My research interests fall into three categories but they all share a common theme: ontology. Generally this term refers to the study of the nature of reality or what is real, but I use it to refer to the more narrow question of the nature or flavour of individual and collective human states of being. Broadly speaking I use Buddhist concepts – such as duality, impermanence, and compassion – to describe the various states of being that individuals experience as individuals and in relation to each other. These questions intersect with law insofar as the state and its policies influence individual and social ontologies.
My work falls into three broad categories: corporate harm creation, punishment, and social theory.
My doctoral thesis focused on the extra-legal (i.e. social) phenomena that downplay our perception of corporate harm to workers and to the environment. I did not realise it at the time of writing that I was actually talking about social mythologies, rather, I thought I was writing about ideologies. This is not the place to go into the differences between ideologies and mythologies, but trust, they are very different! They might say similar things but we relate to them differently.
The thesis has been reviewed by UBC Press and I have put off the rewrite to focus on what I believe are more pressing issues for Canada.
According to some criminologists, punishment is a kind of icon that depicts the essential values and norms of a society. The most powerful form of punishment is execution because of its finality and because it violates the basis of all human rights, the right to life.
I began writing about capital punishment a few years ago just after the Harper government was first elected. It was the most openly pro reinstitution government Canada had had in decades. Not only was I concerned about the possibility of the death penalty coming back to Canada, I was also concerned about the potential changes to Canada that would result from it. If punishment is an icon of social values and norms, and capital punishment is the most powerful form of punishment, then reinstitution could result in some meaningful shifts in Canadian identity.
I first started writing about the death penalty as a ritual as opposed to it being a technical legal response to a rule violation. Viewed as a ritual we can see it is a practice that is rich with meaning and symbolism that speaks to virtually every aspect of social life, and not just to crime. In fact, the death penalty has very little to do with crime and everything to do with social mythologies.
This has taken me to looking at the myths of capital punishment, which is a book I'm working on under contract with Ashgate. Examining the death penalty as a myth-making ritual connects back to ontology, because our states of being are very much connected to the myths we use to understand our lives.
My focus is expanding to include punishment per se and not only the death penalty. In a word, my current active research examines the ontological aspects of punishment that result from the rituals and mythologies associated with penality and penal practices. I can see this focus expanding again to include other legal arenas, but for now I'm focusing on the death penalty and punishment. Once I've done this book, I plan on returning to my thesis and rewriting it with a richer sense of the myths associated with corporate harm creation.
Along the lines of ontological inquiry, and while researching questions related to punishment, myth and ritual, I discovered some similarities between Marxist and Buddhist writings associated with ontology, particularly in connection with some of their main theoretical concepts (such as historical materialism and dependent origination). Both theoretical traditions appear to value 'spirituality' and interrelationism as the proper grounds for human societies, and both discuss in detail some of the barriers to ontological unity. What distinguishes the two is that while Marx focuses on the social institutional barriers to unity, Buddhism focuses on the psychological barriers. Accordingly, each tradition neglects the concerns of the other, to the detriment of both. The humanisation of social institutions cannot (fully) occur without the spiritual growth of individuals, and the latter cannot occur without attending to social institutions that encourage greed, competition, and so on. As the Buddhist saying goes: there is no way to peace, peace is the way.
In addition to the above, on the back burner I have a small project that focuses on a quirky observation. Most of our lives are spent in private spaces – school, work, home – and by far the most frequent experience of public space is driving on the road. Roads have become our dominant experience of public life, and perhaps even of civil life insofar as we can equate the two in the crude physical sense. So our experiences on roads can be viewed as our predominant experience of citizenship.
In some of the elections we've had in Ontario over the last few decades, transportation policy is often a salient and emotional issue. If you look at how politicians have talked about transportation issues you will find that they aren't really talking about transportation, they are talking about the relationships between citizens and citizens and between citizens and the state. Transportation policy is an icon of these relations, and I am interested in researching the correlation between changes in driving habits and changes in political ideology and rhetoric. It is often difficult to discuss with accuracy the nature of social relations, but I believe the 'decoding' of driving habits may provide some insight into them.
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