Editors' Introduction

From terrorism to swine flu, to the current economic crisis, issues of security, broadly defined and experienced, seem to be taking front and centre stage in our contemporary moment. In light of this, Cultural Anthropology has decided to focus a special virtual issue on the theme of “security.”

The virtual issue spotlights five articles from Cultural Anthropology’s contemporary archives that we feel theorize, broaden, and understand “security” through their diverse ethnographic settings and approaches. Moreover, these featured articles illustrate that anthropology as a discipline has always been, at least tangentially, concerned with issues of and relating to security. Taken together, the articles illustrate that “security,” as much as it is currently a buzz word, must be unpacked and related to its various applications and articulations in specific contexts and histories. With that in mind, the featured authors in this issue have been asked to share their thoughts and insights into this ever-emerging field of study. Some of their thoughts are shared on this page. We provide a link where their full answers can be found with a forum section for further discussion.  We highly encourage you to visit this section and add your own questions and comments.

Ilana Feldman’s work offers new insight into the roots of conflict in Palestine. The essay examines how refugee law shaped humanitarian initiatives in Gaza in the first years after 1948, lending analysis to those who study how state's secure and control groups of people. A key argument is that humanitarianism, despite commitments to political neutrality, often has profound and enduring political effects. Feldman’ work on humanitarianism informs security studies as the laws the regulate the movement of bodies also inform understandings of which bodies are presumed to present a threat – to self, to community, and nation.

Relatedly, Didier Fassin writes about the situation in the Sangatte Center, an immigrant holding facility, in France. Complementing Feldman’s work, Fassin’s piece considers the ways in which the “exceptional” category for immigrants is articulated in different ways. In particular he investigates the ways in which political asylum has undergone a transformation in which "humanitarian claims"—informed by health needs—are being privileged over political claims (based on fear of persecution etc).

Working alongside the complexities of human rights, Marina Welker examines the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Welker investigates practices by Newmont Mining Corporation on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. Her article devotes analysis to the activities of those who support and defend capitalist development, adding a new dimension to understanding the social dynamics of contemporary capitalism and security studies. Welker's essays demonstrates how CSR initiatives have “produced fresh zones of struggle and new forms of violence” in addition to productive spaces in which anthropologists can reconsider the pressures capital places upon subjects – and the corporate response that protects its interest through such projects as CSR that, in effect, serve to offer greater security to corporations and capital. 

In the realm of national security we turn to the work of Andrew Lakoff who asks: How did a vocabulary of “preparedness” supplant one of “prevention,” re-structuring how U.S. agencies respond to threats to public health and national security? This question is central to Lakoff’s piece that investigates the historical rise of scenario-based security planning exercises from their initial development in U.S. military and civil defense agencies to other agencies concerned with “vital systems security.” In this securitized space, experts use the scenario-based methods of “imaginative enactment” to construct plausible singular events and potential disasters. Scenario-based training is finding a place in the practices of national security agencies, local police officers and health officials (to name just a few), and a better understanding of the history of these types of practices will inform research in a wide range of other areas of anthropological investigation.

Like Lakoff's geneological approach to security, Joseph Masco historically retraces the linkages of contemporary US security practices and the Cold War to illustrate how nuclear ruins are produced and consumed. Masco tracks this fascination of “nuclear ruins” and the production of nuclear fear in America to understand how these ruins can shape and discipline citizens and the national community through such devices as film and television images. Masco discusses how, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet empire, apocalyptic imagery of national destruction and heroic self-sacrifice reappeared in Hollywood movies. Even as asteroids and other natural calamities displaced nuclear threats, dramatic portrayals of catastrophe that required discipline and sacrifice continued. To understand the production and consumption of these images, and their concomitant ideologies informs the ways in which fear is produced and mobilized as a weapon and leads to the construction of new citizen-state relationships.

Taken together, these articles represent some of the more recent work that informs contemporary research in security and inspires researchers in the field.

"Swine Flu vials." December 5, 2012 via Vivan Choi and Michelle Stewart.

"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." - Marina Welker  

"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)." - Didier Fassin  

"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-era 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." - Ilana Feldman  

"The easy juxtaposition of these two 'crises' [9/11 and the financial crisis] - 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." - Andrew Lakoff

"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."  -Joseph Masco