Category Archives: Critical Security Studies

Some interesting links

Some interesting things we’ve come across this week:

  • America’s hip-hop foreign policy: an interesting read from the Atlantic discussing the role of rap in the war on terror. Apparently America is dealing with ‘jihadi rap’ by sponsoring ‘good muslim hip-hop’. The discussion of how rap has been used both to radicalise and in turn as a tool of diplomacy is particularly interesting.
  • Yugoslavia as science fiction: discusses art from the former Yugoslavia and the way in which it’s being viewed today, with a fascinating discussion of what this implies about the post-Yugoslav space today.


Acknowledgements: the first two pieces were kindly forwarded from @laurence_cooley and the last one was spotted via the always excellent @caiwilkinson!



China ‘declares war’ on pollution: what does it mean?

On 5th March, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang opened the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. These speeches tend to be full of the usual, ‘expected’ and generally repetitive bureaucratic language. However, this time Li’s speech was a little out of the ordinary: it explicitly declared a ‘war on pollution’ – an unexpected choice of words which suggests the issue is increasingly considered one of security. This blog has already talked about China’s ‘Airpocalypse’, and whether or not deteriorating air quality should be considered a security issue. The government has been considering and implementing a range of measures to deal with urban pollution, and with up to 500,000 people dying early each year from air pollution related illnesses action is desperately needed. Li’s speech, in declaring war on pollution, took the debate to another level. Xinhua reported Li as stating that ‘Smog is affecting larger parts of China and environmental pollution has become a major problem, which is nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development’. Miao Xuegang, a deputy to the National People’s Congress, called Li’s declaration “a letter of commitment from the government”.

Premier Li Keqiang on March 5, from TIME

The statement is ‘the highest-level acknowledgement yet of the enormous challenges China faces’, directly recognising the seriousness of the issue. The language is reminiscent of securitization theory’s suggestion that when issues are declared issues of security and supreme priority, they can be dealt with differently – allocating extra funds and enabling emergency measures. It suggests the government is taking pollution seriously, and it will be interesting to see how far the it will take this – the Airpocalypse will likely remain a popular topic in Chinese media, and with rising numbers of environmental protests it will be difficult for the government to shirk responsibilities. The biggest obstacle, however, remains economic development. It is widely seen as the cause of China’s pollution problems, but Li’s speech also reiterated a commitment to keeping economic growth at 7.5% and it is difficult to see how this will enable a serious improvement in pollution levels. Ai Nanshan, from Sichuan University noted that “you can not get a beautiful GDP figure at the cost of environment”. This is clearly a puzzle the government has yet to solve.

Energy security and saving humans

This week, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts on the theme of energy security and saving humans, written for the  Saving Humans initiative in the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Birmingham, and reblogged here Monday-Friday. Part one:

Energy Security and saving humans

Energy security is increasingly the subject of headlines around the world. Most states rely heavily on fossil fuels to serve their energy needs, and as these fuels are finite they will eventually run out. There is an ongoing debate over whether or not we already have or will hit ‘peak oil’ in the near future, but either way there is increasing worry over the availability of, and access to, energy in years to come.

Energy security is a nebulous term which is often used by politicians to justify a range of different policy choices, but the term itself is rarely explicitly defined. Generally, it is used to refer to the availability of secure and reliable energy supplies at stable or reasonable prices. It is worth unpacking this a little further. Unlike renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, fossil fuels are geographically bound in a territory. They are not considered part of the global commons, but rather as the ‘property’ of the state in which they are located.

In this way, ‘secure supplies’ tends to refer to energy resources which are supplied from one state to another, implicitly putting the focus on fossil fuels which are traded openly on the global market. The emphasis on security of supply also suggests a state-centric focus – energy security policy aims to secure energy supplies to the state. The focus on ‘stable prices’ indicates a heavy focus on oil, as the energy resource most vulnerable to volatile prices in the global market. These factors are at the centre of most discussions of energy security today.

EIA map showing world oil chokepoints, which are at the centre of discussions on security of energy supply

There are a number of problems with understanding energy security in these terms. Firstly, securing states through continuous fossil fuel supplies is clearly not sustainable, neither geologically nor environmentally. It’s biased towards developed, energy importing countries, and large scale energy industries – energy exporting countries conversely need security of demand, and in parts of the world many still rely on locally collected firewood for energy. It also does not consider the impact of current energy exploitation on human security.

There are a number of issues and unresolved questions around energy security which are relevant to saving humans, and this is what I’ll be blogging about this week. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Current patterns of energy exploitation also affect human security directly, which will be the subject of another post later in the week.

Ultimately, the planet cannot survive if we continue to consume fossil energy at current rates. Yet, continued energy supplies are essential to maintain human life as we know it. The world still depends largely on finite and dirty sources of energy, and the growing pace of human development has been accompanied by ever-faster resource depletion. Energy security is one of the most important issues today, bearing direct impact on the continued survival of human civilisation as we know it.

For more on this and related issues, have a look at Saving Humans – this interdisciplinary initiative can also be followed on twitter via #savinghumans – enjoy!

The geography of secrecy: visualising the footprint of the US military

I’ve just come across a really interesting project by Josh Begley which maps US military installations, and it is well worth a look. The project uses mapping data from Google Earth and Bing to visualise the footprint of the US military with both a map of the world with pinpointed sites and a gallery displaying satellite imagery of the different military installations. Viewing the bases in this way really portrays the breadth of the American military enterprise in a way that numbers on a page cannot convey.

Because of differences in time-lag, some sites show slightly different views with bases changing over time, with other base locations simply replaced by a plain grey colour and a Google message saying: ‘Sorry, we have no imagery here’. Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands (which is used by the US Air Force and which also contains 22 American tactical nuclear bombs) is even ‘artistically’ erased from view in both Google and Bing searches:

Volkel Air Base (Google)Volkel Air Base (Bing)

(Both images from

The impact the project has on the viewer is interesting – the simplicity of the visual display with a seemingly endless list of square tiles showing military bases below a map showing the full geographical extent of their locations is very effective. In a sense, it becomes more than a list of satellite images, more than a map. In the words of Josh Begley, creator of this fascinating project:

‘Taken as a whole, I’d like to think this collection can begin to approximate the archipelago of militarized space often understood as empire. But I’m hesitant to say that. It seems to me that empire involves more than pushpins on a map. It is made up of human activity — a network of situated practices that preclude constellational thinking and sculpt geographies in their own image.

I’m not sure aerial photography can get at that complexity. But perhaps an outline of this footprint– of runways and bases and banal-looking buildings — might begin to chip away at the bumper-sticker simplicity much political discourse about the military-industrial complex gets reduced to’.


Perhaps academics should start to think about using their data a bit more creatively too, following the example set by the Rendition Project – alongside the traditional outlets it seems like an effective way to both convey research and make people both notice and actually think more in-depth about the subject itself.

Ps. As someone who seems to know a growing number of people working on drones, I’d also highly recommend having a look at Josh’s Dronestream project!

Friday Links and Recommendations!

A few things we’ve spotted this week:

A review has found that the CIA made doctors torture suspected terrorists after 9/11, unethical practices continue.

There is a new very interesting Politics special issue on ‘Security and the Politics of Resilience’ (edited by James Brassett, Stuart Croft and Nick Vaughan-Williams). It asks: ‘what is resilience?’, ‘how did it emerge?’, and ‘what are the political effects of this emergence?’. The articles by Dan Bulley (Producing and Governing Community (through) Resilience), David Chandler (International Statebuilding and the Ideology of Resilience), and Lewis Herrington and Richard Aldrich (The Future of Cyber-Resilience in an Age of Global Complexity) look particularly interesting and are all well worth a read!

Critical Studies on Security also has a new special issue worth checking out, on ‘late warfare‘. The interventions section also includes a number of short articles about women in combat, including discussions on race and class, and discussions on women’s role in combat in different states. Cynthia Enloe’s reflections on combat vs ‘combat’ are likely to provoke some interesting thoughts.

Protecting ‘national security’ in the UK: the MI5 and the difference between ‘citizens’ and human beings

As someone who studies ‘security’ in the United States and China rather than the country where I actually live, coming across the following information from the MI5 discussing how they understand ‘national security’ in the UK was particularly interesting. 

They note the lack of a clear definition of ‘national security’ in either UK or European law, while adding that this has been a deliberate and consistent practice of successive UK governments and parliaments to ensure flexibility. The discussion that follows is both thoughtful and reflexive – features academics often make careers out of claiming governments lack.

The piece also states that government policy is taking the term national security to mean ‘the security and well-being of the United Kingdom as a whole’. This is then extended to emphasise not just the survival of the physical state itself but also its ‘citizens’ – wherever they are, and the system of government itself.

The discussion shows much needed recognition that the meaning of ‘security’ remains contested and is far from clear cut or obvious. It also shows an awareness of the role of political actors in constructing security threats. Of course, as it comes from the MI5, the focus is on more traditional notions of security. While the focus on citizens is encouraging, particularly alongside the growth in critical academic work emphasising the need to move away from military security to secure human beings, it also raises a number of questions.

What does it mean to protect UK ‘citizens’ rather than human beings more broadly defined? What does this mean for the rights, security and well-being of individuals living in the UK who do not have the protection of citizenship? What about the security and well-being of migrants and asylum seekers?

And lastly, what are the moral and ethical implications of a security policy that distinguishes between the security of  ‘citizens’ and human beings?

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.

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.