VIPRE was a 2017 – 2021 research project. In 2022, a follow-up project was launched called The Future of Humanitarian Design that continues yet expands upon to ‘concretize’ many of VIPRE’s core findings. Find out more here. Below is a summary and archive of VIPRE’s core activities and achievements.
P r o j e c t / D e s c r i p t i o n
How is violence possible?
How does one human being know how to harm another?
Face-to-face, body-to body, side-by-side, scream-to-scream, blow-to-blow?
How do ordinary people, just like you, become war criminals?
What are the sources of political evil?
And how do we stop them?
The Violence Prevention (VIPRE) Initiative asks difficult questions. Unlike most approaches to political violence, the team at VIPRE seeks to understand the concrete ‘doing’ of violence. We explore the conditions of possibility that see very ordinary human beings, just like you, the person reading these words, become a source of pain, suffering, and death. Our goal is to understand how bodies – bodies that we feel to be good – can do bad, can see their muscles tense to flick out the motor movements that do harm, can see their emotional response to witnessing another cry out in pain, begging them to stop, offer no resistance, and can commit these acts in symmetry with other bodies across borders, in a choreography of violence that echoes its movements here at home, and over there abroad, wherever that may be. And we seek to prevent that from occurring. We do so by drawing on cutting edge social theory, unique micro-sociological methods of analysis, deep field-based research immersion, and a fundamentally trans-disciplinary outlook, as well as critical engagements with leading humanitarian and human rights-focused organizations.
Those basic research activities feed into our work developing both novel approaches to preventing political violence and, more broadly, into work that reconsiders the general socio-political status of contemporary social science. Specific to violence, VIPRE suggests that it is possible to prevent violence in a similar way to that by which we prevent, or minimize the damage caused by, public health problems like traffic accidents, smoking, alcoholism, infectious diseases, or firearm-related deaths. Efforts to prevent these problems focus not simply on the ‘original causes’ of harm (driving while intoxicated, for example) but also on mitigating the risk of harm and/or damage inflicted once these original causes are set in motion by placing ‘intervening’ obstacles or ‘firewalls’ in front of these risks/harms (constructing crash barriers on roads or cars that beep when seatbelts are not worn, for example). VIPRE explores the possibility of constructing similar barriers or firewalls vis-à-vis political violence by drawing on material-semiotic, posthumanist, pragmatist, and cognate social theories, conducting deep-empirical research into the embodied and ecological enaction of violence (through perpetrator-engagement and visual analysis), and by developing a novel post-disciplinary research programme bringing together sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, architects, technologists, design theorists, and artists to develop an array of material-aesthetic modes of (global) social and political intervention.
– 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.
– Perpetrator Inclusion
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.
– Visual Interrogations
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.
Organization and Origins
VIPRE was financed through the Swiss National Science Foundation’s (SNSF) interdisciplinary Sinergia programme and brought together researchers whose expertise cuts across political science, sociology, anthropology, organization studies, and beyond. VIPRE’s origins lie in the activities of its Lead Researcher, Jonathan Luke Austin, who has worked extensively on the conditions of possibility underlying violent of human rights abuses, work that forms the core theoretical, conceptual, and empirical base of VIPRE. Complementing this, VIPRE’s three other core researchers hold extensive expertise on the politics and practice of military and security development (Krause), field-leading conceptual work on private military companies, the social theory of assemblages, and collaborationist research methodologies (Leander), as well as on the politics of international organizations and the middle eastern region (Bocco). VIPRE’s work was supported by two doctoral candidates who act as research assistants. In addition to this core team, VIPRE was supported by scientific and practitioner advisor boards, and actively collaborated with members of inter alia the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY), the Forensic Architecture (FA) research group, the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Security Technologies and Societal Values (NORDSTEVA), and beyond.
Media and Public Engagement
VIPRE’s work has been profiled and reported on by different media organizations, targeted at the general public, political communities, and other stakeholders. Recent coverage of VIPRE has appeared in inter alia, the Tribune de Genève, the independent outlet Jet d’encre, and the Swiss National Science Foundation’s (SNSF) public-focused Horizons magazine. Given the advanced state of its basic research activities, VIPRE is now moving to focusing on public and practitioner engagement. As part of this work, a series of public exhibitions exploring the conditions of possibility underlying political violence are envisaged, as well as a series of practitioner-focused workshops
Workshops and Events
VIPRE regularly convenes workshops related to its core theoretical, empirical, and methodological themes, bringing together scholars working across the field of IR (beyond violence prevention) who share a common concern with re-understanding international practice. VIPRE also coordinates smaller ad-hoc events, seminars, and meetings, as well as participating in international conferences and meetings. For details are available on the main project website.