A major aim of my research is to better understand the most confounding forms of human cruelty and aggression – the atrocious acts of brutality by armed groups and individuals that inspire horror, and that to many observers, cannot truly be explained beyond notions of madness or evil. My approach is based on the belief that this requires talking extensively to those directly involved with such violence, not least its perpetrators, no matter how challenging this may be.
I have researched extreme violence for well over a decade, conducting extensive fieldwork interviews with perpetrators of atrocity. I take a fundamentally multidisciplinary approach. In particular, I focus on the role of emotions and psychology – aspects typically absent or underplayed in political science and international relations analyses of violence. I explore tensions between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ violence, and seek to improve our understanding of the ‘brutalisation’ process. I am especially interested in the relationship of the emotions of disgust and shame to seemingly ‘senseless’ acts of wartime violence. I also explore links between cognitive dissonance and atrocity, and the psychopharmacology of conflict violence.
These ideas are covered in depth in my book ‘Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in the Sierra Leone Civil War’ (2015, Hurst/Oxford University Press, USA), which draws on extensive field interviews with perpetrators of extreme violence.
Together with Professor Mats Berdal of King’s College London, I am also developing a research project that brings together leading experts from various disciplines to consider key questions surrounding cruelty and atrocities – read more about the project Beyond Reason? Approaches to Understanding Atrocity here.
In 2016 I launched a seminar series at King’s College London – Approaches to Understanding Violence – which features talks by leading thinkers on violence from various disciplines and backgrounds – details and recordings are available here.
Header image: Drawing by a former RUF child soldier, Sierra Leone © Kieran Mitton.