All posts by Rhys Crilley

Russell Brand: Constructivist?

Russell Brand has been waxing lyrical about revolution in his recent editorial for New Statesman. It’s worth a read and there’s a thousand and one things in there that could be a point of discussion here but it was a few paragraphs that caught my eye, particularly seeing as though Russell Brand seems to be giving IR theory a go. It seems like he’s in to a bit of constructivism.

Brand writes,

“Capitalism is not real; it is an idea. America is not real; it is an idea that someone had ages ago. Britain, Christianity, Islam, karate, Wednesdays are all just ideas that we choose to believe in and very nice ideas they are, too, when they serve a purpose. These concepts, though, cannot be served to the detriment of actual reality.”

So for Brand, ideas are important and things we take for granted as being ‘real’ are entirely made up. His assertion that these ideas are, however, separate to an ‘actual reality’ puts him in line with most ‘mainstream’ constructivists rather than more ‘radical’ constructivists like post-structuralists.

Brand goes on to state that:

“The reality is we have a spherical ecosystem, suspended in, as far as we know, infinite space upon which there are billions of carbon-based life forms, of which we presume ourselves to be the most important, and a limited amount of resources.

The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity. Not out of some woolly, bullshit tree-hugging piffle but because we live on it, currently without alternatives. This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation.”

Here he’s bringing up a couple of points about politics not only being state/nation-centric but also human-centric; arguing for a rethinking of humans as the referent of politics and security and shifting it towards the environment. His suggestion of some kind of inclusive spiritual ideology being used to do this speaks to recent debates about security cosmopolitanism.

I’ll let Brand have the last word…

“In 2013 (another made-up imaginary concept) we cannot afford to giggle, drivel and burp like giant, pube-covered babies about quaint, old-fashioned notions like nation, capitalism and consumerism simply because it’s convenient for the tiny, greedy, myopic sliver of the population that those outmoded ideas serve.”


Friday Links

With Jonna starting a new job and myself doing actual PhD  and teaching work rather than watching cat videos all day, we’ve been a bit slow getting Friday links together so here’s a few things that have caught my eye today:

The beeb have a short  guide to the rebel/opposition forces in Syria. As you can see the majority of them are not Jihadist, something which might surprise you if you were to watch/read most of the British media.

Vice have an interesting piece on Jihadist culture in Syria. Parts of it seem to just echo a lot of the typical ‘Syrain rebels = Jihadist’ angle, but it has some interesting stuff on the role music is playing in Syria. Apparently “Al Qaeda is the Simon Cowell of the war zone, churning out hits the war-weary public wants and in doing so, providing itself with the perfect promotional gimmick.”

Meanwhile everyone’s favourite right-wing-fictional-daily-sewerage-spout has a piece with the headline “Tunisia’s ‘sex jihadis’ who were sent to Syria to have sex with 100 rebels EACH are coming home pregnant with their children”. You stay classy Daily Mail.

On another note, Politics has a virtual issue out which is all about teaching and learning in IR and politics, it’s an interesting read having just started teaching myself and worth checking out if you’re a student, researcher or teacher of global politics.

If you’re just starting out on the PhD path in IR and you’re based in the UK then this event organised by the BISA postgrad network will be of interest. It’s in London on the 6th of November and registration closes on the 30th of October.

Oh, and here’s ten reasons why recent intelligence leaks are not threats to national security. Have a nice weekend!

GCHQ Spywear Collection 2013

GCHQ’s 2013 spywear collection is out now! It includes a CCTV hat, a fashionable cap that doubles up as a target when you eventually need to get ‘droned’ and a diary from last year which they’ve filled in for you. Must haves for the season I’m sure you’ll all agree.

“you haven’t done anything wrong, so what have you got to hide?”

Žižek and Video Scholarship

Slajov Žižek’s new film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology will be of interest to anyone interested in recent debates about whether producing videos can be a form of scholarship.

Žižek doesn’t like giving talks so has used the medium of video to get his message across to a global audience. For Žižek the medium of cinema is a useful tool for analysing the world as it  illustrates where we are today idologically and how we experience our lives. He elaborates on this issue in an interview with Vice which is worth a watch.

OK. I know what you’re thinking having watched the Vice video. Really Žižek?! Socks and sandals?! Presumably it’s another way of Žižek subverting the system and not just an unfashionable faux pas. Regardless of what’s on his feet, Žižek’s thoughts on ideology are interesting and relevant to discussions about vernacular security (something which is the focus of an upcoming postgrad conference at Warwick that I’m presenting at).  Žižek sees ideology as being “still well and alive – not as a big system – but precisely in [a] most self-evident, normal everyday form… … [it is an] unfreedom which you sincerely personally experience as freedom.”

I’m heading to watch the film this weekend so I’ll report back once i’ve seen it. Check out the trailer below, it looks like it speaks to a lot of work within the field of critical approaches to security that deals with pop culture.

States of Exception, Aesthetic Responses

In response to the recent al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, COBRA, the UK’s Cabinet Office briefing room A, met for the third time this year. At the same time an alternative COBRA met in a small pub in Whitehall.

This alternative COBRA “was born out of a desire to engage critically and creatively with the increased use of aesthetics and performance by the UK government to promote, explain and justify its labelling of an event as ‘an emergency'”. COBRA: A Critical Response was set up in early 2013 and as a group of artists they respond to official COBRA meetings with a critical aesthetic that challenges political performance in times of emergency.

This political performance plays out through press conferences, news interviews and increasingly through social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. The state use of media and information is not a new thing, but contemporary technologies are enabling actors to utilise aesthetic mediums at an unprecedented level. Through the use of social media, organisations and individuals need not rely on the media to get across their message, they simply become the media themselves.

As David Cameron tweets, the British Army posts on Facebook and the Home Office drives around in a ‘racist’ van with a big ‘go home’ advertisement on it, it becomes increasingly clear that “this image-based politics is a politics of presentation, of appearance and constructed images that tell a certain story, often a moral story of good v evil, of citizen v terrorist”. A story of false dichotomies and difference.

This use of images and digital mediums by state actors shows a realisation that aesthetics are important. Unfortunately the discipline of International Relations is seemingly struggling to keep on top of these technological and aesthetic developments that the state is embracing and utilising with success. This is worrying when one takes into account how these aesthetic and technological practices are tied in to the state of exception that has arguably become the paradigm through which governments operate in light of the ‘War on Terror’.

It is in this state of exception where exceptional means such as extraordinary rendition, torture, indefinite detention, foreign invasions and increasingly pervasive domestic laws become the norm: legitimised as normal ways to deal with an exceptional threat such as terrorism.

Image by Steve Bell, published in The Guardian

As COBRA: A Critical Response highlight themselves, one of the ways to engage and challenge this state of affairs is to use art and aesthetics to open up a space for discussion, create different interpretations and new imaginations of global politics. Art can exist as a medium to challenge the orthodoxies of politics that lead to violence. This is something that IR and security scholars from critical approaches have recognised for several years.

However, as politicians and state actors draw ever more on aesthetic mediums to promote their message it is important that aesthetic approaches to IR and security keep up with these fast paced developments, not only to understand and explain them but to also provide an academic platform upon which they can be challenged, critiqued and changed.

Perhaps as scholars we need to eschew the values of science and draw upon the critical insights of artists. Maybe we need to stop doing ‘social science’ and do art. Could alternative forms of scholarship such as blogs, videos, social networks and even more radical aesthetic forms have more impact on the ‘real world’? Wouldn’t these aesthetic mediums engage more people than monographs and articles written in outdated journals that sit behind paywalls and gather dust on the shelves of stuffy libraries in ivory towers?

The debates posed by these question are of too much depth to engage with in this short blog post, but it is worth considering that as states and other actors in the realm of global politics utilise aesthetic mediums to a great extent, maybe we should too.

National Poetry Day

It’s National Poetry Day here in the UK so I thought it worth drawing attention to a particular poem that I came across on September 11th this year.

The poem titled ‘A Moment of Silence, Before I Start This Poem’ is by Emmanuel Ortiz and was written in 2002. It draws attention to selective remembrance and the silenced stories of tragedy that are never told or remembered in the ‘West’.

    And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
    This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
    This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa,
    This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison,
    New York, 1971.
    This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
    This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes

It’s worth a read or if you want you can watch the author reading it in the video below.

Review: Critical Approaches to Security

2013 has so far been a great year for anyone interested in critical approaches to security. With the launch of the new journal, Critical Studies on Security, and two new edited collections on the theory and methods of critical approaches, it is a good time for anyone who shares some kind of dissatisfaction with mainstream approaches and wants to study or research security from a critical perspective.

Research Methods in Critical Security Studies: An Introduction

cover-css1Mark B Salter and Can E Mutlu’s book Research Methods in Critical Security Studies: An Introduction is motivated by “a desire to champion clear research design and rigorous method in critical security studies” (p.1). Consisting of thirty four chapters by thirty three authors it is clear from the outset that this book covers a broad range of approaches to research methods from a critical perspective. This diversity reflects the fact that there is no single Critical Security Studies (CSS) method, something which can be unnerving for students and incomprehensible even for some scholars[i]. Although Research Methods in Critical Security Studies covers such a wide-ranging set of approaches to research methods, Salter and Mutlu have collected the chapters in to six sections which help guide the reader by grouping chapters into conceptual areas.

The first section of the book focuses on research design, and is perhaps the most universally useful part of the book. In the first chapter Mark Salter provides a concise introduction to research design from an interpretivist perspective, focusing on the principles of clarity, fit and reflexivity (p.15-24). This chapter comes with an extremely handy CSS research design checklist which will be useful to all levels of researcher; from undergraduates beginning their dissertations to senior academics writing papers and books for publication.

Other contributors in the opening section address the issues of wondering (p.25-28), criticality (p.29-32) and empiricism without positivism (p.42-45). Within this section are three other chapters that focus on issues that are sometimes ignored in methods textbooks. A chapter by Anne-Marie D’Aoust, on the emotional and material factors of actually having what it takes to do research (p.33-36), brings to light the often overlooked, but incredibly real issues that impact on how research within CSS, and also in IR more broadly, is conducted. Taken together, this introductory section not only frames the rest of Research Methods in Critical Security Studies but it also provides a great introductory platform for researchers to begin their research on security from a critical perspective.

The rest of the book is divided into sections that are organised around conceptual ‘turns’ within social sciences and CSS; ethnographic, practice, discursive, corporeal and material. In each section each methodological turn is given an introduction and then scholars whose work is associated with each turn talk about their research. In each chapter, authors address their research design in relation to their research question, methods, results and also the challenges they have faced whilst doing research. Accounts from acclaimed scholars such as Claudia Aradau, Luis Lobo-Guerrero and David Grondin sit well alongside work from up and coming PhD researchers within CSS.

Each chapter is only a few pages long and this brevity is perhaps the only downfall of Research Methods in Critical Security Studies. This is a minor annoyance rather than an actual problem, purely because most of the chapters provide such interesting accounts of research that as a reader you are often left wanting more! Further readings that are recommended at the end of each chapter go some way to addressing this issue, as does engaging with the actual published work of each author.

It is hard to take away an exact methodological framework from Research Methods in Critical Security Studies that is going to fit your own research ‘like a glove’. However, this is hardly surprising in a field like CSS where one can be interviewing sex workers at 2am in a Cuban nightclub as Megan Daigle has done (p.81), attending airport security management courses like Mark Salter (p.107) or looking at parliamentary archives in relation to counter-terrorism laws as Andrew Neal does (p.125). This diversity of original and interesting work within CSS is clearly highlighted in the book and it is extremely unlikely that one text book alone is ever going to provide you with clear answers to one’s own methodological problems, simply because there is no singular CSS method or methodology. Rather, there is a broad range of interesting methods and methodologies that suit the critical inquiry of security.

In this regard Research Methods in Critical Security Studies works well as a source of inspiration for readers interested in CSS as it not only shows how diverse the field is, but celebrates it as well. Moreover, it does exactly what it says on the tin by providing an introduction to research methods within CSS that students and scholars of every level should find interesting and useful.

Critical Approaches to Security: An Introduction to Theories and Methods

cover-css2Critical Approaches to Security: An Introduction to Theories and Methods by Laura J Shepherd is the second recent edited collection on the topic of critical approaches to security. Eschewing the moniker of CSS, Critical Approaches to Security collects together a variety of theoretical approaches and methodological techniques in two sections on theory and method.

Each chapter comes with a summary and learning outcomes section up front and is closed with questions for further debate and sources for reading and research. This, coupled with figures, images and break away boxes within most chapters, makes for a clear and lively read that will keep undergraduate readers engaged whilst dealing with complex topics such as Foucault’s key ideas (p.82) and the ‘anti-method’ of deconstruction (p.214).

The first half of the book explores various critical theories of security, providing a useful overview of each theory that helps the reader in understanding how different packages of ideas shape how security is understood and how theory in turn informs methodological choices.

The second half of Critical Approaches to Security addresses methods and how one can go about collecting and analysing data. Many of the chapters compliment and provide a more in-depth engagement with the methods explored in Research Methods in Critical Security Studies. For example if one is interested in ethnography, Cai Wilkinson’s chapter in Critical Approaches to Security (p.129-145) provides an engaging and detailed account of ethnographic methods whilst the section on the ethnographic turn in Research Methods in Critical Security Studies (p.51-84) highlights how these methods work in a variety of scenarios and research projects. This example is just one that emphasises that reading Critical Approaches to Security together with Research Methods in Critical Security Studies is the best way to make the most out of the two edited collections.

Critical Approaches to Security also includes two chapters on methods that are not touched upon in Research Methods in Critical Security. The inclusion of a chapter on what is often seen as ‘the Q word’ from a critical perspective; quantitative methods, enriches Critical Approaches to Security and goes some way to showing that the quantitative/qualitative divide is a false dichotomy (p.103-117). A further chapter by Cerwyn Moore and Chris Farrands on visual analysis is also a welcome addition that explores the ‘aesthetic turn’ in IR and security (p.223-235); a ‘turn’ that is not included in Research Methods in Critical Security.

As with Research Methods in Critical Security Studies, it is unlikely that you will be able to copy and paste what’s in Critical Approaches to Security on to your own work, but again this is because how you go about doing your research “is ultimately up to you, and there is no right answer” (p.8). What you will gain from Critical Approaches to Security is a clear introduction to several complex theories of security and a concise guide to how certain key research methods work in practice.


Both of these edited collections stand alone as great introductions to critical approaches to security that will be of interest to anyone who is remotely interested in these topics. For those of a critical disposition they will be a useful guide to studying or conducting research on security. For those who take a more traditional approach to the study of security, these two books will, at the very least highlight that the theories, methodologies and methods of critical approaches work extremely well in helping to understand the historic and contemporary dynamics of security broadly defined.

The strength of Critical Approaches to Security is in its depth and detail on critical theories, methodologies and methods. Together with Research Methods in Critical Security Studies, whose strength lies in its account of many different methods in the context of actual research practice, one is provided with a firm foundation for studying and researching security critically. Both books build upon other introductory CSS texts[ii], providing a more detailed account of critical methodologies and methods. As such both books are a welcome addition to a sub field of security studies that is seemingly no longer at the margins.

Rhys Crilley is a PhD doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His work draws upon critical approaches to security and focuses on images and narratives of conflict on social media platforms. He blogs at and can be followed on twitter @rhyscrilley.

[i] See Keith Krause’s 1998 article in Cooperation and Conflict on this topic. And although not in response to the lack of a CSS research program, see J.A Tickner’s 2005 article in ISQ to get an idea of how mainstream scholars fail to grasp the complexities of critical approaches with multiple ‘research programs’, methodologies and methods.

[ii] Other notable introductory texts to the critical study/research of security include seminal books by Ken Booth, Keith Krause and Michael C Williams. More recent introductory books on the topic include those by Karin Fierke and by Columba Peoples and Nick Vaughan-Williams.

This review was originaly published by e-International Relations and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Read the original piece here.