PhD Original Contributions to Field of Study

This weekend I’m preparing my Pre-Submission Seminar / Final Review slides for Monash University. I will give a presentation on 14th November to an academic panel. I’ve also started an ARC DECRA application for future submission. Below are some thoughts on my PhD’s original contributions to my field of study (counter-terrorism):

  • ‘Fourth Generation’ Strategic Culture: My PhD dissertation has conceptualised a fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building that is closely linked to national security concerns, occurs in a multipolar world, and considers a broader range of instruments beyond military force such as economic statecraft.
  • Strategic Subcultures in Terrorist Organisations: My PhD dissertation has developed and tested a new conceptual theory on strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. I have developed empirical tests for an expanded case universe.
  • TheoryBuilding and Theory-Testing: My pre-doctoral research used theory-building and theory-testing to critically evaluate a range of theories in journalism, media studies, and internet sociology. In particular, I have recently paid attention to the evolution of ideas and ideologies into mobilised political and religious violence.
  • Methodological Advancement in Qualitative, Causal Analysis: My PhD research and recent scholarship combines theory-building and theory-testing forms of process tracing with counterfactuals and event studies. I am presently exploring the Bayesian and set-theoretic roots of process tracing and other causal inference methodologies.
  • Event Studies: Over my pre-doctoral, and doctoral research career, I have authored and co-authored a range of qualitative event studies, notably on the journalism, media, and grand strategy impacts of the September 11 terrorist attacks on Australia and the United States, and the social media network Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis.

I will submit my PhD to Monash University on 22nd July 2019 for review.

What I’m Reading

Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them edited by Joseph E. Uscinski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). My PhD case study Aum Shinrikyo was deeply influenced by anti-Semitic and power elite conspiracy theories, some from far right and evangelical Christian sources. Uscinski’s collection is a useful guide to the current political and sociological debates about conspiracy theories and their priming effects for extremist worldviews that may lead to political violence.

The Unrules: Man, Machines, and the Quest to Master Markets by Igor Tulchinsky (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018). In the eighties and nineties, Russian mathematicians and physicists came to Wall Street. Tulchinsky was one of them. His asset management firm WorldQuant adopted many aspects of neoliberal capitalism, from competitive tournaments to traders as independent contractors. This memoir is a quant’s view of how to deal with contemporary information.

The Pac-Man Principle: A User’s Guide to Capitalism by Alex Wade (Zero Books, 2018). Here’s my interpretation of Pac-Man ludology and neoliberal capitalism: (i) the maze represents the situational environment; (ii) the Pac-Man character engages in consumption (or, capital accumulation); (iii) the power pills represent momentary escalation dominance over the four ghosts; and (iv) the maze exits represent the fetish of false escapes. Other video-games may lead to different interpretations of neoliberal capitalism’s political economy.

Monash University SPS HDR Symposium 2018 Talk Slides

Tomorrow, I’m giving a talk at Monash University’s SPS HDR Symposium 2018 about my on-going PhD research:

Room: H2.38, Caulfield campus

Time: 2pm-3pm timeslot

You can read the talk’s abstract here. The talk’s slides are here.

Update: You can download the talk’s audio here. There was also a great Q&A later in the session: thanks to everyone who attended for their helpful feedback.

Monash University SPS HDR Symposium 2018 Abstract

Presentation title: The Ethical Collapse of Aum Shinrikyo

Name: Alexander (Alex) George Burns

Discipline: Terrorism Studies

Key words: Aum Shinrikyo, Shambhala Plan, strategic culture, coercion practices, ethical collapse

Abstract: On 6th July 2018 the Japanese Government executed Aum Shinrikyo’s founder Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto) and six senior members of the Buddhist Tantra Vajrayana and Hindu-influenced religious cult. Six further members were executed on 26th July 2018. Aum Shinrikyo achieved notoriety for its sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway on 20th March 1995, which killed 13 people and injured 6000 others. This presentation synthesises relevant insights from the sub-fields of strategic culture and terrorism studies to examine Aum Shinrikyo from a new perspective: its initial rise, its ethical collapse, and its subsequent descent into terrorist violence (via its secretive development of chemical and biological weapons development that was compartmentalised to the upper echelons of the organisation). The specific coercion practices which occurred in Aum Shinrikyo that bound together its leadership and renunciate followers are identified and summarised. The religious cult’s utopian Shambhala Plan is reinterpreted in terms of: (i) fulfilling Asahara’s adverse experiences, career ambitions, and life chances, and (ii) facilitating both elite circulation and social mobility of its senior members at the expense of its renunciate followers, and in the broader socio-economic context of Japan’s ‘lost decades’ of deflationary growth. The combination of coercion practices and ethical collapse means that Aum Shinrikyo now has a greater significance beyond terrorism studies: the religious cult can be related to other potential case studies such as Enron, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Theranos, and the Madoff Ponzi scheme fraud.

Reading List For Early Career Researchers

Career Development

 

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD Into A Job by Karen Kelsky (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015). An influential guide to academic career paths including Post-Docs, ‘post-ac’ (post-academic) and alt-ac (alternative academic) options. Kelsky also runs TheProfessorIsIn.com blog and consulting / seminar services.

 

Successful Careers Beyond the Lab by David J. Bennett and Richard C. Jennings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). How research and scientific training can open up diverse ‘post-ac’ (post-academic) career pathways in government and industry.

 

A PhD Is Not Enough! A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman (New York: Basic Books, 2011). A classic guide to managing Post-Doctoral careers in science: advice on career planning, research programs, grants, and publications.

 

Promotion and Tenure Confidential by David D. Perlmutter (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). A ‘behind closed doors’ look at how promotion and tenure processes actually work.

 

“So What Are You Going To Do With That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia (3rd ed.) by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014). An influential guide to ‘post-ac’ (post-academic) careers, such as working in industry.

 

Tenure Hacks: The 12 Secrets of Making Tenure by Russell James (Seattle, WA: CreateSpace, 2014). A candid guide on how to gain tenure at a research university in the United States system.

 

How To Be An Academic: The Thesis Whisperer Reveals All by Inger Mewburn (Sydney: NewSouth, 2017). Career development strategies to navigate the Early Career Researcher stage and the higher education sector.

 

Grant Writing

 

Get Funded: An Insider’s Guide to Building An Academic Research Program by Robert J. Trew (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). Grant writing in the context of research program development: includes discussion of the United States-based National Science Foundation Career grants.

 

Having Success With NSF: A Practical Guide by Ping Li and Karen Marrongelle (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). A guide to getting United States-based National Science Foundation grants.

 

How The NIH Can Help You Get Funded: An Insider’s Guide to Grant Strategy by Michelle L. Kienholz and Jeremy M. Berg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). A guide to getting United States-based National Institutes of Health grants.

 

Writing Successful Science Proposals (2nd ed.) by Andrew J. Friedland and Carol L. Folt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). A nuts and bolts guide to what a successful grant proposal needs, informed by the authors’ experience with the United States-based National Institutes of Health and other grant-making organisations.

 

Intellectual Property

 

From Innovation to Cash Flows: Value Creation by Structuring High Technology Alliances by Constance Lutolf-Carroll, Antti Pirnes, and Withers LLP (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009). How intellectual property as an asset class underpins the value creation models of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

 

Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction by Siva Vaidhyanathan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). How intellectual property works, from a culture / media perspective.

 

Intellectual Property Strategy by John Palfrey (Boston, MA: The MIT Press, 2011). Intellectual property as an asset class, its main types, and how ‘freedom to operate’ works.

 

Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). Situates intellectual property in the economic context of the growth in intangible assets and the companies that develop and defend their intellectual property portfolios.

 

Project Management

 

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (rev. ed.) by David Allen (New York: Penguin, 2015). A primer on Allen’s influential GTD system for time and task management.

 

Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management by Scott Berkun (Sebastapol, CA: O’Reilly, 2008). Lessons from Microsoft and other companies on effective project management.

 

Scaling Up: How A Few Companies Make It . . . And The Rest Don’t! by Verne Harnish (Ashburn, VA: Gazelles, 2014). New venture lessons on managing people, strategy, execution, and cash.

 

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice The Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland and J.J. Sutherland (New York: Crown Business, 2014). A guide to the Scrum agile development / project management system by co-creator Jeff Sutherland.

 

Publishing

 

Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors and Publishers by Scott Norton (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011). Explains how the developmental editing process works from a university press viewpoint and the processes involved.

 

Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars And Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books (3rd ed.) by William Germano (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Demystifies the pre-publication processes involved for dealing with university presses. Germano’s companion book From Dissertation To Book (2nd ed) (Chicago, IL: University of Press, 2013) deals with how to publish your PhD dissertation.

 

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker (New York: Penguin Books, 2015). A linguistic analysis of how grammar and clear writing works: an update to William Strunk Jr and E.B. White’s influential book The Elements of Style (4th ed) (New York: Pearson, 1999).

 

Write No Matter What: Advice For Academics by Joli Jensen (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Strategies for how to maintain a consistent writing schedule: how to deal proactively with life, project, and institutional challenges to stay on track.

 

Writing Your Journal Article In 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success by Wendy Laura Belcher (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2009). A step-by-step template guide to writing a journal article and managing the writing process.

 

The Business of Being A Writer by Jane Friedman (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018). A guide to commercial academic publishing and career development strategies for new academic writers.

 

Becoming An Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive and Powerful Writing by Patricia Goodson (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2017). Self-paced developmental exercises for academic writing and specific sections of an academic journal article or dissertation.

Jack Snyder’s Recent Coauthored Article on Buffer Zones

Columbia University’s Professor Jack Snyder is an influence: I discuss his RAND work on strategic culture in my in-progress PhD’s first chapter. Snyder recently coauthored a new article with Rajan Menon in Review of International Studies:

 

Amidst calls for containing an assertive Russia, politicians and pundits have been debating whether Ukraine should serve as a ‘buffer zone’ between the Russian and Western spheres of influence. These debates provide an opportunity to revisit the long and varied history of major powers’ efforts to manage buffer zones. We draw on this history to learn the conditions under which buffer zones succeed or fail to stabilise regions, how buffers are most successfully managed, and when alternative arrangements for borderlands work better.

The article highlights the continued evolution of Jack Snyder’s research program on major powers beyond his initial formulation of strategic culture.

A Choice Architect Failure

In the past couple of years I’ve looked to wealth management practices as a model to be a more effective research manager. There are a couple of reasons for this. Research management is now a ‘trusted advisory’ service in universities. Professors are high net worth individuals. Behavioural economics has relevant insights that apply to both research and wealth management. In both cases the manager acts as a ‘choice architect’ to help create better outcomes for clients and researchers.

 

So it was sobering to read media coverage of Jacqueline McDowall’s testimony to the Financial Services Royal Commission:

 

In early 2015, Mrs McDowall and her husband went to Westpac for financial advice. The couple wanted to buy and live in a property that they could use as a bed-and-breakfast.

At the time they had combined superannuation of $200,000 in industry funds HESTA and CBUS, and a residential home worth about $485,000 but they also had a mortgage of $400,000 and other debts.

Mr Mahadevan told the couple they should put their super into a self-managed superannuation fund, sell their family home and then borrow money to buy a bed-and-breakfast.

I’m not a wealth management adviser but to me this is a ‘choice architect’ failure. Industry funds like HESTA and CBUS outperform retail superannuation funds. $200,000 is probably not enough for a Self Managed Super Fund once portfolio turnover, trade execution, and transaction costs are taken into account. The equity-to-debt ratio was high for their mortgage. Owning a bed-and-breakfast is a personal goal – and one that needs to be tested in terms of investment return versus risk. It’s not clear that any of this was done.

Increasingly, research management involves weighing up and making similar cost-benefit and risk-reward decisions about research programs.  Research managers can also learn from areas like Client Psychology (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018) in financial planning.

Why A Research Program Is Important For Post-Docs

Stephen McGrail writes in his candid reflection on completing his PhD:

 

The scary truth is I’m not too sure where I find myself. Having taken time off post-PhD and more recently (this year) started to seriously look for work, I’ve struggled to focus my job search and identify jobs that I’m an ideal applicant for (i.e. able to meet all the key selection criteria). I’ve only seen one or two academic jobs I could apply for, which may suggest postdocs are my best option in academia. Moreover, I occasionally find myself feeling somewhat envious of others who have missionary zeal for a specific cause/idea or a very specific research agenda. They have focus. For example I recently read Fabio Rojas’s book Theory for the Working Sociologist (which is a good read) in which he summarises his research area as “the interaction of protest and organizations” (p.160). Six words!

 

In Good To Great (New York: Century, 2001) the management scholar Jim Collins writes of the Hedgehog Idea: a central focus that enables a manager or organisation to allocate resources effectively. Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) and Robert J. Trew (Get Funded) also emphasise the importance of a self-directed research program.

 

However, developing a self-directed research program is not always taught in a PhD program. Rather, it is often learned in the Post-Doc: a two-year or more period in which the new Early Career Researcher gains further specialised research training under the direction of an experienced mentor or team. This is often done in a university-based research Centre or Institute, and is increasingly aligned with their strategic research priorities.

 

My own Hedgehog Idea is the role of Metis (cunning intelligence, craft, skill, wisdom) in contemporary life. This can be obscure to understand. So, I talk about a research agenda of bridging the sub-fields of strategic culture and terrorism studies via causal inference methods such as counterfactuals and process tracing. A relevant research question for this might be: “Why do some terrorist organisations use shared, long-term ideas on the use of violence to achieve strategic objectives?” A more general form applicable to non-terrorist examples might be: “How do social change agents develop and use mobilisational counter-power to achieve their goals?”

 

It took me more than a year of reflection to condense this research agenda down into such research questions. I see other, related areas such as economic statecraft and nuclear deterrence where it might be applied. These are out-of-scope for my PhD dissertation and they may inform future research. It also took me awhile to identify relevant experts, specific journals, and relevant book publishers. I’m still an emerging scholar so I’m slowly building my networks and reputation.

 

This identity formation is important for Post-Doc roles. A Post-Doc is a period of intense and hopefully mouth-to-ear training. It does not necessarily lead to a sustained research career. Its two year time-frame is often really a year to 18 months once ‘revise and resubmit’ scheduling is factored in for publications. Centre and Institute Directors expect their Post-Docs to publish and to also apply for competitive grants. Furthermore, broader social engagement and impact is also now expected via The Conversation, media outlets, community consultation, and targeted social media (the source of ‘alt-metrics’).

 

This can be a disillusioning shock to new Early Career Researchers. They may expect an Ivory Tower and instead encounter the contemporary neoliberal university. Having a self-directed research program is necessary to navigate this competitive environment. It tells you what to focus on, who to collaborate with, where to publish, who your national and international funders might be, and just as importantly, what to say no to. Research managers can create data analytics for it. Consider your research program to be the equivalent of an entrepreneurial or investor slide-deck: you can even use the popular business model canvas to brainstorm it.

 

Even Fabio Rojas has a Google Scholar profile. His research program? Sociology.

A Draft Abstract For My PhD Dissertation

During the late Cold War period, strategic culture emerged as a comparative analytical framework in strategic studies and nuclear deterrence policymaking. Strategic culture examines the collective, long-term shared understandings on why adversaries may use violence to achieve strategic objectives. An under-theorised aspect is the possible existence of strategic subcultures: organisational or institutional coalitions that prioritise and shape the pathway into violence, and the specific operational contexts in which violence may be used.

 

Terrorist organisations are a national security threat for Australia. This thesis advances a new causal theory of strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. It draws on current debates in two sub-fields: the fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building, and the terrorism studies analysis of terrorist organisations. Responding to these current debates this thesis focuses on how terrorist leaders formulate strategic objectives, allocate resources, and recruit and mobilise followers for campaigns.

 

A modified form of process tracing is used to examine two qualitative case studies: Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Three causal mechanisms are examined: the cultural transmission of religiously motivated belief systems for violence; the social learning that occurs between terrorist organisation leaders and followers; and folklore myths and narratives that shape internal worldviews. Combining these three causal mechanisms provides a rationale for strategic subcultures: it develops organisational counter-power to enhance the long-term survivability of terrorist leaders and their ideologies.

 

Both terrorist organisations were unsuccessful in achieving their long-term strategic objectives. Aum Shinrikyo used Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist cosmology to influence its renunciates whilst also hiding a covert, compartmentalised research program into biological and chemical weapons. ISIL used insurgent warfare to capture – and then lose – territory, people, and resources in Iraq and Syria. Both were motivated by apocalyptic worldviews that failed translationally in practice. Understanding these failure sources may help develop effective counter-terrorism policies and strategies.

Boko Haram and Islamic State

This article explains how al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-trained Nigerian militants split from Boko Haram and formed a new group called Ansaru in 2011 after consulting with AQIM. Ansaru leaders however reintegrated with Boko Haram and transferred their specialized skills in kidnappings, suicide bombings and media to Boko Haram and contributed to the group’s conquest of territory in 2013. Al-Qaeda did not benefit from these conquests because Ansaru leaders switched loyalties and helped arrange Boko Haram’s pledge to Islamic State in 2015. This article exploits primary source documents from AQIM, Islamic State and Boko Haram and contributes to the literature on splits and mergers and knowledge transfer between terrorist groups and al-Qaeda-Islamic State competition.

The Jamestown Foundation’s Jacob Zenn has a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on how the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant provided ideological and media assistance to Boko Haram. Zenn’s contributions on the two groups are a step towards a broader and deeper analysis of strategic subcultures that may arise in terrorist organisations due to collaboration, knowledge transfer, and strategic rivalry.