#ScholarSunday with Alice Martini

By Amna Kaleem














For our #ScholarSunday feature this week, we’re speaking with Alice Martini, an Associate Professor at the Comillas University, Madrid, where she lectures on International Security Studies and International Conflicts Analysis and Management. Alice also teaches Security Studies, International Political Economy, and International Relations theory for the Queen Mary, University of London IR online programme. Along with undertaking her teaching obligations, Alice works as an Associate Researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid, where she edits the Relaciones Internacionales journal. 


While completing her doctoral research at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and Autonomous University of Madrid on the discourses and practices in the global fight against international terrorism, Alice co-edited Encountering Extremism: Theoretical issues and local challenges with Richard Jackson and Kieran Ford. Alice’s recent publications have focussed on the media narratives on women joining ISIS and a discursive study of the UNSC debates on the Syrian war. Alice is also a member of the EISA’s Early Career Research Development group.


In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Alice discusses her research on rethinking terrorism, the importance of critical scholars engaging with policymakers, and opening up avenues for early career researchers.


Hello Alice, welcome to #ScholarSunday! Can you briefly describe your work in Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS) for our readers, please?

My research is centred on the global dynamics of power that drive and shape counter-terrorism, preventive strategies, counter-extremism and so on. I adopt a poststructuralist, postcolonial, and somewhat gendered perspective and focus specifically on the (re)production of global discourses and dispositif(s), the power relations driving them and shaping these and so on. My aim is to focus on the international legitimisation of these processes, so I mostly look at the ‘international community’ and the global fight against terrorism and deconstruct the hegemonies that shape it. This is what my PhD research focused on, however, along with this, I have also focused on the construction of women terrorists as jihadi brides and the instrumentalisation of the War on Terror narrative in the Syrian War.


I have also taken my interest in CTS beyond my own research to co-convene the BISA Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group, whereby we organise an annual conference, workshops, and panels and sections both at BISA and other events. This year we have expanded our reach and set up a section for the EISA Annual Conference as well.


In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues terrorism scholars should be focussing on at the moment?

For critical scholars, I think engagement with practitioners or civil society is still a pressing issue. Collaboration with spheres outside of academia is more common among those taking more mainstream approaches to terrorism studies. However, I think CTS needs to be more present outside of academia or the usual academic production of knowledge. As I wrote in a piece entitled Rethinking terrorism and countering terrorism from a critical perspective some months ago, the call for normativity, both within and outside academia, is an important and valid aim for critical scholars. I believe CTS scholars can make a difference outside of academia, in fact, some of them already are doing so. However, it is a difficult process where we clash with a lot of constraints and dynamics of power existing not only outside academia but also within it. 


Speaking of which, are there any policy recommendations you would like to make based on your research?

This is a very difficult topic for me. Although I do think that normativity and the engagement with spheres outside of academia should be central for CTS scholars, I am very much guilty of not pursuing it enough. I am a theorist and I am fascinated by theories and their application. Because of this, my research has always been more centred on theoretical formulations and analyses. My engagement with other spheres such as the one of policy-making has been limited because of this and because of the ‘impostor syndrome’ too. Having said this, to my surprise my research has been used in these spheres to point out biases in counter-terrorism policies, for example, Harmonie Toros cited the article on Jihadi Brides in the Defense Against Terrorism course at the NATO School in Oberammergau in 2019.


So, I think a very broad and general recommendation for policymakers who may be working in security would be to consider the biases shaping their understanding of the threat and, above all, the social consequences of their actions in terms of racism, discrimination and social marginalisation and exclusion. This can be done by critically thinking about what they are doing, why certain paths are taken and how these may be reproducing stereotypes, narratives, or understandings that may not hold up to scrutiny or whose foundations may not have sound scientific basis.


Can you tell us about the methodological approach you have taken in your research project/s?

My methodological approach is a mess! I would never recommend anybody to follow my methodology. Overall, the common line of my methodological focus is to deconstruct discourses and practices. I try to dig deeper and I look for dynamics of power, hegemonies, and inequalities and how these shape global governmentality, dispositif(s) and identities. This is mainly based on critical discourse analysis (CDA). However, I don’t do CDA in its most traditional understanding. I appropriated most of its main pillars and then applied them in a very loose and personal – and, maybe, philosophically criticisable – way.  In my research, I have used it in a combination with Content Analysis and even genealogical analyses of discourses and practices of counter-terrorism. Theoretically speaking, I don’t always share all the philosophical understandings of actors and their agency which constitute some of the cores of CDA. Therefore, at times, I have not been working that closely with the text, while some other times I did. Overall, it depended mainly on the context of the research and what it was that I wanted to analyse and bring to the fore.


Which books/key texts have proved influential for your work? 

This is a very difficult question and there would be so many answers. I think I need to mention two. One is Richard Jackson’s Writing the War on Terror. Language, Politics and Counter-terrorism and the other is Francisco (Paco) J. Peñas’ Standard of civilization: The Histories of International Relations. At a more academic level, my research draws from both. The former is among the founding works of CTS and clearly central to my work. I was lucky enough to be given this book at the very beginning of my PhD journey. While I hated it because it was seeing in a book many of the ideas I was starting to think of for my thesis, I loved it because it put a label and a frame on my work. Labels are not always good and constrain us in many ways but for me it was extremely helpful at the beginning to know that ‘I wanted to do CTS’.


Although it’s older (1999), the second work came later for me. During my PhD, my supervisor passed away. It was a hard moment because we were very close.  I felt very lost and thus looked for his voice in his works. He used to write a lot about power and postcoloniality in IR. So, I found that I wanted to do what he had been doing in his work – and I drew on his postcolonial framework to interpret the international sphere. I thus decided that I wanted to do CTS but bringing in a postcolonial focus on the relations of power that shape the international sphere.


Obviously, these are in no way the only books that have influenced my work – and we could mention so many and from so many different disciplines. But I think they effectively summarise the two ‘souls’ of my own work. I should add that these are not just books for me. Richard and Paco have become two of the key people in my PhD journey. I started it because Paco, previously, my MA thesis supervisor, decided that I ‘had to do a thesis with him’. We were very close and – sometimes, he felt more like my grandfather than my professor – and because I trusted him, I started the PhD journey. However, I have finished it thanks to Richard, who was among the people who “adopted me” academically when Paco passed away. I don’t know how things would have been for me without them but theywould definitely be different.


What other disciplines do you find it valuable to draw on in your research? 

Many. First of all, I am actually a Philologist as I have a BA in Modern Languages and Literatures. The power of language on our interpretations of reality and the different identities it allows us to have has always been of interest for me. For the last decade, I have been living my everyday life juggling three to four languages – sometimes with very weird results and me inventing words. But my personal experience has led me to ask a lot of questions about language and reality. 


This is the reason I landed in IR with the idea of investigating the role language had in shaping identities and reproducing power globally. And, in the end, it actually worked out. So, to go back to your question aboutvaluable disciplines, Linguistics and Philology but also the Philosophy of Language that draws from Wittgenstein, Austin, and Searle would be the first ones to note. Then, I guess there would be others such as Political Philosophy, Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, and, slightly, International Law and Political Science. And I don’t know if these are considered disciplines or rather approaches, but of course, Postcolonialism and Decolonialism, Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Postcolonial Feminist Studies, Critical Theory and so on.


When I started to take my first steps in IR, I found out the discipline itself to be a mix of all these philosophies and approaches and this is one of the things I like the most about International Relations – how it draws on other disciplines and fields. Because of this, for me, IR is not only about ‘things that happen in the international’ but about our everyday experiences and about ‘our societies’. This is what fascinates me the most about it and why I think working jointly with these other disciplines – and scholars from these other fields – is important.


What advice would you give to yourself five years ago? 

Not to take academia too personally or seriously. This is actually advice both Paco and Richard gave me at different points in my journey and I follow this today too. Academia can be a very interesting place to work in and it actually becomes a place where you end up working with some of your best friends and some of the people you most admire. Also, if we are lucky enough to research things we care about, we become very attached to our work, because our research in a way also becomes our political project. Because of this, the personal becomes the professional and vice versa! This is not necessarily bad.However, this intertwining means the negative aspects of academic life hit us more strongly and sometimes it’s difficult to detach ourselves from them. Rejections, frustration with not being able to get the job done, negative responses, dismissal of our ideas and sometimes being treated in ways we don’t deserve, all affect our self-esteem and have a strong impact on us. We need to develop a personal resistance to these processes and shouldn’t let them affect us too much. Putting up with the negativity is difficult and I found in my supervisors part of the strength to do it but some of this resilience also comes from the strength my closest colleagues give me.


That is great advice, thanks. Staying on the subject of helping PhD and early career researchers, can you tell us a bit about your work with EISA’s Early Career Research Development?

The ECD is a group that was created within EISA two years ago. EISA wanted to strengthen its offer and portfolio for young scholars. Back then the EISA portfolio was held by Jef Huysmans who decided that creating a Working Group of five early career researchers could be an interesting way to go. His idea was that us, as young scholars, may know better what kind of events and activities could be of interest for young academics. We are now a group of five and our main contact with EISA is Marieke de Goede, who is now in charge of the portfolio. I have to say that we are given huge institutional support with few institutional constraints as we’re quite free to decide which events to run, their formats and so on.


Last year, we organised three events for the EISA Annual Conference: ‘De-mystifying Glass Ceilings – Equality and Privilege in International Relations' workshop, the ‘ECD International Relations Café – Deconstructing concepts from an international point of view’ and the ‘Demystifying Publishing and Early Career Advancement’. I was in charge mainly of the second one, the IR Café. I asked senior scholars to sit down with junior scholars and chair a discussion/debate on key IR concepts such as power, agency, security, identity and so on. I had joined a similar event years ago and thought it was great because it gives you the opportunity to ask questions and share ideas not only with senior scholars but also other scholars who may be working on similar topics. Overall, I think the three workshops were a huge success, we are currently preparing similar ones for PEC-EISA 2020.


Amna Kaleem is the Deputy Editor of Global Policy: Next Generation.