Audra Mitchell

Prior to joining the Politics department at York, Audra completed a PhD at the Queen’s University of Belfast and a research fellowship at the University of St. Andrews.

She is interested in three major themes: the concept of ‘humanity’; agency (in particular the idea of ‘intervention’); and large-scale harm. Her previous research has explored the linkages of these themes in several contexts: international programmes of conflict transformation, global patterns of hybridity and resistance to peace-building, and the cosmological basis of norms and practices of international intervention.

Audra’s ISRF project aims to develop a framework that will enable security actors to respond to the ethical challenges raised by nonhumans in situations such as wars and disasters, examining the ethical dilemmas raised by nonhumans in three key sets of security practices: the analysis of harm, risk and threat; intervention or crisis response; and restorative processes (e.g. peace-building and reconstruction).


The purpose of this project is to develop a framework that will enable security actors to respond to the ethical challenges raised by nonhumans in situations such as wars and disasters. In existing security discourses, human beings are framed as the only relevant actors, in both ethical and pragmatic terms. Yet security situations are shaped by a range of nonhumans that Bruno Latour terms ‘actants’: beings that can collectively affect change in the world without possessing agency, subjectivity, or intentionality. In security contexts, actants can create threats, and they may be owed protection from humans in their own right. For instance, robots are increasingly used to kill combatants and to carry out humanitarian tasks like mine clearing; and animals, artefacts and ecosystems have all been framed as recipients of protection. Yet, although the dilemmas raised by actants overlap with a number of fields (international relations, posthumanist philosophy and some branches of international law), there is currently no coherent ethical framework to shape how nonhumans are addressed in security practices. This project will examine the ethical dilemmas raised by nonhumans in three key sets of security practices: the analysis of harm, risk and threat; intervention or crisis response; and restorative processes (e.g. peace-building and reconstruction). To this end, I will critically review and integrate literatures from security studies, posthumanism and its sub-disciplines to develop a theory of the role of nonhumans in international security, test this theory against a series of case studies, and broaden the debate through a workshop that will foster collaboration and future research. The project will produce a series of publications that will be relevant to a range of academic audiences and actors within the field of security policy. It will further ISRF’s goals by promoting cutting-edge, interdisciplinary alternatives to real-world problems.

The Research Idea

This project will develop an ethical framework for addressing the role of nonhumans in three sets of security practices: the analysis of harm, risk and threat; intervention or crisis response; and restorative processes (e.g. peace-building and reconstruction). Existing security discourses frame human needs as the only relevant concern of international politics, and consider nonhumans only insofar as they instrumentally enable or threaten human well-being. Yet, in contemporary security situations, nonhumans take on a range of roles as ‘actants’: beings that can participate in collective action, but do not possess subjectivity, agency, or intentionality. To name just a few well-known examples: robots and automated vehicles (‘drones’) are increasingly used to replace human combatants; outbreaks of bacteria can undermine the legitimacy of peace operations; and the destruction of artefacts is considered a war crime in international law. However, the anthropocentric bias of security thinking and practices means that security actors are ill-equipped to recognize and respond to the ethical dilemmas raised by nonhuman actants. Moreover, whilst these dilemmas are broached in posthumanist theory and some branches of international law, there is no coherent ethical framework to guide how nonhumans are understood and treated in security discourses and practices. This project seeks to transform these discourses and practices by addressing two key questions. First, how should humans respond to the threats raised by nonhuman actants? Second, to what extent do humans owe protection to nonhumans in their own right (that is, distinct from their instrumental usefulness to humans)?

The Focus

The research questions defined above address a range of real-world dilemmas. For instance, awareness of the actancy of nonhumans might transform how threats, harms and risks are analysed in two ways: the threats, risks and harms caused by actants might be better accounted for; and harms to actants in their own right might be considered. In the context of intervention and crisis response, this framework addresses several real world dilemmas. For instance, is it incumbent upon humans to intervene to protect nonhumans if no human interests directly at stake? And how might the interests of humans and nonhumans be balanced in crisis response – for instance, is it justifiable to use force against humans to protect nonhumans? Moreover, the current focus on human combatants and victims of warfare has a constraining effect – the desire to avoid casualties may dampen enthusiasm to fight. However, if combatants or targets of violence are nonhuman, will this lead to more, or more damaging, military activity? In the context of restorative strategies, the fact that actants can create harm or be harmed without possessing moral agency – and therefore responsibility – raises a host of problems. For example, since it is not possible to ‘punish’ a storm or a virus, how can justice be attained? On the other hand, what kind of justice could be delivered to nonhumans? And how can or should practices such as peace-building and reconstruction, which involve large-scale processes of transformation, integrate the distinct interests of nonhuman actants?


Existing discourses on security do not address nonhumans unless they affect human wellbeing in instrumental ways. This is accentuated in the paradigm of human security (which includes environmental, economic, health, cultural, food and political dimensions), in which anthropocentrism is framed as a virtue. In human rights and strategic studies discourses, there is an established literature on the regulation of nonhuman combatants, but it is limited to this subset of actants. There is also a small but growing literature that examines harms to nonhumans such as ‘urbicide’ and ‘ecocide’. On the whole, these literatures tend to concern themselves (a) with either humans or nonhumans (b) with nonhumans as either subjects or objects of protection or (c) with just one subset of nonhumans. However, the security practices explored in this project involve relations between diverse humans and nonhumans, who may raise threats and demand protection. On the other hand, there is a rich and diverse literature on posthumanist theory and philosophy, encompassing fields such as ‘new materialism’, complexity theory, the study of cybernetics and ‘cyborgs’ (hybrids of humans and nonhumans), animal studies, environmental ethics and aesthetics. With few exceptions, these literatures have not been brought to bear on problems of international security and politics. An emerging strand of critical international relations theory has engaged with posthumanist theory, but almost exclusively with the first three subfields mentioned above. Moreover, it uses posthumanist theory as an explanatory framework for structures and processes in IR, and does not broach the ethical implications in any detail.

Theory & Evidence Base

The project’s engagement with the theoretical sources discussed in the previous section will raise two major challenges to incumbent approaches. First, it will draw out the ethical implications of the posthumanist challenge to IR and security discourses, and explain its relevance to concrete security practices. Second, in creating a new ethical framework, it will fuse posthumanist theory, philosophy and ethics with security studies/international relations, opening up new debates within and between these disciplines. In empirical terms, the project will draw upon and integrate a rich and varied range of materials that have not, to date, been analysed together to this end. Specifically, it will examine evidence of the role of nonhuman actants in security situations from several sources: international laws and treaties (e.g. the Geneva Conventions’ rules on the role of artefacts in armed conflict); statistical studies and datasets (e.g. studies of the impact of war on biodiversity and vice versa); policies and operational documents (e.g. the UN’s policies on sustainable peacebuilding and cultural reconstruction); and media reporting on the role of nonhumans in contexts of security. The project will integrate theoretical arguments and empirical evidence at every step, examining ethical dilemmas in the light of detailed empirical case studies.


This project’s methodology will involve the development of a theoretical and ethical framework through robust engagement with empirical sources. It will proceed in the following steps. First, I will conduct a wide-ranging and critical review of the literatures discussed above. Second, I will integrate insights from these literatures to produce a theoretical framework for posthumanist ethics in security contexts, and a set of principles and questions to guide my engagement with empirical sources. Third, I will identify a series of case studies which comprise (a) one or more of the security practices discussed above have been used and (b) security issues raised by nonhuman actants. For example, the post-2001 intervention in Afghanistan involves all three sets of security practices, and encompasses issues raised by a number of nonhuman actants: the role of mountains in shaping both warfare and humanitarian work; the destruction of artefacts as targets of violence (e.g. the Bamiyan Buddhas); the use of robotic or unmanned weapons; and harms to animals as a direct result of warfare (e.g. the fate of the animals in the Kabul zoo during fighting). Rather than pre-determining sets of actants in advance, and thus reproducing the limits of anthropocentric studies of security, I shall examine the actants relevant to each case study. Qualitative data from the sources discussed above will be collected, coded and analysed with Atlas.ti software. Fourth, I will draw ethical conclusions from the application of my theory, explaining how these should transform the theory and practice of international security.


The final outcome will be a monograph to be submitted to one of the following presses: the Cambridge University Press/ British International Studies Association book series, Oxford University Press, Cornell University Press, or another academic publisher that welcomes interdisciplinary contributions in international relations. Moreover, I will submit several articles to appropriate journals such as the European Journal of International Relations, Security Dialogue and Review of International Studies. A selection of papers from the workshop (see below) will also be published as a special edition in a similar journal. My CV (attached) attests to my strong track record for publication on interdisciplinary subjects (including two monographs on). I have also appended a draft article (currently under review) which constitutes the first academic contribution of this project. In addition, I have requested matching funding to hold a workshop at the University of York. The workshop, which will take place in month eight of the project, will form an integral part of its development and dissemination. It will include leading scholars in each of the disciplines discussed above, as well as participants from relevant non-academic organizations (e.g. UNESCO, or NGOs such as Drone Wars UK or the Marjan Centre for Conservation and Conflict). At this workshop, the ethical framework will be developed, honed and applied to diverse contexts. Moreover, the workshop will establish a new research network and will form the basis for future collaborative projects, ensuring the ongoing impact of the project.


This project will help to advance the ISRF’s goals in a number of ways. First, it will support an independentminded, early career researcher in producing ground-breaking interdisciplinary research that challenges prevalent norms and practices of security. This particular project will have an important impact both on the theory and ethics of international security, and on concrete security practices. Second, and in a related sense, the project is necessarily interdisciplinary. Not only are the literatures with which it engages internally interdisciplinary, but one of its main goals is to open up new avenues for collaboration and exchange across these bodies of research. The publications it produces, and the workshop which forms part of its programme of research, will solidify links between disciplines, and between academic and non-academic actors. Third, it will offer new approaches to urgent, global, realworld problems – including existing dilemmas and future challenges that may arise from sources such as technological development or environmental change. Fourth, it is unlikely to be funded by other bodies due to its interdisciplinary nature and its departure from existing norms. In particular, within the major UK funding bodies (e.g. ESRC and AHRC), funding tends to be earmarked either for projects that are primarily pragmatic or theoretical; projects that span disciplines and methodologies tend to be overlooked as budgets continue to contract. For these reasons, this project embodies and promises to advance the aims and values of the ISRF.

At the outset of the fellowship, my goal was to explore how the parameters of security (and international relations more generally) would be transformed by taking into account the agency and ethical status of nonhumans. The objectives were to write a series of critical interventions that would bring this discussion into mainstream IR and provoke new debates around this. I was able to achieve this goal through a series of publications (see below) and research collaborations. For instance, the posthuman security network, which I inaugurated in 2014, has organized panels and roundtables at the annual conventions of all the major international studies organizations, including the International Studies Association, the British International Studies Association and the European International Studies Association (all in 2015). Through these collaborations, the network has started several high-profile debates within the field and spawned new projects – for instance, a recent E-International Relations book has been commissioned based on the work of this network.

Having completed this theoretical work, I began to explore the empirical aspects of considering security and IR through a posthuman or more-than-human lens. To narrow my focus to a workable project, I decided to focus on the global extinction crisis – in particular, the profound challenge it raises to all of the major concepts surrounding survival and security in IR. My elaboration in this context of the theoretical framework developed earlier in the fellowship enabled me to produce several articles on the centrality of extinction to posthuman security and IR (see below). I also had the opportunity to critically explore emerging discourses on ‘Anthropocene’ geopolitics and posthumanist ethics through these lenses. Towards the end of the fellowship, I began to reflect on the limits of posthumanism as a discourse, in particular its Western secular-centric cosmology. This has led me to develop a new research collective and major project on the theme of ‘Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis’. This collective/project significantly extends and develops the work carried out in the fellowship to explore plural Indigenous cosmological perspectives and their modes of response to global catastrophe (focusing on, but not limited to, extinction). It focuses on weaving insights from posthumanism and contemporary Indigenous philosophy to address these world-altering events.

This fellowship was also instrumental in providing me the time and intellectual space to develop my scholarship in a substantially new direction. This was a major factor in my appointment in 2015 as CIGI Chair in Global Governance and Ethics at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, which included a promotion to Associate Professor (equivalent to Reader) and a research chair, which has allowed me further to develop the outcomes of the fellowship.


Bioplurality (in progress)

This monograph collects, develops and expands my recent writing on extinction and the destruction of plurality from the perspective of posthuman security and ethics. I completed approximately 30 000 words during the fellowship and am currently preparing the manuscript for submission to the University of Minnesota Press.

Journal Articles

Mitchell, A. (2016). Is IR going extinct?. International Relations, 1, 23.

A global extinction crisis may threaten the survival of most existing life forms. Influential discourses of ‘existential risk’ suggest that human extinction is a real possibility, while several decades of evidence from conservation biology suggests that the Earth may be entering a ‘sixth mass extinction event’. These conditions threaten the possibilities of survival and security that are central to most branches of International Relations. However, this discipline lacks a framework for addressing (mass) extinction. From notions of ‘nuclear winter’ and ‘omnicide’ to contemporary discourses on catastrophe, International Relations thinking has treated extinction as a superlative of death. This is a profound category mistake: extinction needs to be understood not in the ontic terms of life and death, but rather in the ontological context of be(com)ing and negation. Drawing on the work of theorists of the ‘inhuman’ such as Quentin Meillassoux, Claire Colebrook, Ray Brassier, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Nigel Clark, this article provides a pathway for thinking beyond existing horizons of survival and imagines a profound transformation of International Relations. Specifically, it outlines a mode of cosmopolitics that responds to the element of the inhuman and the forces of extinction. Rather than capitulating to narratives of tragedy, this cosmopolitics would make it possible to think beyond the restrictions of existing norms of ‘humanity’ to embrace an ethics of gratitude and to welcome the possibility of new worlds, even in the face of finitude.

Mitchell, A. (2015). Beyond biodiversity and species: Problematizing extinction. Theory, Culture & Society, 0263276415619219.

Scientific and public discourses on the current mass extinction event tend to focus their attention on the decline of ‘species’ and ‘biodiversity’. Drawing on insights from the humanities, this article contends that the processes of extinction also produce a diverse range of subjects. Each of these subjects, it argues, raises specific ethical challenges and creates opportunities for cosmopolitical transformation. To explore this argument, the article engages with several subjects of extinction: ‘species’ and ‘biodiversity’; ‘humanity’; ‘unloved’ subjects; and absent or non-relational subjects. In each case, it examines how attention to these subjects can highlight the exclusions and inequalities embedded in dominant discourses, and to identify possibilities for plural ethico-political responses to mass extinction.

Mitchell, A. (2015). Thinking without the ‘circle’: Marine plastic and global ethics. Political Geography, 47, 77-85.

Marine plastic has received significant attention as a spectacle of consumer waste and ecosystemic fragility, but there has been little discussion of its ethical implications. This essay argues that marine plastic poses a direct challenge to the basic frameworks of global ethics. These frameworks are dominated by the image of the ‘circle’, an abstract boundary intended to separate ‘humanity’ from the rest of the universe and insulate it against harm. However, this article argues that marine plastic undermines the ‘circle’ in two ways. First, it embodies conditions of ‘hyper-relationality’, including entanglement and the properties of toxicity, that penetrate the boundaries of ‘the circle’. Second, it exerts ‘forcefulness’, but at scales that radically exceed the dominant spatio-temporal dimensions of ‘the circle’. By virtue of these features, marine plastic thoroughly penetrates the boundaries of ‘the circle’, making it impossible to expel harm beyond its boundaries. Although this essay focuses on marine plastic, its core argument can also be fruitfully applied to other phenomena that share similar material, scalar, spatio-temporal and relational features (for instance, atmospheric particulate, nuclear waste and nitrate pollution). The essay concludes by exploring the alternative ethical possibilities that marine plastic and similar phenomena prompt: in particular, a responsive ethos based on a sense of shared vulnerability and exposure.

Workshop Grant: Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis

The Balsillie School of International Affairs awarded $7585 CAD to sponsor a three-day intensive workshop to develop a theoretical framework and methodology for a collective project on mass extinction and indigenous ontology.