Although in the last decades improvements have been done, International Relations still tends to be a closed discipline. While constructivist and critical approaches in the field have raised and highlighted the necessity to establish a more structured dialogue between IR and other disciplines, as, for example, area studies, sociology, criminology and anthropology, efforts along these lines still need further impetus. Specifically, when studying security and counter-terrorism, the dialogue between these disciplines has proved central to be able to grasp the multidimensional impact of the formulation and implementation of security measures.

Taking advantage of my research period at UDIMA, Madrid, Spain, in March 2020, I have had the opportunity to interview Dr Laura Fernández de Mosteyrín.

Dr. Laura Fernández de Mosteyrín is a lecturer in sociology at the School of Law and Criminology of Universidad a Distancia de Madrid. She develops her research agenda in the field of political sociology aimed at the study of state transformation and state-citizens interactions mediated by security. These two streams in her research necessarily bring theoretical and empirical inputs produced by IR and world politics and criminology, mainly critical approaches. As she puts it, we cannot understand contemporary state and citizenship transformations and social change without looking at global and local dynamics therein. To this end, we have no option than to dialogue with and to draw on findings and approaches from other disciplines. Her research is focused on discourses and practices of security and counter-terrorism in Spain. Her work brings together IR and World Politics theories (mainly critical terrorism and security studies) with sociology and criminology in an interesting and fascinating combination. Among her latest works include analyses of counter-radicalization discourses in Spain in Paradigmas y prevención del terrorismo: una aproximación al Plan Estratégico Nacional de Lucha contra la Radicalización Violenta (PEN-LCRV 2015), an analysis of the Terrorism Studies field and debates shaping it in “Los debates sobre el terrorismo bajo el signo de la Guerra contra el Terror: aportaciones desde la Sociología Política” , and the study of the War on Terror through a more sociological perspective in “On the Transformative Capacity of Events: Legitimacy and Political Violence under the War on Terror”. She is currently part of the Spanish national research Project SECURITYCULTURE:  "Los discursos de seguridad y su influencia en la cultura política en España”, and PI the GESP (Grupo de Estudios Sociedad y Política en un Mundo Global).

This interview explores the combination of these disciplines hoping this will be a topic of interest for many of us.  Here is the first part of our conversation in a Q&A format. Or skip to part two.

Alice Martini (AM): First of all, thank you Dr Fernández for your time and for accepting answering some questions. My first question is about your research. Your work brings together a very interesting combination of different disciplines as you analyse the repercussions of international discourses of security and counter-terrorism at a more regional and local level. To do this, you combine theories of the international, mainly IR and World Politics theories, with a sociological approach, bringing in historical sociology. Before going to the study of these more specific topics, I wanted to ask you, how do these disciplines complement each other? What does International Relations theory add to the study of Sociology, and what does sociology add to the study of IR?

Laura Fernández de Mosteyrín (LFM): Well, we live in a world where global governance institutions shape national agendas; where ideas and policy paradigms circulate globally, in a hybrid relation with local specificities, shaping national public conversations and policies that end up affecting people’s lives. For those of us whose research interest is on how states and citizens interact and share/contend over power distribution, the incorporation of global processes has become a necessity.

Nation-states have been the main institution in the last 100 years for most citizens in western countries – a major fact in people’s lives, as sociologist Charles Wright Mills used to put it. Therefore, we have to look at how the contours of nation-states are changing in front of the forces of globalization; we have to examine the powers that nation-states still deploy and those that are expanding, but also the powers that are waning. How these powers still shape everyday people’s lives and their possibilities for individual and collective exercise of citizenship is still core to social sciences.

Political sociology needs to open beyond ‘methodological nationalism’ to incorporate global processes into the way we explore state/citizenship relations. Counterterrorism – as a very important topic of research in the field of IR – is a very good example of what I try to explain.

Counterterrorism and security policies in general are a core domain of the historical powers of nation-states to control and repress its enemies (internal ‘enemies’ until the eighties). In the contemporary world, all countries across the globe are implementing counterterrorism strategies inspired and designed by western states. These programmes are transposing from one country to another, adapting to a specific socio-political context. In so doing, many nation-states are expanding powers of control, surveillance, anticipation and punishment.

Now, scholars in IR have been devoting much research to study counterterrorism since 2001. We have a big picture of policy paradigms, structural changes in contemporary forms of war, good insights and many case studies (essentially from Anglo-Saxon scholarship) on surveillance powers, Islamophobia, control of dissent, and so forth.  At the same time, we have very insightful scholarship from the field of criminology on the way states are expanding powers to punish, incarceration rates, criminalization of the poor and the so.  Both IR working on CT and criminology working on the penal state are researching the changing powers of nation-states. Moreover, both fields are providing evidence that opens the space to theorize and document state transformations towards the idea of the ‘security state’ and eventually, of a ‘securitized citizenship’. These are findings that all scholars interested in socio-political change should be looking at.

There are, however, some challenges here: 1) most of the research I am referring to is developed in the margins of disciplines (i.e critical IR, critical criminology); 2) we find very little – but growing, I would suggest – instances of dialogue across disciplines;  3) findings are scattered across area studies (‘security studies’; ‘citizenship studies’, ‘surveillance studies’, ‘policing studies’, ‘feminist studies’, critical security studies, critical terrorism studies) and so on. As it is very rare that somebody engages with work outside of their discipline, it is difficult to come up with a big picture of, following the example of CT, how counterterrorism is a globalizing force, a mechanism of expansion of state powers at the same time, and a disciplining force shaping the institution of citizenship. It seems that the boundaries of disciplines are blurring and if we don’t capture this, it is very difficult to make sense of the big picture.

I think the constructivist and critical turn in IR opened a very rich field of inquiry into problems that are of classic interest in political sociology: state and citizens interactions mediated by the dynamics of power and security. At the same time, IR’s turn reminds sociologist that we were once a critical discipline: not only in terms of our professional ethos to make social problems evident, but to ‘speak the truth to power’.  We have, in our field’s background, the tools to examine the powers of the state and those of the organized society. In the specific case of the study of counterterrorism and security policies, we have very strong conceptual and methodological apparatus that needs to be mobilised in dialogue with adjacent disciplines.

I really think we cannot examine our ‘classic’ themes (and the State is paramount in the socio-political agenda) without dialoguing with IR and criminology but also, that those disciplines owe much to sociology.  One of the most important efforts to this dialogue is, precisely, International Political Sociology.

AM: And, now, focusing on the specific topics of your research, what does it mean to study security and counter-terrorism from a sociological point of view? What does the combination of these disciplines add to the study of security and counter-terrorism? What does their combination allow you to grasp more or better than a single discipline focus at a theoretical level?

LFM: I touched upon this above. But let me explain a little better why I think counterterrorism should be of paramount interest to the sociological agenda.

Counterterrorism is, in its most basic form, an effort by nation-states to fight ‘enemies’ of a political community in order to provide security in exchange. If we look at it in very broad terms and try to put in historical context, counterterrorism is the power of the nation-state to monopolize the use of force and pacify internally while defending its borders. In a rather simplified way, what the state organization is saying is: ‘I have the legal power and the authority to decide and enforce who are in and who are out of the group of people I give the status of citizenship to and wish to protect’.

In this logic, terrorism is any form of non-state organized violence that defies the violent power of the state to rule in a pacified territory. Now, what terrorists are, who is the terrorists what do they claim, how do states treat them and so forth, is a matter of context.

Sociologist are usually very interested in social change – e.g., in how societies change across time and space; in identities – e.g., what makes us ‘come together’; in inequality – e.g., how societies are stratified in terms of status, wealth, ethnicity etc.; in power distribution – e.g., how societal power emerges and is organized for collective claims. All these themes and topics can be explored by examining contemporary counterterrorism. I envisage a ‘sociological’ agenda of counterterrorism as containing at least some of these things: how counterterrorism shape things like citizen’s rights and duties, identities, political views and values; how CT stratifies societies by giving moral superiority to, say, victims and experts while categorising and monitoring Muslim youth, for instance; how states regulate speech to prevent apologies and the so. In sum, counterterrorism is a set of policy programmes that shape the way we citizens interact with the state, I said, a major fact in people’s lives.

(end of part one, read on to part two )


Cover photo: district shura in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, featuring Special Forces; by ResoluteSupportMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The mentioned research project  is funded by the Spanish Agencia Estatal de Investigación (Proyecto de I+D Discursosy representaciones sobreseguridady su impacto en la cultura política en España (2018-2020). Challenges of Society, Call, 2017 MINECO (CSO2017-86985-R).