Frost on McCluskey, 'From Righteousness to Far Right: An Anthropological Rethinking of Critical Security Studies'

Emma McCluskey
Caren J. Frost

Emma McCluskey. From Righteousness to Far Right: An Anthropological Rethinking of Critical Security Studies. McGill-Queen’s Studies in Ethnic History Series. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019. 248 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-5689-8; $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-5688-1.

Reviewed by Caren J. Frost (University of Utah) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Throughout the 2010s, there has been a large migration of people from the Middle East (for example, Syria and Iraq) to countries in the Europe Union (EU) and elsewhere. In the past decade, countries that were outside of the EU were considered periphery countries and received financial support from the EU to "manage the borders" of Europe. These countries, such as Turkey and North African nations, assisted in taking in migrants and refugees so that the core countries of Europe (such as Germany, France, Austria, and Scandinavian countries) did not need to manage the influx and resettlement of these migrants. This text by Emma McCluskey, a research associate at the Department of War Studies at King's College London, examines what happens when Sweden—seen as a globally welcoming country—accepts migrants who do not look and act like folkhem (people) originally from that country. The shift from acceptance to suspicion stems from political language that trickles down to small towns and villages and then becomes part of everyday language. The exploration provided in this book highlights how cultural expectations of the host country can play into stereotypes of expected behavioral parameters of resettling individuals, for example, refugees from the Islamic world, and the impact of these factors on views of national security. 

McCluskey's work provides an ethnographic view about the impact of refugees in Sweden and the shift from a being a welcoming country to a country fearing newcomers. The book is based on her fieldwork experiences in one small town beginning in 2013. It attempts to answer the questions about what happens when communities and Far Right groups interact and xenophobia becomes "normalized." In this context, how refugees "are framed as 'threatening'" in the daily lives of the communities leads into an exploration of the connection between critical security studies and anthropology (p. xii). Sweden is the case study for McCluskey's work, which documents the change from moral exceptionalism to moral panic in Swedish society due to interactions with recent refugees.

The book is composed of six chapters along with a prologue that sets the stage for McCluskey's ethnographic work. She went to Sweden in 2013 to conduct fieldwork in Öreby and spent about four years volunteering with a nonprofit refugee organization called Friends of Syria. This is a grassroots agency that works with the 120 Syrian refugees in Öreby. Through her research, she got to know the townspeople and resettling individuals and conducted interviews with twenty-four agency volunteers, community leaders, and refugees. In the book, she notes her surprise at the increase in anti-migrant/anti-refugee language during her stay in Sweden. This verbiage had its roots in national blogs, but McCluskey began to hear it used more widely by the people in Öreby. In her interactions with host Swedes and resettling refugees, McCluskey noted that they were all "very nice" people and did not fit her view of Far Right individuals. The disconnect made her realize that the term "Far Right" was a relative term "meaning different things to different people" (p. 4).

Chapter 1 describes McCluskey's summary of securitization theory that "conceives of threats brought into being through a speech act by a political elite who declares an existential threat" (p. 9). In Sweden, these speech acts are seen in the blogs and town hall meetings in remote towns that highlight the growing feelings of discomfort about newcomers in rural towns. As she notes, these ideas must be accepted by the group for the feelings of fear and xenophobia to move forward; they link to the "truth about risk and unease" in everyday life as well as to the physical and rhetorical spaces about "freedom of movement, mobility, migration, and borders" (p. 10).  

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 present the town of Öreby as a case study of how political language can have an impact on a small town, its residents, and their views of themselves in the larger political climate. Sweden, as a modern Scandinavian country, presented itself to the world and to its own people as an open state that developed a "generous welfare program" beginning in the 1950s after World War II (p. 28). As it presented itself to the world in this way, a myth about Swedish moral exceptionalism began to develop and was built into international rankings through surveys comparing high-income countries (p. 57). As McCluskey notes, the concept of rättfärdig (righteousness) was part of the lens of all Öreby citizens who "saw it as their moral duty to take care of refugees and help them settle in" (p. 75). Up to the 1980s, this moral duty was easy for Swedes to meet; there were only two migrants living in Öreby. Currently, there are 1,600 residents in Öreby, including the 120 refugees or 8 percent of the population, which seemed to be a dramatic shift in population for rural Swedes (p. 70).

Between 1950 and 2013, Sweden was comfortable with the idea of "resettlement" of migrants, wherein individuals were accepted into the fabric of the community and integrated in Swedish life. Beginning in 2013, with the rise in refugees arriving in Europe, the concept of resettlement was replaced by the idea of "relocation," suggesting a temporary status—migrants/refugees would be returning to their heritage countries once conflict abated. McCluskey's examination about why this shift took place is well presented and fits with James C. Scott's paradigm (a political science discussion about how nondominant groups do not buy into popular political ideas) about "hidden and public transcripts" (p. 152). The host group, in this case, Swedes, hold the power, and refugee groups do not. This concept describes what is expected of refugees as they resettle into a new country. As mentioned in chapter 4, "refugees are required to be visibly damaged" so that citizens in settings like Öreby can identify who they are and how to help them. In Öreby, concern developed when specific refugees did not "accept" their lot and did not appear to be "needy" (p. 91). In other words, individual refugees did not exhibit the "right type of suffering" and were seen as showing "counter conduct" or behavior that could be construed as a type of "resistance" to what it meant to be accepting of Swedish assistance (pp. 91, 109). As there were instances wherein refugees were and/or appeared to be violent, the Swedish view changed from welcoming the newcomers to exhibiting "moral panic" since behavioral expectations were no longer being met by refugees who saw their lives in a different pattern than their host country Swedes (p. 119).

Chapter 5 examines "the appropriation of humanitarianism, generosity, and solidarity, as a form of security," and its connections to Scott's tropes on transcripts (p. 119). In this chapter, McCluskey attempts to connect four areas to make the points about how shifts occur in communities when these communities and Far Right groups interact and xenophobia becomes normalized. Her first argument is that there is a connection to anthropology as a framework for conducting fieldwork in small towns through the use of "thick description" (for example, Clifford Geertz) in understanding daily life. Second, there is the use of reflexivity as a method for determining how to connect international relations and anthropology. In this text, the use of reflexivity considers cultural practices and how they change; it is not about how the researcher fits in the context of the setting of the research. Third, there is the exploration of "metis" (which is not fully defined by McCluskey) as a way to maximize impact with minimal force. It appears that metis is about wisdom or cultural understandings in this text. Finally, McCluskey underscores what "role the idea of solidarity [by Swedish citizens] played in generating security practices" (p. 140). In other words, by describing everyday lives and connecting them to political frameworks, the shift in working with newcomers can be linked to questions about national security and integration of new arrivals.

There are a few limitations with this book. First, it is unclear how the twenty-four interviews were analyzed for this text. There is no description about the interviews—for example, how long they were, how the data were collected, how the data were analyzed, etc.—that one would expect from a text using ethnographic methods. Second, some of the information is repeated in each chapter, especially the exploration of Scott's work about hidden and public transcripts. A direct connection between the interviews and the concepts of hidden and public transcripts would have strengthened the discussions throughout the text. Third, the terms about critical security studies are not well defined and such concepts as "metis" leave the reader unclear about why this term is being used. Fourth, statements about why specific types of security studies theories are being used would have added depth to the discussion about these issues, which are global problems states are tackling in the current age. Finally, the terms "migrants" and "refugees" are used somewhat interchangeably. This text is about refugees and that term should have been defined up front and used throughout the text. Migrants are individuals who have a choice in leaving a country; refugees are individuals who are forced to flee. 

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for a variety of audiences. This text presents a method for highlighting how political speech acts affect people in small towns and how the language itself becomes part of the common vernacular to highlight what is expected for newcomers who are very different from individuals in the host community. It is a worthwhile text for audiences new to case study constructs and anthropology. The use of thick description is particularly useful and highlights the importance of understanding the full context of the field setting for any type of anthropological work. This book provides a basic introduction to the field of critical security studies and would be a great text for individuals who are new to the Scandinavian region and the world of Far Right language.

Caren J. Frost is a research professor at the University of Utah’s College of Social Work. From 2016 to 2019, she was the director of the Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration for the university. Her qualitative research with expertise in ethnographic and phenomenology allows her to capitalize on mixed method frameworks emphasizing the importance of the qualitative components of a study. She works collaboratively with colleagues and community partners to conduct research that is applied and addresses real world problems for refugee and immigrant groups, as well as for women across the lifespan. She designs and teaches courses on implementation science and evidence-based research, as well as on national and global issues related to women’s health and human rights. As of 2019, Frost serves as the director of the Human Research Protections Program, co-chair of the Institutional Review Board, and director of the Office of Quality Compliance for the University of Utah. 

Citation: Caren J. Frost. Review of McCluskey, Emma, From Righteousness to Far Right: An Anthropological Rethinking of Critical Security Studies. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL:

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