Preventing Violent Human Rights Abuses through the Material-Semiotic Analysis of State Military Training Regimes

CRIC has the pleasure of inviting you to a seminar on Preventing Violent Human Rights Abuses through the Material-Semiotic Analysis of State Military Training Regimes with visiting scholar Jonathan Austin, May 9th 2016.


For readings and registration, please contact no later than Thursday, May 5th. 


This seminar will be based around a paper written in the form of a lengthy (20pp) research grant proposal that is intended to form the basis of part of Austin's postdoctoral work and which has been developed in coordination with the ICRC and others in Geneva. It stands as a more traditional version of the concluding chapter of Austin's doctoral thesis, which moves towards outlining how understanding political violences like torture through a material-semiotic perspective might provide very practical and concrete insights into its prevention. In other words, and for those who attended Austin's seminar late last year, these thoughts seek to bookend the perhaps sometimes too esoteric theory of the emergence of violence found in his thesis with something written in a quite different - 'here's what to do' - style, and to seek feedback on the proposal, as well as to present something close to the 'practical' mandate of CRIC.


This proposal outlines a project seeking to construct a novel material-semiotic framework of analysis through which to produce theoretical and practical insights into the possibility of preventing violent human rights abuses by analysing, and articulating potential modifications to, the training regimes of state-controlled military forces. Generally, we seek to ask how military training regimes can be modified so as to prevent the occurrence of behavioural drift that sees violent abuses emerge in spite of the widespread integration of legal and human rights norms into those regimes. We propose that drawing on the (material-semiotic) theories and methods of pragmatist sociologies, particularly ethnomethodology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT), hitherto hardly employed in the sociological study of political violence, in order to address this question will provide unique insights into both the recurrence of violent abuses in spite of their prohibition and the possibility of preventing these slippages. We expect that a pragmatist study of military training regimes will reveal the ways in which the methods of operant conditioning (attempts to enforce learned sequences of behaviour) utilised by training regimes rely too heavily on the employment of ideational privatives (do not do X), as well as a broader notion of ‘ethical’ education, at the neglect of considering A) the situational contours of violence at the moment of its enaction (its semiotic structure), B) the materiality of those violent situations (its material-semiotics), and C) the subjectifying effects upon individuals of a global circulation in (visual, textual, and ‘cultural’) violent knowledges. Conducting such a material-semiotic analysis will allow us to pinpoint the precise sequential moments at which instances of behavioural drift occur and so to identify where practical firewalls might be constructed in training regimes that, analogically to preventative road traffic safety measures, will work to prevent violent human rights abuses irrelevant the presence of any originary cause. Empirically, we focus on preventing the risk of torture during detention, interrogation, and counterinsurgency operations conducted within the context of wider warfare by state-controlled armed forces, although the framework constructed will nonetheless be broadly applicable beyond this to abuses including the targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and so on.

About research seminars at CRIC

The research seminar is a forum for academic debate, organized around the paper, and is conducted on the assumption that the paper has been read by participants.