Wednesday, 22 August 2012

What are the implications for security studies?

Getting out of difficult situations

The Northern focus of security studies excludes the majority of the world’s population from discussions on security. The dominance of strategic rationality as the decision-making mechanism and the focus on direct forms of violence discount the perspectives of weaker parties and in doing so compromise the ability to understand threats faced by those who are not in positions of power. 

These threats include the threat of military attack; in the east of Congo, operations apparently designed to provide security for the distressed population have been catastrophic. There is also a lack of conceptual apparatus to address AIDS, environmental collapse, political anomie or marginalisation from a security perspective. Mitigation attempts abound but a security perspective would prioritise not ‘helping’ but changing the relationships of threat and protection that reinforce insecurity.

These shortfalls have become particularly disastrous since security programming has been incorporated into mainstream development policy. Without an understanding of the perspective of the weaker, development is unlikely to improve the security of those on whose behalf the intervention is made.

What does the perspective of the weaker party contribute to security?

The history passed through capoeira starts to fill some of the ‘historical absences’ generated by the northern dominance in security theorising and policy (Bilgin 2010). It has given insight into the tactics that are used in the strategic space commanded by others. In doing so, capoeira has provided data and analysis to map a much broader scope of rationality than is assumed by conventional concepts of strategy. This is a step towards theorising disruption and difference as counter-hegemonic discourses of resistance, rather than trying to shut them down.

A key part of the investigation has been the extension of understanding of rationality. Rationality has been seen to have communicative ends, in conserving and expressing personal and group identities and values. Instrumental rationality is diverse too: it makes tactical gains but it also employs counter-rationality and magic – including music, charisma and play – to generate meaning and reduce vulnerability. Reducing vulnerability is as important in security terms as increasing arsenal and tends to be less aggravating.
Filhos de Bimba, Salvador

Capoeira presents a further crucial challenge to dominant power in denying the inevitability of its processes. The commitment of Mestre Bimba to recuperating and codifying the art of capoeira has preserved elements that were in danger of being lost. An equal task is now undertaken by his son, Mestre Nenel, who maintains Bimba’s tradition in the face of strong pressures on the Regional style. A different form of challenge confronts the heirs of capoeira Angola. They have seen a less explosive diffusion of their art, but they also struggle to preserve the style alongside preserving the fluidity and improvisation that are integral to it. Through teaching and playing capoeira, the authenticity and integrity of the game and the forms of political expression that it gives are constantly renegotiated. The form that capoeira takes – the fact that it is situated in the present and defined by its lineage - continuously denies and outwits inevitability. Outcomes are not predetermined, they are in a constant state of becoming.

How are power, freedom and security related?

Examining capoeira has highlighted the political significance and construction of freedom. Security and freedom have conventionally been conceptualised as oppositional: populations relinquish freedom in return for security from the state. A break was made in 1994 when Human Security was defined by the UNDP as freedom from fear and freedom from want. This was a freedom from abstract threats and was not explained in political terms. Following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the debate about security and freedom has been reignited as many states have imposed extraordinary laws in the name of security.

Capoeira’s counter-hegemonic discourse foregrounds freedom not as a price but as a precondition for security. This is a freedom that is won from oppression, not one that is granted by the law laid down by the powerful. Capoeira unpacks the power relations and differences of interest that frame competing versions of security. It brings into focus the question of: Whose security is it? The song “vou dizer a meu senhor” – “I’m going to tell my master” recounts a slave’s lack of concern and abdication of responsibility for a pat of melted butter. The position is: Yes, the butter has melted, but it wasn’t my butter. Why should the slave care if the master’s butter has melted? In myriad ways, people whose interests are not served by dominant versions of security express lack of concern and an abdication of responsibility for pursuing it.

Without slavery there would be no capoeira: capoeira developed in the runaway slave settlements. Its form and reference is borne of experiences of powerlessness, resistance and difference of interests, and is expressed through defiant or oblique lyrics and the joy of playing despite everything. Without capoeira slavery could be condemned as unjust, but there would be no continuity of history, no cultural celebration or significance of agency. These constituent elements not only convey a particular set of historical experiences and priorities, they imply that there is no blue print for security. In drawing attention to power they also problematise the political practicality of providing security to others.

A ladainha contains the lines, “I am free like the wind, Ai meu Deus, ninguém vai me segurar” – “no one can hold me.” I am grateful to Lea Frehse, currently studying with us at SOAS, for the observation that the word ‘security’ derives its meaning from the notion of freedom from care; she explores how this can include also freedom from being cared for. Human Security promotes freedom within the hegemony of security as defined by the powerful minority, and many contemporary security policies extend the control exercised by the state. The critical angle presented by capoeira is the opposite: a need for freedom from that hegemony – the ability to choose – freedom to ACT, to BE!

The last word on rationality
Establishing communication

The strategic rationality and northern bias of security discourse faces strident and profound challenges in real world politics. Capoeira has provided a number of angles of critique and elaboration on the dominant security perspective. It is not obvious; if you see a capoeira game you are unlikely to think, ‘oh, cartwheels, what an heritage,’ or ‘magic! How liberating!’ I have written this blog alongside an intensive programme of training and playing. Capoeira’s fundamentals are encoded, as counter-hegemonic discourses must be and many counter-hegemonic discourses appear at first sight disoriented and disorienting. Most are not as fun or as beautiful as capoeira. Many are not rational in a straightforward sense, but it would be irrational to dismiss them just for that.


Bilgin, P. ( 2010). "The 'Western-Centrism' of Security Studies: 'Blind Spot' or Constitutive Practice?" Security Dialogue 41(6): 615-622.

Rogers, P. (2000). Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-First Century. London, Pluto Press.

UNDP (1994). New dimensions of human security. Human Development Report 1994 United Nations Development Programme. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How has security been distributed through capoeira?

“Quem bate não se lembra, quem apanha não se esquece”
“The one who gives the beating doesn’t remember, the one who is beaten doesn’t forget”

Security relates to interests and power bases and, according to Fierke, "assumes a field of relationships, including a threatener, the threatened, the protector or means of protection, and the protected" (Fierke 2007, 46). This provides a helpful template for analysing the distribution of security. How have these relationships of threat and protection been changed by capoeira?


The institutionalisation of capoeira is a dominant part of the contemporary experience. In academies, rodas start on time, follow defined conventions, and there is no malicious violence. Students comply with the trappings of the institution, including the authority of the mestre, the rituals of instrumentation and music, and the use of uniforms. Institutionalisation is reinforced by the continuous assertion of identity, often through implicit or explicit differentiation with other academies, practices and strands of capoeira.

FUMEB, Filhos de Bimba in Salvador

This institutionalisation stems from Mestre Bimba who performed capoeira to the Governor of Bahia in the late 1930s. In communicative terms this was significant: through capoeira, Mestre Bimba was communicating with the non-capoeira world and with the power that posed the direct threat. There was a risk involved in opening communications: capoeira was still illegal at the time and Mestre Bimba had already founded his academy.

The communication that Mestre Bimba established with the political hierarchy and the institutionalisation that stemmed from it had the effect of reducing both the threats that the state posed to capoeira players and the threat that capoeira players posed to the state. In Cooper’s term’s capoeira was de-securitised (Cooper 2010). Regional Groups maintain communication as part of their tradition. They put on demonstrations and, within the game, the style has more extroverted elements of performance. The more ‘open’ game relies on rhythm and, in addition to its technical and competitive aspects, can allow for collaborative interaction, including the use of choreographed or semi-choreographed sequences.

Angola groups tend not to put on shows. In the 1930s, Angola groups increased their protection by playing in academies and reserving the knowledge of black history for black students. The Angola game is more ‘closed’ – the legs used to protect the body during cartwheels and handstands. It is also more crafty than Regional, with the pronounced use of feints and deception. This protective element is complemented by assertion: there are Angola street rodas, but the logic is of reclaiming the space rather than demonstrating capoeira to the people who might be in that space.

The institutionalisation of the academy era renegotiated the relationship between capoeira and the state, but also distributed security through changes in social relationships of power. Mestre Bimba was black and his students included many whites from the middle-classes. His authority over them – charismatic, reputational and physical power – contributed to the processes that were redefining social interaction and identity in early 20th century Brazil.

The popularity of capoeira Regional across Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s (at a time that Angola was in abeyance) extended the reach of capoeira across socio-economic classes and racial groups. This is seen by some as compromising in that capoeira was appropriated by the more powerful classes. It is a charge has weight in that some mestres were marginalised by the processes by which capoeira gained popularity, and also in that the cultural impact of capoeira was not matched by political or economic change. Within the game, though, the discourse is maintained and continuously re-asserted and re-communicated through the musical and somatic languages of training and rodas.  

Unimagined outcomes - what would the world be like without capoeira?

In conventional security terminology, capoeiristas relinquished some of their freedom in return for security from the state. They relinquished the freedom to live outside the law, fighting in the street and using lethal blows or weapons. Capoeira is still, though, strongly associated with freedom. Through the game, its history and community, capoeiristas enjoy an intense freedom of expression and association. It is a freedom that is meaningful in the roda and in life, because of or in spite of other constraints that people face.

Disappointed by the Golden Law abolishing slavery, freedom is purposefully investigated through capoeira, particularly as it relates to security. The stories of Zumbi dos Palmares, the fighters in the Paraguay war, and the ‘battle’ of Camugerê bring together freedom and agency: this is attack and escape! It celebrates people taking an active role in their freedom rather than having it granted to them by the powerful, and it has an enduring legacy. Attack initiates change through the challenge and renegotiation that it initiates. Escape not only frees the individual from a particular situation, it entails political escape from an inevitable future. Attack (kicks and take-downs) and escape (esquiva and negativa) comprise much of the game of capoeira.

The key strength of capoeira’s knowledge and power is that by changing individual or political trajectories, capoeira has forged unimagined outcomes, including security outcomes. At the beginning of the 20th century it would have been hard for anyone to imagine that Afro-Brazilian culture could impact on the dominant Brazilian identity. Galm writes that the “berimbau became less visible… due in part to dominant social pressures that strived to distance Brazil from its legacy of slavery” (Galm 2010, 161). At the beginning of the 21st century it is hard to imagine Brazil with no capoeira, samba or Candomblé. The security that the state would have allowed if unchallenged would have been physically, politically and culturally disempowering for people.

Creation of knowledge/power

The centrality of attack and escape to capoeira means that alongside the compromises of institutionalisation, capoeira has maintained its counter-hegemonic discourse. It presents elements of Africa and slavery, and of workers, the marginalised and the lower classes. Within the tactical counter-hegemonic narrative, there is a creative strategy.

The development of capoeira is not a random or determined event. Mestre Bimba was not simply a practitioner but a creative force in developing and promoting the Regional style as was Pastinha with the Angolan style. Both mestres created discourses of capoeira that granted players access to forms of knowledge. Foucault argues that discourses “act to both constrain and enable what we can know” (McHoul & Grace 1997); the ways in which capoeira presents and represents its origins and history reproduces knowledge of them and with it, power.

Ultimately, then capoeira embodies a (non-conventional) strategy because it generates space for identity, belonging, improvisation and expression. It performs a protective function – of the game and life of capoeira. It has established the significance of black history in the contemporary Brazilian identity. Capoeiristas adopt different relationships with power and may or may not offer resistance and defiance to the state – but in becoming a game, a cultural icon, and a way of life it states: I am me! Let’s hang out! That is a strong declaration in the face of what the state was trying to deny.


Cooper, N. (2011) Humanitarian Arms Control and Processes of Securitisation: Moving Weapons Along the Security Continuum.

Galm, E. (2010). The Berimbau. Soul of Brazilian Music. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi.

Fierke, K. M. (2007). Critical Approaches to International Security. Cambridge and Malden, Polity.

McHoul, A. W. and W. Grace (1997). A Foucault primer: discourse, power and the subject. New York, New York University Press.