Times of Security: Ethnographies of Fear, Protest and the Future


The editors of Anthropoliteia present to you the latest in our occasion series Interrogations, in which authors of recent volumes of interest to our readers discuss their work.  In this post, Johanna Römer talks with Morten Axel Pedersen and Martin Holbraad on their edited volume, Times of Security: Ethnographies of Fear, Protest and the Future

Johanna Römer: The volume Times of Security emerged from of a series of workshops convened at the Center for Advanced Security Theory at Copenhagen University. Can you describe how the book project developed as way to advance both political anthropology and studies of security?

Martin Holbraad: We began to write this book after 9/11, when security became a buzzword around which many different public discourses coalesced. Our assumption was that anthropology, starting with classic anthropological debates from the last century had a lot to contribute to an understanding of what ‘security’ might be, beyond questions of individual or national survival. As anthropologists, with a vested intellectual interest in variation, our starting point was to ask what might count as security in different contexts in the first place.


Pedersen is Full Professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

Morten Axel Pedersen: When the book was conceived it was the aftermath of 9/11, and it felt like all of the subsequent wars were ‘times of security’ that had been propelled by 9/11. And now after Paris, all of these questions are back in the headlines. The way we approached security as a process of politicization of threats was inspired by the work of Ole Waever at Copenhagen University. Thirty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, he and his colleagues began working on a project to find procedures to de-securitize and demilitarize international relations and public discourse more generally. But in order to do so, they first he had to think about what security actually was, and that was how what eventually became known as ‘Securitization Theory’ was formulated.

JR: At the beginning of the book, you note that the practice of securitization involves the collapse of a distinction between civil society and state sovereignty—and this becomes central to the conceptual interventions made in the book. In several chapters, this is manifest as the militarization of citizens’ minds as in North Korea or Serbia, or the creation of citizen-soldiers.

MH: In a contemporary liberal imaginary, social and political life is organized according to norms and exceptions, and situations of ‘securitization’, as political scientists say, involve exceptionally rescinding the normal balance in the relation of state and civil society. In our book we are interested in cases in which this kind of distinction might not be appropriate. For example, when one looks at societies that see themselves as ‘revolutionary’ it may look as though the state is constantly interfering in realms one would otherwise imagine as ‘private’. But when one looks at such societies on their own terms, one realizes the whole project of revolution can also be imagined as an attempt to rescind that very distinction, between individual and state, so as to enact a different political possibility.

JR: So in many ways you are thinking about the role of political ritual in producing these different degrees of securitization, as different alignments between social groups and a state?


Holbraad is Professor of Social Anthropology at University College London

MH: Yes, in many ways this project also speaks to the anthropology of ritual. For example, Victor Turner’s analysis of liminality also turns on a distinction between normal time and exceptional time, so critical attempts to play with that distinction in different ways are immediately relevant to our anthropology of security. Indeed, the question of different qualities of time is central for us, since security is inherently a temporal notion. To be or not to be secure involves different ways of projecting oneself into the future, after all.

JR: Many of the chapters in the book describe the role of media, television or visual images in weaving together different experiences of time. How might anthropological studies of security intersect with work on social or mass media?

MH: They both can be thought of as alternative ways of creating community. This is crucial for Kroijer’s chapter analyzing the way that police and protesters came to mirror one another’s actions in a confrontation at the Climate Summit. It is a choreographed moment where not only the modality but the quality of an experience of time is at stake. I’m thinking of a beautiful essay by Clifford Geertz, there is a poignant line about Balinese time based on their specific calendar that distinguished not what day it was, but what kind of day it was. There were different systems for measuring time running concurrently. Each were different from one another, so you would never repeat a day, and each day was qualitatively different. How do you maintain stability across time in this kind of situation?

Our assumption was that anthropology…had a lot to contribute to an understanding of what ‘security’ might be

MAP: Another example would be how Islamic State uses social media to disseminate its ideology, and how Western governments and intelligence agencies are now discussing how to respond to this situation. Here social media are becoming securitized as a potential existential threat and thus as a site of legitimate state intervention and manipulation. The relations between concepts of time and security that we discuss in this book could be usefully applied to this and similar situations where the horizons of security discourses and practices are shifting and being redefined. In these and other cases there are gradual but explicit transformations to the notion of what are considered to be civil liberties and where the state is allowed, and supposed, to intervene.

MH: If we’re thinking about security as a relation between future, present and past, mediation is always at issue. We can see this in Anja Kublitz’s chapter on the trauma of Nakba for Palestinians, mediated through images of what that moment was like. Divination plays a similarly mediating role, as a kind of machine for time-travel, in Richard Kernaghan’s beautiful essay on cocaine smugglers in Peru.

I think it’s important to emphasize that there is no limit to what can potentially be securitized. It is not something that happens only to entities that are perceived to be stable entities or essences.

JR: In exploring different experiences of a community that securitized reconfigurations of time can generate, is there anything else you would want to have your readers consider in this collection of essays?

MAP: I think it’s important to emphasize that there is no limit to what can potentially be securitized. It is not something that happens only to entities that are perceived to be stable entities or essences. Securing something that is by definition changing, like democratic society, is also at issue in recent debates. Many people in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe have begun to think about free speech, and more generally critique (religion, for example) itself as a securitized realm, as something that requires protection through extraordinary means. Needless to say, this raises some very difficult and political questions, which anthropology is well positioned to address in reflective and critical ways.

MH: If I were to be critical, I would want to think of a more explicitly articulated set of alternatives to bourgeois assumptions about what security is. This book opens up a series of alternatives, and these questions are now critical. If you’ve grown up in Brussels, what was your experience of security and its relation to an alternative, messianic or adventurous time that you went to seek as a part of a caliphate in Syria? Anthropology is essential in taking the measure of these problems.


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