Conflicting visibilities of migrant-squatters on the northern border of Chile

The inhabitants of the squatter settlements in the border city of Arica, mostly indigenous migrants from the Peruvian-Bolivian highlands, feel the effects of the racialized geography of northern Chile through social discrimination, economic exploitation, and deprivation of their political rights.

In these settlements, migrant residents make palpable the pervasive tension between a mode of visibility that I in my recent article in Security Dialogue analyse in terms of a ‘politics of presence’ and another kind of visibility that is created by the state’s ‘legibility’ techniques.

Granaderos camp (foreground) and Granaderos brigade (background). Photo by the author.

How do we understand the emergence of unauthorized settlements at state borders? The ethnography of these places, which are mostly inhabited by migrants, often leads to a contradictory description as formations that are simultaneously constrained and made possible by border regimes. I argue that such tension may create the conditions in which political relations—as a driving force for community—emerge, generating new social actors and political worlds. The struggles of migrants living in unauthorised camps to become legitimate urban actors creates unprecedented citizenship practices, which in turn produce new political subjectivities.

In borderlands such as the far north of Chile, a visibility neither framed by the police order nor driven by biopower emerges through the refusal of border migrants to be dispossessed of the lands they occupy. Their commoning practices shed light on our understanding of how politics could emerge from non-citizen actors as a force capable of transforming subjects and places.

Young mother with her children leaving the camp. Photo by the author.

The experiences of camp residents on Chile’s northern border provide clues to understanding what the collective act of becoming present from the margins involves. On the basis of such experiences, we have realized that presence, in its urban expression, reveals a point of political potential that opens up spaces for new forms of engagement in urban life. Through this phenomenon, we find a form of politics of presence that is expressed both in the refusal of the migrant squatters to become a mass of uprooted people and in their perseverance toward state recognition of their settlements. 

The visibility achieved by the politics of presence of migrant squatters and its translation by the state into a differential inclusion within the nation revealed the gap between the democratic as the enactment of egalitarianism and the police order. In this persistent struggle between the political logic of equality and the police logic of domination, the residents of the unauthorized camps in Arica forge cunning and rebellious political subjectivities that challenge the border regimes by questioning the basis on which rights, and the boundaries of citizenship, are defined. 

Unauthorized camp on the outskirts of Arica, northern Chile. Photo by the author.

Book review: Disordered Violence: How Race, Gender, and Heteronormativity Structure Terrorism

by Caron Gentry. Edinburgh University Press, p. 216. Hardback: 9781474424806

The best question I have been asked about my work was ‘if you were to use this text to teach, what would you like to students to learn?’. This is a useful question for establishing your own argument but also for thinking about what you take from another’s contribution. If I were Caron Gentry answering that question, I would say: how we study global politics—in this instance, terrorism and the use of violence—is deeply rooted in gendered, racialised, sexualised, and classed structures. These power structures organise and order how we talk about and research global political issues. And they are beholden to and reproduce IR’s Westphalian story. What Gentry shows in Disordered Violence: How Race, Gender, and Heteronormativity Structure Terrorism is that these structures are often willingly (re)produced in ways that benefit a state-centrist organisation of global politics underpinned by European colonial imaginaries, white supremacy, misogyny, and heterosexism. 

Disordered Violence is a timely contribution that deepens our understanding of the racialised, gendered, and sexualised structure of (academic) debates on and representations of terrorism and violence.”

Disordered Violence is a timely contribution that deepens our understanding of the racialised, gendered, and sexualised structure of (academic) debates on, and representations of, terrorism and violence. The book outlines how race, sexuality, and gender are implicated in security discourses and shows why security studies must take an intersectional, feminist, queer, and critical race analytic seriously. Gentry shows us how to do this by drawing on Matsuda (1991) to describe how ‘asking the other question’ (e.g., when confronted with misogyny ask how race functions, too) allowed her to see and explore the connections between race, gender, and sexuality as they relate to terrorism. While focused on terrorism, this book is relevant to scholars researching international security issues more broadly. 

The book opens with several examples of how immensely political acts—whether we call them ‘terrorism’, ‘protest’, or ‘political violence’—are constituted through racialised-gendered-sexualised logics. Opening with this, Gentry prompts us to ask how events might have unfolded differently had the wielders of violence been differently racialised, differently gendered, and so on. I use the ‘racialised-gendered-sexualised’ formulation (Cooper-Cunningham 2020) because it supports Gentry’s argument about their inseparability. In chapter one, Gentry asks us: “Why are mass shootings in the US not seen as an act of terrorism if they are perpetrated by white men, but are when they are perpetrated by brown men?” (38). This is a point Gentry returns to in the conclusion when exploring how Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors was constituted as a ‘terrorist’ and the movement compared to the Ku Klux Klan. Why is it that the terrorism/terrorist labels only stick to certain (gendered-racialised-sexualised) actors? 

Gentry concludes that “[t]errorism as a label works because it makes sense given the historical legacies of whose violence is legitimated, whose lives matter more and whose bodies are seen as expendable. This is the ordering of violence, in which state violence is legitimated and terrorism is always seen in opposition” (195-6). If IR, a Western-centric discipline, is founded on the Westphalian ideal where legitimate authority and wielding of violence are “tied closely to white, Western liberal democracies” then we must problematise and deconstruct those structures, asking qui bono? One lesson that is reiterated throughout, it is that we must dig into the concepts that we use: how do they (re)produce gendered-sexualised-racialised power structures and discourses?

Unpacking the gendered-racialised-sexualised foundations of key concepts in terrorism studies, Gentry deconstructs the dichotomies at the core of current and historical discourses about terrorism—West/Islam, counter-terrorist/terrorist, developed/undeveloped, rational/emotional, progressive/radicalised, moral/immoral, reasoned/pathological, legitimate/illegitimate violence to name a few—rendering them more complicated and less coherent. It is this destabilisation of the dichotomies structuring the field that makes Gentry’s contribution novel and incredibly important; the queer logics of this could, however, be emphasised more. Not only does this destabilisation force terrorism scholars to think deeper and more critically about the concepts they use and the power structures their work (re)produces—after all, knowledge is power—it also forces us to question the larger assumptions IR as a discipline is founded on. This book can, therefore, be read as a deconstruction of the gendered-racialised-sexualised dichotomies through which terrorism and international security are written about.

”Global order, politics, and the study of it, are rooted in convenient ‘forgettings’ of colonial history, misogyny, and heteronormative structures that support the way the world is ordered.”

One of the key concepts Gentry brings into terrorism studies—or more broadly, security studies—is ‘forgettings’. ‘Forgettings’ (re)produce global political orders by (re)inscribing the “divisions of the world and power between European whites and people of colour” (27). Gentry argues that a definition of terrorism is futile and always reliant on (and reproductive of) gendered, racialised, imperialist, a heteronormative ‘forgettings’. Global order, politics, and the study of it, are rooted in convenient ‘forgettings’ of colonial history, misogyny, and heteronormative structures that support the way the world is ordered. Addressing these ‘forgettings’ Gentry asks: Who/what is represented? How are they represented? In whose interests are these representations? What is invisibilised, sought silent, and pushed out? These questions bring what is invisibilised and/or actively sought silent into focus: that is, the racialised-gendered-sexualised machinations of discourses about ‘terrorism’ and how they enable a particular world order to be (re)produced in a way that favours Western norms and structures. 

Nevertheless, no book is perfect. While the book is intersectional in its theoretical and methodological set up, sexuality often drops out. This is perhaps because heteronormativity “is one of the hardest forgettings to see” (48). While Gentry acknowledges this limitation, there was space for a deeper engagement with sexuality and its structuring of international politics. Noting the important work of feminism in identifying the dichotomies that structure social and political life, Gentry argues that feminism has not offered a way beyond them, whereas Queer theory does. This is a call for feminist and queer security scholars to build on this book. 

There was also a missed opportunity to draw on queer theorising and expand the argument about misogynistic terrorism. Heteronormativity is founded in an essentialist ideology around sex/gender, it is often violently enforced (conversion camps, murder, beatings), it has a wide audience in the general public (conform or be punished), and it aims to coerce into (heteronormative) action. To see the work of heteronormativity in ‘the West’ as terroristic would develop Gentry’s point that “see[ing] violence against women as a form of terrorism within the West means seeing those who are typically aligned with counter-terrorists as suddenly aligned with the terrorists themselves [the counter-/terrorist dichotomy]” (166). Analysing Anders Breivik’s manifesto, Gentry points to his desire to sustain the privilege of “native Christian European heterosexual males” (167). Like ‘misogynistic terrorism’, heteronormativity is a sociopolitical power structure that controls all bodies and enables the surveillance and punishment of individuals for sexual/gender deviance: it is systematic and intentional. 

If the label ‘terrorism’ is rooted in colonial, racists, gendered, and sexualised discourses then it is not a leap to view the enforcement of a particular form of sexual behaviour as terrorist. If misogyny is used to uphold patriarchal order, homophobia is used to uphold heteronormativity (173). It is political, coercive, and there is always a threat of (state) violence. 

Putting these minor points aside, as with Gentry’s other work, this book provides a thorough and critical engagement with terrorism studies, feminist IR, critical race, and queer. It serves as a provocation for scholars to do better and more intersectional work that attends to the racialised-sexualised-gendered foundations of international relations; both small and large caps. It is a lesson in how to do outstanding intersectional feminist work that should be emulated. Disordered Violence reiterates how it is no longer acceptable to say ‘I am not asking the gender (or race, or sexuality) question’ when these are baked into (the study of) international politics.


Cooper-Cunningham, Dean. 2020. “Drawing Fear of Difference: Race, Gender, and National Identity in Ms. Marvel Comics.”  Millennium: Journal of International Studies 48(2):165-97.

Gentry, Caron. 2020. Disordered Violence. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Matsuda, MJ. 1991. “Beside My Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory out of Coalition.”  Stanford law review 43(6):1183-92.

Book review: Data Justice and COVID-19. Global Perspectives

Edited by Linnet Taylor, Gargi Sharma, Aaron Martin & Shazade Jameson. Meatspace press. 306p

Data Justice and COVID-19 questions how the widespread deployment of digital technologies to fight COVID-19 has affected data governance and data justice. Written in ‘real-time’ during the first wave of the pandemic, the volume brings together 38 essays – comprising 28 “dispatches” from individual countries or regions and 10 commentaries problematizing the dispatches. Contributions stem from scholarship on data justice, defined in earlier work from Linnet Taylor (2017) as examining “fairness in the way people are made visible, represented and treated as a result of their production of digital data.”

”[T]he book’s main strength is to provide …useful pointers for future analytical research that go beyond data justice scholarship – and make this book relevant to a wider audience… .”

The geographic diversity and topical breadth of the contributions provide a valuable snapshot of the deployment of digital technologies during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the book’s main strength is to provide at least three useful pointers for future analytical research that go beyond data justice scholarship – and make this book relevant to a wider audience, including the general public and scholars working in the fields of critical security studies, information technology, humanitarian studies and global health. First, it documents the expansion of state surveillance in the name of public health, or what the editors call ‘the epidemiological turn in digital surveillance’. Second, it problematizes the hype around technological fixes or ‘techno-solutionism’ by exploring its consequences for inequalities and social justice. Third – and this might be the book’s most original contribution – it questions the entanglement of state and corporate power by unpacking the cooperation between public and private-sector actors that makes the deployment of digital technologies possible.  

The ‘epidemiological turn’ in digital surveillance

The volume offers a damning account of how governments around the world have taken advantage of the pandemic to expand digital surveillance of citizens without appropriate legal basis and adequate democratic oversight. Accounts from Argentina (Ugarte), China (Wang), Hungary (Böröcz), Mexico (Cruz-Santiago), The Philippines (Lucero) and Poland (Brewczyńska) all raise deep concerns about the potential misuse of digital surveillance technologies such as contact tracing apps for repression and human right violations within a wider context of (rising) authoritarianism and/or a track-record of state-power abuses. Even more troubling, the dispatches reveal similarly hasty and legally dubious deployment of surveillance technology in democratic societies such as Norway, where the government ultimately abandoned its pilot contact-tracing app after much public debate and an enquiry from the data protection authority (Sandvik).

Whereas security and the fight against terrorism have traditionally been invoked to justify digital surveillance, the COVID-19 pandemic – the editors argue – provides a radically new set of justifications to legitimize and expand digital surveillance in the name of public health. This ‘epidemiological turn’ in digital surveillance could have deep and long-lasting effects on democratic and authoritarian societies alike that will undoubtedly be analyzed by critical security studies in the years to come.

Techno-solutionism’ and inequalities

Many contributors problematized the hype surrounding the digital technologies deployed to fight COVID-19 pandemic as ‘techno-solutionism’ (Marda; Arroyo & Luján; Appelman, Toh, Fathaigh & van Hoboken; Cohen) or what Sean McDonald calls ‘techno-theatre’, which is a way for politicians and companies to focus “public attention on elaborate, ineffective procedures to mask the absence of a solution to a complex problem” (McDonald, p23). 

Glossy tech solutions distract us not only from the deficiencies that have led to inadequate pandemic responses in the first place, such as broken public systems, lack of trust, or social inequalities: the overwhelming focus on their hyped-up potential also conceals their limitations (Marda). Several of the commentaries (Marda; Edwards; Yeung; Keyes; Daly; Sharbain & Anonymous II) warn that digital solutions will inevitably reinforce inequalities by excluding vulnerable groups; those excluded from the digital world due to poverty, techno-illiteracy, or other reasons. Moreover, many of these digital solutions, such as contact tracing apps, are being used experimentally, without evidence of their efficiency, nor appropriate reckoning of their inherent trade-offs – including private companies’ long-term commercial interests. 

Public-private cooperation for the deployment of digital technologies 

For me, this volume’s most exciting contribution is to direct attention to the interaction and cooperation between public authorities and private tech companies during the pandemic. Big Tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook, which already wielded unprecedented power pre-Covid, have seized the opportunity offered by the crisis to considerably strengthen their positions and advance their interests – what Naomi Klein coined ‘disaster capitalism’.

Big Tech’s contribution to the fight against COVID-19 has often been framed in terms of social corporate responsibility, undertaken pro-bono in the name of social good. Google-Apple developed for instance a common exposure notification system to use free of charge in contact tracing (Veale; Appelman, Toh, Fathaigh & van Hoboken); Amazon pledged to make no profit in its contract with the Canadian government to supply medical equipment (Wylie); and Facebook helped the Australian government develop a chat bot on its platform WhatsApp to facilitate public health communication (Johns). 

”The editors have impressively, and in record time, gathered a diverse group of scholars, and they have succeeded in setting out a promising research agenda.”

Such initiatives, contributors note, provide an efficient PR campaign and useful “reputation laundering” for companies accused of exploiting their employees (Amazon); spreading fake news (Facebook); abusing their market position and extracting and commodifying our data (Google, Apple, Facebook & Amazon). Moreover, many of the authors also note that Big Tech is consolidating and expanding its market power, making important moves towards the highly promising and profitable healthcare market. The digital solutions offered during the current crisis may also potentially create new needs and forms of dependency for the state; as illustrated by the contact-tracing app developed pro-bono by a consortium of public-private entities in France, but carrying relatively high maintenance costs (Musiani). Finally, the entanglement of state and private interests raises questions about the secrecy surrounding their involvement. Several of the dispatches document a worrying lack of accountability and transparency in the contracts awarded to tech companies.

What about ‘the digital turn’ in public health? 

The book explicitly stems from scholarship on ‘data governance’ and ‘data justice’. The editors have impressively, and in record time, gathered a diverse group of scholars, and they have succeeded in setting out a promising research agenda. At the same time, the book would have benefitted from engaging with scholars working not only on the governance of data, but also on the governance and politics of global health. 

The volume does not address, for instance, how digital solutions may originate in and be integrated into the public healthresponses to the pandemic. It remains unclear how the widely discussed issue of digital contact tracing differs from ‘traditional’ contact tracing; and how what we may call a ‘digital turn in public health’ will affect the public health response. While the volume interrogates how public health may legitimize the digital surveillance of citizens, it fails to acknowledge that population and disease surveillance is precisely a key function of public health and a necessary tool to prevent, prepare for and respond to pandemics. Similarly, the book does not contextualize the use of digital technologies in earlier disease control efforts and pandemic preparedness initiatives; nor does it unpack the politics underpinning the deployment of digital technologies within global health security (see for instance: Roberts and Elbe 2017; Bengtsson, Borg, and Rhinard 2019). 

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity to start interdisciplinary dialogue across various scholarships, including data governance, critical security studies and global health politics. Scrutinizing the coming together and cooperation of the public and private sector in the deployment of digital technologies in the health sector offers one promising avenue to do so, as we also have found through our projects and conference organized by the Independent Panel on Global Governance for Health at the University of Oslo.            


Bengtsson L, Borg S and Rhinard M (2019) Assembling European health security: Epidemic intelligence and the hunt for cross-border health threats.  Security Dialogue 50 (2): 115-130. 

Roberts SL and Elbe S (2017) Catching the flu: Syndromic surveillance, algorithmic governmentality and global health security.  Security Dialogue 48 (1): 46-62. 

 Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée is a PhD Fellow, University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and the Environment. 

Navigating vulnerabilities and masculinities – how gendered contexts shape the agency of male sexual violence survivors

A persistent cliché about survivors of wartime sexual violence is that they are helpless and ever-vulnerable victims in need of white and patriarchal protection. This stereotypical view is particularly visible for male victims of conflict-related sexual violence, who are typically thought to be indefinitely stripped of their manhood and, as a result, to have lost all agency in the aftermath of their victimisation. 

Our recent article in Security Dialogue is grounded in our mutual frustration about these and other wrong assumptions that underlie the limited yet growing body of literature on wartime sexual violence against men. Fortunately, the topic has received increasing attention in the last decade, both in scholarship and policy-making. However, much of this growing body of research is not based on empirical data and does not sufficiently take into account the survivor’s point of view. This, we feel, leads to a one-dimensional and often reductionist view of male survivors and their lived realities. One of the central problematic assumptions we tackle in our recent article is that men who were sexually abused in conflict zones are ever-vulnerable, helpless victims. As some of our previous research documents, men who are sexually violated are frequently seen (and at times see themselves) as deprived of their masculine identities. In this process, it is assumed that with this ‘loss of manhood’ comes a loss of any agency, which is typically coded as a masculine trait. A related assumption is that these men hardly ever talk about their experiences and only seldom seek help. 

”One of the central problematic assumptions…is that men who were sexually abused in conflict zones are ever-vulnerable, helpless victims.”

Contrary to that stereotype, the survivors we worked with during our fieldwork in Croatia and Uganda exercise numerous forms of agency, including actively navigating the complexities around silence and disclosure. For instance, they choose when and where to reveal what happened, and when and where to remain silent about it. We found that survivors in Uganda and Croatia often maintain a protective silence surrounding their experiences in certain spaces, for instance within their own homes and communities, while ‘breaking the silence’ and talking about their experiences in other spaces, for instance in forums mediated by non-governmental organizations. Our insights did not emerge from pointed questions about their agency, but rather unfolded throughout the course of our repeated and lengthy interactions with survivors and their testimonies over time. This, we argue, points to the importance of conducting research with sexual violence survivors over extend periods of times, following a relational approach and with utmost sensitive and attention to its methodological and ethical implications and challenges. 

Our findings also point out that the opportunity structure of the local gendered and socio-political context significantly shape the ways in which male survivors exercise agency. The Croatian survivors who were mostly veterans (from the victorious army) for example could apply for reparations, and could access medical care. The Ugandan male survivors, on the other hand, were civilians and belonged to an ethnic minority. Instead of being able to access public forums or reparation schemes, they engage in peer-support in groups on a micro-level, where they are enabled to re-negotiate their gender identities, re-build previously broken relationships and advocate on behalf of male survivors’ needs and demands. These and other examples, explored more fully in the article, paint a differential and more nuanced picture of male sexual violence survivors’ lived realities and of the complexities of gendered experiences in armed conflict more broadly. One-dimensional depictions, as prevalent across the existing literature, cannot do justice to the complexities of male survivors’ lives and realities. Our analysis therefore seeks to break the dichotomies of victim or agents, and of vulnerabilities versus agency, through which male sexual violence survivors’ experiences are usually viewed. Our research therefore contributes to more nuanced and holistic examinations of the gender dynamics of armed conflicts in general, and of sexual violence survivors’ lived realities in particular.

Book Review: Digital Punishment: Privacy, Stigma and the Harms of Data-Driven Criminal Justice

Sarah Esther Lageson. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2020 pp. vii-242. $34.95 cloth. ISBN 9780190872007

Critical studies of security have long examined the role of information technology, databases, dataveillance and predictive risk technologies in emerging security infrastructures. These studies will be immeasurably aided by Sarah E. Lageson’s new book on criminal records in the United States, Digital Punishment: Privacy, Stigma and the Harms of Data-Driven Surveillance.  Ambitious, highly readable and replete with both high-level analysis and intensive subject interviews, Digital Punishment provides a ground-up view of the United States criminal records system and the often maddening constellation of agencies, data brokers, and private citizens involved therein.

The United States has an opaque and fragmented criminal records management “system.” The word system deserves the quotation marks because, as Lageson effectively demonstrates, criminal record keeping is “disordered” and broken up across myriad public databases and private data brokers. In addition, as Lageson explains, the proliferation of private data brokers and self-appointed ‘digilantes’ make it even more difficult to determine what information is available about one’s criminal history. As she points out, an individual will rarely know what is in their ‘rap sheet’ until they are being denied jobs or housing. Unable to speak of a criminal record as a singular object, Dr. Lageson instead refers to the “criminal record canon.” “Cannon” is an effective shorthand that captures how, for example, different versions of someone’s rap sheet may exist on multiple public and private database, while that person’s mugshot may appear on a local ‘crime watch’ website operated by a local citizen who wants to keep their community ‘safe.’

”Using subject interviews and wider collection from news sources, government reports, and legal cases, Dr. Lageson pithily but thoughtfully examines every level of the United States’ criminal records infrastructure”

Criminal records in the United States are, Lageson writes in her introduction, “disordered,” “commodified,” a form of “surveillance” and “disparate.” (pp. 7-9). Disordered in the sense that supposedly authoritative criminal records may come from one of many official government sources, or from a data broker operating in the market for personal data. Also disordered in the sense that individuals looking for criminal record information are able to circumvent legal barriers in order to access supposedly sealed criminal histories using the internet. “Commodified” because, owing in part to the publicly available nature of most criminal histories and governments’ need to contract with private data providers, criminal records are now a sought-after goldmine for data brokers, security firms, and credit rating agencies. “Surveillance” in the sense that they are effective not only for their “real and profound consequences” but also because “the broader gaze of digital punishment hangs over a person like a cloud, marking them with suspicion and distrust even if they were not convicted of a crime.” (p. 8) Finally, they are “disparate” because a subject’s ability to weather and overcome this “broader gaze” is contingent on their access to resources and wherewithal to navigate the often opaque process of expunging a record, or optimizing a search engine to ensure that an old or inaccurate record is not publicly available.

Using subject interviews and wider collection from news sources, government reports, and legal cases, Dr. Lageson pithily but thoughtfully examines every level of the United States’ criminal records infrastructure. Sections explore law enforcement and judicial databases themselves as well as individuals impacted by a digital criminal history and their legal representatives. In perhaps the most interesting part of a fascinating study, Dr. Lageson introduces us to two “digilantes” who public criminal histories in the name of “public safety,” often demanding money in exchange for removing harmful information. The study allows an exploration of how people manage their own criminalization, how political populism fuses with digital records to produce a digilante, and how bureaucratic mismanagement can lead to the irresponsible release of thousands of records.

Digital Punishment illustrates the kaleidoscopic nature of the criminal record, which sometime behaves like a risk-management tool, other times as a commodity, still other times as police data and yet again as a police public relations tool. The criminal record canon’s diverse, opaque and sometimes frankly contradictory nature is one of its most interesting and devilish aspects.

It is difficult of write about areas where Dr. Lageson ‘falls short’ in Digital Punishment. Theorists of security studies may wish for a clearer theoretical framework. But Dr. Lageson’s thick descriptive approach is what is needed. Digital Punishment is only the second book-length scholarly treatment of criminal records in the United States, so description is sorely needed. Dr. Lageson does provide some interesting avenues for future theorizing, particularly in her treatment of stigma, where she goes so far as to suggest that the digitization of criminal records may call for a rethinking of sociological conceptualizations of stigma and its management. Care work is missing from this study, which is probably the only real gap. Scholarship dating back to at least Michel Foucault have pointed out how ‘security,’ ‘control’ and ‘care’ overlap.

”Lageson provide interesting avenues for future theorizing, particularly in her treatment of stigma, where she suggest that the digitization of criminal records may call for a rethinking of sociological conceptualizations of stigma and its management”

Only in the last five years have scholars moved from studying the effect of a criminal record to attempting to understand its role in society more broadly. It was only about six years ago that James Jacobs’ The Eternal Criminal Record grappled with the extent to which criminal records have become implicated in almost every aspect of U.S. social life. Dr. Lageson’s book represents the most thorough analysis yet of the United States’ criminal records infrastructure.

Scholars interested in the role of databases, information technology, predictive threat management and related fields would do well to avail themselves of Dr. Lageson’s intensive and accessible research. They will not be disappointed.


Jacobs, James B. 2015. The Eternal Criminal Record, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Lageson, Sarah Esther 2020. Digital Punishment: Privacy, Stigma and the Harms of Data Driven Criminal Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Miller, Reuben Jonathan and Forrest Stuart 2017. “Carceral Citizenship: Race, Rights and Responsibility in the Era of Mass Supervision,” Theoretical Criminology

Food as a weapon? The geopolitics of food and the Qatar-Gulf rift

On 4 June 2017, residents of Qatar rushed the country’s grocery aisles, stocking up on as much food as they could fit into their carts or their budget. Qatar had just become the subject of a far-reaching embargo by its regional Gulf neighbors, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In addition to cutting all diplomatic relations, Qatar’s only land border – with Saudi Arabia – was sealed, and air and sea travel was severed with the closing of airspace and territorial waters to all Qatari vessels and aircraft. All travel from the participating countries to Qatar was also barred. With effectively no domestic agriculture to speak of, the embargo’s most direct impact, as demonstrated in this recent Security Dialogue article, was on Qatar’s food supply, which is maintained through its air, sea, and land connections to the outside world. The country’s 2.6 million residents, many of whom flooded the grocery stores in early June 2017, were understandably concerned about their ability to secure food when news about the embargo broke.

New supply chains were established rapidly, however, as the Qatari government and its sovereign wealth fund’s subsidiary Hassad Food worked around the clock with partners in Iran and Turkey to re-source products and establish new distribution and logistics networks (see their account here). Since the beginning of the ‘Qatar-Gulf rift’ in June 2017, Qatar’s ability to quickly overcome the embargo’s impact on food has been framed as a major nationalist victory in official and unofficial discourse – a testament to the strength of the national will and perseverance in the face of hardship. This spirit is vividly captured in the local press coverage about the food situation, but especially about one particular company: Baladna Farms.

Baladna, which means ‘our country’ in Arabic, began in 2014 as a small sheep and goat farm, but was quickly transformed into a major dairy farm in 2017, when it received thousands of milk cows that were ‘airlifted’ by Qatar Airways from Europe and North America. As a Bloomberg article put it, ‘the nine-month Saudi-led embargo of Qatar has an undisputed mascot for Doha’s defiance: the cud-chewing American cow.’ Indeed, Qatar today buzzes with discussions about Baladna’s astonishing rise and its iconic status exemplifying the country’s persistence in the face of what is resoundingly understood to be an unjust and illegal assault on the country’s sovereignty.

Since then, Baladna farms has become a major nationalist icon in Qatar – symbolizing the Qatari ‘defensive’ response to the Saudi and Emirati ‘offensive,’ in which those two governments used their own monopoly of the Gulf dairy markets as a weapon – but which Qatari actors were able to subvert this weaponization of food. Baladna’s operations chief, the Irish-born John Dore explained in a Guardian article, for example: ‘The people that have shot themselves in the foot are the Saudis. If the blockade was lifted, there is so much pro-Qatar sentiment and nationalist pride that the people will buy Qatar milk, not Saudi. […] If we can make enough milk, the people in Qatar will buy it’. Indeed, the embargo stoked a massive rise in nationalism across Qatar, and it is something that ordinary residents now proudly act on by buying Qatari milk. So too can residents tour the farm itself, where they can view the company’s high-tech milking machines, peruse its museum, and watch a short film on the company’s contribution to the nation’s prosperity and success (available at the author’s website with the password ‘national’).

”[F]ood security has been a central narrative in defining agricultural, water, and energy policies in the Gulf region”

The curious rise of Qatar’s dairy industry in the wake of the ongoing embargo may come as a surprise to some, but it is actually part of a much longer history of nationalist thinking about food security or food sovereignty. Food, water, and energy have long been connected with the notions of sovereignty and security – though they have a special history in the Arabian Peninsula because of its desert environment, but also because of local memories about threats made by U.S. President Richard Nixon to use the ‘food weapon’ in retaliation for the OPEC oil embargo in 1973. Since then, food security has been a central narrative in defining agricultural, water, and energy policies in the Gulf region – even when those policies seem fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable. Yet as illustrated by the case of Baladna and the spectacular ‘cowlift’ that managed to overcome the Gulf embargo, symbolic capital can be just as important as real capital. Although the idea of a ‘food weapon’ is more fiction than fact in our globally-connected food markets, it nonetheless has important ideological implications in the Arabian Peninsula, especially by galvanizing people and policymakers to action – even if that action is rallying around the flag.

Rashomon in the Sahel: Conflict Dynamics of Security Regionalism

Between 2013 and 2017, as a Ph.D. student I devoted my efforts to the attempt of analyzing in a comparative way the American, the French, and the European security initiatives towards one of the most unstable and conflict-prone regions in Africa, namely the Sahel. Since the beginnings of the Malian crisis in 2012, the Sahel had effectively attracted international attention, essentially because of the security concerns of different Western countries. The international narrative about this African conflict was particularly focused on two main elements. On the one hand, the collapse of the Malian state was perceived as the victory of the “transnational dark forces” at work in the country, and jihadist forces in particular. On the other hand, the crisis was considered “regional” by nature, as international observers were worried about a possible “domino effect” that could spread conflict over the Mali’s “fragile” neighbors.

At the same time, during the revision of the literature, and even more when I started to conduct fieldwork research (in Paris, Brussels, Washington and Bamako), I was struck by the fact that it was almost impossible to find a shared and uncontested definition, about what the Sahel is. Like in the Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, all the actors involved seemed to tell their own version of a presumed factual reality, inspired by the projection of their own interests and interpretations, about the kind of security that was at stake in the area. Establishing what was effectively “true” and “real” in that contest was almost impossible, and before the end of my research, I became aware of the fact that the “geographical set” of my work was more a “discursive practice”,[1] than a geopolitical space.[2]

My article “Rashomon in the Sahel: conflict dynamics of security regionalism” starts from these premises, for exploring the effects that this battle about “truth” and “knowledge” is producing, on the dynamics of security and conflict in the area. Four different collective agents – the international interveners, the regional governmental elites, the jihadist insurgent groups and the local communities – are struggling, from different positions of force, not only for delimiting their space of action, but also for defining which kind of order should rule this space, and whose security the resulting region should guarantee. As a matter of fact, none of the actors involved are able to master the consequences of their interactions with the other regionalizing agents. At the same time, through his presence and his action, every actor unintentionally justifies his competitors’ pursuit of their regional projects.  

Nowadays, all figures show that violence is on the rise in the Sahel, while abuses and indiscriminate exactions are reported and practiced by all the actors involved. As I claim in the article, thinking in terms of competing security regionalisms can help us, in disentangling the various and interconnected processes which are producing and furthering violent conflict in the area. At the same time, it could also help to start imagining a different, and more peaceful “truth” about the Sahel.    

[1] ÓTuathail G and Agnew J (1992) Geopolitics and discourse: Practical geopolitical reasoning in American foreign policy. Political Geography 11(2): 190-204

[2] With regard to my Ph.D. thesis, at a the end I had to “accept” to participate to this multi-vocal discursive production of a geographical space, limiting my attention on the five states – Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – that US and European strategies considered as the “core” of the Sahel, and which formed the G5 Sahel in 2014. 

The War Against Vague Threats: The Redefinitions of Imminent Threat and their Impact on Anticipatory Use of Force in the “War on Terror”

In this research project, I explored how the United States (U.S.) has redefined the concept of ‘imminent threat’ to relax the rules for anticipatory use of armed force against insurgent groups. In particular, two new definitions of imminent threat have changed the conduct of specific combat activities: drone strikes and ground combat operations.

In the first part of the article, I examined how the Obama administration redefined, in late 2011, the concept of imminent threat in jus ad bellum in order to establish the legal basis for targeted killings of individuals suspected of being senior leaders of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups. My objective was to show how the Obama administration changed the definition of imminent threat by eliminating two of its key traditional components – that is, the immediacy and certainty of the threat. The new – “flexible” and “broad” – definition of imminent threat enabled the U.S. military to start launching anticipatory attacks with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, against vaguely defined threats. By describing imminent threats as continuous threats that were present at any time because terrorists supposedly continuously planned attacks against the U.S., the new definition of imminent threat significantly broadened the temporal limits within which the U.S. military was permitted to conduct military operations, including drone strikes. The U.S. military was permitted to launch continuous armed attacks against presumed continuous imminent threats without having to collect evidence showing when and where such threats were about to emerge. Moreover, the new definition of imminent threat also widened the geographical scope of anticipatory “self-defense” operations. Given that members of Al Qaeda and associated forces operated in dozens of countries around the world, the new concept of imminent threat enabled the U.S. military to launch military operations in all of those countries. Under the new doctrine, it became irrelevant whether the countries in which members of Al Qaeda and their affiliated forces were hiding were at war with the U.S.           

”[T]he redefinition of imminent threat in ground combat operations led to an increase in violence against civilians”

In the second part of the research, I examined how the Bush administration redefined the concept of imminent threat in ground combat operations in 2005. The redefined concept was unveiled in the U.S. Rules of Engagement, thedirectives delineating the circumstances and limitations under which U.S. troops are allowed to use force against enemy troops. Crucially, both the Bush and Obama administrations embraced a redefinition of imminent threat that abandoned one of its key traditional elements – that is, the immediacy of the threat. The new definition was used to relax the rules for anticipatory self-defense in ground combat operations, in particular in kill-or-capture missions or night raids. The expanded notion of imminence enabled U.S. troops to categorize as an imminent threat a range of movements and actions that did not represent an immediate threat but merely indicated that a threat might emerge at some unspecified moment in the future. For example, such movements and actions included: using a mobile phone in the vicinity of U.S. troops; digging a hole, particularly at night, in the vicinity of a road; stepping out of a house during a night raid; fleeing from the scene of a night raid; possessing a weapon. With such broad threat categorizations, the line dividing civilians and legitimate military targets became blurred, which increased the risk for civilians getting killed or injured.

New definitions of imminent threat prevented the application of the principles of necessity and proportionality during the pre-emptive use of force against perceived imminent threats. In order to show how the U.S. military failed to observe both principles in drone strikes, I focused on the principles of necessity and proportionality incorporated in jus ad bellum, the norms regulating the use of armed force in international relations. In addition, I examined the principles of necessity and proportionality in jus in bello, the norms governing the conduct of hostilities in armed conflicts, in order to explain how the U.S. military ignored both principles in ground combat operations.

 One of the key findings of the research is that the redefinition of imminent threat in ground combat operations led to an increase in violence against civilians. The too-broad definition of imminent threat enabled U.S. troops to be more flexible in deciding when to pull the trigger in “self-defense” engagements, which led to civilians being more often put in danger of getting killed or injured. While it is true that imminent threat determinations were always, to a certain extent, subjective, the new concept of imminent threat allowed excessive subjectivity that significantly undermined civilian protection.

Book review: The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political

Judith Butler. New York: Verso, 2020; pp. ix – 209. $26.95 cloth. ISBN: 9781788732765

In its shift away from traditional approaches to security studies that implied work done through the frame of war and a state-centric approach, debates regarding the discursive and theoretical implications of the concepts, grammars, methodologies, and schools that traditionally upheld the architectonics of critical security studies have dominated recent scholarship in the field. To paraphrase Columba Peoples and Nick Vaughan-Williams, as the field has broadened and deepened its agenda, studying security’s relationship to the environment, the economy, and the socio-political sphere, while also incorporating new referent objects (e.g., institutions, human individuals, and the biosphere), “what is common” across contemporary critical security studies scholarship

“is an insistence on the important of paying close attention to the ways in which the discourse of pre/post 9/11 world works politically in order to justify particular policies and interests” (p. 9).

In her most recent book-length project, The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political, Judith Butler takes back up the argument concerning non-violence’s semantic and pragmatic ambiguity that she began in Frames of War, arguing that discourses concerning violence (by way of defining violence and/or using violence) often do work politically and affectively to justify particular policies and interests. As a text that carefully explores some of the field’s most important vocabulary – i.e., violence and non-violence – this manuscript compliments Butler’s continued significance to critical security studies, adding novel utility to concepts like grievability, performativity, and vulnerability that have helped shape the form and arc of contemporary scholarship in security studies writ large. 

”This book is especially a call to ask oneself not whether nonviolence and resistance are necessary, but how and where one should resist in order to save lives”

Tracing the double-helix of critiquing violence and doing violence, in The Force of Nonviolence Butler argues against the false binaries often erected between aggressive action (violence) and passive paralysis (nonviolence). Such binaries empty nonviolence of any agency and are a byproduct of powers taking advantage of the dialectical movement of violence and language through time, a play at turning resistance to constructed explanations of what is right and what is violent into acquiescence at best and execution at worst. Butler’s thesis in this project is that “the power of nonviolence, its force, is found in the modes of resistance to a form of violence that regularly hides its true name” (p. 201). Nonviolence, in other words, is not the absence of violence, and it does not “necessarily emerge from a pacific or calm part of the soul” (p. 21). Instead, it is less a “moral position” than a “social and political practice undertaken in concert” with others, a rhetorical and material (re)action which exposes and resists the infrastructures of “justified” violence, infrastructures that take advantage of the obfuscating nature of beginnings and ends, bringing into the light those bodies, the ungrievable, the marginalized, that, by their very negation, are condemned to subtend what Butler calls war logics of individuality, sovereignty, and rule of law – logics, in other words, that emphasize self-sufficiency and the kill-or-be-killed ethos so popular in traditional security studies and the West. 

Over the course of an introduction, four chapters, and a postscript, Butler moves from diagnosing violence and nonviolence as always oscillating between conflicting political frameworks, to arguing that a critique of subjectivity and individuality is necessary to dispel the narrative fantasies that are used to justify such frameworks, to finally an appeal to recalibrate nonviolence as a style of exposure and critique that reveals systems of violence and oppression rather than just condemning individual acts of aggression and erasure. As Butler emphasizes in the “Post-Script,” “whether we are caught up in rage or love” (p. 204) both of which are drives that can be used to subvert or reify frameworks that detain, incarcerate, expel, and execute living bodies, a commitment to nonviolence is not a disavowal of violence’s negating capability, but a way of using violence’s negation against those structures that use violence to negate other lives in the name of conquest, material and surplus accumulation, and Othering. Nonviolence is indeed a force, then, not a rejection of action but a style of engagement with the negating power of violence itself. 

”In a year of political uncertainty and pandemic, with questions asking after what is to be done, Butler’s work in The Force of Nonviolence is particularly appropriate for our moment in time”

Reading The Force of Nonviolence entails an encounter with the concept of violence at two levels. On the one hand, Butler seems to argue that the ontology of violence, like the ontology of language, seems premised on the negative, a negating of this not that, which is inescapable insofar as the capacity to negate establishes the conditions for life’s diversity and evolution and language’s grammar and capacity for definition. This is to say that the potential to call something violent (that is, do violence) and so to negate it, is endemic to the process of living and being. On the other hand, Butler argues that a particular enactment of this ontological negation can be (un)consciously weaponized by systems, like governments, in order to intentionally 1) convince people that there are others who violently threaten the “safety” and “security” of “law and order,” and that 2) these others deserve to be killed with impunity and without recognition of loss (sans grievability). In my reading, it’s the “conscious weaponization” of negation-as-violence that Butler wants to grapple with at the discursive level of interplay between the individual and the social, while recognizing the indelibility of the ontology of negation, suggesting nonviolence as a way to reroute the (un)conscious weaponization of negation away from death and destruction motivated by racism, sexism, and so on, and toward efforts to dismantle the infrastructures of those same life-negating -isms (in addition to the already mentioned: militarism, nationalism, positivism, realism, liberalism, and so on) that do unnecessary harm to demographics singled out because of how Western narratives of colonization and imperialism, tied up with state-sovereignty and militarism, have depicted such groups as expendable, less-than-human, even a threat to humanism as a concept and a practice.  

Judith Butler’s book will be useful to those scholars interested in violence and non-violence in general, but also will aid those interested in post-positivism’s and critical constructivism’s influence on the field of critical security studies, particularly with how the rhetoric of violence and the violence of rhetoric found at the hinge between traditional and critical security studies often establish a parallax that confuses the difference between the two lines of inquiry, perhaps especially in contemporary critical security scholarship. For a broader audience, academic and otherwise, I recommend this text for its careful analysis of the terms – violence, racism, law – we find used, explicitly and implicitly, in every policy-building situation, politically, militarily, and otherwise. This book is especially a call to ask oneself not whether nonviolence and resistance are necessary, but how and where one should resist in order to save lives, including, Butler would say, your own. In a year of political uncertainty and pandemic, with questions asking after what is to be done, Butler’s work in The Force of Nonviolence is particularly appropriate for our moment in time – a time of grief, a time of loss, a time pregnant with the potential for radical, non-violent change. 


Butler, Judith. (2020) The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political. New York: Verso.

Peoples, Columba, and Nick Vaughan-Williams. (2014). Critical Security Studies: An      Introduction. London: Routledge. 

The Past Shall not Begin – Frozen Seeds, Extended Presents, and the Politics of Reversibility

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

In 2008, the first global seed bank—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV)—went into operation. Even before its opening, the SGSV had already attracted media attention and provoked all kinds of theological and eschatological parables.

The SGSV quickly received the nickname ‘Doomsday Vault’ while some commentators spoke of a ‘Noah’s Ark’ for plants. In fact, the purpose and location of this particular storage facility are reminiscent of an apocalyptic theme in a motion picture in which humanity tries to prepare itself for the end of the world. Built in the inhospitable environment of an Arctic desert on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, halfway between the mainland of Norway and the North Pole, the SGSV was designed to preserve the biodiversity of global agriculture and thus ensure global food security against future catastrophes. National plant research institutes and gene banks around the world working on the creation of useful new plant varieties have the opportunity to send copies of their variety collections to Spitsbergen and have them stored in the vault. In the event that the national collections are destroyed in the course of technical accidents, natural disasters or social upheavals, the vault offers the option to restore lost diversity and thus the possibility of genetic variety breeding on which modern agriculture so heavily depends. 

”If damage to the planet such as the extinction of species is already occurring, technologies such as the SGSV promise to postpone irreversibility.”

On the homepage of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the main sources of finance for the SGSV, the task is clearly outlined: ‘The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up’.

Shelves inside the vault

The article argues that the SGSV expresses a security rationality that could be described as a “politics of reversibility”. The concept of reversibility refers to a slightly different time-theoretical problem than the ongoing debates in Critical Security Studies  on the different modes of anticipating the future. While the latter are more concerned with the problem of preparing and preventing, the problem of reversibility is about how long a past event can still be reversed. Referring to the time-theoretical concept of the “doubled present” of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann it is argued that the SGSV generates an extended present within the passing time, in which past events can be treated as present and thus be corrected. By removing the seeds from their ecological relationships and then freezing them, the metabolic processes of life are halted and its irreversible process of becoming is reduced to a minimum. This gives plant scientists a possibility that life does not actually provide for: to return to any stage of evolution and reverse the extinction itself. 

In this way, the analysis of the politics of reversibility contributes to a further understanding of how life is secured in the times of the Anthropocene. The politics of reversibility seems to be the logical form of security politics at a time where the catastrophe is no longer waiting in the future but is already present. If damage to the planet such as the extinction of species is already occurring, technologies such as the SGSV promise to postpone irreversibility. Against this background, the SGSV seems to follow a modernist-reductionist paradigm of conservation that feels to be completely unsuitable to respond to the complex ecological problems of the Anthropocene. In the end, is it not precisely this kind of reification of life that caused us the mess of the Anthropocene? Although this is undoubtedly correct, I hesitate to reject the gene bank as a security technology per se. In view of the speed at which the loss of species is proceeding, the question, as Thom van Dooren puts it, can no longer be whether or not to bank, but how to situate the technology of the gene bank in such a way that it not only serves the security needs of the global North. If this can be achieved, the politics of reversibility could indeed become one of the arts of living on a damaged planet.