Wednesday, 22 August 2012

What are the implications for security studies?

Getting out of difficult situations

The Northern focus of security studies excludes the majority of the world’s population from discussions on security. The dominance of strategic rationality as the decision-making mechanism and the focus on direct forms of violence discount the perspectives of weaker parties and in doing so compromise the ability to understand threats faced by those who are not in positions of power. 

These threats include the threat of military attack; in the east of Congo, operations apparently designed to provide security for the distressed population have been catastrophic. There is also a lack of conceptual apparatus to address AIDS, environmental collapse, political anomie or marginalisation from a security perspective. Mitigation attempts abound but a security perspective would prioritise not ‘helping’ but changing the relationships of threat and protection that reinforce insecurity.

These shortfalls have become particularly disastrous since security programming has been incorporated into mainstream development policy. Without an understanding of the perspective of the weaker, development is unlikely to improve the security of those on whose behalf the intervention is made.

What does the perspective of the weaker party contribute to security?

The history passed through capoeira starts to fill some of the ‘historical absences’ generated by the northern dominance in security theorising and policy (Bilgin 2010). It has given insight into the tactics that are used in the strategic space commanded by others. In doing so, capoeira has provided data and analysis to map a much broader scope of rationality than is assumed by conventional concepts of strategy. This is a step towards theorising disruption and difference as counter-hegemonic discourses of resistance, rather than trying to shut them down.

A key part of the investigation has been the extension of understanding of rationality. Rationality has been seen to have communicative ends, in conserving and expressing personal and group identities and values. Instrumental rationality is diverse too: it makes tactical gains but it also employs counter-rationality and magic – including music, charisma and play – to generate meaning and reduce vulnerability. Reducing vulnerability is as important in security terms as increasing arsenal and tends to be less aggravating.
Filhos de Bimba, Salvador

Capoeira presents a further crucial challenge to dominant power in denying the inevitability of its processes. The commitment of Mestre Bimba to recuperating and codifying the art of capoeira has preserved elements that were in danger of being lost. An equal task is now undertaken by his son, Mestre Nenel, who maintains Bimba’s tradition in the face of strong pressures on the Regional style. A different form of challenge confronts the heirs of capoeira Angola. They have seen a less explosive diffusion of their art, but they also struggle to preserve the style alongside preserving the fluidity and improvisation that are integral to it. Through teaching and playing capoeira, the authenticity and integrity of the game and the forms of political expression that it gives are constantly renegotiated. The form that capoeira takes – the fact that it is situated in the present and defined by its lineage - continuously denies and outwits inevitability. Outcomes are not predetermined, they are in a constant state of becoming.

How are power, freedom and security related?

Examining capoeira has highlighted the political significance and construction of freedom. Security and freedom have conventionally been conceptualised as oppositional: populations relinquish freedom in return for security from the state. A break was made in 1994 when Human Security was defined by the UNDP as freedom from fear and freedom from want. This was a freedom from abstract threats and was not explained in political terms. Following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the debate about security and freedom has been reignited as many states have imposed extraordinary laws in the name of security.

Capoeira’s counter-hegemonic discourse foregrounds freedom not as a price but as a precondition for security. This is a freedom that is won from oppression, not one that is granted by the law laid down by the powerful. Capoeira unpacks the power relations and differences of interest that frame competing versions of security. It brings into focus the question of: Whose security is it? The song “vou dizer a meu senhor” – “I’m going to tell my master” recounts a slave’s lack of concern and abdication of responsibility for a pat of melted butter. The position is: Yes, the butter has melted, but it wasn’t my butter. Why should the slave care if the master’s butter has melted? In myriad ways, people whose interests are not served by dominant versions of security express lack of concern and an abdication of responsibility for pursuing it.

Without slavery there would be no capoeira: capoeira developed in the runaway slave settlements. Its form and reference is borne of experiences of powerlessness, resistance and difference of interests, and is expressed through defiant or oblique lyrics and the joy of playing despite everything. Without capoeira slavery could be condemned as unjust, but there would be no continuity of history, no cultural celebration or significance of agency. These constituent elements not only convey a particular set of historical experiences and priorities, they imply that there is no blue print for security. In drawing attention to power they also problematise the political practicality of providing security to others.

A ladainha contains the lines, “I am free like the wind, Ai meu Deus, ninguém vai me segurar” – “no one can hold me.” I am grateful to Lea Frehse, currently studying with us at SOAS, for the observation that the word ‘security’ derives its meaning from the notion of freedom from care; she explores how this can include also freedom from being cared for. Human Security promotes freedom within the hegemony of security as defined by the powerful minority, and many contemporary security policies extend the control exercised by the state. The critical angle presented by capoeira is the opposite: a need for freedom from that hegemony – the ability to choose – freedom to ACT, to BE!

The last word on rationality
Establishing communication

The strategic rationality and northern bias of security discourse faces strident and profound challenges in real world politics. Capoeira has provided a number of angles of critique and elaboration on the dominant security perspective. It is not obvious; if you see a capoeira game you are unlikely to think, ‘oh, cartwheels, what an heritage,’ or ‘magic! How liberating!’ I have written this blog alongside an intensive programme of training and playing. Capoeira’s fundamentals are encoded, as counter-hegemonic discourses must be and many counter-hegemonic discourses appear at first sight disoriented and disorienting. Most are not as fun or as beautiful as capoeira. Many are not rational in a straightforward sense, but it would be irrational to dismiss them just for that.


Bilgin, P. ( 2010). "The 'Western-Centrism' of Security Studies: 'Blind Spot' or Constitutive Practice?" Security Dialogue 41(6): 615-622.

Rogers, P. (2000). Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-First Century. London, Pluto Press.

UNDP (1994). New dimensions of human security. Human Development Report 1994 United Nations Development Programme. 

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