I have an active portfolio of research interests. Most of it complements my consulting and professional activities, and often enough it has some sort of relevance to the marketplace. Sometimes interesting research problems develop in a grounded way – in the middle of consulting assignments, through direct observation of thorny real-world events and developments. Both channels – my work and my research – tend to fuel each other, so there’s an element of feedback that keeps me asking questions and looking for answers.
My core interests revolve around fragile and conflict affected states. I look specifically at two kinds of issues: the dynamics of political violence, and the dynamics of political communication. I’ve undertaken three major projects that deal with these two points. The first, a study of rebel radio broadcasting in Liberia, investigated the acquisition of radio broadcast resources, patterns of communication and effects of incitement during the Liberian Civil War (1989-1997). Another, on guerrilla vernacular presses in Afghanistan, was a two year project in Afghanistan to preserve, digitize and translate a large collection of printed Taliban magazines, newspapers, government records and other documents. The third, still underway, is about foreign policy framing and rhetorical dominance. It looks at the construction of “sanctuary” discourse in US foreign policy after 9/11, and traces its effect on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.
An interest in international relations and international security – and more narrowly in geopolitics – underlies all these projects. Geopolitics is an obvious point of departure for studies that deal with states and conflict, but the field is actually pretty wide. In its traditional sense, geopolitics deals with states, territory, finance and the use of force. In its more critical sense, it deals with the interplay between the macro world of state-on-state interactions, and micro problems – that is, the “local”. Political problems of geography, territory and terrain at both ends of that macro-micro spectrum have been a major theme in my research. It’s a pretty broad playing field, and the focus is contemporary and event-driven, so specific topics vary by type and over time. In the work that I do, they generally revolve around war, crime, rule of law, governance, perceptions of threat and risk, and diplomatic history.
My research on foreign policy framing and rhetorical dominance is threaded with macro and micro spatial concepts, and both spatial analysis and content analysis – especially of the ways historical analogies and spatial metaphors act as cognitive props – figure prominently. They’ve led me to two related subjects. One, which I’ve only previously explored as a consumer, is the technical world of mapping, cartography and spatial analysis techniques. The other – the legal and historical worlds of international boundary disputes – I’ve dealt with extensively in a professional capacity: monitoring boundary violations in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina, researching problems associated with the Durand Line in Afghanistan or Sykes-Picot in Iraq and the greater Middle East, or monitoring and forecasting maritime boundary disputes in the Arctic and the South China Sea.
Similarly, my work on guerrilla vernacular presses has led to a wider interest in documents and archives. The Afghanistan project was unique in a variety of ways, so I’ve started looking at how similar projects could be done in other geographies under differing political circumstances. Collections of documents and manuscripts play a distinct if often subdued role in fragile and conflict affected states. As tangible cultural heritage , archives are somewhere at the bottom of the recognition ladder, after ancient architecture, artefacts and manuscripts. But there’s an emerging debate on the subject, driven in equal parts by an interest in the illicit trade in cultural property, the role national and local archives can play in rebuilding community identity, and – more contentiously – by the fact that conflict zones are competitive research environments in which any potential source of information, no matter how obscure, is a valued commodity.
Those issues dovetail with a larger interest in applied methods. I’ve worked on elements of this previously, contributing to a short, co-authored white paper on the use of development sector monitoring and evaluation tools to assess counterterrorism programs. As a trained historian, I’ve relied on historical methods in real world settings, more often than not in support of legal and policy aims. One of the key lessons for students of history is that history is not a science – but it is methodologically rigorous, and part of its evolution into a professional academic discipline involved a tradition of legalistic adherence to what the evidence reveals about past events. Historical practice isn’t inherently “forensic”, in that sense – the term is wide open to interpretation – but for those interested in public service, forensic history has an important role to play.
New ideas and problems regularly bubble up to the top in the midst of study and work. They can be complementary, tangential or entirely new. They are always distracting, and it can be a challenge to file and forget, even with the promise that they’ll be revisited another day. A more constructive way of engaging with them is to let them percolate on the back burner – which usually means I’m reading, collecting evidence and observing. I may have worked on the subject professionally, but I haven’t yet developed a research question of my own, come up with a coherent argument, or subjected my thoughts on the matter to outside scrutiny. I may or may not comment on the subject in various media or blog a little about it as I think through it.
I’ve engaged with ideas this way a few times, in more or less structured forms. In late 2007, while still working for NATO and newly engaged in doctoral research at University College London – but well before I really knew anything – I founded the Complex Terrain Laboratory (or “CTlab”). CTlab ran for two years. It hosted online symposia and real world events, and generally served as a vehicle for a few like minds to explore problems that we thought we’d spotted in contemporary expressions of geopolitics. The distinguished geographer Derek Gregory called what we were doing the work of “lone rangers on the planetary frontierlands” – rightly pointing out how we were inadvertently perpetuating some of the very issues we were critiquing.* That, alas, is a paradox of the scholarly enterprise.
Formal and informal types of engagement serve different purposes. Formal publication shows that my peers or editors have taken a swipe at my work before it goes public. Quality control is a good thing. Commentary, blogging and other kinds of informal writing give me the space to address issues and ideas in an exploratory way. They also allow me to write in a much more familiar and accesible style. Academic research and publication requires a certain affectation of tone and approach, and even if that does serve a professional purpose, it can come across as stuffy and alienating to many readers. Written communication skills require constant exercise, and presenting ideas to different audiences is a good way to test out those ideas and to strike a stylistic balance.
*Gregory made the point in a 2010 issue of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, a publication of the Royal Geographical Society and one of the leading journals in its field. See Derek Gregory, “War and Peace,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35:2 (2010): 154-186. URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00381.x. The quote appears on page 170.