Barbed wire

Vernacular Security, Radicalisation, and Counter-radicalisation

This article was written by Lee Jarvis (Loughborough University), Stuart Macdonald (Swansea University), Andrew Whiting (Royal Holloway, University of London)
This article was published on

Authors Lee Jarvis, Stuart Macdonald and Andrew Whiting discuss the concept of ‘vernacular security’ and how an influential article on the subject led to the publication of their book Vernacular Security, Radicalisation, and Counter-radicalisation.

Next year marks twenty-years since Nils Bubandt published what would become an extremely influential article on the concept of ‘vernacular security’. The article urged us to move away from universalistic understandings of security, and approach it, instead, as a locally situated discursive practice, in order to recognise that the meaning, and experience, of security varies across time and space. The importance of this work, in part, was its encouragement of a vibrant and still-growing body of research paying attention to the ‘everyday security speak’ of different individuals, groups and communities around the world: a body of research paying attention to the ways in which specific people talk about topics such as security, insecurity, threat, risk and danger. Amongst many other valuable contributions, this research has shed new light on public constructions of (counter-)terrorism in Nigeria, the policing of gender and sexuality in Fiji, and constructions of threat on social media. Speaking to, and sometimes drawing on, other ‘bottom up’ conceptions of security that we find in traditions of feminist, postcolonial, and critical security research, this scholarship typically seeks to speak to (or with) rather than for everyday experiences, encounters and constructions of security.

In a recently published piece of research, we have been applying these ideas to vernacular or non-elite understandings of ‘radicalisation’: a much discussed, and heavily contested, term within contemporary security imaginaries. Focusing, specifically, on the experiences of university students in England and Wales, we have been exploring how the threat of radicalisation is perceived or interpreted in everyday life, and how efforts to combat this threat through counter-radicalisation initiatives such as the UK Prevent Strategy are understood and evaluated. Doing this, we believe, extends understanding of the politics of security by demonstrating the reach and resonance of elite security discourses and frameworks. It also helps to illuminate how security threats are interpreted, by exploring the importance of phenomena such as memories, anecdotes, pop culture references, and personal experiences in ‘lay’ constructions of radicalisation. All of this helps us to think through the implications or consequences of vernacular understandings for vitally important phenomena such as identity, citizenship, and multiculturalism.

Although it is not possible to summarise all of our findings in this blog post, it might be interesting to briefly highlight some of these in order to illustrate the book’s wider argument. First, we encountered quite different understandings of ‘radicalisation’ itself. Some of our participants understood the term as a process, often framing this in geometric language as a movement from a centre to a periphery. Other participants, in contrast, understood it as something more akin to an attitude involving the internalisation of anti-liberal and anti-democratic beliefs. We encountered different explanations, too, for the causes of radicalisation, with inter-personal explanations emphasising the importance of communities vying with more individualistic accounts that focused upon personal grievances, ostracism, and frustration. Many of those with whom we spoke were cautious of the language of radicalisation itself – seeing it, frequently, as vague, ambiguous, politically charged, and employed inconsistently. The use of the term to target minority communities, here, was of particular concern. At the same time – and returning to the above point on the resilience of security discourses – our participants often fell back on this language for explanatory purposes, including those who had been most critical of its limitations. 

Engaging with ‘everyday’ security discourse like this is important, we think, because it sheds light on non-elite understandings of specific political problems (‘radicalisation’), solutions (‘counter-radicalisation’), and policies (‘Prevent’). It also, crucially, facilitates insights into wider assumptions, ideas or beliefs that people might hold about social and political life. When people talk about something like the Prevent Strategy they almost inevitably reflect on wider issues too: of race, gender, the nature of politics, the interests served by public policy, and so forth. Such engagements with the political are, of course, indirect: they take place from afar and may never reach the ears of those in positions of privilege or influence. They may also, of course, be ignored, disregarded, or dismissed where they are encountered by more powerful actors. And yet, at the same time, perhaps most optimistically, we should not lose sight of the potential of everyday and vernacular forms of knowledge to disrupt forms of security knowledge which are taken for granted as objective, automatic or necessary.

Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation and Prevent: A Vernacular Approach, is published by Manchester University Press