Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Help, Help, I am Being Repressed

A joke for a post title, but repression is serious business.  Governments kill and harm people far more than war does and even more than civil war.  Moreover, one key cause of civil war is repression.  The relationship between repression and violence is not well understood, so it is a good thing that Christian Davenport is trying to bring together information and scholars around this issue at  He has built this website to try to move the study of repression forward.  He even has a contest where one can get $$ for providing some innovative thinking.  

So, let's do a tour of the website:
First, Davenport builds on his previous work to clarify what the topic is.
repression involves the actual or threatened use of physical sanctions against an individual or organization, within the territorial jurisdiction of the state, for the purpose of imposing a cost on the target as well as deterring specific activities and/or beliefs perceived to be challenging to government personnel, practices or institutions (Goldstein 1978, p. xxvii). 
He goes on to delineate what repression is and is not.  As such, it is a very useful model of conceptualizing as we cannot accumulate knowledge unless we have a concept that is clear, intuitive and bounded.  Governments can do other bad stuff to people, but threats to their ability to engage in politics is significant enough, and, by the way, influences everything else.  

Second, he reviews the data and the way folks have put the information together.  Anyone preparing for their comprehensive exams should check this out, whether or not they care about repression, as this shows how one can quickly and clearly summarize a few decades of research. Particularly valuable here is a discussion of the problems of newspaper-generated data. 

Third, Davenport announces a series of workshops that will focus on innovations in this area. 
Periodically, four leading scholars of political repression and human rights violations will be brought to the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame to reveal some of the innovations and most useful ways to study these issues. Each scholar will briefly present a specific insight, and workshop participants will have a chance to discuss, ask questions, and get a ‘behind the scenes’ look at how the insight was generated.
Wow. Kind of makes me want to do repression research, even if they do use powerpoint.

Fourth, Davenport is offering $2,500 for solutions to the problems that exist within the repression scholarship.  This is not an offer for folks to go out and reduce repression but to help overcome the obstacles that face scholars in this area.  This, by itself, is a pretty interesting innovation.  The first one focuses on how does one collect data on repression before 1976 when this kind of work came into vogue.

Fifth, speaking of scholarship, the site provides a reading list of repression literature.  So, no student can ever complain about the difficulties of finding literature on repression ever again.  It might be handy to have it sorted by centrality to the field.  What would be the top ten or twenty pieces one should read?  The Interesting Scholar section does this one at a time.  Very cool.  But I would still like to see a shorter list for the lazy folks like myself whose work only bumps into Repression.

Finally, there is a proto-blog that could become quite interesting.  I would like to hear what Davenport has to say about the Arizona laws, for instance.

There is one notable omission, and I wonder if it has to do with the nature of the work. That is, how does this stuff connect to policy?  Is there an effort by Davenport and other repression scholars to shape policy by informing policy-makers of the consequences, alternatives, whatever.  Understanding repression is very important on its own, but clearly there is a desire among repression scholars to try to prevent repression and to reduce it where it exists.  So, the focus here is entirely on research into this topic, which is fine and appropriate, but I wonder if those who are very critical of the state can still engage the state so that its actors do less harm?

Perhaps one innovation (for which I will not ask $2500) is that Davenport and his collaborators (ooh, that is a loaded term) would be to imitate the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Program and put academics into policy-making positions and have policy-makers spend time at the Kroc Institute.  I learned more than I can express when I spent a year on the US Joint Staff, and I think I had some impact on the military folks with whom I worked. 

Finally, one technical criticism: the biggest weakness of the website is that he has designed it so that each page of information has the same web-address.  You cannot link to a particular page. 

Anyhow, this is a tremendous effort and is useful beyond the Repression folks to the rest of us who want to move our areas of study forward.

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