From Oz to Suffolk: Blog Hop on The Writing Process

Today’s blog is the result of a wonderful invitation from science writer, spider expert, and magicienne Lynne Kelly, who among many fantastic offerings, wrote an intriguing essay called ‘Feminine Magic’ for my book, The Magiculum. We had the good fortune of spending a day together in Suffolk England last year when she visited the UK from Australia. We met virtually years before through a magic forum and have corresponded ever since.

Lynne’s invitation is for me to reflect on the writing process, share my blog and invite others to make a similar submission.

So, here goes!

What are you working on?

This year I finished several articles, a critical response to human rights book for Amnesty International, a book chapter on social science methods and human rights, and a paper on an experiment we ran at the University of Essex that addressed questions of framing, human rights advocacy, and the trial of General Efrain Ríos Montt in Guatemala, which will be presented in Washington DC next week at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.

ICMP

This summer I am writing the Fourth Edition of Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics for Routledge. The book was first published in 2000, then 2003, and then 2008. It has been translated into German and Spanish, and the the new edition updates the content and provides more insight into and contemporary examples for the methods that are outlined and discussed.

I am also writing an unusual book that is part auto-biography, part novel and part magic manual for magicians, mentalists and mystery entertainers who perform what has been called ‘theatrical mentalism’. The project is exciting and will be an exclusive offering to the magic community in early 2015. Until then, its contents remain top secret!

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Over the past twenty years or so, I have sought to bring the study of human rights into the discipline of political science and to bring the theories and methods of political and social science into the world of human rights. My work differs in the sense that it is problem-based and focusses on large normative and value-based questions, but uses systematic methods of inquiry and analysis to address the problems. I have worked on social mobilisation and rights demands under conditions of authoritarian rule, transitions to democracy, development and democracy, democracy and human rights, measuring human rights, the growth and effectiveness of the international human rights regime, and the application of phronetic social science to real world problems.

Throughout this period of work I have tried to remain open minded and to embrace a plurality of methods while remaining committed to the link between evidence and inference. I am keen to undertake research that collects and analyses evidence in the fairest and most intellectually honest way possible to take account of the natural uncertainty that comes with the scientific process of discovery. This approach has taken my around the world to work with scholars, advocates, partitioners, and policy makers in over 35 countries ranging from Peru to Mongolia.

The substance of my work has had an uneasy reception in political science (i.e. mixing normative and empirical approaches) and human rights (mixing statistics and law); however, students and participants in my classes, seminars, and workshops have taken value from my approach and enjoyed my blend of theory, philosophy, method, and activism.

Like my academic work, my magical writing has sought to bring the world of magic into academia and the world of academia into magic. My shows are grounded in a certain sense of metaphysical plurality, where different accounts of what is being experienced in the theatre are equally plausible. My current show is entitled ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, which tips its hat to the work of John Rawls, but explores a wide range of philosophical concepts and topics through the genre of mentalism and bizarre magic. In this way, I see a synergy between my academic work and my magical work.

Why do you write what you do?

I had a number of formative experiences growing up that made me turn my attention to the politics of authoritarianism, democracy and human rights. We had frequent visitors to our house in the 1970s and 1980s from Latin America, which turned my attention to the politics of the region while a student at the University of Pennsylvania (1984-1988).

In late 1989, I was working in the photographic laboratory in the Lauinger Library at Georgetown University when a Jesuit Priest arrived one morning with a roll of film that he wanted us to develop. He asked that we make ten copies of the pictures on the roll. In these pre-digital days, my boss and I stood in the darkroom shaking the can, drying the film, and then printing the pictures. We were not prepared for what we were about to see.

The pictures had been smuggled out of El Salvador and were of the scene at the Pastoral Centre of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) where six Jesuit priests along with a maid and her daughter were killed.[1] The images that confronted us were not what was reported in the mainstream press (i.e. that they were shot). Rather, we saw the brutal end results not only of a ‘simple’ set of extra-judicial killings, but the result of a manner of killing that has left an indelible mark on me ever since.

The official truth commission in El Salvador strong evidence that not only had the military had given the orders to carry out the murders but that the officers involved also engaged in cover up.[2] The facts of the case and the images that I developed those many years ago illustrate a basic point about the capacity of human beings to horrible things to one another, which lead to a deontological conclusion that what I saw was morally wrong and which has galvanised my commitment to a lifetime of human rights research.

My magical writing has been much more free and open to creativity, but also contains attention to theory and method. I have been inspired by the great magicians from the past, and have sought to carve out a personal pathway for my own style of performance that uses magic as a medium to explore larger questions and problems confronting humanity, including the persecution of women during the witch hunting period in Europe, the social injustice of Victorian mental asylums, the foundations for human rights, motivations for people to act justly, the instability of language, the power of family history and inheritance, and psychological profiling and alienism, among many others.

How does your writing process work?

As a problem-based researcher, I respond to the developments in global politics and human rights with an open mind and explore different ways in which I might study a problem and provide answers to particular questions. I read widely and formulate plausible explanations for what I observe that suggest ways in which such explanations may or may not be supported by evidence. Substantive research projects have ancillary subjects around methods and measurement about which I have written many books and articles.
Thus, I am inspired to write about contemporary problems in the world as well as the ways in which such problems can be studied. I begin with a problem or theme, work out the structure of how I will address them, and then write in ways that populates the structure with content and the development of a well grounded argument. If I see holes in the argument I continue to read and research until I feel satisfied that a particular area has been covered comprehensively. For larger research projects that rely on the collection and analysis of primary and secondary data, I have a meta strategy that structures the project, imagines the types of evidence that will need to be collected and analysed, and the type of outputs that will be made possible.
I am currently working on a project that seeks to measure values in organisations both from the personal importance individuals place on values and the ways in which they think their organisation demonstrates those values through day to day practices. The meta structure sees the need for defining values, operationalising values, collecting data from different organisations, analysing the data, and then planning a number of different outputs based on that analysis. My project team has developed the measurement tool and carried out a pilot study which is allowing us to refine the tool and map out the kinds of things we would like to publish.
For my magic writing I settle on meta themes that I want to explore through magic and then I script and design stage shows around these themes using props, slides, music and the methods of performance magic. My stage shows have included ‘An Evening of Metaphysical Magic’, ‘An Evening of Enchantment’, ‘Edge of the Unknown’, ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, and my latest creation ‘Then and Now’, a magical celebration of 50 years of the history of the University of Essex.
I hope I have addressed the questions adequately and that readers take value from what I have shared. I am pleased to pass the baton to Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold working in Brazil.


[1] The victims included Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice Rector; Segundo Montes, Director of the Human Rights Institute; Amando López, Joaquin López and Juan Ramón Moreno (teachers at UCA) and Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos. See Vanity Fair (1990) ‘Letter from El Salvador,’ Vanity Fair, November 1990: 110, 115-116, 118, 120, 123.

[2] United States Institute for Peace, Truth Commissions: Reports: El Salvador.

 

 

 

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