PhD Mid-Candidature Review Panel Presentation Slides

On 26th October 2015, I will present my in-progress PhD research on strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations to a Mid-Candidature Review Panel at Australia’s Monash University. The MCR presentation slides are here.

 

My thanks to MCR Review Panel members Professor Jude McCulloch (coauthor of Pre-Crime: Pre-emption, Precaution and the Future), Associate Professor Pete Lentini (author of Neojihadism: Towards a New Understanding of Terrorism and Extremism?), and Dr Narelle Miragliotta (coeditor of Contemporary Australian Political Party Organisations).

Future Research: Profiling Vladimir Putin

For several months I’ve been thinking about how Jack Snyder’s original research on strategic culture might be applied to Putin era Russia. John Ehrman’s review of two books from 2012 on Putin suggests: (1) the existence of several organisational subcultures in the KGB; and (2) the existence of folklore and glamour in Russia in the 1960s which may have influenced Putin’s socialisation as a KGB officer in the Andropov era. I see a possible integration of Snyder’s area studies with Jerrold M. Post’s work on the psychological profiling of political and terrorist leaders. Noted for future research.

Human Terrain System: New Book

Today’s PhD writing time focused on the Human Terrain System (HTS): the controversial United States military program to embed anthropologists and sociologists with counterinsurgency specialists in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s been a clear evolution of the sub-literature on HTS from initial advocacy of so-called cultural intelligence to critical post-mortems of the HTS program’s impact, results, and effectiveness.

 

Amongst the recent and new books on HTS is Montgomery McFate and Janice H. Laurence’s edited collection Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan (London: Hurst & Company, 2015). I’ll be adding it to my PhD reading list – as HTS can be understood as one possible politico-military application of area studies and anthropological knowledge that also underpins the strategic culture framework I am using to examine terrorist organisations.

Personal Goals for 2015

Some personal goals for 2015:

 

1. Complete a full PhD draft (two chapters plus rewrites). Model the rewrites on the chapter / structure / paragraph format used for the Princeton Studies in International History and Politics and using the methodology insights of the Cambridge Series in Political Science Research Methods. Submit PhD-related presentation proposals to International Studies Association for possible inclusion in the 2016 annual convention.

 

2. Develop an Academic Moneyball framework (one page) for business development / contract management / research management activities. Draw on asset management, hedge fund, private equity, and value creation domains – for active management – in order to develop the Academic Moneyball framework. Note relevant insights in one paragraph (the Aramchek model) from Russia’s Putin regime on leadership and value appropriation in bureaucracies that also face volatility from international capital markets (some potential background reading: Putin vs. Putin; Putin’s KleptocracyHow Russia Really WorksThe Social Construction of Russia’s Resurgence; The Man Without A Face, and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible). Distill into a rolling 100-day action plan (one page) and work breakdown structure (Work Breakdown Structures: The Foundation for Project Management Excellence).

 

3. Continue to keep a reflective diary on trading systems development. Develop one-page algorithm pseudo-code for momentum, trend-following, and value-based strategies – decomposed from the relevant academic research and practitioner literature – with awareness of stream-based processing methods (Fundamentals of Stream Processing).

 

4. Complete a personal program of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and attend a Mindfulness meditation group.

New Academic CV and Publications Track Record

I have a new Academic CV and Publications track record (PDF).

 

The document integrates for the first time my academic research; PhD and Masters studies; Disinformation website work (mainly from my first editorial and writing tenure in 1998-2003); journalism; and subculture research. There are some known gaps in the publications history – notably the Black Box magazine project in 2002, two small REVelation excerpts in 1996-97, and many more Rabelais student journalism articles / reviews from 1994. It’s as near complete a list that I’m likely to get – unless I do further archival work. Many of the Disinformation articles in 1998-2003 are available at Archive.org. Much of the academic research is available from this website or in the specific academic journals.

 

A personal reflection:

 

I spent much of my first decade of public writing as a freelance journalist, subcultural researcher, website editor / writer during the end of the dotcom speculative bubble, and then in the Swinburne University Masters program in strategic foresight. This period covered several phases: (1) a 1994-95 period of primarily New Journalism experimentation; (2) a 1996-97 period of immersive subculture research and magazine articles which largely ended in March 1998; (3) a 19998-2003 period of my first Disinformation editorial tenure; and (4) my 2002-04 Masters studies which were largely a reflection cycle on the prior periods and the lessons I had learned. This period transitioned when I joined the Smart Internet Technology CRC research consortium in December 2003.

 

I spent my second decade as a researcher; pivoted into research management; did Masters and early PhD work on counterterrorism and political science; and then collaborated with others on academic research. This period covered several phases: (1) a 2003-2007 period of Smart Internet Technology CRC research in which I also pivoted out of doing magazine research due to employment contract restrictions; (2) a 2007-09 pivot period of moving into research management and transitioning my academic research career into political science; (3) a 2010-14 period of collaborative research articles; and (4) a 2009-present period of focus on PhD research about pattern languages and strategic culture, and applied research on hedge funds / terrorist organisations as strategic subcultures.

 

Collectively, I put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over the 20-year period in journalism and research. The 1994-95 period of New Journalism was skills acquisition and experimentation. The 1996-97 period of subculture research benefited from close work with several talented magazine editors, and led to new insights during the 2003-07 period at the Smart Internet Technology CRC. This was a period in which I enjoyed a brief publicly visible profile as an editor and writer. The 1998-2003 period at Disinformation led to a renewed focus in 2009 on event arbitrage and understanding hedge fund strategies. I experienced personal crises in 1997 and in 2006-07 over financial and ‘decision to publish’ issues that led to life-changing pivots. The 2002-04 and 2007-09 periods were active reflection cycles on these pivots. In Spiral Dynamics terms, the 20-year timeframe of writing involved several sequences of skills cultivation (Alpha new state), rapid growth (Delta surge), life crisis (Gamma Trap problems), and pivot to new opportunities (alternation of Beta questioning and new Delta surge).

 

This 20-year writing arc has led to a current personal synthesis: (1) PhD and recent academic publications as a new phase of skills building; (2) applied research as a strategy to address the life circumstances of the 1997 and 2006-07 crises; and (3) this blog as a way to capture and communicate some of these ideas to a public audience. My writing is more focused and often more private. I publish more slowly in academic journals than in past internet and magazine work. I work with a smaller group of collaborators. I have a more sustainable daily routine.

 

I’m grateful for the past experiences. I’m looking forward to sharing new writings in the future with you.

Monash SPS Symposium: Aum Shinrikyo’s Failed Strategic Subculture

Each year I do a 20-minute presentation to the SPS Symposium in Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry on my in-progress PhD research. Below is the outline for this year’s proposed presentation due to occur in October:

 

Aum Shinrikyo’s Failed Strategic Subculture

Alex Burns (alex@alexburns.net)

 

Key Words: Aum Shinrikyo; strategic culture; terrorist groups

 

In 1977, RAND’s Jack Snyder proposed strategic subcultures as a unit of analysis to understand distinct beliefs, analytical traditions, institutions, and socialisation norms in a strategic community. Recently, the so-called fourth generation of strategic culture scholarship has – via Alan Bloomfield, David Haglund, Jeffrey Lantis, and others – applied Snyder’s unit of analysis to examine new foreign policy actors. This presentation applies Snyder’s strategic subcultures to advance a new understanding of the militant Japanese religious sect Aum Shinrikyo, and its 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system. I use narrative analysis and qualitative thematic coding to re-examine two theory-building explanations about Aum Shinrikyo’s decision-making: Robert Jay Lifton’s psychohistory (Destroying the World to Save It) and Haruki Murakami’s oral history interviews (Underground). I also develop a new strategic subculture explanation of Aum Shinrikyo’s failure that builds on Frederick M. Smith’s research into South Asian deity and spirit possession experiences (The Self Possessed).

 

Paper Type: Full Paper

Working Title: Terrorist Groups as Strategic Subcultures

Degree: PhD

Supervisor: Luke Howie

New Books on Al Qaeda’s Strategic Culture

In 2011, my PhD supervisors asked me about a planned case study on Al Qaeda’s strategic culture. Now, there are two books out that address this issue:

 

  • Michael W.S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).
  • Donald Holbrook’s The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public Discourse (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

 

There are now some case studies and further analysis to answer this initial query.

 

Alastair Iain Johnston’s third generation of strategic culture focused on organisational studies. A relevant book that may link this third generation to the study of terrorist organisations is Vahid Brown and Don Rassler’s Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

 

I’m also looking at Peter Bergen’s reportage on Al Qaeda – so his forthcoming book United States of Jihad: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda in America (New York: Crown, 2015) may also be relevant.

Australia’s Strategic Culture

Deakin University’s Ben Eltham and I have a new paper out in Contemporary Security Policy journal that draws on my PhD research. Taylor & Francis has the electronic copy available online now to journal and institutional subscribers; the print version is due out 23rd July.

 

Here’s the article’s abstract:

 

This article draws on fourth generation strategic culture debates to show the gap between the rhetoric of Australian defence and the more modest reality. Our analysis shows that these limits derive from tensions between national strategic culture and organizational strategic subcultures. There are serious debates in the nation regarding the preferred course of the Australian military and security policy. This article frames these debates by examining the ‘keepers’ of Australia’s national strategic culture, the existence of several competing strategic subcultures, and the importance of norm entrepreneurs in changing defence and national security thinking. Strategic subcultures foster compartmentalization, constraints, and bureaucratic silos that narrow national conceptions of security threats and opportunities, and impinge on the formation of coherent foreign and defence policy in relation to the Asia-Pacific region. This analysis shows that a distinct national strategic culture and organizational strategic subcultures endure beyond individual governments, placing potential limits on Australia’s interface with other Asia-Pacific strategic cultures in the future.

 

My thanks to Wooster College’s Jeffrey Lantis for organising the CSP special issue on strategic culture; the three anonymous and extremely helpful reviewers; and CSP‘s editorial and production staff.

A PhD Write-Up Update

From an email to my PhD Supervisor about what I’m working on:

 

  • A revised Chapter 1 on strategic culture will now include a new conceptual framework that examines and integrates the SC literature on two dimensions: theory-building and foreign policy analysis. For now, I have dubbed this a ‘spectrum framework’. It incorporates feedback from the ISA panelists, and from Jeffrey Lantis on recent theory-building / research design debates in the so-called fourth generation (post-2000) of strategic culture. I will contrast the proposed new framework with Alastair Iain Johnston’s generations framework (from his PhD and book Cultural Realism, and from the 1995 International Security article ‘Thinking About Strategic Culture’).

 

  • A revised Chapter 2 will include a formal model of strategic culture / subcultures in terrorist organisations. Jacob Shapiro’s recent book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) is directly relevant, and may answer some of the concerns you initially raised about how to study terrorist organisations from an organisational perspective. For the chapter format I am using as a ‘writing model’ example Chapter 2 from Michael C. Horowitz’s PhD and subsequent book The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010) in which Horowitz presents his Adoption-Capacity Theory.

 

  • Rather than a separate methodology chapter I am thinking of integrating this into methodology sections in the two case study chapters. The methods to be used are: causal / decision / process tracing of the Peter Bergen / Steve Coll / Michael Scheuer / Lawrence Wright investigative journalism  (Al Qaeda chapter), and interpretivist / qualitative / thematic text coding of Robert Jay Lifton / Haruki Marukami interviews (Aum Shinrikyo chapter). Two of the key methods books I am using are Derek Beach and Rasmus Brun Pedersen’s Process-Tracing: Foundations and Guidelines (University of Michigan Press, 2013), which I picked up at ISA, and Greg Guest, Kathleen MacQueen, and Emily E. Namey’s Applied Thematic Analysis (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012). I attended a couple of ISA panels with Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations) that were helpful to think through methodological issues.

 

  • I have some material for Chapter 5 on Conclusions / Further Research.

 

  • I have started to scope some material that might inform future journal articles beyond the PhD, such as the use of knowledge representation / microfoundations for the underlying logics, and computational cultural psychology as one of several new methodologies for future case studies. I also found this week a parallel approach to my case studies in the new book Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014) which uses an experimental political science approach to study organisations, and which has Jason Sharman (Griffith University) as a book co-author. So, more for post-PhD work, I am also considering experimental research methods as a possible avenue.

Price Signals and Publishing

Today, I received notification that Contemporary Security Policy has accepted an academic article on Australian defence and national security policy I coauthored with Deakin University’s Ben Eltham.

 

Eltham also wrote for Australia’s New Matilda on the late economist Gary Becker and price signals:

 

Becker’s idea of “human capital” has been among his most influential. This is the notion that getting an education is, in a very real sense, investing in yourself. “If you’re in an environment where knowledge counts for so much, then if you don’t have much knowledge, you’re gonna be a loser,” he once said.

Attitudes like this make Becker the patron saint of neoliberalism. As no less a thinker than Michel Foucault observed, Becker saw the rational individual as an “entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of his earnings.

 

Juxtaposing what we wrote with Eltham’s analysis offers insights about academic publishing.

 

Research managers have adopted Becker’s advocacy of human capital. This means that academic publishing is often judged on three output measures: (1) journal rankings; (2) academic citations; and (3) the government income a university receives for each academic’s publication.

 

This has some subtle effects on academic publishing. Fields like anthropology or political science — which require fieldwork or extensive modelling — have different publication rates than some laboratory-based science. The latter enables researchers to publish more papers. This creates a Matthew Effect or Winner-Takes-All dynamic: more income is generated and hopefully more academic citations will occur. These outcomes are examples of Becker’s pricing signals: each publication becomes an output of workload activities (for cost and business process management) and a monetisable income stream (for J-curve patterns in entrepreneurial venture capital: an academic will generate more value as their career unfolds).

 

These price signals have anchoring, disposition, and representativeness biases that can lead some research managers to potentially misjudge the effort involved in getting a paper published. This is where Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s heuristic of having ‘skin in the game’ as a published academic author can be important to facilitate judgments. In our case, Eltham and I spent 18 months writing at least three drafts. We had to rewrite sections for two changes in Australia’s federal government. We had to address new literature. Our special issue editor also edited the paper. I edited the endnotes twice. We got extensive, critical, and helpful comments from three knowledgeable reviewers. I also got feedback during an international conference panel — where I met the journal editor — and from seeing other panels on parallel research programs.

 

This also involved a lot of effort and coordination that formal workload models often do not capture.

 

Narrow interpretations of these price signals can also ignore cumulative learning effects. Eltham and I learned several things in writing our just accepted paper. We self-funded the research as academic entrepreneurs. An earlier article draft had a comparison of United States, United Kingdom, and Australian defence and national security exercises that might become a separate article. We started to co-develop a microfoundations model of strategic culture that first arose when Eltham recommended I read Dan Little’s Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Transaction Publishers, 1998). I learned a lot about national security and recent Australian policymaking innovations: a socialisation process.  These are just some examples of what occurred over an 18 month period.

 

Often, research managers bring up price signals in terms of value creation. However, can be in the narrow sense above of a journal ranking; citation metric; or a dollar value for income generated. Whilst these are important they are only part of the full spectrum of potential value creation that can occur when academic coauthors collaborate on a research article or a project. Yet the conversation is often as if tools like Real Options valuation or Balanced Scorecard reporting (which acknowledges learning) were never created. The problem isn’t the use of managerial frameworks: it’s that they can be used in a shallow and superficial way for less-optimal outcomes.

 

Collectively, these challenges mean that academics and institutions alike never realise the full spectrum of potential value creation from an academic publication. Becker saw investment. Foucault saw entrepreneurship. I see the potential for knowledge commons arbitrage. Perhaps that’s why academics enjoy the international conference circuit so much. Sometimes the potential value creation can be more like work-life balance: Taleb wrote Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (New York: Penguin Press, 2012) in solitude, to distill his life experience as an options trader and his love of classical philosophy. Read it on your next study leave period.