On My PhD 1

From 4th March 2011 to 22nd November 2019, I was a part-time PhD candidate at Australia’s Monash University in political science. My doctoral thesis ‘The Development of Strategic Culture in Terrorist Organisations’ (currently under examination) drew on strategic studies and terrorism studies to advance a new understanding of how terrorist organisations can grow, evolve, and fail. My qualitative case study was Japan’s new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo. Here are some of the lessons I learned from some of the PhD Supervisors and academic scholars who I encountered along my doctoral journey:

Professor Arthur D. Shulman

I worked with Professor Shulman in 2008-13 at Australia’s Victoria University in a three-person Faculty-based Research Facilitation Unit. At the time, I was working on building a publication track record as a solo and collaborative researcher whilst also working full-time in research administration. Professor Shulman convinced me that I needed to do a PhD and he wrote a recommendation letter to Monash University. He also taught me about research programs, publications, ethics, and the Lazear-Rosen theory of “Rank-Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contracts” (Journal of Political Economy, vol. 89, no. 2 (1981): 861-864).

Dr Andrew (Andy) Butfoy

I had previously done a Masters mini-thesis with Dr Butfoy on the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn and North Korea’s covert nuclear weapons development program. Dr Butfoy was familiar with the strategic culture literature, particularly Professor Alastair Iain Johnston’s seminal contributions at the University of Michigan (in its doctoral program) and at Harvard University. Dr Butfoy oversaw my first chapter on the history of strategic culture in a United States think tank context (the RAND Corporation and the Hudson Institute), and an unused draft chapter on the history of terrorism studies. His novel Rogue Republic (London: Austin Macauley Publishers, 2018) captures Dr Butfoy’s wit and wisdom about strategic studies and Washington DC’s Beltway politics. After several years, Dr Butfoy left university teaching to pursue personal interests.

Associate Professor Benjamin MacQueen

Associate Professor Benjamin MacQueen contributed a strong grounding in Middle East area studies and research methodology to the preparations for my PhD’s confirmation of candidature milestone. My original PhD proposal had an overcomplicated approach that used six different research methodologies: in discussion with Associate Professor MacQueen, I eventually refined this down to a single qualitative case study that used process tracing. He provided critical feedback on my early chapters to strengthen their scholarship and their original contribution to knowledge. Associate Professor MacQueen left my PhD candidature to take up a senior administrative post, and contributed valuable feedback to my Pre-Submission Seminar/Final Review milestone.

Dr Luke Howie

Dr Howie began as an associate PhD Supervisor due to his interests in terrorism studies and critical sociology. He became my main PhD Supervisor throughout most of my PhD candidature. He challenged me to integrate my earlier period of New Journalism and Disinformation subculture search engine work into my thesis: I told him I wasn’t in that headspace now and wanted to write a more conventional United States-style thesis, with testable hypotheses, methodology, and case study analysis. One of our most important conversations concerned the timing of when to apply for academic roles in universities (being ‘on the job market’ after PhD submission), and how academic book publishing really worked. Dr Howie also taught me to integrate more data analysis into my thesis and its process tracing methodology.

Dr Zareh Ghazarian

Dr Ghazarian was an associate PhD Supervisor throughout much of my PhD candidature with expertise on political parties and the unique dynamics of micro political parties. This proved invaluable when considering Aum Shinrikyo’s failed political campaign for the Japanese Diet. Dr Ghazarian provided editorial feedback on my chapters, guidance on how to navigate candidature milestones, advice on journal article writing and publishing, and he is regularly cited by my Swinburne Online students in undergraduate Australian Politics. Dr Ghazarian’s regular appearances on the business and finance network Bloomberg highlight how to have an effective media presence when talking about your discipline or field of expertise.

Associate Professor Pete Lentini

I took Masters classes in 2005-06 with Associate Professor Pete Lentini. During my Mid-Candidature Review milestone feedback he advised me to look at Professor Ian Reader’s scholarship on Aum Shinrikyo: this was probably the most initiatory-aware analysis of founder Shoko Asahara, and the Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana-influenced “initiatory, religious sub-system” in the new religious movement. Associate Professor Lentini joined my PhD Supervisor team in 2019 to provide two rounds of solid edits on my thesis manuscript, guidance on two new chapters, advice on new religious movement and terrorism studies literature, and to oversee the administrative requirements for my final submission on 22nd November 2019. He also brought deep expertise about Russian and post-Soviet politics which was useful to several written but unused chapters that I may develop into future journal articles.

Professor Ranjeny Thomas and Helen Roberts

In 2017-18, I worked in Professor Ranjeny Thomas’s immunology lab team at the University of Queensland, and in the highly secure Translational Research Institute facility. I would occasionally see Professor Ian Frazer who developed the Gardasil vaccine. I shared an office with Helen Roberts who along with Professor Thomas spearheaded the research commercialisation company Dendright. This was in the context of a medical research environment that was different to my social sciences background. Amongst the lessons I learned from Professor Thomas was the importance of mentoring new researchers, and the definable legacy that this leaves over your academic teaching and research career. Professor Thomas’s immunology lab was collegial and high performance oriented. Whilst I had previously been trained in intellectual property, working with Helen Roberts provided many practical insights about how an IP strategy is implemented. She also taught me to use PubMed to search for the latest medical research.

Andrew Calder

In 2017, I worked in a contract consulting role for Australia’s private university Bond University. Andrew Calder is the Director of the Office of Research Services, which was a professional, team-oriented, and supportive environment. One of the insights I gained from colleagues in ORS was about the common psychological ups and downs of the PhD journey, and why resilience is really important to long-term success. At Bond, I learned how to use a Bloomberg finance terminal, read the latest literature on behavioural economics, and discovered MIT Associate Professor Vipin Narang’s scholarship in strategic culture in the context of contemporary nuclear strategy. This influenced my subsequent PhD write-up.

Dr Michael Cohen

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research administration services to Dr Michael Cohen. Dr Cohen is an expert on nuclear strategy and we were able to discuss his use of cognitive biases and decision heuristics to study how leadership dealt with nuclear weapons. I learned more about academic publishing and how to structure a research program, how to develop projects to interest academic publishers, and how to use process tracing in the context of archival-based, historical research. This discovery was a confirmation experience that I could definitely use process tracing in my doctoral thesis, and could also expand the potential number of case studies for my post PhD research agenda.

Dr Andrew (Andy) Kennedy

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research services to Dr Andrew Kennedy. Dr Kennedy was a doctoral student of Harvard University’s Professor Alastair Iain Johnston, and is an expert in the science and technology strategies of China and India. Johnston left strategic culture scholarship after what is called the ‘Gray-Johnston’ debate about competing methodological and paradigmatic approaches. In contrast, Dr Kennedy’s research agenda offered an illustration of what post-2002, ‘fourth generation’ scholarship on strategic culture in an emerging multipolar world might resemble. It also highlighted the importance of field research and languages, when gathering primary data and whilst studying other countries.

Associate Professor Wesley Widmaier

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research services to Associate Professor Wesley (Wes) Widmaier. I had first encountered his political economy research whilst Associate Professor Widmaier was previously at Griffith University. At the time of my research services work I was writing up a new chapter for my PhD’s Pre-Submission Seminar/Final Review milestone, and was beginning to consider the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo as both a terrorist organisation and a political economy phenomenon. Associate Professor Widmaier guided me to some of the relevant literature by John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky; his own research on cycles of stability, crisis, and change; and the International Political Economy section of the International Studies Association. In his research seminars Associate Professor Widmaier also stressed how theory-building and methodology could support each-other. Associate Professor Widmaier’s editorship of the Review of International Political Economy journal highlighted the importance of editorial peer review, and of a research publications strategy.

Dr Sara Bice

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research services to Dr Sara Bice. Together with my colleague Simon Stack, I worked with Dr Bice to help scope her Next Generation Engagement Program of research into Australian infrastructure investment. Whilst I had previously worked with Alexander Osterwalder’s business model canvas tools, the opportunity to work with Dr Bice meant considering the impact and engagement of her research agenda for government policymakers and industry.

Picks & Pans

Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry by Robert Jay Lifton (New York: The Free Press, 2019). Lifton is a United States psychiatrist who helped to conceptualise the 1970s and 1980s debate on ‘thought totalism’ and brainwashing. This small book is a collection of Lifton’s insights on topics ranging from the Korean War and Nazi doctors to Aum Shinrikyo and President Donald Trump’s political psychology. Lifton observes that we have a ‘protean’ Self that can change and transform under existential and psychosocial pressures. A doorway to understanding the contemporary metapolitical issues in liberal democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian societies.

The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour (London: The Indigo Press, 2019). Seymour is a United Kingdom and Marxist-influenced social critic who has previously profiled the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, prior to his disastrous 2019 election campaign. In this polemical book, Seymour looks at the addictive psychology that underpins the ‘social [media] industry’, and its emergent phenomena such as internet celebrities and trolling. One of the side-effects of this industry is a new immersive dynamic of writing, Seymour observes. This book is a reflective primer to think more deeply about how you interact with the internet and social media in a more mindful and strategic way.

Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter? by Cecilia L. Ridgeway (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2019). Ridgeway is a Stanford University professor and sociologist and her publisher the Russell Sage Foundation is a major philanthropic investor in social inequality research. In this book Ridgeway advances a cultural schema of status as a form of social inequality, and how this informs the importance of status beliefs and the microdynamics of status. Ridgeway’s cultural schema framework builds on the earlier insights of sociologist Charles Tilly and others to explain how social stratification works in the United States.

The Man Who Solved The Market: How Jim Simons Launched The Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman (New York: Penguin Books, 2019). Jim Simons is a former National Security Agency-affiliated cryptographer and Stony Brook University mathematician who in 1982 founded Renaissance Technologies: the world’s most profitable quantitative hedge fund. Zuckerman’s investigative reportage provides a glimpse of Renaissance’s black box and how Simons used pattern recognition to generate record profits from the financial markets. Robert Mercer – Renaissance’s co-Chief Executive Officer – was a major donor and strategist to President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University by Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 2019). In the past two decades the elite status of academic tenure has steadily been eroded in the United States and in many other countries. This book surveys what has replaced it: a ‘neoliberal university’ of more short-term and fixed term contracts, a focus on obtaining external, competitive-based research funding, and resulting social stratification. The authors trace recent developments in the academic labour market to the ‘gig economy’: labour practices adopted from Uber and similar platform capitalists.

Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019). Sidney Gottlieb (1918-1999) was a United States chemist who spearheaded the Central Intelligence Agency’s now infamous MK-Ultra research program. Kinzer fills in some gaps about Gottlieb’s life; the medical and ‘special interrogation’ projects he oversaw in MK-Ultra; and how he dealt with United States Senate and public investigations into MK-Ultra’s abuses and legacy. There is plenty of conspiratorial myth-making about what Gottlieb did and what he did (or did not) achieve: Kinzer’s investigative reportage gets closer than most to what probably happened.

Capitalism Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World by Branko Milanovic (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019). Milanovic is an influential economist and senior scholar at the City University of New York’s Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality. In this book he examines the political economy success of Liberal Meritocratic Capitalism; its challenger in Political Capitalism; and the implications for globalisation and the future of the capitalist economic system. An insightful and empirical data-informed analysis of the ‘hypercommercial’ world that is highly likely to emerge in the 21st century.

Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World by Ilya Yablokov (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018). United States political discourse since its 2016 election outcome has been dominated by allegations of Russia’s political meddling. Less well understood is the metapolitical function of conspiracy theories in Russia itself and in post-Soviet nation-states. This book based on Yablokov’s doctoral dissertation advances some new explanations as to why and it also profiles some of the more leading and influential practitioners. For contrasting views, see Eliot Borenstein’s recent book Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019) and Peter Pomerantsev’s This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (London: Faber & Faber, 2019).

Lawrence Freedman on Michael C. Desch

In my PhD thesis, I briefly discussed Michael C. Desch’s foray in the late 1990s into the debate between strategic culture and neorealist theorists in international relations. Recently, Desch wrote the book Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). Lawrence Freedman’s review of Desch’s book for The Journal of Strategic Studies highlights several things, from Desch’s critique of strategist Thomas Schelling and the institutional impacts on Bernard Brodie’s research agenda to the need for academics to understand the contemporary policymaking environment. It’s a review that is well worth reading if you research in security studies or strategic studies.

A Community of True Believers

Michael Kenney‘s new article for Terrorism and Political Violence combines field work, interviews, ethnographic observation, and causal mechanism analysis to examine “al-Muhajiroun (“the Emigrants”), an outlawed activist network that seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in Britain and the West through activism and proselytizing.” This is an important study on the role of causal beliefs and social learning that uses a “community of practice” model to examine an activist network.

PhD Submission

I submitted my PhD The Development of Strategic Culture in Terrorist Organisations today to Monash University. My thesis is currently under examination. My thanks to PhD Supervisors Pete Lentini, Luke Howie, Zareh Ghazarian, Benjamin MacQueen, and Andy Butfoy for their support, and Michelle Buckley and Tilly for their love and encouragement.

Vega Theory

This week after 8 1/2 years I’m submitting my political science PhD at Monash University to external examiners (update: I did so on 22nd November and my thesis is under examination). Over the past weekend I launched Vega Theory: a new blog about my post PhD research program at the nexus of strategic studies, terrorism studies, political economy and sociology. Follow @vegatheory on Twitter for regular updates. I’ll also be taking on-board the insights I learned over eight years whilst writing for and editing the former subculture search engine Disinformation – from 1999 to 2008 – and how the post-2016 environment has changed.

AIPEN 2020 Abstract

The abstract for a paper (to be written – accepted 29th November 2019) for the Australian International Political Economy Network‘s 11th annual Workshop, to be held at the University of Sydney on 6th and 7th February 2020:

Australia’s Liberal Meritocratic Capitalism and the Political Economy of Mobilisational Counter-Power

City University of New York’s political economist Branko Milanovic (Capitalism, Alone, Harvard University Press, 2019) has argued that Western countries like Australia personify a ‘liberal meritocratic capitalism’ that contrasts with China’s rising one-party ‘political capitalism’. However, Australia is currently experiencing significant social conflicts – illustrated by economic recession fears, corporate wage theft disclosures, inequality-based social stratification, and growth in climate change activist movements like Extinction Rebellion – that highlight divisive tensions in Milanovic’s ‘liberal meritocratic capitalism’. This paper draws on recent PhD qualitative research at Monash University to further develop the political economy microfoundations of an analytical theory of counter-elite driven change: mobilisational counter-power. I use process tracing to explore these significant social conflicts and what they may mean, in particular, for transdisciplinary narratives about ecological crisis, financialisation and labour exploitation.

Keywords: liberal meritocratic capitalism; microfoundations; mobilisational counter-power; political economy; process tracing

SPS Symposium 2019 Abstract

After eight years I’ve just submitted the final talk for my PhD thesis at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences:

Causal Mechanisms for Strategic Subcultures: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo

On 20th March 1995, the Japanese new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) mobilised a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people and injured several thousand. Why did Aum Shinrikyo carry out this attack, and how did it expect to survive? This presentation critically interrogates this question by using (qualitative) process tracing to examine three interlinked causal mechanisms: (1) the cultural transmission of a religious knowledge base that informed the decision preference for terrorist violence; (2) social learning that led to differential outcomes in terms of social reproduction for the senior leadership (the decision elite) and the religious members (renunciates) who were unaware of Aum Shinrikyo’s covert research program for biological and chemical weapons development; and (3) the cultic milieu folklore which functioned to spread Aum Shinrikyo’s ideas in a crowded marketplace for Japanese new religions, and which was a gatekeeping mechanism for potential members. Further research is also identified.

Keywords: Aum Shinrikyo, causal mechanisms, cultic milieu, process tracing, terrorism, strategic subcultures

Update: Talk PowerPoint slides and recorded audio (30th October 2019) are now available.