Political Violence, Design, Critique & Prevention: Interview with Jonathan Luke Austin, PhD
What does it look like to work in the field of political violence prevention? If you want to learn about how the worlds of policy, practice, and academia come together to address this crucial topic, then the work Dr. Jonathan Luke Austin will not only educate but also inspire you. Dr. Austin is one of my former PhD classmates and an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark. This past April, I had the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Dr. Austin, in Geneva, about his diverse yet converging professional portfolio. By reading the following interview you will learn about: Dr. Austin’s rational for writing a dissertation which stands at the intersection of political violence, torture, and the Middle East; the choice of interviewing perpetrators and survivors of torture to help understand the effects that this type of action can have on the two distinct yet interconnected set of individuals; the impactful work he accomplishes on political violence prevention and awareness with international organizations (such as the ICRC) and students (in Switzerland and Denmark); the conferences he conceives of and attends that are meant to reconceptualize international relations theory and design; the transferable and unique set of skills that students gain while successfully completing a PhD dissertation that can thereafter be perceived as a big asset for work environments placed outside of academia; and much more. As always, the article concludes with the interviewee’s valuable advice to junior scholars and practitioners who are interested in following a similar line of research and work as the one discussed in this interview.
Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. Currently, you are an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen. Your research agenda focuses on four main axes: 1) political violence, 2) political design, 3) political aesthetics, and 4) the contemporary state of scientific critique. Furthermore, you hold over a decade of work experience in the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq). You obtained your PhD, summa cum laude avec les félicitations du jury, in International Relations from the Geneva Graduate Institute in 2017. Further, you were also awarded the Alumni Association Prize for the Best Doctoral Dissertation defended between 2014-2019 in International Relations and Political Science, by the Graduate Institute. Your dissertation is titled: “Small Worlds of Violence: A Global Grammar for Torture.” Could you please describe your PhD thesis to those unfamiliar with your work? Furthermore, how did this major work help guide your research interests after you completed the dissertation?
2017 is a while ago now, but I will try to contextualize the dissertation. As you can tell from the title, the dissertation is about political violence and torture. The dissertation was based largely on the time I spent in the Middle East, and specifically in Syria. It came from having a strong interest in the Middle East, on various different levels, and not only from having a purely academic interest in the region. I was also interested in learning more about: the revolution (or uprising, or civil war that begun in 2011), which began, as everybody knows, a painful process for the Syrian people, including a continuation of a legacy of torture in the country, that had been going on for a long time, but exploded into the open, including in ways that affected some of the people I had known in Syria quite well.
While I was thinking about a dissertation project, my interest came unexpectedly from those current events and a desire to understand how political violence (as much as we were witnessing at that moment), could explode into our consciousness very suddenly and unexpectedly. And torture became a particular focus in that, because of the Syrian context for me.
The dissertation was essentially an attempt to understand how a society, which in the case of Syria for example (in my experience there, which previously was one of peacefulness, happiness, and things being normal): How a society like that can turn really into a center for global torture very quickly? And in particular, how young men (especially 18 years old) can carry out acts of violence, like this. And, what it does to the society in which this occurs. As well as, what it does to the people who carry out these acts. And, of course, what does it do to the survivals of them.
The dissertation essentially tried to achieve this by taking a very global perspective. My main fields were political violence in Syria and torture in Syria. The dissertation tried to understand that by contextualizing it globally and transnationally. So to see torture as something that is not unique to a dictatorial or authoritarian regime, but it is actually very intimately connected to every aspect of our lives and every place in the world, by tracing the historical, technological, and cultural connections across space that make torture actually something that is possible and thinkable: despite the fact that, of course, now we are sitting here in Geneva, next to the United Nations; despite the fact that most countries deny they ever carry out torture; despite the fact that most people do not want to do it, and despite the fact that it is legally prohibited by most states in the word. So how can it still be possible?
As such, the dissertation was an attempt to trace how torture circulates across minds, bodies, cultures, the media in different ways, and how that makes it easier to carry out. And I will not go into the conceptual or more theoretical approaches that I use in the thesis, but methodologically, it involved interviewing perpetrators of torture at some length in Beirut, Lebanon, at the beginning of 2014. So interviewing people who had carried out these acts, who were largely, again 18-year-old men who were conscripted into the army. And, trying to understand their version of events, in terms of how they started doing this. As well as of course interviewing survivors of torture and understanding the effects of those actions on them. And then, discussing also with the international organizations and various other people involved in monitoring war crimes and atrocities. And of course looking for legal accountability and connecting this also with videos of political violence: because in the Syrian case it is quite notable that it was one of the first conflicts in which almost every aspect of it, every single thing that happened (from protest movements in the beginning in 2011 to massacres of protesters, to acts of torture) was filmed by civilians, or by people carrying these things out. And so, it also involves studying those visual materials to try to gain a very granular understanding, an in depth, almost ethnographic understanding of what the reality of these things are. The realities of these experiences, as opposed to staying within the relative comfort of a legal or theoretical analysis, which does not necessarily grasp at what it means to really live though these events.
The core of the dissertation was to understand how torture becomes possible. And how young men are able to carry out these acts, even when in most cases, they do not desire to do so and that it is very psychologically harmful for them. And then, how all of that is connected to global networks of power, of circulation of materials (such as weaponry), but also the circulation of knowledge (from different intelligence agencies around the world, or different forms of trainings). And so, for example, how you can see patterns of torture echoing across the world. So, for example, what is reason for which North Korean and American perpetrators of torture use identical techniques, despite one state being a democracy and one being an authoritarian / quasi-totalitarian regime? Or why do people use exactly the same techniques?
Thus, the dissertation was an attempt to trace this global network of violence and had the ultimate goal of trying to understand: How might we then be able to intervene more effectively into these conditions of possibility for violence?
Which is largely where the dissertation then led me afterwards. Because of course that after studying political violence for some time – and I think we will come to this latter into the interview, in terms of what it means to do a PhD dissertation – it is very intense, four or five years of work. And particularly when you are studying political violence, in the terms I just described, after a while you would like to, I believe, most people would like to find some way of interrupting these processes, to intervene against them. And so, that is probably the first way the dissertation influenced what I did afterwards, in the sense that the thesis really focused on the complexity of these events: the fact that there is no straightforward answer. I said a few times, it is actually difficult to see even perpetrators of extreme violence as really deciding to do these things, as really wanting to do them. That does not mean, I should be clear, that we cannot hold people responsible or legally accountable, it just means that when you get into the complexity of these things it is not black and white. And that then, of course, makes it difficult to then think about how we intervene against things like political violence but also social problems far more broadly.
Q2. To get a more detailed understanding of how your PhD morphed into new projects later: Could you please describe which project you started right after you completed your dissertation?
After the PhD, I started a different project, where I tried to think about how we could intervene against political violence in very similar ways that we might intervene against domestic problems in domestic societies.
The analogy we always used was: How is extensive research, legal infrastructure, and practical work put into stopping road traffic accident in every state around the world? A lot of people die on cars, in the motorway, around the world, and this is obviously a serious public health problem and two aspects of trying to prevent this are legal and ethical. To be more specific, we are all trained to drive, and in doing so, that training is supposed to instill in us some norms about how we are supposed to behave. And this step also includes legal norms, such as: You cannot drive intoxicated in any way. That also has an ethical component: If you do this then you might kill someone and that would be your responsibility. And thus, there is a legal accountability aspect: If you do this, you might get caught and go to prison, etc.
But these modes of public intervention do not stop there because they know that human beings are fallible and that people will do this, even when they have been trained. They know that people will drive, while intoxicated, when they are too tired, and things like this might happen. So, at the same time, there are very strong material things put into place to try to prevent road traffic accidents and deaths on roads. This includes: little rumble strips on the sides of the motorways and highways so that if you go too far to the right, it will jolt the car up and down to try to wake people up if they are asleep; or the little beeping indicator when you try to put your seatbelt on; etc. And these little material interventions, which seem insignificant, are really designed to try to make people think about what they are doing and change their behavior.
And so, in our project, we tried to think about if we could think about doing similar things in relation to political violence. And, the project stayed at quite a conceptual level, because it is very difficult to do this kind of work, of course. But we also discussed a lot with, for example, practitioners at the ICRC, where they have similar interests (such as, for example: redesigning the architecture of prisons, which changes people’s behavior quite substantially but does not really rely on giving people better education in ethics, or human rights, or anything like that; it is really only about changing the material environment which might then change people’s behavior).
That was the first way in which the dissertation fed into further research aspects. Which then also span into completely different directions in terms of simply looking at the place of technology in contemporary society and understanding the fact that our material environment affects us strongly. For example, the interview recording we are doing now, would not have happened 10 – 15 years ago, and so: What does it mean to live in a society like this, at this moment? What does it mean for everything we do to be mediated thorough digital technologies? And is that manipulating our behavior? Is it a good thing? And of course, the answer is always: yes and no.
But that is the furthest spin off: If I started with political violence, and then political violence in terms of technology, materiality, and intervening through things that go beyond ideas. Then, that span into the broader question of society, at the technological level. And then, there were various other things, but I will not go into everything I do because academics can talk too long about their different projects.
Q3. This is a fascinating conversation. I am impressed to see how your research trajectory transported you to different research questions, past the PhD, and at the same time, to be able to understand, how all your research questions are in fact related. Now, I would like to discuss your research from the point of view of the type of skills that you believe you gained, in retrospect, when you did your PhD. By that I mean, I am curious to understand if you notice some, so called ‘transferable skills,’ which you learned a few years ago, but that you now continue to apply in your research. For instance, do you notice that there are certain skills that you gained during your PhD studies that can be applied not only to academia but also to other industries? I am curious to hear your perception about that because nowadays it seems to be difficult for some people to understand that academia allows individuals to gain certain skills that are easily transferable to other industries. And in order to help link academia, policy, and practice, a conversation about transferable skills needs to happen more often.
Thank you, I will start by focusing on the second part of the question.
The question of what it is that you gain form doing a PhD, gives an answer that is always very simple. By doing a PhD, you learn to think deeply about one question, or a set of questions that are related. But it is really this ‘thinking deeply’ aspect that is the important thing to me about doing a doctoral dissertation. It is probably the longest piece of research that even any academic is ever going to do. It is when you have the most time to deeply think about one thing, for years. And, of course, this will naturally translate into academic projects afterwards.
I think that the transferability of the academic skills rests from that depth of that thought process. Because, of course, depending on the type of dissertation you will do, you will gain specific methodological skills. For example, if you are doing a dissertation with a quantitative methodological focus, you will gain quantitative skills, which are then transferable to countless domains. If you do a qualitative dissertation, you will gain other methodological skills (like for example: interviewing, text analysis and document analysis), which are again skills that are transferable to enumerable different fields.
Very obviously you might gain specific area studies expertise, again transferable to countless different domains. One way or the other, we can see this in people who after finishing their PhD, they move to the United Nations, or to different organizations, because area studies skills are very important. So, these are very specific skills that you will gain, which are self evidently transferable.
I think that the thing that people think about the least is this question about thinking deeply and in-depth about a topic and a specific question and how that aspect transfers into quite a unique set of skills, which are harder to find amongst people who have not had the time, or opportunity, or in fact the privilege to do that kind of work. Because I think that whatever organization or profession that people go into afterwards, that experience (of really thinking deeply), allows you to think beyond specific paradigms of how people ponder the organizations or tasks that they are involved in. So, it is really this capacity to look beyond what is going on at the moment, which I think provides a very unique transferable skill. This kind of innate ability to look beyond the present moment and think deeply about where we might be going.
So, I think that when it comes to the transferability of academic skills, the most important skill is to be able to look slightly into the future, because you have this experience of really looking deeply into something, and then beyond the contemporary conundrum of it. And then once you have done that once, and you have seen the process unfold, you can apply it to many different settings, when you move into them. And, it is really, I think, this ability to think differently and think creatively, that doing a PhD provides. That is actually one of the reasons that huge numbers of employers actually value people who have done this kind of work, because it brings in someone with an alternative kind of angle of how to look at the world, or the set of problems that the organization is looking at, which is quite unique.
And so, to me it is really this: How do you transfer this in-depth, going into the details of everything style of work? This skill transfers into the ability to potentially transform the particular settings that you go into, in one way or another, in a modest way. It gives the skills and ability to really think differently about the places you are working in. That is the biggest transferable skill that academia provides. I think this skill is undervalued and a lot of people who have done a PhD do not even realize that they have this capacity because in academia it is often not discussed that in fact that is one of the main skills you are learning.
Q4. In order for readers to better understand and grasp the applicability of the skills you gained while conducting your PhD studies to the work you later accomplished outside of academia, I would like to ask: Can you give some examples of work collaborations you have had thus far (for example with international organizations, be that in Geneva, or in other parts of the globe)?
A lot of work on violence prevention and current projects we are developing are in collaboration with organizations such as the ICRC and other academic institutions which are in different fields.
For example, we work with the technology center at the EPFL, in Lausanne, to answer humanitarian questions from different angles. We are currently developing a few projects with them in which we are trying to bring together social scientists, humanitarian focused practitioners, and applied scientists.
I think that this gets slightly back to your previous question about transferable skills. I find that social scientists are most useful and creative when they work in collaboration with practitioners and scientists from various backgrounds. And, when working together, they produce a very different kind of knowledge. As such, I have always found that these types of collaborations are extremely interesting because suddenly there are synergies that emerge between people who have thematically very similar interests. When you put together people who have the same thematic interest, but who have a very different set of skills, together they can produce something that is more than the sum of the parts.
Q5. Moving onwards to the work that you do with your students. On your website, jonathanlukeaustin.com, you posted a video called: “Grievable / Ungrievable: A short dance-based film encapsulating my work on political violence.” In it one may see how ordinary daily objects (such as: chairs, wires, buckets), may be re-purposed and thus utilized as objects that may inflict torture. For me, the music and the dance stir up various emotions and make me wonder even more about the interplay between arts, politics and the (re)presentations of violence, not only in the media but also in films. I would be curious to learn about the meaning behind this type of work. For instance: How did this video come about? Why and when was it created? And what are some of the overarching goals that you would like to attain by creating these types of work?
This project was carried out by three students, as part of the Graduate Institute’s Applied Research Program, in which they collaborated with me, when I was leading the Violence Prevention Initiative Project. The students’ names are: Aline Wani, Massimiliano Masini, and Maevia Griffiths. They have since finished their Masters and some remained in academia while others did not.
The assignment for the students was to try to assist in finding ways of aesthetically and artistically represent some of the work we had accomplished on political violence and political violence prevention. Thus, they had to represent controversial and sensitive topics (such as: political violence, and the representation of perpetrators of violence), in a way that can communicate the ideas that underlined that research and thus bring those ideas to a larger audience, though the help of aesthetics and artistic mediums. In this case the mediums were: filmmaking and dance. And, besides that, the assignment briefing was left quite open.
Originally, we planned to showcase their final work as part of an exhibition, at the end of the semester. Unfortunately, due to COVID, this did not materialize. Nonetheless, we continued with this project, and the students received a brief of the work we were doing on political violence (including descriptions of some of the conceptual work, the empirical work, and the question of prevention).
To go back to your previous question, the students had a remarkable set of different skills. One had experience in filmmaking, one had more experience in the conceptual academic level, and one knew the Geneva context very well and had connections with different creative professionals in the area (including the dancer that you see in the film). As a result, the students worked with people from Geneva in order to produce this film.
I think that anybody who watches the video will agree that Massimiliano, Aline, and Maevia did an amazing job. I gave then quite an abstract brief and then we worked together on the basic idea for the video, and then they did this wonderful job. Plus, they managed to create this body of work during and in between COVID lockdowns. This video is all credit to them.
To conclude, it is very important that those in the academic and practitioners’ spheres, try to find ways of diversifying how knowledge is communicated beyond just academic articles, books and/or policy reports. We must find different ways of communicating what is going on in the world.
Q6. The students did a brilliant job with the video described above and I recommend everyone who reads this interview to watch it. Now, I would like to move forward with the topic of collaboration. This September, you convened a panel called, International Political Design, at the European International Studies Association’s Annual Pan-European Conference, in Athens. Could you briefly address what was your intention with this conference panel?
This project sprung from my long term set of research interests in which I am trying to combine my interests in technology, materiality, the arts, and aesthetics, with those linked to international relations and world politics.
The idea for this panel section was to bring together different people who are thinking in the same directions. The overall goal was to find creative ways to express knowledge, the vitality of the academic work of all kinds, and to go beyond the PhD dissertation, meaning beyond the textual, and into the world in different ways and with a slightly activist ethos. The question was posed: Since all knowledge is valuable, how do we take it further than the written text?
For example, the panel consisted of several people who worked on conflict resolution in Columbia, where they worked with former victims of violence and combatants who were later reintegrated into society through forms of textile methods (meaning: they produce different textile projects that represent the conflict, based on their past experiences). It is interesting to reflect on how making objects (like for example: textiles, which are small artistic objects that you weave together) can provide a form of possible societal refection on violence and thus a different medium to express what has happened.
Another example of panelists includes those who went in a different direction than the one I just mentioned and chose to discuss virtual reality technologies and how the emerging field of virtual reality might be able to help in humanitarian situations. And, others discussed documentary filmmaking, in a slightly more classical sense, but again in relation to topics that are currently key to the field of international relations.
Q7. What are some of your hopes and expectations for the future of International Political Design? For instance, in one of the posters you created for the aforementioned conference, you have the tagline: “making world politics differently.” What are you trying to say with this?
The overall goal is connected to changes in contemporary society. And, so, this perhaps will be my critique of academia at the moment. As much as academia offers these immense privileges, abilities, and capacities to do these great things, it still remains a very traditional and slightly even archaic profession, in which it very much remains: people sitting in offices, writing papers, and who then go out, do some research, and then come back to write more.
The underlining idea of this project is that the world is changing rapidly. And that the way in which we interact with the world (technologically, materially), or the way in which a phenomenon such as ‘fake news’ (if we want to stay with a classical example) are related to changes in the way we interact emotionally, effectively, and materially with the environment. Perhaps, we also need to think about changing academic practices themselves and therefore to engage in different forms of making.
To be more specific, writing a book is a form of making. But, maybe we would learn something differently about the world if instead we made different objects, such as: a podcast, a documentary film, an algorithm, or a technology. In other words, by engaging in different forms of practices, we might be able to learn something differently, and then make world politics differently.
So, it is basically an experiment around the question of: What if we did things a little bit differently so we might try to learn something new? And, like that, maybe in an utopian way, we might be able to increase the influence that the huge amount of knowledge in academia has, and hopefully make the world a slightly better place.
Q8. Is it correct to say that what you just discussed are some of the most exciting trends that you currently notice within the field of IR? Or is it better to say that perhaps, it is something that makes you most hopeful and excited about IR theory today?
The exciting thing about IR today is the fact that there is a proliferation of different work in different areas. Some people are quite pessimistic about this aspect because they think that we should be more focused, and that the field is currently fragmented. I take the opposite view: I find that this diversity indicates a great degree of creativity on the part of the people who are emerging into the field and are doing things differently. And it is important to note that there are many different creative forms of scholarship that are going on at the moment, which give me a lot of hope. And even ones that I am not engaged in at all. Today, you see people doing amazing things.
My own particular interest is related to my work on technology and aesthetics but, I am also interested in the theories of embodiment and personal experience.
It should be specified that there are a host of different approaches which are now emerging, and I cannot name them all. What I would like to say is that I find that the creativity at the moment is very interesting. I think that a lot of this comes from particularly younger scholars: PhD students who are reacting against current events, not in a problem-solving way but with a sense of urgency, we need to do things differently, and we need to think beyond current paradigms. Today, people are doing just this in intensely creative ways and that make me quite optimistic.
Q9. And that leads me to my last question: Would you like to share any remarks or suggestions for young scholars who are interested in following a similar line of work such as the one you are currently following?
This is actually a difficult question to answer because every person will give you a different advice.
That being said, from my point of view, the first piece of advice is to not take any one person’s word as gospel. You should try to ask around as many people as you can. And, when doing so, you should ask advice to the people you have affinities with and whose advice seems to resonate with you.
Second, at the moment, there is no actual fixed way of succeeding in academia. Meaning, there is no fixed recipe, or routine, in terms of how this works because of the precariousness of the profession. There is extreme competition and extreme difficulties, at multiple different levels. The fact that there is no guaranteed recipe is depressing, but I think it needs to be said. In my blunt opinion, it needs to be acknowledged that if somebody gives you a fixed recipe for succeeding in academia (for example: publish X number of articles, do your dissertation on Y topic, use this methodology and not that one, etc.) then that recipe will almost always fail. So, do not follow fixed recipes, and instead recognize that the most important thing is that you do something that you care about, that you are interested in, and that you really want to learn something about in depth. That is the most important thing because the motivation in writing a dissertation is crucially important. This is the case because even for a topic that you love, when you get to actually write the dissertation, after four years, you will find it difficult to do because of the loneliness of the task and the fact that, as I said earlier, you spend four years thinking deeply about something and it is then very difficult to actually express that in words. So, find something that you really want to write about and that will help to get you through the dissertation.
And third, academically speaking, I think that the best thing is to simultaneously realize that it is a big privilege to be in academia because it gives you the ability to think freely, while having a lot of freedom in your professional life, but you also need to realize that it is just a job. Academia should not be taken too seriously. It is an important job but, all jobs are important and there are many other things to do of value other than being in academia. And so, you should not lose the perspective on the fact that it is simply another job, quite a privileged job (i.e., in terms of what you get to do), but it is still just another job. There are much more important things in life than academia.
Thank you for reading.
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Jonathan Luke Austin, PhD
Assistant Professor of International Relations
University of Copenhagen | Denmark
Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Dr. Austin’s work?
To learn more about the topics covered in this interview, please consult the following publications, by accessing the link: jonathanlukeaustin.com/pub
Austin, JL. (Forthcoming). “The plasma of violence: An exploration of political evil as a population-level problem,” Review of International Studies, in press.
Austin, JL. (2022). “Seeing all evil: The global cruelty of digital visibility,” Global Studies Quarterly, 2 (2).
Austin, JL. (2021). “The Public, its Problems, and Post-Critique,” International Politics Reviews, in press.
Austin, JL. and Leander, A. (2021). “Designing-With/In World Politics: Manifestos for an International Political Design,” Political Anthropological Research in International Social Sciences, 2 (1).
Austin, JL. (2020). “The Poetry of Moans and Sighs: Designs for, and against, violence” Frame: Journal of Literary Studies, 33 (2).
Austin, JL. (2020). “The Departed Militant: A portrait of joy violence, and political evil,” Security Dialogue, 51 (6).
Austin, JL. (2017). “We have never been civilized: Torture and the Materiality of World Political Binaries,” European Journal of International Relations, 23 (1): 49-73.
Austin, JL. & Wennmann, A. (2017). “The Political Economy of Business Engagement in Violence Prevention,” Conflict, Security & Development, 17 (6): 451-472.
Austin, JL. (2016). “Becoming a Torturer: Towards a Global Ergonomics of Care,” International Review of the Red Cross, 98 (903): 859-888.
Austin, JL. (2012). “Facebook and Fanatics: Islam and the Arab Revolutions.” Regulating Religion, Summer 2012.
Illustrations: The main article photo was taken by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD, in April 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland. The profile photo included on this page was made available on the Department of Political Science website, at the University of Copenhagen.
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