Research Portfolio Post #8

I am studying U.S. government official reports on Abu Ghraib prison because I want to find out what language and techniques are used to describe controversial practices in order to help readers understand how the government draws ethical boundaries in their treatment of foreign detainees.

One source I have started to look at to familiarize myself with the discourse is the book Torture and Truth by Mark Danner.¹ While the book is a secondary source and provides some chapters of analysis, the vast majority of it compiles essential memos and reports declassified to the public regarding the controversial treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The book also contains the original images leaked to the public of U.S. soldiers dehumanizing detainees.

I am curious to investigate. the language the government uses to describe the practices in comparison to the practices themselves. For example, one report refers to certain interrogation methods as “harsh techniques,” but the images of these practices seem to depict behavior far closer to what might more appropriately be labeled severe torture.² Though constitutive causality, as described by Schwartz-Shea and Yanow, is an inherent element of interpretivist research, I am interested in studying this discourse at the official level because this type of discourse can more concretely be traced to actions.³ When, for example, an interrogation handbook uses certain language to describe a regulation, it is likely that this language will be reflected in the attitudes of the practitioners. It is also particularly interesting to examine government documents for this puzzle because the definitions of various practices that these documents set have been accused of intentionally circumventing international conventions and norms on torture. If I continue with an interpretivist research project, I would anticipate comparing official international discourse on torture and domestic U.S. reports.

After reading some of the documents Danner includes in his collection, I am also interested in the way the language of the report explicitly and implicitly places the blame for the situation at Abu Ghraib on various parties. If I can find language that suggests the torture at Abu Ghraib was an anomaly caused by some rogue, low-ranking soldiers, this could offer an interesting potential explanation for the lack of policy change and continuation of torture in other contexts that I have discussed in previous research designs.

¹ Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review Books, 2004).
² Ibid, 553.
³ Peregrine Schwartz-Shea and Dvora Yanow, Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes, 1 edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011).

2 thoughts on “Research Portfolio Post #8

  1. Megan Ross says:

    Hi Hannah,

    You seem to be headed in the right direction. I can’t remember the exact title, but I recently watched a documentary that interviewed soldiers who were at Abu Ghraib. This might be very helpful to you to hear what soldiers who were actually there said about it. I’m really curious to see what you find, if you do go down this path!

  2. This is a good start Hannah, though it would have been even better to start to identify some of the specific meanings/identities that are being created in these discourses. Right now the middle part of your problem statement — “…because I want to find out what language and techniques are used to describe controversial practices…” — is still speculative instead of a precise statement/question about the meanings that you have found in specific primary sources that want to analyze. Compare, for example the way Carabine might have written her problem statement: “I am researching social policy and lone mothers in 1830s Britain because I want to find out why lone mothers were constructed as immoral individuals in order to help my reader understand why lone mothers were stigmatized, isolated, and even institutionalized in the 1800s (and beyond).” Notice how the middle part focuses precisely on the discourses/meanings that she has identified in the primary sources and that she proposes to analyze? Make sure to keep this in mind as you continue your reading and research!

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