What can anthropologists offer to Security Studies?

A report from the RAI Anthropology in the World Conference June 2012, London UK

by Jenna Murray de López, June 2012

This blog post is intended to open up a dialogue between the disciplines of Security Studies, Peace Studies and Anthropology. The contributors to this blog come from varied and multi-disciplinary backgrounds, with research that spans worldwide and across cultures, and therefore some healthy debate to be had.  At an early stage in my career I am becoming accustomed to attending conferences, writing and delivering papers, engaging in conversation with researchers and academics and attempting to explain my Phd project in a clear and concise manner. The latter I have yet to achieve!

The RAI (Royal Anthropological Institute) annual conference this year embraced the theme of Anthropology in the World in order to debate the place of anthropology(ists) outside of academia. As someone from a multi-disciplinary background it was great to see how I am certainly not alone in my passionate belief that anthropology has so much to offer the world. The panels I attended were also a great reminder that other disciplines and approaches present a great way to challenge anthropological approaches and serve to question the validity of what we do and why.

One panel in particular I found most fruitful and challenging focused on Anthropology and Security Studies. The main aim of this panel is to explore ways to link the ‘tools’ provided by anthropological studies to the ones from security studies. The panel proposed the notion that : “Bringing together Anthropology and Security Studies (Critical Security Theory) can contribute to a better understanding of the world and the human condition”.  Papers presented on the panel included: Anthropological approach to the concept of security Fina Anton Hurtado (University Of Murcia); Consideration on anthropology and critical security studies in a globalized context Giovanni Ercolani (Peace Operations Training Institute); Visual ethnographies, conflict and security Chris Farrands (Nottingham Trent University); The psychology of peacekeeping: one domain where political realism and critical security theory will meet Harvey Langholtz (The College of William and Mary); Anthropological methods in counter-trafficking activities: analysis of criminal networks and victim-oriented approach Desirée Pangerc; and Linking security and anthropology studies: exploring a new security framework Jakob Thor Kristjansson (University of Iceland).

Debate arose around the contribution of ethnographic methods to Security (and Peace) Studies, opposing terminologies, the usefulness of anthropology to the critical arm of Security Studies and the ethics of ‘choosing sides’. There was also much to be said in regards to the similarities between the aims of Security Studies and Anthropology which were most obvious in the papers that presented detailed case studies of anthropology and security in action. Differences in British, European and American schools of anthropology were also highlighted in terms of willingness to engage with military conflict in particular.

There was much to be drawn from this panel though in order to open up an initial dialogue with both my fellow bloggers and virtual community I have chosen the following points which do not necessarily represent my personal view and are provocative by intent:

  • The study of Security or Insecurity?

An interesting point was made in regards to terminologies and how they affect the possibilities of what can be researched. Anthropology takes the standpoint that discourse of security is produced by fear and therefore what is actually needed is a study of insecurity. This use of language although seemingly trivial on the surface represents the limitations in current approaches to understanding security and also limits the perceptions of what is meant by it.

  • Method – “Anthropologists study everything…”

Jakob Thor Kristjansson security analyst presented a paper that explored a new framework for security studies that incorporated anthropological perspectives. He argued that there has been a failure in security studies to be holistic in its approach and that much can be learned from anthropological field methods. This argument was echoed in Desirée Pangerc’s paper which included her own Phd fieldwork experience that found contrary evidence to that which is presented in statistics about human trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Long term ethnographic fieldwork reveals the discrepancies and contradictions often presented via quantitative data.

Connected to method are questions surrounding the use of theory and where there is a clash in approach between the disciplines. Security studies introduce master discourse for example Booth’s (2005) universal concept of security which can be argued to be unhelpful for cross-cultural analysis. Anthropology with its critical approach unpicks master discourse and reveals ethnocentric motives, the importance of an insecurity studies is helpful here.

  • Ethics and Anthropology’s Colonial Legacy

There is resistance from some anthropologists and/or anthropology institutions that feel obliged due to the discipline’s murky connections to colonialism to remove themselves from any connection to security or war issues. Although not an outright rejection to carry out field work in military and global security institutions many anthropologists are wary of ethical implications and for what aims their data may be used.  The American Anthropologist Association (AAA) states the following in their report on engagement with intelligence and security agencies:

“Engagement brings risks of contributing to institutions with policies and practices one may oppose, but avoiding engagement in every case precludes one from taking advantage of opportunities to enhance cultural understanding and even, in some cases, uphold ethical commitments. There is nothing inherently unethical in the decision to apply one’s skills in these areas. Instead, the challenge for all anthropologists is finding ways to work in or with these institutions, seeking ways to study, document, and write transparently and honestly to an anthropological audience about them, in a way that honors the discipline’s ethical commitments.”

There is a need in anthropology to deal with the ethics of responsibility to one’s research subjects, and the in depth level of information derived from ethnographic fieldwork methods can place anthropologists in sensitive and compromising positions. The critical position that anthropology takes in terms of global governance and military intervention can make many researchers nervous about their data being manipulated and anthropology being accused once again as the information gatekeepers for (modern) imperial powers.

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