Towards an International Political Ergonomics

This article introduces International Political Ergonomics (iPER). iPER is a novel research programme focused on achieving political change through the ergonomic (re)design of world politics.

This is an unusual article for me. It combines critical theory, behaviouralism, practice theory, deterrence theory, and more to suggest a radical transformation in the vocation of IR.


The article begins with the old Marxist cliche: our goal is not only to interpret, but to change the world. And that’s what the piece is about: how, today, IR can/cannot make its knowledge production ‘matter’ on/in the world. I get there by noting, first, that a consensus has emerged, across IR and social science of all kinds: knowledge production (ideas, epistemics) *alone* almost never produces social change in and of itself. A simple example: only *telling* a smoker that their habit will kill them. A complicated example: only *telling* governments that torture does not produce good intelligence and damages their standing. People keep smoking, governments keep torturing: whatever you tell them.

So, what to do?

Comparing IR to applied fields (design theory, ergonomics) and applied sciences (economics), I note how these fields materialise – make concrete – their knowledge. They design things. Build them. Distribute them. And quite literally re-construct society. IR doesn’t do that, yet. I suggest it starts doing so. Drawing on design theory, ergonomics, cognitive philosophy, post-structuralist thought, micro sociology, and more, I argue that material intervention is the most powerful mode of societal intervention. iPER provides a theory of disruptive material-political interventions that can *increase* human deliberative and/or rational capacities in situations of social controversey. It shows how we can do much more than seek the ear of the prince: transforming IR’s vocation.

The piece applies its theory to violence prevention, detailing some of my collaborations with engineers, design theorists, and others. And concludes by exploring some of the (many) ethical and political dilemmas iPER brings up, some of which even imply it’s, yes, a bad idea.

The article is now available online first at European Journal of International Relations here. A full version can also be downloaded directly here.