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Understanding contemporary conflict requires interdisciplinary research

According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research’s (HIIK) 2012 Conflict Barometer the number of interstate conflicts has decreased from 84 to 82 conflicts, with the 2012 escalation between Sudan and South Sudan prompting the first interstate war since the 2008 clash between Russia and Georgia. At the same time, intrastate conflicts have risen from 303 to 314 incidences. Out of the total of 396 conflicts the report identifies 43 violent crisis, meaning wars or limited wars. This illustrates that around 80% of armed violence is occurring on the sub-state level.

At the same time the fight against global terrorism, which William Hague has said is a “generational effort to deny terrorist groups the space to operate”, mainly overseas, is raging on. Terrorist groups, most prominently al Qaeda and its affiliates, have found safe havens in weak and war torn countries. Mali and Syria are but the latest additions to a list that also includes, inter alia, countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. Common to many crises is the role of weak state structures, strong inequality between different ethnic groups, and an underperforming economy.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revived debate about counterinsurgency doctrine, which can be understood as an all-of-government approach to war fighting. It seeks to use all instruments available, civilian and military, to defeat an enemy. Despite the concept of counterinsurgency losing popularity because of the protracted struggle in Afghanistan, both the UK and the US have outlined a counterterrorism policy that draws on key points of the counterinsurgency framework. The 2011 US National Strategy for Counterterrorism plainly states that the US is engaged in a “broad, sustained, and integrated campaign that harnesses every tool of American power – military, civilian, and the power of [her] values”.

It would be short sighted to give in to neologisms in arguing that conflict resolution is becoming more complicated and that academics and practitioners engaged in the field suddenly have a broader set of issues to take into consideration. However, the rising levels of sub-state violence, as well as the importance attached to counterterrorism efforts by Western actors, calls for a better understanding of the dynamics behind sub-state violence, whatever the ideology behind it is. This necessarily involves numerous disciplines, including political science, sociology, economics, theology, law and possibly many more. This, in essence, means that understanding contemporary conflicts, dealt with by all-of-government action, needs an all-of-university approach.

Furthermore, countermeasures, as outlined above, not only have to be in accordance with the law, but will also include tools from a variety of areas – such as employment programmes, social inclusion, as well as force. Hence interdisciplinary research is not only more suited to understanding the dynamics behind such conflicts, but consequently also is better equipped to give policy recommendations.

There is a second, less factual but more personal, level to the call for more collaboration across university corridors. In a 2006 TED Talk the education expert Sir Ken Robinson argued strongly for creating an education environment that encourages creativity. Not only did he strongly argue against academic inflation, but also indirectly argued against the strong separation of academic subjects. In his view creativity, which he defined as “the process of having original ideas that have value”, is hugely encouraged by an interaction of interdisciplinary ways of seeing things. Engaging in interdisciplinary research projects, not only through such a research design for one’s own projects but possibly in collaboration with colleagues from other departments, has the potential of finding solutions through fresh approaches.

Internalising these thoughts, after completing an MA in “International Law, Security, and Terrorism”, which is offered by the Schools of Law and Politics at the University of Nottingham, I decided that my own PhD research project, which generally deals with questions of counterterrorism law and policy, should be the logical continuation of the interdisciplinarity that was inherent at the MA level. This allows for an informed analysis of the tension that exists at the intersection of law and policy and helps, in my opinion, to explain why actors resort to certain legal frameworks, such as international humanitarian law in the case of the United States and its global war on terror, while other cases are purely regarded as issues of law enforcement. Consequently, the application of certain legal frameworks will allow for different sets of measures and hence have very direct effects on the ground – an issue that cannot be ignored by lawyers.

In my, admittedly very short, experience, interdisciplinarity, for all its merits, poses a different set of problems that one should be aware of from the outset. From very organisational obstacles, which especially for new PhD students might be difficult to navigate, to more substantial academic pitfalls the list can be long. In an age where PhD programmes in the UK are becoming increasingly structured, by working in two departments one may find him or herself in limbo between two distinctly different programmes. Academically, both the challenges and the benefits arise out of the necessity to reconcile the different methodologies and research designs of the disciplines in question. Bridging these gaps makes interdisciplinary research all the more important.

Dominik Steinmeir is a 1st year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and international law, especially international humanitarian law. 

Published inConflict & Security

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