Richard Jackson offers the fifth post in the Methodology and Narrative mini-forum. Richard is Professor of Peace Studies and Deputy Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester University Press, 2005), Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch), Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Marie Breen Smyth, Jeroen Gunning and Lee Jarvis), and numerous related articles. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. He blogs at Richard Jackson Terrorism Blog, where part of this post originally appeared.
Any scholar who has ever reflected on their academic career can identify a number of key transformative turning points along the way – those moments when some new insight or experience turned you from the path you were on and sent you in an exciting new direction. It may have been a particular lecture, a book, a chance conversation, a teacher. Either way, it altered your thinking and set you on a new course. Reading Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass’s Terror and Taboo in the days after September 11, 2001 was one such turning point for me. I never would have become interested in critical terrorism studies if I hadn’t found a sale copy of that book in the Otago University Bookshop exactly when the world seemed to be going crazy about the ‘new’ threat of terrorism. The books I later wrote, the journal I helped to start, the conferences and panels I helped to organise – all that might not have happened if I hadn’t picked up that particular book when I did. Sometimes our lives turn on a simple moment that seems utterly ordinary at the time.
Attending a workshop on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’ organised by Elizabeth Dauphinee, has proved to be another of these important turning points in my academic career. It has transformed me to a degree I never imagined; I feel that I am no longer the scholar or person I was before I went to Toronto for what I thought would be just another interesting but not necessarily out of the ordinary kind of academic workshop. I’m on a different path now. I want to do different things than I did before. It’s not that I have it all mapped or know where I will end up. I just know that I don’t want to continue to be the same kind of scholar I was before or pursue my work and academic career in the same way.
In preparing for the workshop, and during the workshop discussions, I had a genuine moment of revelation about how powerful narrative can be – as a mode of thinking, a way of writing, a method of teaching, a way of seeing and being in the world. I hadn’t really grasped it before, but I learned that narrative can help you connect more deeply with students in teaching situations, and also help them to learn in new ways; it can engender deeper levels of affective understanding and insight of subjects like war and politics; it can help to de-subjugate silenced voices and knowledges; it can challenge dominant political narratives and reveal the operations and effects of discipline and power; it can make your work more interesting and accessible to the reader. During the workshop, we discovered a great many reasons for considering narrative as a powerful tool and approach to IR which ought to be more widely used and legitimised in our discipline.
In relation to critical terrorism studies, the field I am most deeply involved in, I had already started to think that we needed other forms of production apart from scholarly books and articles to make a greater impact on the wider culture – such as films, novels, plays, art, music and so on. However, until I met the other writers and scholars at the workshop and heard their stories and experiences, and how narrative has affected them and impacted on their research, I hadn’t really understood just how powerful and transformative narrative writing could be.
Among other things, perhaps the most important revelation for me was when I came to see that narrative writing – especially auto-ethnographic narrative writing – can be an important step in understanding how your own subjectivity has been constructed, and how in turn, this can be an essential step towards greater individual agency and a kind of personal emancipation. For example, soon after the workshop I began to reflect upon, and write about, how my experiences had shaped my academic and political outlook, leading me down a particular path – and also how those experiences had enriched my understanding of some of the political phenomena I study as an IR scholar. Partly as a result of this auto-ethnographic reflection, I subsequently ‘came out’ in relation to my pacifist beliefs. I wrote the following piece not long after the workshop and published it on my blog.