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Judging Political Violence: Histories, Norms and Contestations

Final Report Summary - JUDGEPOL (Judging Political Violence: Histories, Norms and Contestations)

The research objectives of this project were threefold:

1) Interpretive reconstruction: The project sought to reconstruct the historical emergence of legal codifications of political violence. It tried to show which definitions of genocide, terrorism and torture have become hegemonic after a period of heavy and persistent contestation.

2) Normative analysis: The project explored the complex dimensions of defining an act of political violence. It mapped and advanced the philosophical debates around conceptualizations of genocide, terrorism and torture.

3) Reformist critique: The project covered the controversies around historical and contemporary definitions of genocide, terrorism and torture. It therefore engaged with those who draw our attention to the potential abuse of categories of political violence, by homing in on the role of the imagination.

During the reporting period, I managed to achieve all three research objectives. Apart from my numerous articles (7 in top peer-reviewed journals) and teaching award nominations, this can be primarily deduced from the forthcoming publication of my book. The book, entitled Political Theory and the Engaged Imagination, will appear next year with Columbia University Press. It explains why the imagination matters for political theory. It starts from a simple premise: the way we name violence is relevant for how we respond to it. This becomes especially evident when we look at three types of violence: genocide, torture and terrorism. Political theory contributes to the conversations about genocide, torture and terrorism by offering judgements as to which conceptualizations best serve the purpose they should achieve. This implies a certain primacy of practice: specific definitions of violence will fare better than others, depending on what exactly they accomplish in the fight against genocide, torture and terrorism. The unique importance of political theory thus lies in its aspiration to critically assess existing conceptualizations, legal or otherwise, and explore ways to improve them in light of changing real-world circumstances. Through its focus on the power of the imagination, this book adds a new perspective to the current debate. It concentrates on three ways in which the imagination may get engaged: via storytelling, hypotheticals and genealogy.

The results of this project pertain to an enhanced understanding of the complexity of defining types of violence. This project has demonstrated that any attempt at capturing genocide, torture or terrorism through a binding definition remains liable to manipulation. Through my numerous outreach activities, such as the Summer School in 2015 as well as my conference and workshop participations, I managed to share my findings with an array of academic stakeholders, from senior colleagues around the globe to undergraduate students at my home institution.

In terms of institutional uptake, my role has been further strengthened. After a stint as the Global Justice Academy’s Director and my promotion to Senior Lecturer, I now serve on several committees for intra-university organizations. All these appointments are directly related to my research success, insofar as I managed to network with colleagues from across the University.