Research page

Project Description

How is violence possible?
How does one human being know how to harm another?
Face-to-face, body-to body, side-by-side, scream-to-scream, blow-to-blow?
How do ordinary people, just like you, become war criminals?
What are the sources of political evil?
And how do we stop them?

The Violence Prevention (VIPRE) Initiative asks difficult questions. Unlike most approaches to political violence, the team at VIPRE seeks to understand the concrete ‘doing’ of violence. We explore the conditions of possibility that see very ordinary human beings, just like you, the person reading these words, become a source of pain, suffering, and death. Our goal is to understand how bodies – bodies that we feel to be good – can do bad, can see their muscles tense to flick out the motor movements that do harm, can see their emotional response to witnessing another cry out in pain, begging them to stop, offer no resistance, and can commit these acts in symmetry with other bodies across borders, in a choreography of violence that echoes its movements here at home, and over there abroad, wherever that may be. And we seek to prevent that from occurring. We do so by drawing on cutting edge social theory, unique micro-sociological methods of analysis, deep field-based research immersion, and a fundamentally trans-disciplinary outlook, as well as critical engagements with leading humanitarian and human rights-focused organizations.

Those basic research activities feed into our work developing both novel approaches to preventing political violence and, more broadly, into work that reconsiders the general socio-political status of contemporary social science. Specific to violence, VIPRE suggests that it is possible to prevent violence in a similar way to that by which we prevent, or minimize the damage caused by, public health problems like traffic accidents, smoking, alcoholism, infectious diseases, or firearm-related deaths. Efforts to prevent these problems focus not simply on the ‘original causes’ of harm (driving while intoxicated, for example) but also on mitigating the risk of harm and/or damage inflicted once these original causes are set in motion by placing ‘intervening’ obstacles or ‘firewalls’ in front of these risks/harms (constructing crash barriers on roads or cars that beep when seatbelts are not worn, for example). VIPRE explores the possibility of constructing similar barriers or firewalls vis-à-vis political violence by drawing on material-semiotic, posthumanist, pragmatist, and cognate social theories, conducting deep-empirical research into the embodied and ecological enaction of violence (through perpetrator-engagement and visual analysis), and by developing a novel post-disciplinary  research programme bringing together sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, architects, technologists, design theorists, and artists to develop an array of material-aesthetic modes of (global) social and political intervention.
 

Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories arrest a protestor in Hebron, Palestine. Photo credit: Jonathan Luke Austin.

Main Foci

 

Ecological Social Theory 

VIPRE sits at the cutting edge of conceptual social science. Specifically, our approach to understanding the conditions of possibility underlying violence draws on a combination of pragmatist sociology, cosmopolitical social theory, posthumanist philosophy, and assemblage theory. Broadly speaking, and to simplify, we refer to our combination of these approaches as producing an ‘ecological’ conceptual understanding of social action. These theoretical approaches are drawn on across VIPRE’s work in order to understand 1) the micro-sociological and/or ‘practical’ contours through which specific violent acts are locally enacted, 2) the ways in which those little local moments of violence are globally structured through their enmeshing in broader networks, ecologies, or fields of practice, and 3) the extra-human (material, technological, etc.) factors that increase the possibility of violence in particular settings. Our work in this area allows us to re-consider political violence beyond legal, ideational, or institutional understandings by focusing on how violence often emerges ‘non-purposefully’ due to a turbulent and emergent set of social conditions, human emotional and affective reactions, material-technological infrastructures, and aesthetic factors.

Perpetrator Inclusion

Core to VIPRE is the view that the human figure of the perpetrator has been for too long excluded from scientific inquiries into the conditions of possibility underlying political violence. While perpetrators have been integrated into ideational studies of the discourses that enable violence or have been actively designated as the targets of legal interventions, concrete inquiries into the ‘personhood’ of perpetrators have often been lacking. In recent years, this omission has been challenged through the development of a perpetrator studies research agenda across numerous research centres. VIPRE’s research team has been central to this effort. Specifically, as part of its empirical research, VIPRE’s team have conducted extended ethnographic interviews with perpetrators of war crimes from Syria, the United States, Iraq, Canada, and beyond. These interviews have focused on understanding the non-purposeful drivers of abuse that VIPRE focuses on. Our goal in this work has been to humanize the figure of the perpetrator and – in so doing – to conceptualise new modes of intervening into the drivers of the violence they perpetrate.

Visual Interrogations

Complementing its direct empirical research with perpetrators of violence, VIPRE is also carrying out extensive analysis of user-generated images from conflict zones. This most prominently includes the collection and ethnomethodological analysis of videos produced by perpetrators of war crimes (torture, mutilation, summary executions, etc.), depicting their own actions, and which have been released to a variety of online platforms for different reasons. Visual material of this kind is distinct from the spectacular and aestheticized videos produced by organizations like ISIS or the US military, which have until now been at the centre of most visual analysis. The images analyzed by VIPRE lack spectacular components and are instead the closest kinds of images we possess to the granular enaction of war crimes ‘as they really happened’ in different settings. VIPRE applies a variety of quantitative and qualitative tools of analysis to explore these videos, focused most prominently on drawing out the material, technological, affective, and aesthetic drivers of the abuse depicted by drawing on concepts and tools from within micro-sociology, ethnomethodology, science and technology studies, and related fields.

Material-Aesthetics

As it has developed, VIPRE has begun to pay particularly close attention to the ways in which materiality, technology, and aesthetics are closely implicated in the scope and nature of political violence across the world. Our work has explored, for instance, the ways in which seemingly banal objects (chairs, radios, etc.) possess particular histories and capacities that can – in certain circumstances – directly drive the nature of political violence. More broadly, VIPRE has uncovered the ways in which expansive technological infrastructures have rapidly accelerated the circulation of cultural, material, or other objects that increase violence, or alter its nature. Within this frame, our work has consistently understood the material-technological as not simply a ‘technical’ object of concern but also a fundamentally aesthetic one, particularly by inquiring into how the effects of material-technological objects upon human praxis principally become operative through the ways in which their aesthetic design can or cannot create particular affective, emotional, or functional resonances.

Design and Social Science 

VIPRE is empirically focused on violence, and the possibility of its prevention. However, our concerns in addressing this topic are broader and the conceptual framework we have developed can be applied to a panoply of (world) political issues. As such, VIPRE is also concerned with understanding more generally how core social science disciplines (sociology, political science, anthropology, etc.) can be reconfigured towards taking a more active ‘applied’ role in the world. There are many challenges to this task given the dividing lines that have long been believed to exist between the natural, social, applied, etc. sciences. As part of its work, VIPRE is thus engaging with the social scientific community to begin a process of re-considering the status of ‘critique’ and ‘collaboration’ within its research activities. Much of this work has been influenced by VIPRE’s understanding of the material-aesthetic (technological or not) drivers of political violence. The emerging understanding that political violence often occurs non-purposefully due to the global circulation of material-aesthetic artifacts demands that social science consider whether it must extend the nature of its praxis beyond pure, basic, or fundamental modes of ‘knowledge production’ and towards developing material-aesthetic interventions into the fabric of (world) politics. As part of this debate, members of VIPRE have begun developing a research programme known as International Political Design, which seeks to combine social scientific insights with those of design scientists, architects, engineers, and technologists.

More details about VIPRE’s research activities, including a series of white papers and further documentation on the interventions against violence it has proposed, can be found on its dedicated web portal.
 

Former Baathist-era prison cell in Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq. Photo Credit: Jonathan Luke Austin.

Organization and Origins 

VIPRE is financed through the Swiss National Science Foundation’s (SNSF) interdisciplinary Sinergia programme and brings together researchers whose expertise cuts across political science, sociology, anthropology, organization studies, and beyond. VIPRE’s origins lie in the activities of its Lead Researcher, Jonathan Luke Austin, who has worked extensively on the conditions of possibility underlying violent of human rights abuses, work that forms the core theoretical, conceptual, and empirical base of VIPRE. Complementing this, VIPRE’s three co-PIs possess extensive expertise on the politics and practice of military and security development (Krause), field-leading conceptual work on private military companies, the social theory of assemblages, and collaborationist research methodologies (Leander), as well as on the politics of international organizations and the middle eastern region (Bocco). VIPRE is based at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) and its work is supported by two doctoral candidates who act as research assistants. In addition to this core team, VIPRE is supported by scientific and practitioner advisor boards, and has – throughout its research to date – actively collaborated with members of inter alia the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY), the Forensic Architecture (FA) research group, the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Security Technologies and Societal Values (NORDSTEVA), and beyond.
 

VIPRE in Action

Austin presents on Designing Against Violence during Geneva Peace Week.
Participants chat at the 2019 Post-Critique and International Relations workshop in Rio de Janeiro.
Leander presents at the 2018 World Political Compositions workshop in San Francisco.
Jef Huysmans and Joao Nogueira present at the 2018 VIPRE opening workshop at the University of Copenhagen.
Press coverage of VIPRE’s activities in the Tribune de Geneve.
A mini VIPRE exhibition on the Double Lives of Objects.
Austin presents on the public opening plenary of the 2019 European Workshops in International Studies in Krakow.
Leander presents at the 2018 VIPRE opening workshop at the University of Copenhagen.
Press coverage of VIPRE’s activities in the magazine Horizons.
A mini VIPRE exhibition on The Composite State.
Programme for the 2018 VIPRE workshop on World Political Compositions held in San Francisco.

Key Publications

 

Towards an International Political Ergonomics

Austin, Jonathan Luke. European Journal of International Relations, 25 (4), Link here
    
This article introduces International Political Ergonomics. International Political Ergonomics is a novel research programme focused on achieving political change through the ergonomic (re)design of world politics. The approach is grounded on a shift across International Relations which recognizes that its epistemic (i.e. knowledge producing) core is often inadequate to achieve change. Insights from the practice turn and behaviouralist International Relations, as well as from philosophy, sociology and neuroscience, demonstrate that much international behaviour is driven by the ‘unconscious’ or ‘non-reflexive’ re-articulation of repertoires of actions even where the pathologies of this process are known. This implies that knowledge production and dissemination (i.e. to policymakers, global publics) is often unable to effect influence over social practices. What is thus required is a non-epistemic means of producing world political change. International Political Ergonomics is a research programme that takes up this task. It does so by describing how small material interventions into world politics can radically shift individual behaviours by encouraging greater rationality, reflexivity and deliberation. After laying out the theoretical basis for this claim, the article demonstrates it by detailing the application of International Political Ergonomics to violence-prevention efforts. The article concludes by reflecting on the radical implications that International Political Ergonomics has for the vocation of International Relations.

Becoming a torturer: Towards a global ergonomics of care

Austin, Jonathan Luke and Bocco, Riccardo, International Review of the Red Cross, 98 (903), Link here

How do people become torturers? And how do we stop that transformation? This article addresses these questions by calling on academics and practitioners to consider caring for – expressing sympathy, understanding, and working with – the figure of the “not-quite-yet” torturer. We begin by noting the globality of torture across space and regime type, and suggest that this globality indicates how torture is – very frequently – not the result of any decision or order. This is followed by a discussion of the “consciousness” of the torturer vis-à-vis (1) their paradoxical emotional scarring by their own actions, and (2) their frequent descriptions of having, indeed, never themselves “intended” to torture someone. Drawing on recent developments in the theory of consciousness, we then argue that this non-purposeful enaction of torture can be understood in terms of certain somatic markers that lead, in particular material-situational settings, to people slipping towards violence. Drawing on the theory of the emergence of violence put forward by Jonathan Luke Austin, we then sketch out more fully the process of becoming a torturer in terms of the situational and material dynamics that encourage these slippages, as well as a global circulatory system of violent knowledges through various sources that become activated in particular settings. We thus suggest that becoming a torturer is more a process of transition than of decision, before noting that this distinction is often lost in the cultural cycle of torture that emerges once torture has begun. Finally, we move to outlining the implications of this non-purposeful understanding of torture by arguing for a new preventive strategy based on the principles of ergonomics and modifying the training regimes of the most common professions from which torturers emerge (the military, the police, etc.) in order to make it harder to slip towards violence. We suggest, ultimately, that this strategy of prevention requires placing ourselves in the uncomfortable position of working to care for both the becoming-torturer and the torturers themselves, in order to help them both preserve their own humanity.

Sticky security: the collages of tracking device advertising

Leander, Anna. European Journal of International Security, 4 (3), Link here

In security studies and beyond, technological developments are associated with technocratic, rationalistic, transparent forms of security governed from a distance. In much of the advertising of tracking devices the associations made are very different, even opposed, to this perspective. The advertising composes security anchored in sensemaking and resonance rather than calculus and reason, working from within and below rather than from a above at distance and depending on the negotiation of opaque co-presences rather than the establishment of precision and transparency. The consequence is that advertising not only extends but also deepens the grip of military/security matters: making them sticky. Moreover, the heterogeneity of the elements is such that what is composed is a shifting collage rather than a stable composition. This argument makes a threefold contribution to security studies: a theoretical reconceptualisation of what it means to compose security, an empirical intervention in the debates surrounding the politics of tracking devices and a methodological intervention in favour of collaborationist research strategies.

The Departed Militant: A portrait of joy, violence, and political evil

Austin, Jonathan Luke. Security Dialogue, in press.

This is an essay about the personhood of militant violence, the phenomenological underpinnings of political evil and the friendship between two men. It begins by recounting the author’s street-side meeting with several Islamist militants in Tripoli, Lebanon, one of whom later described his preparations to become a ‘martyr’ in Syria. The essay takes my conversations with this man and his friends as a means of exploring the becoming of violent militancy as a fundamentally creative and essentially joyful series of encounters that lead to the emergence of extreme violence. To do so, I read the narrative account at the centre of the essay through the concept of social and political ‘fracturing’, which is described as the process through which individuals or groups are able to transcend traditional limits on knowledge, action and belief. This discussion of social and political fracturing is then brought into conversation with the question of what constitutes social or political evil in order to demonstrate that debates over what produces violent militant mobilization have generally missed the crucial relevance of a set of small, intimate and embodied rituals that suffuse evil, violence and war-fighting more generally with a fundamentally positive (yet eventually destructive) phenomenology.
 

Sticky security: the collages of tracking device advertising, Leander, Anna. European Journal of International Security, 4 (3)
Becoming a torturer: Towards a global ergonomics of care, Austin, Jonathan Luke and Bocco, Riccardo, International Review of the Red Cross, 98 (903)
Towards an International Political Ergonomics, Austin, Jonathan Luke. European Journal of International Relations, 25 (4)

Media and Public Engagement

VIPRE’s work has been profiled and reported on by different media organizations, targeted at the general public, political communities, and other stakeholders. Recent coverage of VIPRE has appeared in inter alia, the Tribune de Genève, the independent outlet Jet d’encre, and the Swiss National Science Foundation’s (SNSF) public-focused Horizons magazine. Given the advanced state of its basic research activities, VIPRE is now moving to focusing on public and practitioner engagement. As part of this work, a series of public exhibitions exploring the conditions of possibility underlying political violence are envisaged, as well as a series of practitioner-focused workshops.
 

Coverage of VIPRE’s research in Horizons

Workshops and Events

VIPRE regularly convenes workshops related to its core theoretical, empirical, and methodological themes, bringing together scholars working across the field of IR (beyond violence prevention) who share a common concern with re-understanding international practice. VIPRE also coordinates smaller ad-hoc events, seminars, and meetings, as well as participating in international conferences and meetings. For details are available on the main project website.

Further Information

For additional information on VIPRE’s research and outreach activities, as well as to get in touch with us, please visit our main project platform.

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