively peaceful. One of the answers that were kind of obvious when you grew up in Switzerland is that power-sharing and integration of various groups into national level power structures is key for depoliticizing linguistic or racial or religious divides and for maintaining peace.
Fred: Right, right. That’s very interesting. And so, we’ll return to Switzerland I think, but after high school, you didn’t go directly into college. You eventually went to the University of Zurich, but you worked as a dock hand on the Mediterranean because as you once said, you wanted to live a Bohemian life. What was that experience like?
Andreas Wimmer: How did you know that?
Fred: [Laughs] We have our ways.
Andreas Wimmer: I see. [Laughs] I don’t think it’s in my CV. Yeah, so I went on a sailing boat with a friend of mine. We hired ourselves out and traveled around the Western Mediterranean and I had this kind of insurrectional, anti-bourgeois idea that this would be my life and that I would just continue to travel around the world, so, I was always very interested in traveling and speaking other languages, you know, hanging out with people from different places and so on. And so I did this for about nine months.
Fred: Oh, nine months? Not a year?
Andreas Wimmer: Not a full year, yeah. And then I realized that this was a little bit too romantic, maybe.
Andreas Wimmer: And unstable — I ended up on a boat that was owned by a very wealthy British family. And so we were, you know, the deckhands on this boat and it was extraordinarily hierarchical. I kind of — we were not servants. There were other people who were the servants, but we were clearly in the lower caste, as it were, on this boat and I kind of disliked that. So, I thought, maybe I don’t want to spend my life like that on rich people’s sailing boats. And so, I returned back and I thought anthropology is actually a good compromise between, you know, having a more traditional kind of career and the romantic idea of traveling the world. So, I chose anthropology in a not very well informed way, I must say, because it seemed to kind of accommodate my Bohemian instincts the best.
Fred: Right, so, but it seems like you developed some keen observations, some thick descriptions, as anthropologists like to say, about those experiences you had on the Mediterranean those nine months. And so, is that — I guess you talked about a little bit a moment ago — did that get you interested in studying anthropology?
Andreas Wimmer: Yes, it kind of did because in the different ports where we were — we were stuck in one port in Palma de Mallorca for three months and I hung out just in this harbor area. It was kind of a — you know, harbor areas are very often rather rough. And so, we hung out in these bars with sailors and a little bit of the local underworld and I just found all this very interesting and I found the people very interesting. Anthropology kind of allows you to go to places that are very different from the ones that you grew up with and it allows you to, kind of, indulge in your curiosity about how other people think and live. And so, that kind of seemed to be an appropriate and interesting thing for me to study.
Fred: Right. so, you received your PhD at the University of Zurich. What did you do your dissertation on? Was it on the Mediterranean?
Andreas Wimmer: No, my dissertation was on Mexico and Guatemala and I did field work there in the mid-eighties. I went to a very small, rural community somewhere in the Sierra far away from roads and electricity and these kinds of things — and this tells you something about the quality of my PhD education — only when I came back, I realized that there’s a whole literature on these kinds of villages.
Fred: Okay, you didn’t realize that before?
Andreas Wimmer: Not really. Our training was really very bad compared to what you got in a top program here in the US. And so, then I didn’t find it very interesting to write yet another book on yet another village. And so, my dissertation then was trying to comparatively make sense why certain of these indigenous communities that developed historically in a certain direction, develop certain kinds of cultural patterns in political structures and not others. So, I became a kind of a comparative historical sociologist, political sociologist. Although, I had never heard about such a thing, such a subdiscipline existing, but my dissertation is not a traditional anthropological one; it’s not based on my fieldwork.
Fred: Oh, it’s not?
Andreas Wimmer: I only wrote two articles on the fieldwork, but it’s basically based on the comparative evaluation of all these already existing monographies and historical analyses.
Fred: Okay, so that’s interesting. So, you started in anthropology and you ended up as a comparative historical sociologist?
Andreas Wimmer: Kind of, yeah.
Fred: So, before we get to that, how did you switch to the topic of nationalism as an area of study?
Andreas Wimmer: It is loosely connected to my experience in Mexico. So, when arrived there, I also took master classes at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City and that was hardcore Marxism. Although it was an anthropology program, all they did was Marxism, but once I went out into the field, there were these other anthropologists who I met who were aligned with the emerging indigenous movements of Mexico. And these indigenous movements were very strong, led by indigenous intellectuals in the state where I studied, in Oaxaca and they had a kind of a — you could say a nationalist program, an indigenous nationalist program — and the anthropologists supporting them were basically, you know, giving the intellectual tools for them to develop these kinds of programs. So, I became interested also — it wasn’t in my dissertation, or, is it my dissertation? Maybe. I forgot — so, I became interested also in these movements and how they emerged and so on. And then from there, I mean, the topic of nationalism, there’s a large literature on that in sociology and I just got into that. And then all, as I said before, the Yugoslav Wars has happened and all kinds of other conflicts along nationalist lines in the former Soviet Union. So, it just became a topic that a lot of people turned to and so did I.
Fred: So, you have disciplinary interests in both anthropology and sociology. So, you know, you have a wide-ranging interest in — another thing I was fascinated by your work is you use various methodological tools. In your research on nationalism, war, and ethnicity, you’ve used a wide toolbox of quantitative methods like, survey research, and qualitative methods like ethnography. And you’ve even, to my surprise, incorporated mathematical modeling or, what’s called formal modeling into some of your work. Most social scientists employ one or the other. Rarely do they incorporate both quantitative and qualitative methods. Why do you feel that that’s important in your body of work, or how you pursue your research questions?
Andreas Wimmer: I like to use a kind of a tunnel metaphor here. You know, there’s a mountain and we try to understand what’s underneath it. What’s its structure? What are these made off? What are the sediments that make up a mountain? And if you drill one tunnel at a certain height of the mountain, you get a certain impression of what the underlying structure would look like. If you dig in a tunnel at a different height or from a different direction, you will get different picture. And I think digging several tunnels into the same mountains is the way to go if you really want to understand the underlying structure. And so, combining different methods, triangulating as it’s called in the more technical language, is really important to get a full picture of the phenomena that we’re interested in. And I think, you know, a lot of people overestimate, I think, how difficult it is to do things differently. Of course, you will never become a super professional expert in a certain method if you shift around methods, but you can become proficient enough so that, you know, it gets published into good journals and so on. It is relatively easy to do and actually, you know, I learned a lot from my grad students. I learned statistical techniques from a grad student who is now a professor of political science at Michigan. And it just takes a couple of years, but it’s actually really doable. So I think methodological versatility is something that should also be part of our training program. And we do that a little more in sociology than in political science, but I think the combination between quantitative insights, actually knowing how things work in historical reality and in the microprocesses of events and so on, and to combine that with large-scale statistical analyses of many cases, I think it just produces a much richer and denser kind of image of what’s going on.
Fred: Yeah, I think it does and I wish for more work like that, that can embrace those different methodologies. And it’s amazing that you have developed all these competencies and wide, varying methods, so, great work. [Laughs]
Andreas Wimmer: Well, thank you.
Fred: So, let’s switch a little bit specifically to the arguments you’ve made in your different books. So, tell us about your book, Ways of War: Nationalism, State Formation, and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. Tell our listeners what’s that book about?
Andreas Wimmer: So, this book is about how the ideology of nationalism, which is the idea that people should be governed by people who are like them, that like should rule over like, how this ideology has spread and how it has transformed the political order of the world from a world of empires and dynastic states to a world of nation states. And then, how this process is associated with conflict and war, why it, and how it is a, as it were, a conflictual, bloody process. And so, one of the main arguments is that once you have the principle of like-over-like established and a lot of people believe in it, which wasn’t the case in empires, for example, where it was totally fine that a French-speaking nobility would rule over Spanish-speaking or German-speaking over whatever subjects. So, once you have that introduced, then ethnic or racial inequality where certain groups are not represented in government, they are ruled by others, becomes kind of very problematic and becomes illegitimate in the eyes of the people. And if this is not remedied, if you don’t have some kind of political integration and inclusion, then wars are very likely to erupt. And so, most of the civil wars that are fought in the contemporary world, meaning since the Second World War, have to do with these kinds of ethnopolitical exclusion and there are struggles against such ethnopolitical exclusion. So, that’s one of the main take-homes of that book.
Fred: So, do you build on those arguments in that your other book, Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together and Why Others Fail? Similar arguments?
Andreas Wimmer: Well, the big question then is why do some countries have a structure of power where large groups are excluded from power and aren’t represented in national level government and why other countries don’t have that. And that explains then why the transition to the modern nation state is conflict-prone in some cases, but not in others. And we already talked a little bit about Switzerland — Switzerland is a case where obviously, this hasn’t happened. There was no civil war along linguistic lines, ever. And so, the book then tries to understand then why ruling coalitions are more inclusionary in some countries than in others. And the answer is that it has to do with slow-moving factors of political development that pull a country together in the sense of — that generate incentives for rulers to build multiethnic, multiracial, more inclusionary coalitions. And these three factors: one are the early development of civil society organizations, which provide a kind of basis, an organizational basis on which multiethnic alliances can flourish, and then one or the other of these alliances will come to power, and then you have an inclusionary regime. And the second factor is the capacity of the government of the central state to provide public goods across the territory of a country. So, if they have this capacity, they don’t have to limit public goods provisions to their own people. So, they can offer public goods, schools, roads, infrastructure, security, basic stuff across the territory, and therefore, gain the loyalty and knit alliances that are multiethnic in nature, as well, which in turn then again produces more inclusionary ruling coalitions. And the third factor is the ability to communicate with each other, either in a shared language or — that’s one of the cases I look at in this book — through a shared script, as in China. And so, a shared language or a shared script reduces the costs to establish political alliances, it makes it easier to trust each other, to talk, to negotiate an agreement, and so on. And this, in turn then, again has the tendency to produce more, multiethnic, multiracial, multilinguistic, and so on, coalitions and correspondingly, also more inclusionary governments.
Fred: Okay, let’s talk more fine-grain on some of these issues. In an essay you wrote in Foreign Affairs, you wrote about the nuances of patriotism and nationalism and you state: “The popular distinction between patriotism and nationalism echoes the one made by scholars who contrast ‘civic’ nationalism, according to which all citizens, regardless of their cultural background, count as members of the nation, with ‘ethnic’ nationalism, in which ancestry and language determine national identity.” And so, you go on to say: “Yet efforts to draw a hard line between good, civic patriotism and bad, ethnic nationalism overlook the common roots of both. Patriotism is a form of nationalism. They are ideological brothers, not distant cousins.” Are you saying here that nationalism and patriotism are two sides of the same coin?
Andreas Wimmer: Yeah, kind of. You know, in the current political debate, especially in the US, but in other English speaking countries as well, the distinction between nationalism and patriotism has become deeply entrenched. And nationalism now is, as I stated, with white nationalism, with ultra-right populism, and patriotism is then seen as a counterforce to that. And it’s important to know that this distinction is relatively new and it’s only after the Second World War and the experience with fascism that nationalism became associated with the right and that the term becomes kind of almost like, pejorative, at least in the eyes of liberals. Before that, I mean, we can just briefly run through the history of nationalism to see how new and maybe also in a way, misleading, this association with nationalism and racism and white nationalism and so on, actually is. In the nineteenth century, nationalism was associated with liberalism, with classical liberalism, the fight for democracy, the fight for equal rights, the principles of constitutional order built on a legal framework. And then after that, nationalism became associated also with communism and many of the anti-colonial struggles in Vietnam and other parts of the world that were nationalist, anti-imperial struggles. They were led by communist parties in China and Vietnam and in many, many other parts of the developing world. So, nationalism then had made an alliance, as it were, with the communist left. And I could go on and on. So, nationalism is an ideology that is relatively poorly elaborated. You know, the like-over-like principle is not really richly defined. And so, that’s why it can be fused with all kinds of other political ideologies.
Fred: So, what is then your definition of nationalism?
Andreas Wimmer: Well, nationalism demands two things. One is national self-determination — that’s the like-over-like principle. So, Americans should not be ruled by Mexicans or Canadians or the other way around. And the second is that the rulers, political elites, should govern in the name of, but also in the interests, looking out for the interests of the majority of the population rather than their own interests or global interests, such as human rights or global economic stability, and not in the interest of a dynastic family, as in a dynastic states, and so on. And so, these are two of the key principles of nationalist ideologies and you can easily see how these two principles can merge with ideas that come from the left or from the right. So, if you look at the contemporary political debates in the US, you can see that a lot of — for example, presidential candidate Warren’s proposals are actually deeply nationalist. She even asked —
Fred: That’s an interesting take.
Andreas Wimmer: Yeah, she asked for manipulating the exchange rate of the dollar so that in the interest of the working classes in the United States, I mean, that’s a massively economic nationalist proposal and you can see, you know, nationalist rhetorics on the right obviously as well. There it’s more obvious and Trump and others even embrace the term nationalism and use it to define their own position.
Fred: You think that’s a misuse of the term, or?
Andreas Wimmer: Not really. As long as others are aware of that this is not the only nationalist position that one can actually take. So there’s a — it makes me uneasy. You know, there’s disjuncture between how social scientists who have studied nationalism for a long time, like myself, use the term, and how in the public debate the term is identified. And this juncture makes it a little bit hard sometimes to communicate to a larger public.
Fred: Yeah, so that’s interesting. Given your background as a social scientist, you have deep knowledge and understanding of the history of nationalism throughout the world and over time, what do you make of the rise of nationalism globally today, particularly in the United States, as well as in Europe?
Andreas Wimmer: Well, the first thing that one has to emphasize is that nationalism is also deeply embedded in the structures of modern states. So, you have national social security, you have institutionalized solidarity between members of the nation, between citizens who are perfect strangers to each other and yet are called upon to support each other in times of unemployment, old age, and so on. You have national defense forces; the whole military is organized around the idea of the nation and national solidarity and so on. So, nationalism is so deeply embedded that it is always there to be revitalized, to be remobilized. So, the question is, when does that happen? When do explicitly nationalist movements emerge again? And I think one could argue that when the two basic principles of nationalist ideologies are violated, then there is a potential for a movement who reclaims these or wants to put the world back in order emerge. And so, if political sovereignty is transferred away from the nation state, for example, to the level of the European Union, it’s easy to portray this as a violation of the like-over-like principle of nationalism. These people, the Eurocrats in Brussels, they decide on our daily lives. For example, they decided to have free labor movement basically tear down the borders in these vast spaces of Europe. So, all of a sudden, people have to compete with Eastern Europeans and so on, on the local labor market. And second, if political elites seem, or actually do rule not with an eye on the interests of the majority of the population, but global interests such as global economic growth, human rights, and things like that, and if the living standards as a consequence of vast majorities of the populations stagnate because they actually have, all of a sudden, to compete either with immigrants domestically or with foreign workers abroad as a consequence of global economic integration, then it’s relatively easy to portray the situation, both with left or right wing rhetorics, as a sellout of the interests of the nation to global elites, to global interests, to a vague, unbelievable principle of human rights, and so on. So, I don’t find it surprising at all that we are in this moment of resurgent nationalism. I’m surprised that everybody’s surprised because there were previous waves of nationalist mobilization that responded to very similar structural conditions.
Fred: Even in the US?
Andreas Wimmer: Well in the US, you could say that in the 20s, and the 30s, you did have a, you know, a nativist mobilization and you had policies that then were actually quite nationalist in content, in the substance of what they proposed. So, it’s not the first time that we have nativism and things like that in the US. So, of course these structural conditions, they also then need leadership. So, you need somebody who can mobilize this discontent, give it a nationalist framing and so on. And then you have diffusion effects, you know, one learns from the other, what kind of rhetorics work. And you can see that now, how certain tropes from the nationalist right are traveling around the world, deep state and all the, you know, conspiracy type of theories are associated with the nationalist right, with anti-elite rhetorics, and so on, that are spreading throughout the world very quickly. So, we have these kinds of things, diffusion effects, as well, but I think the underlying structural driving forces are actually relatively clear. Diffusion means that two similar items, for example, two similar policies appear in two different countries not because domestic conditions were similar, giving rise to a similar response, a similar policy, but because one country learned from the other, one country imitates the other. Similarity then, is the result of such imitation and learning processes and not similar structural conditions.
Fred: Yeah, so you talked about nationalism and how it’s deeply embedded within societies, but there is a counternarrative to this worldview or scholarly view. What about the role of ethnic or racial difference or diversity? You have argued that ethnic diversity should not be used as a causal factor in conflict research, a perspective that runs counter in the field. So, can you explain why ethnicity matters less in political conflict than many may assume?
Andreas Wimmer: Yeah, so, by the time I started to write about how political exclusion along ethnic lines drives conflict, there was the mainstream — that’s mostly political science research and some of my research was also published in political science journals — the mainstream idea was that all of these factors, such as ethnopolitical exclusion, grievances, and so on, injustice, had nothing to do with civil war and that civil war was basically a matter of the capacity of a state to suppress rebellion, so, a matter of the repressive capacity of a regime, or alternatively, whether there were resources around, such as diamonds and so on, that attracted, basically, conflict. And according to that view, ethnicity actually doesn’t matter whatsoever. And the way that these authors in that line of research tried to show that is by — they used a simple measurement of ethnic diversity, how many language groups, how many religious groups you have in a country — and they showed that this is not actually associated with the probability of having a civil war. And I agree with that, but I think, and we show empirically, that what does matter is not diversity per se, but whether you have political inequality along ethnic or racial lines. And so, two countries that are perfectly similar in terms of the demographic makeup, how many minorities you have and so on; in one, you might have a small minority ruling the whole country, such as in South Africa under apartheid, or in contemporary Syria where the Alawi are ten percent of the population, but control the entire government, the entire security apparatus of the army, and so on. So, you have a country like that, where civil war is almost inevitable or the probability is very high, and you have a similar country, similarly sized minority groups, and so on, but where the majority and minorities are represented in national level government and you will have peace in that kind of country. So, what matters is not diversity, it’s not demography that matters, that it’s political power structures and how they are or are not associated with ethnic and racial diversity.
Fred: Okay, well, let’s look at some particular cases, Andreas. So, let’s see if we can find an exception, perhaps.
Andreas Wimmer: Oh, I’m sure you can.
Fred: How do you think your arguments would hold up in current ethnic secession movements, such as in Catalonia? This is a group of Spaniards who want to secede from the nation state and form their own because of their perceived ethnic difference. They have their own language, cuisine, literature. So, how does your case hold up there?
Andreas Wimmer: Yes, I’m glad you bring these examples because there’s some others that are much more tricky.
Fred: Oh, wow. Well, please share.
Andreas Wimmer: So, in Catalonia — Catalonia has a history of being sidelined by the central government. Under Franco, under the fascist dictator, Catalonia was associated, rightly, with the left.
Fred: Now, before you go in, could you remind our listeners who was Franco?
Andreas Wimmer: Franco was a dictator, a fascist dictator, that ruled from the thirties on until his death in ‘76, or something. And so, during these long decades, Catalonia was actually politically, you would say, oppressed and Catalan-speaking elites were sidelined. So, after his death, during the political reform, things became better, civil liberties were re-established, and so on, and there was some devolution of power to Catalonia, but the national government continued to be largely controlled by Castilian, meaning by mainstream Spanish people. And you have very, very few Catalan governors in central level government. And Catalan nationalists would argue — that’s beyond, you know, my knowledge — they would argue that the ones that actually did serve, the Catalan-origin ministers and so on, that they were basically figureheads, had no real power, did not effectively represent the interests of the Catalan-speaking population and so on. And so, in that situation of — it’s a relatively mild form, let’s not, you know, compare it just to Syria, but it’s a, it’s a much milder form, but you still have some political disadvantage and exclusion from the center, from the point of view of Catalonia. Now, unfortunately, with recent developments, now you have a situation where police officers from the highland, from Madrid, are sent to Catalonia. There’s some indiscriminate repression against Catalan nationalists that’s happening that will only further the flames of Catalan nationalism. And all you need in the current situation is a bunch of young men who get some Kalashnikovs somewhere and go underground and then you have a real problem. And I’m very pessimistic about —
Fred: Oh, really?
Andreas Wimmer: — about the situation there. And I think the central government has made some very big mistakes in how to handle the situation. Power-sharing at the center should be what they do, rather than sending police officers to quell the unrest.
Fred: So, let’s get into some real politics here. So, you have the distinct privilege of being the chair of the faculty-run Policy and Planning Committee at Columbia, known more commonly at Columbia as the PPC. The PPC is the only body elected to represent the faculty of arts and sciences to the university leadership. As you know, each division in the school of arts and sciences has its own representatives on the PPC — natural scientists, humanists, and, of course, social scientists. Given your career-long research in the matters of conflict, war, identity —
Andreas Wimmer: [laughs]
Fred: — how has your research helped you guide the work of the PPC? [Laughs]
Andreas Wimmer: [Laughs] Oh, that’s fun. Um, I’ve never thought about my research being relevant for this work in any way whatsoever, so let me think about that a little. Well, I do think — okay, so right now speculating, just having fun — okay, I do think that the equal representation of the different divisions on this body and the principle of rotating chair man/woman-ship is actually a good thing, according to my theory, it should keep the peace between the divisions. I do think, I mean, if you imagine a different scenario where the PPC would be exclusively social scientists and headed by social scientists, I mean, you could predict that this would lead to some kind of unrest and discontent. So, the principle of representation and power-sharing works maybe for academic institutions like that, as well as for countries as a whole.
Fred: Right, so it works; it’s almost like Switzerland, right? We’re all deep Columbians in many ways.
Andreas Wimmer: Right, yes.
Fred: So, this has been wonderful. Andreas, thanks for coming through The Dean’s Table.
Andreas Wimmer: Thank you very much.
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The Dean’s Table is produced by Ursula Sommer with production assistance from Jack Reilly. Our technical engineers are A.J. Mangone and Airiayana Sullivan. Our researchers are Emma Flaherty and Angeline Lee. Our logo is by Jessica Lilien. Our music is by Imperial. I’m Dean Harris.