By Kerric Harvey


This essay describes a project that brings together several strands of my research agenda that have developed during the last ten years, placing them in an ethnographic setting with the intention of capturing elusive cultural material while at the same time shedding some light on the darker corners of democratic self-government — specifically, the degree to which and the reasons why torture might be sometimes considered as an appropriate as well as an effective interrogation technique.

I’ll describe the project in fairly general terms, and include the script for the short one-act around which the ethnographic experiment will be built. Both sets of information are copyrighted, so please be sure to contact me directly at before using any of it yourself, although I encourage that among the CIE community.

My own timeline, in an ideal situation, would be to for me to run the experiment as live theatre during the summer of 2015, and then adapt it for online and/or social media deployment the following year. Given the disturbing nature of the material, it would probably do best as an independent production within a Fringe Festival context, with the data collection component wrapped around that, rather than being put forward as an experiment in a university setting, since it presents challenges in terms of Human Subjects Review Board approval.

That having been said, I would be very open to discussing productions across the CIE and related communities, especially if those productions could be “set” in a variety of story-telling settings.

The historical settings I had in mind when writing this piece and designing the experiment around it were as follows:

  1. Contemporary undeclared wars in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. This would put ethnographic focus on the degree of emotional distance between Western/Christian audiences and Islamic/”Arab” players (both victim and villain).
  1. The Spanish Inquisition, which re-focuses data collection around differences within Christian European groups instead of between them and other populations.
  1. 1960’s Northern Ireland, which does a similar type of comparison but also introduces white-on-white colonialism into the mix.
  1. Apartheid-era South Africa, which furthers complexifies race by adding white-on-black colonialism.

Re-setting the play in these different time periods achieves two things simultaneously. First, it re-focuses the nature of the “break points” for the audience, encouraging them to concentrate on the relative unacceptability of torture when it is used against different types of people (Muslims, blacks, slave-holding whites, etc). This, then, gets at the research goal of exploring the degree to which “otherness” informs decisions about morality.

Second, it provides a rough measure of the relative emotional intensity of different types of situations in which torture might conceivably be used, comparing, for instance, using it during the American Civil War to assist in fighting slavery versus using it in the Iraq situation to stop terrorism to using it in an intra-Christian conflict. Not only does this begin to probe the ways in which people bargain with the unacceptable, depending on what they perceive to be the stakes involved with specific situations, but it also supplies a sense of whether or not simple distance in time makes something more — or less — acceptable when it is ontologically odious in the first place. (For example, would audiences “excuse” the use of torture in the Inquisition because “times were different then.”)

In order to best probe these real-world aspect of theoretical morality, then, I see the play(s) as being performed in a realistic style regardless of the historical time period in which they are set, to capitalize on the shock value of the ending and to “feel” the most like something that might really happen.

Here’s a brief description of the ethnographic aspect of this multi-faceted undertaking, excerpted largely from various funding proposals and a paper I’ll be giving in London at the Common Ground International Conference on the Arts in Society, this summer (2015).

“Ethnographic Data Collection Techniques, New Media, and Drama for Conflict Transformation: The Interrogation Project”
by Kerric Harvey

“The Interrogation” is a ten-minute play exploring the ethics of torture in the terrorist era, which also serves as the centerpiece for an innovative experiment in adapting theatrical technique as a component of ethnographic research design. I have already written the first draft of the piece, which was performed as a table reading as part of the “Playwrights Express” series at Hollywood’s FirstStageLA, a professional theatre development organization begun by Sundance Theatre Lab alumni.

In a nutshell, the proposed research project uses “The Interrogation” as an instance of engaged theatrical technique to explore public attitudes towards the genderization of rape as a primarily female experience and the degree to which that may be a function of specific political conflict and/or historical time period, focusing especially on the effects of the “otherization” — what Edward Said (1978) has called “orientalism” — of both victim and perpetrator. The main goal is to identify specific moments of escalating dramatic tension when the individual audience member shifts from one moral standpoint to another, perhaps without even meaning to do so. It is the same type of attitudinal threshold that social science tests such as the Bogardus Social Distance Scale used to chart the stress fractures in racial tolerance and social class dividing lines in the 1930s (Oxford Index, 2014).

In particular, the tension between race and gender as competing primary signifiers of political identity is explored by essentially “pitting” those two attributes against one another within a theatrical context, to see which of them is perceived by audiences as the more important aspect of “self” for specific characters struggling within the narrative structure of the skit that forms the core of the experiment.

This research also explores the degree to which this type of ethnographic research design can be usefully transported to web-based and social media technologies, capitalizing on the truly global reach of modern digital technologies.

Specific research objectives. The international policy-making goal towards which the research drives involves re-visiting the traditional perception of torture, in general, and of rape, in particular, as crime against humanity as well as against individuals. Specific research questions would include:

  1. What is public attitude towards rape as a political tool, and towards torture as an anti-terrorism activity?
  1. Do attitudes towards torture change depending on who is being tortured? Do they change depending on who is doing the torturing?
  1. Are these changes a function of historical and/or cultural distance? In other words, is there a sense that modern torture is worse than historical torture, or vice versa?
  1. Do the race and or gender of the torturers affect perceptions of torture’s moral nature? If so, which exerts the greater influence, sex or race? (Key question.)
  1. Do the race and or gender of the torture victim affect perceptions of torture’s moral nature? If so, which exerts the greater influence, sex or race? (Key question.)
  1. How situation-specific, in general, are perceptions of torture’s moral defensibility? Is there a correlation between this and individual self-interest?
  1. Is there a correlation between this and the perceived “exoticism” or “otherness” of the torture victims and/or perpetrators? (Key question)
  1. Is political rape, used in a torture setting, more “unthinkable” when it is practiced against male than against female victims? (Key question.)

 Approaches and methods. Deeply interdisciplinary, the project employs a mix of quantitative and qualitative empirical methodologies, as well as from theoretical literature in media theory, communication studies, peace studies, and conflict resolution material. It also employs a variety of new ethnographic techniques that combine Drama for Conflict Transformation (DCT) and my own work on using theatrical methods to obtain information about subterranean belief structures that are difficult to access directly because they often contradict publically acceptable social attitudes.

Brief theoretical background. Drama for Conflict Transformation is an intriguing set of mediation techniques whose full potential for ameliorating inflammatory situations may yet be untapped. Springing from work by “Theatre for Development” and “Theatre of the Oppressed” pioneers Paolo Friere (1970) and Augusto Boal (1985) during the turbulent political environment of Central and South America, DCT re-purposes the conventions of dramaturgy and theatrical performance as ways of raising group consciousness among oppressed populations and then giving voice to the specifics of their oppressive experiences. In latter years, it has expanded to include preventative and reparative techniques intended to heal rifts between conflicting groups by providing them with an opportunity to understand, emotionally rather than rationally, the damage caused on each of them by the shared conflict situation (Harvey, 2006).

My own work in face-to-face, or “conventional,” DCT is two-fold. Although DCT has proven itself useful and, sometimes, even decisional in closing conflict gaps during its 40-year lifespan, I have long wondered if it might have more to offer than its classic paradigm makes available to modern proponents—especially in the digital era, in which so many vehicles for communicating electronically exist as complements to conventional face-to-face interaction.

Consequently, the first of my main research interests has been studying the anthropological impact of emerging media technologies and developing ways of extending face-to-face drama for conflict transformation into virtual and online landscapes. In doing so, I have also infused the DCT canon with relevant theoretical material drawn from media studies and communications theory, notably Noelle-Neumann’s “spiral of silence” principal (1984) and Festinger’s (1957, 1962) concept of “cognitive dissonance” (Harvey, 2006).

The result is the development of an entirely new type of DCT, which I call “dialogic drama for conflict transformation,” (DDCT) that is re-located within a robust, trans-disciplinary context and adapted for deployment in today’s social media landscapes through a collection of low-tech, interactive digital storytelling techniques. In this work, I argue that”… we often use DCT with the wrong people and at the wrong time. We should use it within ‘warring parties’ of a conflict situation just as much as we use between sides, and we should use it preventively, before the conflict reaches the point of intergenerational intractability, rather than as a last-ditch effort when all else has failed, which is usually the case (Harvey, 2006, 2007).”

“The Interrogation Project” is the most recent in a series of empirical investigations of this basic concept. It revolves around three different versions of a single short skit that maps the emotional, political, and moral contours of audience reaction to an extremely relevant and highly flammable topic of public concern –torture as a means combating terrorist activity.

In this project, I use this original, purpose-built ten-minute play, (“The Interrogation”) as an instance of engaged theatrical technique, in order to identify the “breakpoints” in public attitudes towards the use of torture as an acceptable tactic for fighting terrorism, and to explore the degree to which “reluctant acceptability” might be related to historical distance, geo-cultural specificity, and/or the key demographic signifiers (i.e., the salient characteristics) of the actual people involved in case-specific circumstances. For example, in one iteration of “The Interrogation” an inter-racial couple with the 1850s Underground Railroad reluctantly resort to using torture in order to discover the identity of an informant in their midst, a situation that, arguably, is made emotionally distant by time and made morally virtuous by motive to most modern American audiences — although one goal of my experiment is to collect actual ethnographic data shedding empirical light on that assumption. By employing the morally safe “make believe” world of a theatre piece, I can probe if this really is acceptable to a contemporary audience, and, if so, whether that tolerance is importable to other present-day situations.

By changing the historical setting and/or the geo-cultural location of the short play itself, I can explore if (and to what degree) tolerance for using torture in one setting extends to other settings — focusing especially on the effects of the “otherization” by identifying “breakpoints” when audience acceptance of torture shifts moral gears, from “completely unacceptable” to “possibly acceptable” to “absolutely acceptable.” There are several ways of using DCT in this type of discovery process. In “The Interrogation Project” I’ll be working with two of them: Playback Theatre” and what I call the “Multiple Iterations” approach.

In the “Multiple Iterations” paradigm, the ten-minute play is performed several times back-to-back, but with important changes in gender and/or racial details in the characters. Each of these changes also shifts the conflict emphasis, and thus character interaction around that emphasis, to present a different inter-sex and/or inter-racial dynamic, such as changing the sex of a character from female to male, or the race of another one from White to African-American. In the first experiment, I’ll run the play through as it is written, but then do it several more times making the villian white instead of black, then making the vllian make instead if femaele, then making the vicitm female instead of male, and then white instead of black. This will change the social cachet of the “villian” — the person who orders the torture to happen — in relationship to the “victim” (the person who is tortured — in ways that test for whether the audience thinks that race or gender is the more important trait in determing whether some one “dererves” to be tortured, and/or how “bad” the person who is responsible for enacting torture might be, in a moral sense.

In comparison, the “playback theatre” (sometimes called “forum theatre”) experiment also begins by running the play all the way through without interruption, but differs from “multiple iterations” in that, the second time the play is performed, the audience essentially re-writes as it goes along by raising their hands to “freeze-frame” the dramatic action at decisional points in the characters’ responses to conflict events and then suggesting alternative methods of dealing with the issue. When using the playback theatre technique, I will run the core version of “The Interrogation” at least twice — altering key racial and gender details of the three characters, much as described above — and then employ playback theatre techniques on a third run-through, letting the audience “lead,” as we deconstruct the racial, ethnic, and sexual politics packed into the dramatic action of the contrasting versions of the play.

For both methods, the primary data collection methods will be ethnography, participant observation, focus groups with audience members and actors, and a short pre-performance/post-performance survey which inventories the audience members’ pre-intervention attitudes on acceptable interrogation methods, past and present, in the States and abroad.

Expected outcomes. What I expect the research to do, in hypothesis form, is to expose the fallacy of modern day discourse around political rape as a behavior that occurs independently of sexual motivation, or, at the very least, sexual gratification of the worst sort. If it is, literally, unthinkable that political rape can be enacted against men as well as against women, then support is suggested for a perhaps deeply buried cultural assumption that there is an ontological relationship between femaleness and sexual violation that is not paralleled in the possibility of male experience. This, in turn, points to a persistent inequity in cultural attitudes towards the sanctity of the body, and the degree to which that is an equal right for women as well as for men.

I also hypothesize that the results of the experiments will indicate that there is a direct positive correlation between the degree of “otherization” of the torture victim and audience tolerance for the use of torture as an interrogation technique. The real question is if the same hypothesis can be construed regarding the otherization of the “villain,” or the person who orders that the torture be done.

Impact of proposed research on gender equity issues. Either of the two methods suggested for introducing variation into the core skit and then collecting ethnographic data around audience reactions is likely to isolate two aspects of the research topic that are especially important for dealing with the issue of political rape, in terms of how the news reports it and how policy-makers address it.

First is the degree to which moral decision making is seen as a (perhaps surprisingly) situation-dependent rather than as absolute, and the second is the role played by gender within situations that are, “officially,” “supposed” to be gender-neutral, such as the issue of women in combat zones. It would be grimly interesting, but ethnographically crucial, to see which principle of cultural conditioning would “win out” in that final pairing of skits — is it “worse” in the eyes of the audience for a man or a woman to be not just the victim, but the person who orders, an instance of politically sanctioned rape?

An important companion question asks: Does the theoretical un-gendering of women (as they occupy traditional male roles like being combat troops) hold firm when traditionally gendered coercion techniques are applied? If the audience reaction to a female soldier being raped is sympathetic, but less outraged, than it is to a male soldier being raped for the same “political” reasons, this may be the case, despite an avalanche of public discourse to the opposite. “Rape” would still be perceived as a “female” – specific experience, rather than a biologically neutral torture technique. The legal, ethical, and theoretical implications of this, should it turn out to be the case, are enormous.

It wasn’t until 1992 that the United Nations Security Council, spurred by the extensive raping of women in former Yugoslavian lands, declared rape a “crime against humanity,” establishing in 1993 the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The first person to be found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity was convicted by this tribunal in 2001; other situation-specific tribunals and convictions followed, culminating in The Rome Statute of July 2002. This statue, generated by the U.N.’s International Criminal Court, re-classifies systematic and widespread rape, along with a host of other sexually-based coercive activities, as a crime against humanity and as a war crime, pursuable by arrest warrants issued directly by the ICC. (United Nations, 2014). In 2008, the U.S. Senate held it’s first Congressional hearing on the use of rape as a political weapon and/or as a tool of war. The Sub-Committee on Human Rights and Law joined much of the U.N. signatory countries in condemning these practices as a crime against women, which is important.

However, cultural differences regarding the relative legal personhood (or lack thereof) of women in many nations, especially many troubled nations, leads to a situation in which local custom clashes with international expectations regarding the degree to which “rape,” for instance, can even and ever happen in the first place; an individual who has no ownership over her own body cannot, technically, be “violated” by some one else’s use of that body for sexual or political purposes.

Being able to re-frame political use of rape, in the torture chamber or in “the field,” from being a women’s right issue to being a human rights issue effectively sidesteps the red herring of cultural relatively, but is only possible if research can establish the high degree to which rape is still seen as exclusively female problem at the level of direct personal threat.

If political rape is to be re-framed as a human rights problem, a crime against humanity, in actual fact as well as in legal theory, then it follows that all humans must be in peril from it, and if there is a residual impression that this is not the case, then that must be flushed out and dealt with before any progress can be made in terms of making international policy more effective and inclusive. The legal, ethical, and theoretical implications of this, should it turn out to be the case, are enormous; it would suggest, for example, that current international human rights law is still, and unwittingly, operating on two different sets of standards for men and for women despite the 2002 changes made to U.N. protocol.

To read Kerric Harvey’s play The Interrogation please click on the link below.
The Interrogation by Kerric Harvey


* Boal, Augusto. (1985). Theatre for the Oppressed. Translated by Charles A. and Maria-Odilla Leal McBride. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

* Festinger, L. (1962; 1957.), A theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Reissued by Stanford University Press 1962.

* Friere, Paolo. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London & New York: International Publishing Group, Inc.

* Harvey, Kerric. (2007.) “A New Media Approach to Old Problems: Phone Flicks and Cease Fires,” in International Journal of the Humanities. Vol. 5, No. 5. Common Ground Publishing Pty. Ltd., Melbourne, Australia, pp. 60 -68.

* Harvey, Kerric. (2006.) “Dialogic Theatre and Cultural Geography.” In the International Journal of the Arts in Society, Vol. 1, No. 2. Common Ground Publishing: Melbourne, Australia. Pp. 7 – 17.

* Newcomb, T. M. (1963). “Stabilities underlying changes in interpersonal attraction.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66 (4): 376–386. doi:10.1037/h0041059

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion – Our Social Skin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

* Oxford Index (2014.) “Bogardus Social Distance Scale: Overview.” Accessed at

*Said, Edward W. (1978.) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

* University of East London. (2014.) “Performing Human Right.” UEL: Online at