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The two articles I chose to examine regarding my puzzle on the ethics and motivations of torture by global superpowers are both interpretivist analyses of factors that have potentially allowed for the United States to practice torture on foreign nationals without a great deal of moral outcry from the American public. “Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization: The Mediation of Torture,”¹ published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies by Marita Sturken, asserts that the American notion of “comfort”² as a justification for questionable security practices has led to a lack of vulnerability by the public that prevents them from being empathetic to detainees subject to torture. Sturken analyzes pieces of pop culture such as comic strips and t-shirt slogans to get a better understanding of the public perception of state-sponsored torture. “Governing Uncertainty in a Secular Age: Rationalities of Violence, Theodicy, and Torture,”³ published in Security Dialogue by Luca Mavelli, concludes that theodicy, or “how to reconcile the existence of God with the presence of evil in the world,”⁴ has led many to adopt racist and stereotypical notions of torture victims as deserving of their treatment.
Though Mavelli and Sturken take distinct positions on the issue of torture the two articles are not necessarily contradictory. While Mavelli’s claims point to causes for indifference in a population to its state’s own torture practices, Sturken focuses more on the effects of this indifference on the issue as it persists in a society. Sturken and Mavelli are just two voices in a much broader conversation on the ethical implications of torture on a society. From what I have seen so far, there is already a substantial amount of scholarship answering why, generally, societies turn a blind eye to torture. I have noticed, though, a fascinating lack of literature on what may cause a society to accept torture in certain situations and not others. Both authors’ theories of comfort⁵ and theodicy⁶ could potentially be used as variables in a comparison of different empirical instances public perception of torture in my research.
¹ Marita Sturken, “Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization: The Mediation of Torture,” ed. Lilie Chouliaraki and Shani Orgad, International Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 4 (July 2011): 423-440.
³ L. Mavelli, “Governing Uncertainty in a Secular Age: Rationalities of Violence, Theodicy and Torture,” Security Dialogue 47, no. 2 (2016): 117-132.
⁵Sturken, “Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization.”
⁶Mavelli, “Governing Uncertainty in a Secular Age.”
Before we had the chance to discuss the differences in class, I was unable to fully articulate in my own words how methodology and ontology differ from one another, especially because Abbott¹ placed all the methodologies, ontologies, and debates on knowledge in the same chart on page 54, comparing them in similar categories. However, as we began to examine examples of different studies implementing various aspects of Abbott’s matrix, I was able to more easily wrap my head around the concepts. To my understanding, methodology is more concerned with the operationalization² of research and the actual practices of conducting the research process, which ontology is more closely tied to the interpretation of research the implications of the results.
In my opinion, it is impossible to be an unbiased researcher and act only as an observer to the social world. As Alexia mentioned in class, even the fact that we are in the position to be researchers carries its own bias and gives us a different perspective from people who may never have the privilege or desire to take part in it. These biases, though, do not necessarily decrease the merit of social research. I subscribe to the theory of “experience-near”³ and contextualized research because I am wary of overgeneralizing certain results to apply to more contexts than appropriate. This viewpoint is already apparent in my research process. I am fascinated by two situations regarding foreign detainees imprisoned by the American government, but I am grappling to find exactly which larger concept or phenomenon I would like to address in academic conversation.
I have also personally been struggling with the level of certainty I can allow myself to have in various sources I come across in my research. While I do not necessarily believe one has to see everything they are researching with their own eyes to base claims on them, but it is also essential to acknowledge potential gaps between one’s source material and reality. As I mentioned before, every researcher has some level of bias. As one’s work veers further and further from raw source material, I believe the margin of error increases and implications can be made with less certainty. As I expressed in class, I have trouble deciding at what point to trust pre-existing research and let it speak for itself and at what point that pre-existing work needs further questioning. Because so much of the information on my subject area is classified or vague, I hope to work on my own ability to evaluate the distance between my source material and an objective truth.
¹ Abbott, Andrew Delano. Methods of Discovery Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
² Kellstedt, Paul M., and Guy D. Whitten. The fundamentals of political science research. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
³ Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, and Dvora Yanow. Interpretive research design: Concepts and processes. Routledge, 2013.
My faculty mentor, Professor Banks, and I had the opportunity to start discussing my research interests for this semester in his office hours on August 30th from around 2:30 to 3:00pm. I first had the chance to talk about my topical interest in enemy combatants and prisoners of war which helped me gather my thoughts at this stage of the research process in which my idea of what I want to pursue is fluid and somewhat vague. My broad interest boils down my fascination in how the United States maganges to imprison and torture foreign nationals without any apparent repercussions. After listening to me talk about my ideas, Dr. Banks identified the two potential directions I could steer my research in (as mentioned in my first research post). He suggested I either focus on the language used to describe the prisoners that may be allowing for legal loopholes, or pursue my interest in the specific cases of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and compare how the two have/had radically different responses in the American Public. I currently am inclined to pursue the latter.
As I move forward with my research, Professor Banks said it would be best for me to focus on first hand journalistic accounts and primary sources on the topic in order to be sure that the puzzle I want to pursue exists and that there is substantial relevant information to synthesize. He suggested doing this before delving into the scholarly conversation so that I can have a sense of my own opinions before being influenced by the discourse. A concern I have regarding the primary source material is that too much of it may be classified by the government and not accessible for my research. I have seen documents that have been declassified, but most of them are at least a few years old and may not be representative of current practices. However, considering that the case of Abu Ghraib is essentially in the past entirely, I wonder how I will be able to build a comparable profile for Guantanamo Bay, which remains operational.
In my initial proposal for my research this semester, I expressed interest in investigating the correlation between the United States’ questionable practices regarding prisoners of war, or ‘enemy combatants,’ and recruitment by terrorist organizations. I was fascinated by news coverage and books I had read about groups like Al-Qaeda posting footage of hostages dressed in orange jumpsuits in retaliation to the perceived injustices at Guantanamo Bay. In my policy memo for World Politics last year, I argued that the human rights violations committed by the United States at Guantanamo Bay make the country’s calls for nonviolence and peace less legitimate. It made sense to me that terrorist organizations would point to Guantanamo as a recruitment tool and I explained to my faculty mentor, Professor Banks, that this was my central research interest.
After some discussion of my broader interest in the United States’ history with controversial imprisonment of foreign nationals, Professor Banks pointed out that my interest in the relationship between imprisonment and recruitment was more of an assumption or conclusion than an open-ended question that I could attempt to answer. I came to realize what I was really interested in was the use of vague terminology allowing our government to treat human beings in ways that, in essence, violate the Geneva Conventions. Documentaries like Taxi to the Dark Side caused massive outcry from the American public regarding the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, yet there seems to be less concern over a similar situation in Guantanamo Bay. Is this due to the amount of media coverage on each circumstance or do Americans have some other differentiation between the two that makes Guantanamo Bay seem more justified?
Professor Banks suggested I focus either on the use and implications of terminology like “enemy combatant” as opposed to “prisoner of war” or on the more case-specific comparison of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. As of now, I have decided to focus on the latter. I have started looking at primary source material available in government documents in addition to reading more investigative books on each situation such as Torture and Truth by Mark Danner and My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan.
As mentioned, I am curious to uncover what domestic factors have allowed for such controversial practices. However, as an international studies major, I am also curious to learn how Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have affected the United States’ standing with the rest of the world, whether or not that may include terrorist recruitment.