Democracy, Violence, and Teaching: a Summer of GJA Events

Mathias ThalerThis summer, the Global Justice Academy ran its first Summer School in conjunction with the School of Political Sciences, and the School of History, Classics and Archaeology. GJA Co-Director, Dr Mathias Thaler, reflects on the success of the three-day course, and plans to revise the Summer School for 2016. Dr Thaler also reports on  initial forays into establishing a ‘Democracy Lab’ at the University of Edinburgh, following the launch of his new honours course on democratic theory.

  1. Summer School on Political Violence

Summer School 1

From June 24 to 26, 2015, SPS organised a Summer School on political violence, in collaboration with the Global Justice Academy and HCA.

Dr Mathias Thaler (PIR) and Dr Niall Whelehan from History planned and convened this event. Their preparatory research was funded through two different Marie Curie grants. 18 doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty from more than 10 countries were chosen through a competitive selection process. Five of those received scholarships and fee waivers to ensure attendance.
The three days were dedicated to a multi-disciplinary and comparative debate about political violence, bringing into a conversation voices from law, history and political theory. Each of these days comprised morning sessions with staff from Edinburgh (Prof Christine Bell, Prof Donald Bloxham) and abroad (Prof Kimberly Hutchings, London; Prof Elizabeth Frazer, Oxford; Prof Manfred Nowak, Vienna; and Prof John Horne, Dublin), as well as afternoon sessions with research-based presentations from the participants.

On the first day, legal perspectives on political violence were examined. Both Prof Nowak and Prof Bell connected theoretical explorations of international law to their professional and personal experiences in post-conflict societies. The second day focused on historical perspectives and brought together reflections on the emergence of paramilitaries in the aftermath of WWI (Prof Horne) with a detailed analysis of escalating mass atrocities, from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust (Prof Bloxham). Finally, the last day dealt with perspectives from political theory. Prof Hutchings and Prof Frazer made use of innovative methods in participatory teaching to probe ideas on what constitutes political violence and how, if at all, we may draw a line between politics and violence.

The participants’ presentations in the afternoon revealed the manifold and interesting ways in which political violence can be approached in today’s scholarly landscape. From the recruitment strategies of Kenyan terrorist organizations to a critical reading of left-wing endorsements of non-violence in the US to the practical difficulties of contemporary resistance, a broad range of topics was scrutinized during the Summer School. The faculty members offered generous and constructive feedback on the presentations and helped facilitate discussions of wider relevance.

The social programme included an evening event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, a guided historic tour of Edinburgh and a closing dinner. The feedback from the participants indicates that the Summer School initiative was very well received and could be extended in future years, perhaps again with a multi-disciplinary and comparative orientation.



  1. Democracy Lab: An Exercise in Democratic Pedagogy

During semester 1, 2014/15, I convened for the first time an honours course on democratic theory. Concurrently, I also proposed to create a ‘Democracy Lab’ – an experimental forum where participants were invited to design a new course on democratic theory. The basic idea behind the ‘Democracy Lab’ was to enable students to reflect critically on course design and delivery processes so as to kick-start a comprehensive discussion about our shared pedagogical practices in the social sciences. The ‘Democracy Lab’ itself was not part of the honours course – it rather ran in parallel to it – and had no assessment component.

In setting up this experiment, just one rule was stipulated: all choices about the proposed course content and style needed to be made democratically. Students thus had complete liberty to structure the course as they wished, subject only to the specifications that the topics be related to democratic theory and that they maintain rigorous academic standards. The sessions of the ‘Democracy Lab’ took place every two weeks and were accompanied by an academic rapporteur, Alex Latham, who also served as an informal consultant in case the participants needed guidance on a specific issue or procedure.

Having joined this project on a voluntary basis, all the students seemed very motivated from the start, took the project seriously and quickly developed a sharp sense of what was asked of them. They also paid assiduous attention to the fairness of decision-making processes, assessing them against a set of principles they had established in the first session. The standard of discussion was consistently high and the atmosphere collegial. Towards the end of the semester, the students organized a panel with academics from Edinburgh (Prof Ailsa Henderson, Dr Jan Eichhorn) and from abroad (Prof David Held, Durham) to showcase and debate their findings. More than 50 colleagues and students from SPS and from outwith the University attended this event.

A number of participants noted afterwards that they had both learnt a lot from and enjoyed this exercise in democratic pedagogy. While the ‘Democracy Lab’ can therefore be deemed successful, a drawback was a lack of time. Although students showed good judgment in terms of the content of the course and its means of delivery, they sometimes failed accurately to estimate the amount of time it would take them to complete various tasks, with the consequence that they were not always able to cover all the material that they had intended to. Should the project be continued in the coming semesters – a recommendation that was made during the closing panel – we might well schedule the sessions a bit more strictly.