Interview with Dr. John F. Morrison*
Student Section Editors
Maria Aparcero, Student President | Fordham University, USA
Sarah Schaaf, Student President Elect | Fairleigh Dickinson University, USA
Silvia Fraga, Student Secretary | Royal Holloway University of London, UK
Dr. John F. Morrison is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Royal Holloway University, where he also leads the BPS accredited BSc programme in Criminology and Psychology and co-leads the MSc programme in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Studies. John is the co-director for the newly established Conflict, Violence and Terrorism Research Centre. He is the associate editor of two leading academic journals in terrorism studies, ‘Perspectives on Terrorism’ and ‘Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression’. Outside academia, John produces and hosts the Talking Terror podcast, where he interviews experts in terrorism and counter-terrorism studies.
Q: Could you tell us about your educational background and how you became interested in the fields of terrorism and extremism?
Dr. Morrison: I have a BA in Psychology from University College Dublin, an MA in Forensic Psychology from University College Cork and a PhD in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews. When I started my undergraduate degree, I was adamant that I wanted to be a sports psychologist. However, as the degree progressed, I realized that this was not for me after all. Knowing about my interest in Politics, my supervisor Prof. Ciaran Benson, recommended that I look at anti-American or anti-Israeli prejudice as my dissertation topic. With the Iraq war in its early stages at the time, growing anti-American sentiment was being debated internationally, and I decided to research Anti-Americanism. That led me to the psychology of terrorism literature, which fascinated me. Then, I completed the Forensic Psychology master’s program in Cork, which had a module on psychology of terrorism. There, I met Dr. John Horgan, the instructor of the module, who later became my PhD supervisor, then my boss at Penn State, and ultimately a very close friend. Without Ciaran Benson’s advice on changing my research focus and meeting John Horgan in Cork, I doubt I would be studying terrorism today.
Q: What are your current projects and how does a typical workday look like for you?
Dr. Morrison: I am currently finishing a project with colleagues on the social ecology of radicalization, funded by the Minerva Research Initiative. I am looking at the role that place plays in people’s involvement in modern-day armed republicanism in Belfast. This has involved interviewing people who were previously involved in armed republicanism, and key stakeholders working in communities where armed republicanism is still prevalent. Of course, I am also engaged in non-research related tasks, such as teaching and administrative work. I often look at academia as working for an employer (i.e., for the university), while at the same time being self-employed (i.e., research). For the latter, you have to be self-motivated, and self-organized. You have to come up with research ideas, chase funding, and carry out the research. For external observers, this is the work you will be known for; however, it is equally important to pass on the knowledge to your students. Being able to share knowledge with the next generation of experts in this ever-growing area is really satisfying to me.
Being able to share knowledge with the next generation of experts in this ever-growing area is really satisfying to me
Q: Have you experienced any challenges that are unique to terrorism research?
Dr. Morrison: One of the key challenges I experienced in this area is to resist the urge to be always ‘relevant’ in the eyes of the general public. There are many terrorism researchers who strive to follow the current trend. However, we also need to be able to research areas, groups, and aspects of terrorism and extremism that are not deemed newsworthy. When I was doing my PhD, I was analyzing the splits in the Irish Republican Movement and the origins of the violent dissident Irish Republican groups. While historically the paramilitary republican groups were the most researched throughout the history of terrorism studies, everyone was paying attention to Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. All that research was vitally important, but there were still areas and topics that needed to be studied elsewhere.
Q: In your opinion, what role does psychological research play in political decision making on how to combat terrorism? And how could we better disseminate our research findings?
We have to think of non-traditional ways of research dissemination without losing the substance of what we are trying to say
Dr. Morrison: I feel that it should play a key role and is beginning to play a bigger role. The history of the psychology of terrorism research demonstrates the relative psychological normality of terrorist offenders. This has to guide our research. So, for me, a central part of my research has been the analysis of the role that trust plays in terrorist decision-making. But this is not a message that really resonates with political decision makers, or at least it is not politically expedient as a central aspect in the decision-making on how to combat terrorism and extremism. I am writing this in the aftermath of the November 2019 London Bridge attack. We only need to look to the political reaction to see how much work there needs to be done to elevate evidence-based initiatives above political rhetoric and fearmongering in this area. We need to look beyond the traditional academic journal articles and conference presentations, as policy makers and practitioners don’t have time to access them. So, we have to think of non-traditional ways of research dissemination without losing the substance of what we are trying to say. This is not always easy. But I think that my approach to the Talking Terror podcast has hopefully achieved this to some extent.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of the Talking Terror podcast? What is its mission?
Dr. Morrison: The honest answer is, I was becoming frustrated with myself because I was only reading books and articles relevant to my own research. I was going to conferences and seeing great research done by others, and thinking “this is all great, but I will never get a chance to read all of this.” So, I set up the podcast to force myself to do so. The first series had guests identifying three pieces of research that influenced their career and three pieces of their own which they wanted to discuss. This format forced me to read much wider in order to prepare for the interviews.Its mission is to introduce people to the nuanced understanding we have of terrorism through excellent research. Too often terrorism experts are interviewed in the media in the immediate aftermath of an attack, where little to nothing is known about the perpetrator, motive, etc. There is no real chance to go in depth on key issues relating to terrorism. This podcast will hopefully help students, researchers, practitioners and policy makers to easily access some of the best research out there.
Q: What advice do you have for researchers interested in developing this type of platform?
Dr. Morrison: Be very aware of the time that is involved in the development of such an endeavor. What the listeners hear is just a fraction of the work that is put into this. In order to do things properly there needs to be good research done leading up to it. But when you are behind the mike try and be as relaxed as possible. The more informal the chat can appear the more accessible it will be for your listener. Have fun with it. In order to have this relaxed atmosphere on the episodes it is therefore important to get to know your guest a bit beforehand, if you don’t know them already. This will help you both. I would advise to have a topic focus for each episode that can draw listeners in and helps you in terms of your own preparation.
Q: What are some of the pros and cons of using media outlets to disseminate information about your field of work?
Dr. Morrison: The pros for me have far outweighed the cons. This project has allowed me to develop such a wide network within the field. It has opened more doors for me than any of my publications, either before or after the podcast. However, it does have the drawback of some people just seeing me as a podcaster, and not also a researcher These are just personal disadvantages, but more broadly I hope that this podcast has allowed the area of terrorism studies to be more accessible to people interested in this topic. This can only be a good thing.
Q: From your perspective, what are some of the obstacles our field on the intersection of psychology and law faces?
Dr. Morrison: I think that our core strength of interdisciplinarity can also be our Achilles heel. By being spread across a range of disciplines we need to be sure that we are still able to engage in the core debates that are going on within our disciplines, as well as the key areas relating to our own specific intersection of disciplines. To advance these intersections, we need to be able to bring the key findings from our home disciplines and test them within our specific area. That is why within terrorism studies the most interesting advances are being made by criminologists, psychologists and others who are drawing on their core disciplines to shape their research. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but for too long we have not been doing enough of it.
Q: Looking back at your graduate school days, is there anything you would have done differently? Any advice you have for others interested in following your path?
Dr. Morrison: I sometimes regret rushing into getting a lecturing position. This is not to say that I did not enjoy or gain a lot from my time as a lecturer, but the PhD and Postdoc experiences are some of the best you will have. For most of us, there is not a chance to really immerse yourself in research again. I would therefore advise everyone to make the most of every stage of their career. Don’t always think about the next step. If you are making the most of your time in the present, then future opportunities will look after themselves. We are in a privileged position as researchers. We can really shape the focus of our career. Be sure to pick something that interests and fascinates you, but also embrace the opportunities to move into other areas of research.
Don’t always think about the next step. If you are making the most of your time in the present, then future opportunities will look after themselves
Q: How would you characterize a good mentor?
Dr. Morrison: The most important thing that my mentors gave me was confidence in myself. I had, and continue to have, periods of self-doubt within my career. But mentors like those four, and others, have been able to help me restore that confidence. I remember reviewing a draft of my master’s dissertation with John Horgan and him saying to me ‘I know that you can do so much better than this.’ He could have easily said that what I produced was rubbish. But the simple fact that throughout his negative feedback of the work he gave positive feedback to me personally really helped me with my confidence. Maybe without that kind of constructive feedback I would not have pursued my PhD or the career I am in now.
Q: How do you balance work and self-care? What advice do you have for students in that regard?
Dr. Morrison: This is a hugely important question, and I don’t believe that I find enough balance. I am trying to do better in this regard, as my work is of higher quality when I do that, but it is hard. I would advise that we all prioritize what is most important to us workwise during work hours, but that during the weekends we find a way to shut off. Sometimes that is not possible. This is not the kind of job that we can always leave in the office. But we all need an outlet to escape from work. For me it used to be climbing mountains and swimming. Now this has changed to spending time with my two daughters and my wife. At the end of the day, they are much more important than anything work related.
Thank you, Dr. Morrison, for taking us along your professional career path and sharing some of your insights and advice with our students!