Looking Forward To: Understanding Offence

Apr 26, 2023 | Looking Forward to...., Transformations (Issue 9), Understanding Offence

Looking Forward To: Understanding Offence
Professor Patrick Zuk

The IAS project ‘Understanding offence: delimiting the (un)sayable’ engages with an important contemporary issue of wide relevance.

The idea for the project originated from conversations with colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities who were interested in issues to do with censorship and freedom of expression. Censorship and ideological constraints of freedom of expression have been centrally relevant to my research on Soviet cultural life, and equally to colleagues such as Jennifer Ingleheart, who has worked on the reception of sexually explicit Classical texts, and to Mike Thompson and Claudia Nitschke, who are respectively engaged in research on Spanish theatre censorship and artistic scandals in German cultural life.

The initial idea subsequently evolved in a way that is a perfect illustration of how the IAS assists projects to develop and fosters interdisciplinary intellectual exchange. After presenting the idea at an IAS project pitch meeting in January 2021, the IAS directors helped to identify aspects that were potentially of interest to Durham colleagues in social science disciplines who could bring a valuable enrichment of perspective and make the project more genuinely interdisciplinary.

Two subsequent encounters proved decisive for the project’s ultimate shape. The first was with Helen Fenwick from Durham’s School of Law. Helen specialises in human rights law and has published extensively on issues pertaining to freedom of expression. The second encounter was with a Newcastle colleague Ian O’Flynn, a political philosopher and a noted expert on deliberative democracy. From our discussions, it emerged that all of us were concerned in different ways with problems relating to attempts to delimit the boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour. Helen was interested in the challenges for the law in grappling with understandings of offence, Ian—in the problems of conducting political deliberation on sensitive subjects, in contexts where offence might easily be given or taken. This brought us to an important realisation. Although extensive research has been undertaken on related topics such as hate speech and censorship, to date, no broad study has been attempted of the phenomenon of offence itself, and of what is involved in giving and taking offence.

Offence consequently seemed an obvious central focus for a collaborative interdisciplinary project which could help to prepare for such an undertaking.

Now that our ideas had clarified, we got in touch with departments across the University to enquire whether other colleagues might consider getting involved. Helen and I were delighted with the response. The research team grew to 24 people, and now comprises personnel from 11 schools and departments (Anthropology, Business, Classics, Computer Science, English, Government and International Affairs, Law, Modern Languages and Cultures, Philosophy, Sociology, Theology and Religion), as well as the Principal of St Aidan’s College, Susan Frenk. Colleagues gave very generously of their time during this further round of consultation, and suggested all kinds of interesting angles for exploration.

The project will run in the Epiphany term of 2024. At the heart of the project activities will be a series of seminars, organised thematically, which will examine issues pertaining to offence from different disciplinary perspectives. Durham colleagues will be joined by six IAS visiting Fellows from the UK, US, Germany, Romania, and Bangladesh who will bring a range of complementary expertise. The term’s events will culminate in a three-day interdisciplinary colloquium held at Durham on 21-23 March, which will afford an exciting opportunity to reflect on the significance of offence as a cultural and historical phenomenon, and to think creatively about the challenges that it presents for society.

A key aim of the project is to produce a multi-disciplinary edited volume on offence, which we hope might help to clear some intellectual ground and usefully help to orient future research. Helen and I are also mulling over ideas for larger follow-on projects, and it will be interesting to see what other ideas other members of the research team will develop.

We’d like to express our warm appreciation of the practical and intellectual support that the IAS has provided, with special thanks to IAS Co-Director Nayanika Mookherjee, our IAS project contact. It’s been a really positive experience, and we would strongly encourage other Durham colleagues to think about engaging with the Institute if they have ideas for interdisciplinary projects.


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