We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

In conversation with... Professor David Galbreath


Some of the most valuable conflict research deals with rehabilitation and resistance, says Theme Leadership Fellow for Conflict, Professor David Galbreath

My journey into international security is a bit of a strange one because I originally set out to work on issues around human rights and democracy. Since a young age, I’ve had a knack for languages and an interest in the way the world works. I did a triple major at the University of Memphis in Russian, international studies and political science, then came to Britain after that to do my PhD on rights and democracy-based issues of Russians outside of Russia, which included a year in Latvia. During the interview for my first job at University of Aberdeen, I talked at length about all this work I had done on minority rights, and then they asked at the end whether I knew anything about international security. Of course, as a young lecturer, I said, ‘You’d better believe it!’ So that’s how I ended up teaching it. But more and more, I began to realise that as soon as you talk about rights or democracy you have to address a security element.

The Conflict theme brings together academics who sit at the interface of social enquiry and arts and humanities. Conflict and violence are cultural, political and technological tools – they do not belong to any one discipline. So much of the current discussion surrounding conflict research isn’t going to be found in the traditional disciplines. It isn’t going to be found in security or political studies, sociology or anthropology. It’s going to be found where they meet. One of the aims of the theme is to define conflict research as a fundamentally interdisciplinary study. This is reflected in the funding, too; the Conflict theme is primarily funded by both the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Economic & Social Research Council. Much of what we do also falls under the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research [PaCCS], which is supported by a number of the research councils.

I wish I'd known...It's all about the idea

As a social scientist, one of the things I like about arts and humanities is that it’s always about the idea. Process is, of course, very important, but we want people to be idea makers and not just going through the motions. We want students who can shift the way we think about the world. Rarely is this done through the presentation of data alone, at least not until data itself becomes a concept by which we understand the world around us. PhD students have this fantastic role to play in replaying the state of the art. It is the role of the idea beyond its real world materiality that will be impactful and longest lasting.

Some of the projects have provided a fantastic 360 degree insight into conflict. They have shown that if you are only interested in key stake holders, body counts, and foreign powers, then you will never be able to fully understand a conflict. Dr Neelam Raina’s work, for example, gets to the heart of everyday experiences of conflict in Azad Kashmir through fabric. She’s exploring how the ability to produce certain types of fabric has had a huge impact on liberating Kashmiri women, enabling them to make an income. She’s revealed this interesting relationship between the conflict, traditional patrimonial power structures and new forms of economy. 

Some of the most valuable research is on rehabilitation. How do you take areas that have been in conflict for long periods of time and give people a sense of wellness, so that they can go on with their lives? Places like Northern Uganda, which has a population overwhelmingly under the age of 25, with young people who have been child soldiers since the age of 10 or rape victims, who now have to live a long and hopefully productive life. I’ve just come back from Colombia where the civil war started in 1965 – how do you deal with all those people who know nothing other than war? Political policies are not going to solve their problems. It’s fundamentally important that we understand how they are going to negotiate the daily task of simply being.

There is also interesting work around non-violent peace-making and resistance. This looks at the value of non-violent defence as a way to protect communities that are being persecuted by governments, other ethnic groups, or both. The theory is communities that defend themselves through non-violent appear as less of a threat to persecutors, and have an ability to express grievances. Dr Rachel Julian’s project looks at communities in Myanmar and asks why these areas have remained relatively peaceful and resilient. It takes on-the-ground knowledge of living amidst conflict from local people and asks how we can translate that into support for reconciliation in other places.

I’m very interested in the role of technology in conflict. Cyber security is a very important part of PaCCS, but we’re also looking at how the information age is shaping conflict – the way mobile phones are used on migration routes, for instance, or how social media is used in terms of self-defence. Another of the theme’s projects, led by Dr Laura Smith, is researching online radicalisation and how insurgent groups use social media to mobilise and talk, with the aim of creating an algorithm to predict radicalisation of users.

We talk a lot about conflict but not so much about violence, which is obviously a fundamental part of conflict. I’d like to see more work on domestic violence, perhaps even in conflict zones, but the remit of PaCCS means we’re not funding work in that area at the moment. I’m reminded of the tale of the feminist scholar meeting the international relations scholar and asking, ‘Where is the role of women in understanding nuclear weapons?’ And the man replies, ‘What do women have to do with nuclear weapons?’ And she says, ‘Exactly.’ I’m always very conscious that we must avoid producing or reproducing a certain idea of what conflict is.

My Life in Three Objects

A copy of Snarl: In Defense of Stalled Traffic and Faulty Networks by Ruth A Miller

Front cover of Snarl

This book asks where the human sits when we create any kind of technology. Miller argues that we make things like roads as networks for martial and military processes, and then get frustrated when they get overused. So we look to make a new network, but that will become jammed, too. There’s an element of nature that we’re constantly fighting against.

The reason I think it’s really impactful is that it uses a lot of interdisciplinary work, and it changed my life with the way in which it was able to talk about technology in society. It fundamentally changed my research as a result – and even the way I see the world. I recommend everyone read it.


Vsauce logo

This is a science channel on YouTube. My favourite episode is on Zipf’s Law. Zipf was an American linguist who found that if you looked at all the different words in the Bible and created a list of the most used and least used, you got this strange thing where the most used appears twice as much as the second most-used, and three times as much as the third most-used, and so on. He started looking at other works and realised this is the case in all books, and in all languages. Then others started noticing it happened in other ways, and it became known as the 80/20 principle, where 20 per cent of something produces 80 per cent of the result. Why is that the case, why does nature have this law to it? For me, Zipf’s Law illustrates how there is underlying structure to our universe that is there whether we give it meaning or not. But once we do give it meaning, such a principle can change the way we think about the world. And I think that is important.

A Memphis Blues poster

It’s a reprint of a painting by Memphis artist Louise Dunavant and it’s on my office wall. There’s the musician WC Handy, a trumpet and a pen and ink bubble with musical notations. I’m originally from Memphis, and a big fan of the Blues, but it doesn’t speak home to me when I look at it – I’ve been gone too long. Instead, it talks to me of the journey I’ve made.

Return to features