HSEC 690: Seminar in Ideology, Discourse and Conflict

"Some of the best weapons do not shoot."
-- U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field manual FM 3-24, Dec. 2006

The course explores the diverse relationships between, on the one hand, the human use of symbols (both verbal and non-verbal) and, on the other hand, political ideologies and movements, collective identities, power, conflict, and security. In has been recognized since at least World War I that conflicts are primarily "wars of ideas," not just contests of arms. According to Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Harvard scholar of political transition, "individuals need something more than bread and water: human beings need to make sense of their very existence, to find a cause worth living for [and, one may add, fighting for], to construct a set of values that allow one to make distinctions between good and evil" (x). Such symbolic sense-making is fundamental to the creation and survival of human communities and to the construction of collective identities, including those of nations, groups, and movements (including social movements, criminal organizations, and insurgencies). Today, especially, international conflicts increasingly involve asymmetrical confrontations with diverse networks of actors in loose, horizontal coalitions coalescing around shared narratives and symbols, often based on a common ideological (political or religious) identity or simply on the idea of struggle itself as a unifying, motivating, and organizing mechanism.

The course introduces students to rhetorical analysis of a wide variety of symbolic artifacts, including political and propaganda texts (posters, flyers, photography, film, video, digital communications, and so on), and other verbal and non-verbal forms of messaging and symbolic action in persuasion, motivation, recruitment, identity formation, and influence, including the genesis, conduct, and resolution of conflicts. The major topics covered will include ones important to the understanding the complex relationships between symbolic activities and homeland and global security:

  • Rhetorical Leadership
  • Rhetoric and Politics, including Diplomacy and Soft Power
  • Propaganda
  • Propaganda in War and Conflict
  • Symbols and construction of Collective Identities
  • Symbols, Culture, and Conflict
  • Narrative and Conflict
  • Visual Rhetoric

This course is very much an effort at collective inquiry. I do not have all the answers. What I offer is a set of concepts and historical cases that we can apply to new data. While much is known about the mechanisms of, for instance, Nazi or Communist propaganda, much less is still known about the dynamics of radical Islamist propaganda, the "rhetoric" of Islamist texts, or recruitment strategies of various extremist or criminal groups. As part of our inquiry into these mechanisms and into the contemporary "wars of ideas," we will examine texts, events, videos, and other symbolic material, much of which will be supplied or discovered by the students and shared in class. We will also bring the collective wisdom and the diverse expertise present in the class to their examination and analysis.

This is an interdisciplinary course for graduate students. The purpose of this class is to produce leaders from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds who can effectively and efficiently identify, design, and mobilize the appropriate community resources to prevent, deter, preempt, defend against, and respond to criminal acts, terrorist attacks, other acts of war or natural disasters as they impact homeland security on the local, regional, national and international levels.

Homeland security encompasses a grouping of diverse missions and functions that are performed by a wide variety of organizations on the local, state, federal and international levels. Consequently, there are many definitions of homeland security. For the purposes of this course, homeland security is defined as:

"The prevention, deterrence and preemption of, and defense against, external and internal threats and aggression targeted at U.S. (or another sovereign state's) territory, sovereignty, population, and infrastructure, as well as the management of the consequences of such threats and aggression and other domestic emergencies."

Familiarity with the way symbols and words work to generate or ameliorate conflict, to construct collective identities for political actors, and to promulgate ideologies and recruit supporters for ideas and actions are an important aspect of the preparation of security professionals for the performance of the above tasks.

Course Times and Days

For up-to-date course times and dates please click here to access the SDSU Class Schedule