My research interests lie in the area of criminology, political sociology, and critical theory. Within these fields my work has focused primarily on the origins and development of policing practices, issues in international police reconstruction and state-building, the role of police training in transforming institutional culture, and situating state formation in a broader context of neoliberal globalization and neoimperialism.
I spent the summer of 2017 in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) territory of Iraq conducting field work and data collection which forms the basis of an ambitious new project I’m developing in conjunction with Gabrielle Ferrales (University of Minnesota) and Wenjie Liao (North Carolina State). The data collected consists of ethnographic observations of police and judges conducting their duties, interviews with police and judges (N=40, average length=43 minutes), and most centrally, the distribution and collection of an experimental factorial survey from a stratified random sample of judges and police currently serving in the region (N=110, 5,500 cases). Interview and survey respondents were drawn from cities, towns, and villages throughout the KRG and all levels of the police and judiciary, representing major urban centers and rural locations, and ranging from front-line officers to Chiefs of police and judges of first instance to the Supreme Court.
Respondents were asked to assess criminal sentences in hypothetical case vignettes of prison guards accused of torturing imprisoned suspects by assigning “just” sentences. These vignettes contained a number of common variables whose categories or values were randomly varied, most centrally the national/military affiliation of both actors (whether they are Kurdish or a member of the Coalition, an Islamic State (IS) suspect, or from the Government of Iraq (GOI)). This research design operationalizes the indeterminate effect of torture law and the presence of IS by experimentally manipulating a wide range of case characteristics in the vignettes. The random assignment also allows variables to be examined independently of one another. We are thus able to assess the independent effects of characteristics of the defendant (e.g. Kurdish prison guard) and the victim (e.g. IS suspect) upon the punishment of torture (e.g. sentence length). We are currently in the final stages of data analysis and have begun drafting articles, with the first of these expected to be submitted for publication in the late Spring.
Such data is incredibly unique as I am, to my knowledge, the only researcher working directly with judicial actors and security personnel in the KRG. As such, the resulting publications from this study have the potential to make path-breaking contributions to scholarship on how criminal justice actors operate in conflict scenarios, highlighting how their decision-making and practices are informed by extra-legal processes beyond the written legal code. In addition to expanding our social scientific understanding of legal decision-making in an under-studied conflict setting, it also has the potential to contribute more broadly to scholarly work on punishment, human rights, sentencing disparity, and general legal decision-making as they relate to larger patterns of social stratification.
A distinct but related strain of inquiry stemming from my work in Iraq concerns the development and explosive growth of the Islamic State (IS), conducted in collaboration with Joshua Woods (West Virginia University), Quenton King (Columbia University), and Yan Song Lee (West Virginia University, MA 2017). IS presents a potentially new form of non-state actor, as opposed to more traditional terror organizations who seek to destabilize existing regimes, IS explicitly seeks to develop their own state. Additionally, their incredible growth – both in terms of funds and territory as well as the rate at which this growth occurred – coupled with their unprecedented ability to recruit foreign fighters to join their cause, followed by an almost as abrupt downfall, presents a unique empirical puzzle.
Understanding how the organization was able to grow so quickly and experience so much success has pressing theoretical and practical importance. The central finding of our first study examining the institutional impression management of IS is that they employ two seemingly-contradictory themes of chaos and civilization, balancing imagery of savage violence directed at all those who are not part of the organization with images of serene happiness and plenty for those in regions under IS control. To understand how the organization’s public self-presentation has changed in light of its rapidly dwindling fortunes, we have conducted a follow up study, finding that as the group’s material fortunes have waned, their public messaging demonstrates a very different image of the organization. Specifically, as they have lost the ability to provide civilization, they have had to emphasize their ability to provide violent chaos to their enemies. Without the ability to provide the traditional functions of a state, their output suggests they are reorganizing as a more traditional jihadist organization.
Building on these quantitative analyses of IS imagery, I am currently working in collaboration with Ph.D. candidate Vivian Guetler on a qualitative content analysis of the deployment of specific themes surrounding childhood and the role of women within these publications. We are currently analyzing the data and expect to begin presenting our findings in the coming Fall.
My final line of research I am currently developing centers on my work with the training department of the Pittsburgh Police Department (PPD), in collaboration with Norm Conti (Duquesne University). Dr. Conti has spearheaded an Inside-Out program in which police recruits take a course inside a state correctional institution alongside inmates, as well as helped implement a training module with the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center. Given the success of the pilot version of this program, we are currently working with PPD to expand the number of police recruits who can participate in our Inside-Out course in future cohorts. Additionally, I am assisting Dr. Conti in expanding the project to include several other modules in the PPD training academy. As we expand this project from the pilot stage to full implementation across PPD training efforts, we are developing and implementing an expanded curriculum, as well as instituting a variety of assessments to examine if/how/why the program impacts officer attitudes and behaviors. We will use the assessment to scale up the program, as well as develop a curriculum and relevant training materials that can be instituted by other police forces around the nation.
Here’s what I’m working on these days