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Security: A Conversation with the Authors

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Security."

Michelle Stewart and Vivian Choi: Anthropology has a long history of research in areas that inform the current security discourse. What has inspired your work and how does it fit within this trajectory?

Didier Fassin: I do not think of myself as somebody working on security issues. I encountered them as I was working on immigration (security was invoked to justify repression against illegal immigrants), on police (youth from housing estates in underprivileged areas were considered as generating insecurity in their neighborhoods), and more unexpectedly when I worked on AIDS (cooperation agencies, especially in the United States, and international organizations would often justify their action to prevent the spread of the epidemic or take care of orphans in terms of potential risk for the political and social security on the African continent). This diversity should certainly encourage anthropologists to avoid too generalizing discourses. Nevertheless it is also important to relate each of these scenes and meanings to a larger context in which security has become a keyword and a leitmotiv of national and international policies in many domains.

Ilana Feldman: I first began the research project of which this article is a part because I wanted to get a better understanding of how the categories refugee and native came to be such an important part of social relations in Gaza.  This importance became very clear to me when I was conducting research there in the late 1990s on government and bureaucracy during the British Mandate and Egyptian Administration.  To understand it, I investigated the details of humanitarian relief in the post-1948 period—relief that was crucial in producing, consolidating, and shaping those categories. In all the research I have done in and on Gaza (and with Palestinian communities living elsewhere) the intersection of social service and humanitarian work with security concerns has been clearly evident.  The 1948 nakba or catastrophe (when the majority of the Palestinian population was displaced and dispossessed) out of which the Gaza Strip was created with a population of refugees that dwarfed the native population was identified by nearly everyone (the Egyptian government, humanitarian agencies, and locals) as creating both a humanitarian and a security crisis. I have been investigating this intersection in a number of different institutions and sites, including UN peacekeeping in Gaza in the 1950s and 60s, UN aid to Palestinians across the Middle East, and the work of nongovernmental development and humanitarian organizations.

Andrew Lakoff: An initial question to pose is: what does one mean by “security discourse”? If, by this, we are talking about practices involved in the management of individual and collective risk, then the security arena extends well beyond military and police activities, into domains such as insurance, social welfare, public health and emergency management. In analyzing contemporary developments, I have been inspired by historical and anthropological research on ways that experts seek to define and manage an uncertain future in the present.  Examples are Mary Douglas’s classic work on risk and danger, Reinhardt Koselleck’s studies of “futures past,” and Francois Ewald’s writings on risk and precaution. My own work on scenario planning builds especially on Ewald’s work: he distinguishes among disparate forms of reasoning about an uncertain and potentially dangerous future in order to analyze the peculiar logic of the precautionary principle as a response to ecological hazards. In turn, I’ve juxtaposed the logic of preparedness to his schema, seeking to show how this logic informs expert practice across multiple fields and to chart its genealogy beginning with Cold War civil defense.

Joseph Masco: Historically, anthropology has been as much a captive as as a critic of U.S. security programs. The articulation of area studies during the second half of the twentieth century provided much of the funding for anthropology but also left the United States off the area studies map. My ethnographic research on the effects of the Cold War on American life thus has drawn on a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, science studies, and American studies. For many of us working inside the United States, the project of the 1990s was to significantly broaden the institutional definitions of security through ethnographic portraits of American insecurity. One of the most exciting developments of the last decade has been the opening up of the United States to a vibrant range of ethnographic projects on security, including the key infrastructures, knowledge systems, and affective politics of everyday life.

Marina Welker: At the time I was carrying out the research for this article and writing it, the Bush administration was making security its central raison d’état. In that context, I thought it was critical that we also analyze how security discourse was being mobilized in nonstate settings such as corporations. I also became interested in the evolution of concepts and forms of security that may not fit with generic images of military and intelligence technologies and personnel, but do in fact articulate with conventional security functions and apparatuses in important ways. One of my core interests is the international development industry, which has long been entangled with strategic security goals. We often construe international development as a post–World War II phenomenon. Arturo Escobar, for example, begins his ethnography Encountering Development with quotes from the United Nations and Harry Truman’s inaugural presidential address, in which he elaborated a vision for a “fair deal” for the world. Yet precursors to contemporary development and the imbrication of development and security can be traced back to the projects, strategies, and rationales for rule that colonialists developed in response to perceived threats that ran the gamut from germs to armed nationalists. In nineteenth-century Britain, welfare was similarly developed as a response to the perceived threat posed by those whom industrialization had exploited, impoverished, and displaced.

MS and VC: It has been highlighted how the Cold War effected specific constructions of security. More recently, the events surrounding 9/11 and the recent global economic crisis have produced particular turns in security-related research and analysis. In light of this, how do you imagine the future of security-related research in the social sciences and what do you think are emerging objects for empirical study?

DF: Although it is often assumed that security issues are paradigmatically global and although they are generally analyzed in terms of broad historical phenomena, I believe that anthropologists should be extremely attentive to their local expressions and meanings. What is phrased as security (or insecurity) may be quite different from one context to another. Whereas in the United States, it is understandably related to international problems and more specifically to terrorism, in France it is mostly associated with internal questions and urban policing (9/11 attack vs. 2005 riots, to make it short). Therefore the sort of articulation of security and immigration policies will be different in each country. In both cases, the construction of security issues and their exposition in the public sphere should be precisely studied, in particular from the perspective of the political context since they have been increasingly mobilized as political instruments by right-wing parties or, better said, parties of law and order (we can think in a similar way of Israel, Russia, or Pakistan, for instance). The scientific program, in a broad sense, for anthropologists should necessarily be multifaceted. It should include analysis of the national and historical configurations of the invocation and fabrication of security issues but should not elude the objective threats and the actual problems they pose to global or local communities; in South Africa, for instance, everyday insecurity is manipulated by politicians but at the same time it is a serious problem in the country, especially in the townships, where it remains nevertheless underestimated and discussed. Constructionism and realism should not be opposed here, but rather combined to go further into the political economy and moral economies of security. Specific interest could be given to semantic networks to identify the multiplicity of links security has with other issues. Ethnography could be conducted in parallel on institutions and bureaucracies producing discourses and policies, places, and situations affected by security problems and also groups and individuals targeted as potential threats to security (which is very little studied).  

IF: Although this may be ducking the question a little bit, I’d like to respond in a somewhat more focused way—by reflecting on current conditions in Gaza that might direct security related research in this place. To be sure, the security questions that seem pressing in Gaza, and in any locale, are deeply connected to global trends: the post–Cold War, pre–9/11 conceptual turn to “human security” with its expansive view of the aspects of life that are security-relevant, the post–9/11 resurgence of a national security paradigm, and the complicated ways these two paradigms are working together now. These broad trends are inflected differently in different circumstances. Gaza has been suffering for years from an economic blockade imposed by Israel in the wake, first, of the Hamas victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and then escalated after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in June of that same year. In January 2009, Gaza was devastated by three weeks of Israeli aerial bombings and ground attacks, justified by Israel as a response to Hamas-fired rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns. Three Israeli civilians have been killed by these rockets. Of the around 1,400 Gazans killed in the course of Operation Cast Lead, half were civilians. In the aftermath of these events, Gaza has continued to suffer from restrictions on the entry of goods to the territory, restrictions that have meant reconstruction of the many destroyed buildings has been severely limited. The economy of Gaza remains virtually destroyed. The aid agencies that provide assistance to Gazans—both the UN and NGOs—report that are looming crises in getting people food and clean water.  With the infrastructure maintenance crippled, there is a significant risk that sewage containment tanks will burst (as happened once in the past), putting people’s health in significant danger. One of the mechanisms through which Gazans have managed in these circumstances, rendered even more challenging by political divisions among Palestinians, regional politics, and Israeli domestic considerations, are the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that provide one of the few means of moving goods and people in and out of Gaza. One use of the tunnels has been weapons smuggling, and as such they create a national security problem for Israel (and potentially for the Hamas government, if it becomes unable to control that traffic). The more common use in recent years has been for commerce, importing both basic necessities and luxury goods. In this regard the tunnels seem vital for the “human security” of Gazans. Each of these multiple sites and sources of threat, and of efforts to respond, suggest potential avenues for exploring the forms of security talk and security practice that are emerging and circulating in Gaza.

AL: This juxtaposition of 9/11 and the financial crisis is both obvious and perplexing: on the one hand, these events were each conceptualized as potential catastrophes that demanded immediate governmental response. On the other hand, the specific response each event provoked were obviously quite distinct. But the easy juxtaposition of these two “crises”—and one might add to them events such as Hurricane Katrina and the current H1N1 pandemic—indicates that there is a discursive field and a field of practices in which seemingly quite disparate events invoke common frameworks of response. I think it would be worthwhile for critical analysts of contemporary security practices to investigate such linkages further. What are the conditions of possibility for thinking of distinctive events, ranging from terrorist attacks to financial crises to ecological disasters, according to a common framework of emergency? To what extent do such emergencies challenge the normal operations of sovereign states? Or have emergency management capabilities been integrated into governmental practice such that these are not, in fact, exceptional events? These questions point both to genealogical investigation into the development and extension of security practices oriented to emergency situations and to ethnographic research into current areas of governmental and paragovernmental intervention into emergency—for example, global health, financial regulation, humanitarian emergency, or environmental crisis.  There is terrific anthropological research going on in all of these areas, but (I think) not enough effort to generate comparisons across them. Indeed, that would be a great next step for the anthropology of security.

JM: The Cold War constituted a specific idea of the national security state in the United States, putting in place institutions, logics, and emotional structures.  Declaring a "war on terror" would not have been possible without these preexisting structures; however, a war on terror also pushes many of these longstanding American logics to their breaking point. In the work I am doing today, I am interested in tracing both lines of connection and rupture from the formal constitution of the U.S. national security state in 1947 to today. In particular, I am interested in the peculiar nature of national security as a social contract, an arrangement that relies as much on official secrecy and emotional manipulation as it does technical expertise and threat perception. One of the trends that I think is most compelling today is the changing nature of surveillance from a national to a global vision. Across a wide range of security concerns from climate change to infectious disease, new modes of surveillance are offering a real-time portrait of specific threats that transcend state borders. This technological expansion in how danger is constituted, how it is visualized, and how it is tracked in everyday life has the potential to enable a new kind of planetary security discourse. Thus, I am interested in considering the possibility of security past the nation-state.

MW: Corporations such as Ford Motor Company also have a long history of carrying out welfare and development programs among workers and local communities. While such programs are not reducible to security concerns, security is a theme that runs through them as it does through the international development industry. Voluntary welfare and development programs constitute security measures, broadly construed, insofar as they may serve to block unionization, theft, or destruction of corporate property, state regulation, religious movements, environmental activism, as in the case I describe, and other possible threats to corporate profits. While we may not be able to determine whether or not the link between development and security developed autonomously in states and corporations or originated in one and migrated to the other, I consider the appearance of figures who move between or straddle the two worlds—such as the former U.S. army colonel in my story who had managerial oversight of community development, community relations, and security—as significant. One of the crucial future directions for security-related research in the social sciences may be to trace the connections between spheres of corporate and state security, for example, knowledge practices and personnel that move across corporate–state boundaries, or the social and economic effects and legal gray zones that emerge with the privatization of war and the outsourcing of intelligence functions.