Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Nuclear Identity

13 Apr

Jonathan Hogg’s forthcoming book British Nuclear Culture

Last Friday, April 10, the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict at the University of Edinburgh played host to a workshop on ‘Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Nuclear Identity’. This formed part of an ongoing series of workshops under the auspices of the British International Studies Association’s Global Nuclear Order Working Group. I was delighted to be able to organise this very stimulating and interesting session that brought together faculty, postgraduates, and practitioners from across the UK.

The aim of the day was to discuss and debate various interpretations of ‘nuclear identity’ and how the work we are doing in our different disciplines can fruitfully be shared. One of the main aims – for me certainly – was to grapple with how we understand ‘identity’ and how do we analyse it in our different disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries. In regard to this, I was struck by how much common group we all shared, whether working in history, political science, international relations, or within the nuclear establishment itself.

The workshop was broadly – and I will admit, slightly arbitrarily – divided into three panels. These were:

Nuclear Others

Tanvi Pate (Warwick University) – Colonial/postcolonial encounters and US nuclear identity: India as the ‘other’ in US great-power narratives

Nicole Cervenka (University of Edinburgh) – The EU and the Iranian Nuclear Programme

Dr Malcolm Craig (University of Edinburgh) – The ‘Islamic Bomb’ and U.S. News Media, 1979-91

Nuclear Societies

Pupak Mohebali (University of York) – National Identity Formation: Internal determinants of Iran’s nuclear ambitions

Roberta Mulas (Warwick University) – Civil Society and the Common Sense of Nuclear Weapons

Dr Benoit Pelopidas (Bristol University) – Retrospective illusions of safety and control in nuclear identity making: The memory of the Cuban missile crisis in the making of French nuclear identities

Nuclear Britain

Paul Burton (Atomic Weapons Establishment) – Nuclear Identity: A Technical Perspective

Dr Jonathan Hogg (University of Liverpool) – Nuclear identities and cities

Paul Sims (Queen Mary, London) – “Small children playing with fire”: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and its appeal to science, 1955-1965

One key point that Jon Hogg (his upcoming book on British nuclear culture is pictured to the right) brought up was how do we self-identify as nuclear scholars? Why do we study what we study? How do our own personal attitudes and predilections shape our analysis? It’s not something I have an answer to at the moment, but those are questions that I’ll certainly be thinking about over the coming weeks and months.

There are a few points that came out of certain papers that really struck a chord with me. In his discussion of how the Cuban Missile Crisis impacted on France, Benoit Pelopidas clearly made the case that contemporary French understandings of the crisis were at odds with other national interpretations of events as decisive. More than anything, this served to ram home the fact that when teaching something like the Cuban Crisis (as I did last semester) we must look far beyond the US-Soviet axis.

I found Pupak Mohebali’s paper on how Iranian national identity’s significance in terms of national nuclear ambitions very illuminating. Given the ongoing debates about Tehran’s nuclear programme, it was a very timely piece to read. And it certainly emphasised to me that many of the debates happening in ‘the West’ lack an understanding of why Iran might seek nuclear capability and how a national identity formed through a long historical process is critical to this.

Finally, Paul Sim’s paper on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and it’s appeal to science was very illuminating. Positioning CND and anti-nuclear protest within a wider context of rising concern about environmental threats to human life. I had never really been clear about how CND – rather than being anti-science – very deliberately invoked science and deployed scientists to buttress their anti-nuclear position. Very informative and very useful for my classes on anti-nuclear protest and popular culture.

Overall, the day was a fantastic opportunity to engage with colleagues from across the UK, engage with the latest research, and enjoy some informative debate about the issues that affect our work. I sincerely hope that I’ll have the chance to do this again in the near future. Moreover, if any attendees are reading this and would like to add a comment below, I would heartily welcome this.



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