Book review: Secrecy and Methods in Security Research: A Guide to Qualitative Fieldwork

Edited by Marieke de Goede, Esmé Bosma and Polly Pallister-Wilkins

Secrecy and Methods in Security Research, edited by Marieke de Goede, Esmé Bosma and Polly Pallister-Wilkins, promises to be a long-lasting contribution to the field of critical security studies (CSS) but also to the broader social-scientific debate on the methodological challenges of researching secrecy. CSS has long been dealing with questions regarding the politics of methods and the challenges that open, interpretative research poses.[i] This volume adds a specific focal point and discusses these questions with the specific focus on ‘secrecy.’ The collection’s seventeen chapters contain contributions on a wide variety of issues, and I will focus my discussion on a few themes that run through the whole volume rather than summarising each individual chapter. Chapters discuss ‘secrecy’ sites, such as a former atomic weapons research facility (Walters and Luscombe), as well as the difficulties to access ‘secret’ files or institutions (Belcher and Martin, Schwell, Stavrianakis). ‘Secrecy’ also plays out when we simply cannot get intelligible information and assessment of for example complex algorithms (Straube) or expert knowledge (de Goede). It becomes clear that the reason for the presence of secrecy vary, sometimes they are constitutive of the object itself (Walters and Luscombe) while at other times secrecy emerges because of actors trying to deny access, as in the case of Chinese security policy (Nyman). No reader should skip the introduction where the editors describe the purpose of the volume as an attempt to “develop ways to encircle, observe, document and analyse what secrecy does in practice.”  (p.4). Secrecy is thus not only understood as something that is hidden but also as something productive—secrecy generates a certain kind of politics.

“The volume succeeds in giving insights into a variety of research methodologies and at the same time give a kaleidoscopic insight into how secrecy shapes contemporary security practices”

While ‘secrecy’ is the common interest of the volume, each chapter draws out different aspects of the concept by raising quite different questions about methods, methodology, and empirical aspects. For example, Jonna Nyman reflects not only on her own experience in getting access to Chinese security practices but also introduces the reader to the method of visual ethnography as one tool to reflect on the (in)visibility of everyday security actors. She demonstrates exceptionally well how her informants made previous invisible security issues such as the vulnerability in health care visible to her the researcher. Nyman also discusses one of the core themes of the volume namely the question of access. Most often being external to a research field makes access difficult and as many chapters demonstrate, access to (secret) security sites is difficult. Nyman however also points out how being (visibly) a foreigner in China allowed her to take pictures of sensitive sites and made crossing borders sometimes even easier. In this case, being an external actor granted advantages, whereas often the emphasis lies on the difficulties of external access.

Another theme concerns the role of luck, coincidence or chance that is present in many chapters. Jonathan Luke Austin assigns coincidence a large role in the direction his research project evolved. Austin describes how developing relationships with informants was important but how ultimately one conversation shaped the empirical direction of his project and led him to research torturers. The focus on this aspect was not planned but emerged incidentally out of his fieldwork. Making the role of arbitrariness and chance visible is crucial for several reasons: First, it decreases the risk of reading the chapters in this volume as a ‘how-to’ manual by emphasising the contingency of all research projects but especially those that rely on ethnographic methods. Second, it relieves the researcher of making decisions that will ultimately determine the success or failure of one’s project (as if such ‘ultimate decision’ ever existed). Third, it is a welcome realistic insight into how research projects develop over time and how initial research interest and scope can always change. The volume overall succeeds in highlighting the two aspects important for open research: luck and chance but also methodical tools and reflection.  A welcome addition to the existing methods discussion is the emphasis on writing as a crucial part of research methods. Most chapters mention it at least in a side note and the chapters by de Goede and by Rappert are very explicit in reflecting on the process of writing as part of the production of scholarly knowledge. The emphasis on writing also ties in with the well-developed notions of reflexivity in many chapters. Researching sensitive security sites and state institutions challenges the researcher to reflect on her own position towards the field. The chapters by de Goede and by Grassiani both engage with the question of what it means to study ‘those you oppose’. The short chapters only give a brief insight into these complex questions but hopefully encourage more research along those lines.

Oliver Belcher and Lauren Martin raise the important issue of how ‘secrecy’ is not only a side-effect of security practices but also a constitutive part of these practices. The authors describe their work on detention facilities in the US. They describe the difficulties of getting access to an institution that is – in theory – governed by abstract and neutral administrative rules which are, however, in practice constantly changing and difficult to navigate. Students of similar sites might also find many useful ideas of how to approach ‘secret’ documents and get access to sites such as detention centers or prisons. The authors emphasise that researchers need to adapt their methods in every research project—a sentiment shared across the volume. This is certainly not a new point, but serves an important pedagogical function in such a volume that aims at helping students with their firsts larger research projects. The volume deals with this tension nicely by on the one hand giving insights into very specific research projects (thereby preventing a ‘cookbook’[ii] mentality to methods) and on the other hand providing general guidelines summarised in tables and boxes (adhering to a more textbookish aesthetics).

The volume succeeds in giving insights into a variety of research methodologies and at the same time give a kaleidoscopic insight into how secrecy shapes contemporary security practices, its technologies, and—most importantly—its politics. The volume will be of interest not only to scholars of security sites but it will hopefully attract attention outside the field. The short chapters and the description of various research project make it a great addition for any syllabus on research methods in IR.

[I]See for instance the contribution of Brooke A. Ackerly, Maria Stern, and Jacqui True, eds., Feminist Methodologies for International Relations, 1st ed. (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Claudia Aradau et al., eds., Critical Security Methods: New Frameworks for Analysis, The New International Relations Studies (London: Routledge, 2015); Mark B Salter and Can E Mutlu, Research Methods in Critical Security Studies: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[ii]Anna Leander, ‘From Cookbooks to Encyclopaedias  in the Making: Methodological Perspectives for Research of Non-State Actors and Processes’, in Methodological Approaches for Studying Non-State Actors in International Security. Theory and Practice, ed. Andreas Kruck and Andrea Schneiker (Lodon: Routledge, 2017), 231–40.

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