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The cultural turn in intelligence studies

This article explores an emerging “cultural turn” in intelligence studies, which, if fully realized, could entail the expansion of the discipline to include new methodologies and theories, and a more integrative understanding of historical causality that locates intelligence agencies within the widersocio-cultural domain they inhabit.

Simon Willmetts
23 May 2019
The cultural turn in intelligence studies

 It has two parts. The firstexpands upon what I mean by a new ‘integrative’ understanding of historical causality. The second explores three areas of interest for intelligence scholars where the “cultural turn” has clear and important implications: the study of secrecy, publicity, and “mentalities”.

In recent years a new wave of scholarship, focusing upon the representation of secret intelligence services in various media, has added new vitality to the discipline of intelligence studies. It is tempting, therefore, to identify this topical interest in the popular mediation of intelligence agencies as the titular ‘cultural turn’ of this article, and leave it at that. But topicality alone cannot constitute a disciplinary ‘turn’. At stake in this expansion of the discipline to include a consideration of ‘culture’ is something much more fundamental than simply a question of what topics are permissible. In this article I will argue that two conditions are necessary for a fully fledged cultural turn in intelligence studies: the first is an openness to new methodologies and theoretical paradigms, often borrowed from other disciplines, and in particular from the fields of cultural studies, literary theory and the philosophy of history. The second is a new understanding of historical causality that is integrative, recognising that intelligence, as with the rest of the political domain, ‘does not constitute itself independent of and external to society – but is a place of almost continuous sociopolitical interaction.’ Intelligence scholars, to borrow Steven Pincus and William Novak’s wording, ‘should not assume that their chosen area of inquiry can be studied abstracted from other elements of historical experience.' Nor, it should be added, are many of those other elements of historical experience entirely abstracted from the history of secret intelligence.

This article is therefore not intended as a comprehensive literature review of recent cultural studies of intelligence, though it does identify what this author considers some of the more significant works that assume one or both of the conditions described above. Nor is it a purely descriptive account of a ‘cultural turn’ in intelligence studies that has already occurred. Rather, it seeks to extrapolate from an emerging tendency within the field, a nascent cultural turn if you will, still in the making, in order to outline some guiding principles for its future development, as well as explore some of its implications for the study of intelligence. There are two sections to this article. The first expands upon what I mean by a new ‘integrative’ understanding of historical causality, and contrasts it with traditional historical approaches to intelligence studies. The second explores three key areas of interest for intelligence scholars where this new paradigm has clear and important implications: the study of secrecy, publicity, and ‘mentalities’, or the cultural baggage that accompanies and inspires intelligence practitioners. The implications of a fully fledged cultural turn in intelligence studies need not be limited to these domains, but it is in these domains where integrative and methodologically innovative approaches have already begun to emerge.

To avoid the kind of hostile misinterpretation that often accompanies interventions of this nature, I wish to end this introduction with a plea to the reader, particularly those wedded to more ‘traditional’ methodologies. This is not intended as a rejection of politics, or political approaches to the study of intelligence. Indeed, if anything, the opposite is true; the opening up of intelligence studies to new terrains beyond what was traditionally considered ‘political’ (i.e., the state) expands and extends the range of political enquiry. Rather than rejecting traditional approaches to the study of secret intelligence, this article proceeds from the assumption that embracing new methodologies, and adopting a more integrative understanding of historical causality, an understanding that sees intelligence agencies as enmeshed in a complex ecosystem of political, social and cultural phenomena, can only augment the discipline and extend the reach and significance of its conclusions. Perhaps the reason that intelligence studies is sometimes described as a ‘ghetto’ of diplomatic history and international relations is because its practitioners have hitherto not been bold enough in noting the profound impact of their object of study upon wider society, and its momentous political reverberations beyond the corridors of state.

It would, however, be disingenuous to deny the critical intent of this article. The cultural turn in intelligence studies, as I conceive it here, has a sting in the tail, but its implications, if fully grappled with, should prove salutary rather than destructive. As I have described elsewhere, a full reckoning with the range of cultural and critical theory that has parsed the relationship between representation and reality necessitates a rejection of what Hans Kellner has described as the authoritarian discourse of reality. The unavoidable corollary of recognising that the reality of intelligence is always, to an extent, culturally constructed, is a degree of critical introspection on behalf of intelligence scholars who still regard themselves as the arbiters of historical authenticity, standing as bulwarks against the tide of fantasists and conspiracy theorists who have deceived the wider public about the role and function of intelligence services. Such introspection is categorically not a descent into historical relativism, where the narratives of the most crazed internet blogger (or President of the United States) can stand on the same footing as an experienced scholar who has spent decades in the archive. But it is a reckoning nonetheless, and a realisation that just as intelligence services carry their own cultural baggage, so too do intelligence scholars. Recognising the frailty of our own discipline, the inherently vulnerable yet creative enterprise of constructing meaning from an actively distorted and partially concealed archive of documentary material, is the only pathway to a more honest, diverse, and theoretically complex discipline. In this, I share in the opinion of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that robust deliberation and critical self-awareness is the pathway to more effective intelligence agencies, just as it is the key to the vitality of any academic discipline.


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