Brian Martin: overview of research

This is an overview of my research, with links to my publications and lists of publications. Sections 1 to 5 cover research themes. Section 7 classifies my research according to a different framework: skill development.

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Tactics against injustice

Since 2002 I've been investigating how injustice can backfire. This involves examining tactics used by perpetrators and targets. The dynamics of backfire apply in the case of physical violence against nonviolent protesters. Looking more widely, the same dynamics apply in cases of censorship, academic freedom, police beatings, whistleblowing, environmental disasters and many other areas.

Nonviolent action

Nonviolent action includes methods such as rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and vigils. A special application of nonviolent action is social defence, which is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence. This alternative raises numerous intellectual and practical issues. A type of investigation that is compatible with the goal of social defence itself can be called community research, in which the investigators discuss ideas with others both to learn about nonviolent resistance and to introduce the idea of social defence. Along these lines, Jacki Quilty, Lynne Dickins, Phil Anderson and I did a study of how people in Canberra could oppose an invasion or military coup. Sharon Callaghan, Chris Fox and I studied grassroots challenges to bureaucratic elites in the context of resistance to oppressive rulers. The last two projects were undertaken by a voluntary group called Schweik Action Wollongong. Jørgen Johansen and I wrote a book titled Social Defence, published in 2019.

From 1993-95 I worked with Mary Cawte on a major project on how technology can best serve nonviolent struggle, funded by the Australian Research Council. This was the first significant study of the role of technology in social defence.

Along the way I analysed how nonviolent action can be used to oppose capitalism.

Wendy Varney and I in our book Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating against Repressionexamined three case studies - the toppling of Suharto in Indonesia, the resistance to the 1991 Soviet coup, and the citizen opposition to the Multilaterial Agreement on Investment - in order to determine how activists' communication strategies might be improved. We also wrote a paper on nonviolence and communication.

In my 2015 book Nonviolence Unbound I illustrate how key features of effective nonviolent action can be applied to several arenas with little physical violence: verbal defence, being defamed, and the struggles over euthanasia and vaccination.


Power in science

In scientific controversies, knowledge is used as a resource - but so is political and economic power. There are many cases in which scientists have been harassed, transferred or dismissed because their work or public statements are threatening to powerful interests, a process that can be called suppression of dissent. I have studied several areas of controversy -- including repetition strain injury (with Gabriele Bammer), nuclear power, pesticides, nuclear winter, fluoridation, vaccination and the origin of AIDS -- examining how various forms of power are exerted by the various contending groups. My book The Controversy Manual offers insights in the dynamics of scientific controversies that can be used by campaigners.

As well as studying controversies and the suppression of dissent, in several cases I have been actively involved as a participant. In the case of the theory that AIDS arose from contaminated polio vaccines, I published a key paper by Louis Pascal and became involved in various other ways in promoting consideration of the theory.

For the four years 1996-1999 I was president of Whistleblowers Australia (WBA), and I am now on the WBA national committee as vice president and international director. These roles provide an opportunity to learn more about the dynamics of scientific and other organisations, to contribute to challenges and changes to these organisations by supporting whistleblowers and dissent more generally, and in turn to learn even more through the process of supporting dissenters. My participation in WBA thus is a type of action research.

My web site on suppression of dissent is one part of this action research.

There are several connections between dissent and nonviolent struggle. The bodies that most commonly suppress dissent -- governments, corporations, professions, and bureaucracies more generally -- are also ones that nonviolent activists routinely confront. Yet the theory of nonviolent action has seldom been applied to challenges within bureaucracies. Over the coming years I will be seeking further insights about the interactions between whistleblowing and nonviolent action.


Information in a free society

What sort of technologies for producing and communicating information are most appropriate for a society based on maximum participation and self-determination? I've approached this question from several angles. The study of technology for nonviolent struggle, mentioned above, is directly relevant. As well, I've investigated several areas where control of information is linked to social control, especially surveillance, mass media, intellectual property and defamation law.

Each of these areas involves the exercise of power through or by control of information. In the case of surveillance, the watchers have power through knowledge of the watched, usually with little accountability. In the case of the mass media, a small number of people control the signal which is received by many, the antithesis of informational democracy. In the case of intellectual property, the power of the state is used to enforce transfer of resources (e.g. royalties) based on monopoly privilege over the use of information. Each of these areas involves control over information which marginalises certain categories of people and ideas. These areas are addressed collectively in my book Information Liberation.


It is all very well to provide critiques of present arrangements. The greater challenge is to develop alternatives, especially ones that can be turned into campaigns. Nonviolent struggle is one such alternative: nonviolence is the goal and also the method to reach the goal. In the case of suppression, free speech is the alternative: dissent is the ideal method to promote a culture of dissent.

Another alternative I find attractive is demarchy, a participatory alternative to electoral democracy based on functional groups and random selection. It provides a nice link to scientific and technological controversies, in that some of the best studies of decision making by randomly selected citizens have dealt with issues in science and technology policy. Turning demarchy into a process of change is not easy, since it requires agreement of significant numbers of people. As in many other areas, intellectual advance is dependent on practical experience.


Career background

My formal training is in physics, with a BA from Rice University and a PhD from Sydney University. After this, I worked for a decade at the Australian National University as an applied mathematician. Most of my scientific research was in stratospheric modelling, astrophysics, numerical methods, and wind power in electricity grids.

During this time, I also studied the politics, sociology and other aspects of science, whose relevance (or lack of it) I could often see in my day-to-day work. As well, I became involved in the radical science movement, the anti-uranium movement and the peace movement. All this provided stimulation to study and write on a range of issues, including the politics of science, education, environmental and peace issues. I also became involved in opposing a number of instances of suppression of dissent and this led to studies of the exercise of power in a variety of institutional locations.

After my contract positions ran out, I was fortunate to be able to join Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong in 1986.


Skill development

There are various ways to try to achieve a more just, participatory and satisfying society, including social movements, direct action, and setting up alternative structures. One approach to the quest for a better society is to promote the development of skills that people can use in their own efforts to understand and act. (This is just one approach; other approaches can be most useful too.) Here's a list of categories of skills, with links to my writings when applicable.

Skills for struggle

Skills for decision making and social coordination

Skills for production

Skills for interpersonal relations

Skills for thinking

Skills for self-understanding