Research Spotlight: Dr. Can E. Mutlu

Research Spotlight aims to shed light on the diverse research culture of Acadia University by celebrating the work and interests of our researchers. Each profile features six questions: five about research, one just for fun. Learn about what’s happening across campus and get to know the faces you see every day.

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Dr. Can E. Mutu
Dr. Can E. Mutu

Dr. Can E. Mutlu


Faculty of Arts

In terms of research, I hear congratulations are in order: you received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant last summer. What project did you have funded? 

The Designing Border Security project is about the relationship between architecture and security. We’re going to be looking at four recently renovated border facilities in order to understand the process that leads to the creation of secure, yet aesthetically pleasing, border-crossing infrastructures.

It doesn’t sound like your talking about Trump’s wall…

Not at all. When I was working at Bilkent University in Turkey, I looked at the walls being built on the periphery of the European Union. The wall between Turkey and Syria, for example, which was built in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. And my research partner in the SSHRC project, Dr. Benjamin J. Muller, has written about the US-Mexico border wall and the Sonoran Desert.

But the way architecture is being employed here goes beyond the physical. The facilities we’re looking at have made security both beautiful and all but invisible. They’ve used materials like reclaimed wood from pine beetle-infested trees in BC, removed counters and line-ups – for most people crossing the border, the experience is like visiting an Apple Store, which is no coincidence since one of the facilities was designed by the firm that designed original Apple stores. The first, public-facing layer of security is hidden by the design aesthetic.

This is a relatively new phenomenon in security design, and its something that hasn’t been looked at before in terms of its political implications. So we’ve designed this project, based on a research program we established last year with funding from the Harrison McCain Emerging Scholar Award, as a pilot for a broader project that investigates the politics of security designs. If it’s successful, the plan is to apply this type of analysis to other types of security infrastructure and public spaces.

We’re going to be doing site visits at each facility, and interviewing the architects, policymakers, and border security professionals both Canadian and US, who were involved with the redesigns of these facilities. We’ll also be conducting archival research in order to compare older versions of the facilities to the new ones, to get a clearer sense of the process and types of change.

Do you have a theory about the motivation behind this shift in design?

We believe that the intent behind the shift is two-fold. For most people who cross the border, a more aesthetically pleasing facility will improve the experience and promote good relations. The design is meant to put “trusted-travellers” at ease. But this layer, and this feeling, also hides the struggle – it creates an illusion that makes the border seem less ferocious and obfuscates the practices happening behind closed doors. So in both ways it works to hide the apparatus of security: from our eyes and our experience, but also in the imaginary: how we think of and imagine our collective experience.

What motivates you to do this kind of research?

My own experience as an immigrant, but also my interest in technology, which really developed while I was an undergraduate. I did my PhD research on the re-bordering of the European Union: how the EU used its political clout and various tools too shore up its external borders even as its internal borders were coming down. Technology like passports and shipping containers could be just as effective in maintaining security as a wall while providing a more seamless interaction.

It sounds like there’s been a consistent theme in your work.

The thread winding through my research career is the question: what is security today? Changes to borders and security practices are being driven by technological change: new technologies are affecting how we think of and design physical infrastructure and space; they’ve broadened the concept of security to be less responsive and more pre-emptive, even determinative. How humans interact with technology in this liminal space – around, but also between countries – has serious implications for our rights and sovereignty.

What tips do you give your students when they embark on a new research project?

I start by asking them what they envision as their terminal degree. Are they planning on writing an honours thesis and then moving on? Do they want to pursue an advanced degree or a career in research? Then I shape my advice accordingly with respect to the kinds of expectations to set and the kinds of skills they would want to develop.

I see my role in working with student researchers as advising, nor supervising: I’m there to help them develop their research questions and guide their efforts. If I can help them design their research project at the outset and set appropriate parameters, it’s a lot easier for them to know when to stop, which can be challenging in qualitative research. I push them at the beginning to define their question, and then work with them to stay on track so they can answer it.

It sounds like you really enjoy working with students. 

I’ve had great luck at Acadia with my students – they’ve all been very empirically minded, but they approach their empirical work with a solid theoretical foundation. In Turkey, students were more inclined to theory, whereas Canadian students are more practical.

Why is that?

We’re much freer here in Canada, to speak and write critically, especially when it comes to politics and security. In Turkey, you had to talk in the abstract, or look at events or practices in other countries, in order to critique what was going on.

Do you have any forthcoming publications, events, or talks we should look out for?

There’s my book on Syrian Refugees in Turkey, which I mentioned, that I’m trying to finish up this term. There’s also a co-edited volume, Architectures of Security: Design, Control, Space, coming out of Rowman and Littlefield International. The volume was inspired by and builds on an article which I co-authored with Muller et al. in 2016, “Ferocious Architecture: Sovereign Spaces/Places by Design”, that also inspired the Designing Border Security project. That should be out before the end of 2019 – it’s something of a flag we’re planting in this emerging field to mark our contributions. I’ve also been asked, along with Mark B. Salter, my long-time co-author and friend,  and Philippe M. Frowd, to do an updated second edition of our edited volume, Research Methods in Critical Security Studies: An Introduction, that will once again come out of Routledge in 2020.

Outside of work, what are you doing for fun these days?

I’ve been going for long walks every day for about a year, usually on the rail trail out to Grand Pre. I walk 16 or 17 kilometers in a day, often by myself listening to a podcast. I enjoy being outside and, especially if I can get out in the morning, I find it grounds me for the rest of my day, emotionally and mentally. But I’m planning to get a bike this spring, so I can get a bit further afield and do some more exploring in the Valley. I also travel once a month to see my daughter, Eleanor, in Ottawa; that ‘s something that I always look forward to.

Research Spotlight is an initiative of the Research & Graduate Studies office. If you would like to suggest someone to be featured in this series, or if you would like to be featured yourself, please contact Omar Bhimji, Research & Innovation Coordinator:

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