Surveillance under dispute: Conceptualising narrative legitimation politics

Christopher Smith Ochoa, Frank Gadinger & Taylan Yildiz (2020)

European Journal of International Security. Online first

Abstract. Current debates about surveillance demonstrate the complexity of political controversies whose uncertainty and moral ambiguities render normative consensus difficult to achieve. The question of how to study political controversies remains a challenge for IR scholars. Critical security studies scholars have begun to examine political controversies around surveillance by exploring changing security practices in the everyday. Yet, (de)legitimation practices have hitherto not been the focus of analysis. Following recent practice-oriented research, we develop a conceptual framework based on the notion of ‘narrative legitimation politics’. We first introduce the concept of ‘tests’ from Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology to categorise the discursive context and different moral reference points (truth, reality, existence). Second, we combine pragmatic sociology with narrative analysis to enable the study of dominant justificatory practices. Third, we develop the framework through a practice-oriented exploration of the Snowden controversy with a focus on the US and Germany. We identify distinct justificatory practices in each test format linked to narrative devices (for example, plots, roles, metaphors) whose fluid, contested dynamics have the potential to effect change. The framework is particularly relevant for IR scholars interested in legitimacy issues, the normativity of practices, and the power of narratives.

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