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.
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.
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.
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.