An Explanation of Self-Censorship in China: The Enforcement of Social Control Through a Panoptic Infrastructure

By Simon K. Zhen
2015, Vol. 7 No. 09 | pg. 4/5 |

Foucault: The Panopticon and Panopticism

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault, a post-structuralist who is a part of the larger constructivist movement, develops Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon into a social theory known as Panopticism. Discipline and Punish is the English translation of the French title Surveiller et punir, which means surveillance. However, despite the fact that Castells references the notion of punishment, the two theories are analytically distinct. Discipline and Punish examines how institutions utilize and knowledge in order to establish social control. Foucault argues that the main purpose of punishment is to instill disciplinary fear amongst the population. However, around the 18th century, the various unintended social consequences of methods such as torture have pushed the state toward what he calls a more “gentle” form of punishment.55 This marked a move toward a more generalized and controlled form of punishment, enabled by the development of technological structures.56

In Discipline, the final part of Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that discipline creates docile bodies. According to Oxford Dictionaries, discipline is “[t]he practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”57 There are two necessary components to creating docile bodies through disciplinary means. First, the state must be able to observe and record the behavior of the subjects. As will be elaborated in the next section, second, the state must ensure that the internalization of disciplinary individuality within the masses is being controlled.58 All of this is to be done through discipline, which also means establishing control without the use of excessive force. If the state is able to observe, record, and instill normative behavior amongst a populous, it can create docile bodies within the state. The major obstacle is that the implementation of this plan requires a prison-like institution to foster collective behavior.59

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced the idea of the Panopticon in the 18th century. A Panopticon is an ideal prison that allows a guard sitting inside a tower that is situated at the middle of the prison to oversee a surrounding ring of cells comprised of prisoners. All of the cells are flooded with light, which creates an environment in which prisoners are unable to see whether or not there is an actual guard on duty at any given time. However, only the guard is able to easily see each and every prisoner in the cells.60 Bentham himself described it as “[a] new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.”61 Not only is the Panopticon the optimal prison, it also enables an unprecedented level of surveillance.

Foucault applied Bentham’s Panopticon to his own work, and subsequently developed a social theory known as Panopticism. Panopticism can be understood through a step-by-step process. First, and also one of the intricate peculiarities of the Panopticon is that it allows for an unequal gaze between the prisoner and the guard. While prisoners are unable to see the guard, the guard retains an individualized gaze on the prisoners at all times because of his position within the prison.62 Second, there is the need to internalize disciplinary individuality over time. In other words, the goal is to instill a set of acceptable behaviors amongst prisoners and to have it culminate to the point that it becomes normative. This would guarantee power even in the absence of a guard figure to physically assert this sense of power. If these conditions were met, inmates in the Panopticon would become docile bodies. In effect, prisoners will not transgress if they are aware of the fact that they are being watched, or, if they believe that there is a potential of assured punishment. Again, this self-monitoring effect is psychologically produced even if there is no actual active guard on duty. Therefore, as Foucault argues, the Panopticon is the ideal and most effective form of punishment that states seek to construct. Tim Rayner summarizes the analysis of Foucault on Bentham in Philosophy for Change:

“Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault argues, functions to make prisoners take responsibility for regulating their behaviour. Assuming that they care about the implications of bad behaviour, prisoners will act in the manner prescribed by the institution at all times on the chance that they are being watched. In time, as the sense of being watched gets under their skin, prisoners come to regulate their behaviour as if they were in a Panopticon all times, even after they have been released from the institution. This, Foucault claims, is ‘the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’”[63]

Next, the psychological dilemma in the prisoner is derived from the notion that there is a potential fear of punishment. This uncertainty and fear is critical because it pressures individuals to live in a psychological state as if they were being watched, which stimulates their social behavior by making collective conformity normative. In Towards a Critical Theory of Surveillance in Informational Capitalism, Tim Almer argues that because of this overarching notion, “the Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination anymore.”[64] Thus, efficiency is maximized because the central entity is still able to fully exercise power over prisoners even in the absence of a guard. The unequal gaze that is created empowers the institution by giving it leverage over both time and space. The Panopticon can be seen as an institution that disciplines individuals into becoming docile figures. Eventually, the prisoners, or society as a whole, become self-disciplined on an individual level.

Panopticism as a whole is rather unique compared to the theories that were previously examined in multiple ways. While Shambaugh argues that has eroded states’ control over their population, Foucault and Morozov would contend that governments have found ways to manipulate and control technology to its advantage. For instance, many governments have used the Internet as a tool to spy on and survey its citizens. At face value, while Panopticism may appear similar to the arguments put forth by Castells and Morozov in that they all emphasize the role of surveillance, there are fundamental differences between the two theories.

First and foremost, Castells and Morozov continuously emphasize the government’s ability to punish whomever it desires at its will because of surveillance. They argue that this type of coercive control creates a system in which all figures are obedient. For the most part, Foucault agrees with this. He would argue that the guard-like figure has absolute control over prisoners within the Panopticon and is able to punish these entities at its will. Another distinguishing element is that there is the aspect of unequal gaze and how uncertainty creates a psychological dilemma within prisoners. While prisoners within the Panopticon are constantly visible, they are not certain that a guard actually exists. As briefly introduced earlier, this enables the internalization of disciplinary individuality. The significance of this concept will be further elaborated on in the following section.

According to Castells and Morozov, individuals are obedient insofar as there is a real punishment for dissent. In other words, absolute coercive control deters citizens from transgressing and dissenting. The central issue with this is that while their respective theories are necessary elements in explaining censorship and the overarching structure of the system, they are not sufficient in explaining the everyday self-censoring tendencies of a populous in the absence of force. The next section will explain why the systems of punishment explained by Castells and Morozov, the necessary elements in the equation, actually serve as evidence for the bigger picture that Foucault attempts to explain. In addition to providing an explanation for surveillance and punishment, Panopticism also accounts for normative control, which speaks to more than coercion to a far greater extent. Foucault illustrates how actors may look to more than just material conditions when making decisions because an objective truth to authority need not always exist. Although it contributes to individuals’ learning process, Foucault’s analysis alludes to how material conditions do not automatically determine human agency and action, which Castells and Morozov falsely assume. Hence, Panopticism appears to be an appropriate theory, and it will now be placed under scrutiny.

Applying Panopticism to Self-Censorship in

Foucault’s post-structuralist analysis on Panopticism provides a seemingly superior explanation of the self-censoring tendencies of Chinese citizens. Foucault essentially contends that if the government is able to establish a state in which it is able to install disciplinary fear similar to that produced by the Panopticon upon individuals at a collective level, it will be able to induce self-censorship because in principle, individuals will be censoring themselves even in the absence of a guard. In the status quo, it is able to retain this function of power partially through using guard-like entities in society that are loyal to the government. The task at hand is to apply Panopticism to China’s situation.

First, there is the notion of the unequal gaze between the prisoners and the guard in the Panopticon. The guard is able to see the prisoners while the prisoners do not have any knowledge of the guard, except for the fact that there may very well be a guard on duty at any given time. In many ways, this seems to explain China’s situation. The government has set up various levels of surveillance, which creates a realm in which citizens are constantly transparent in the “gaze” of the government. For instance, there are ISPs and ICPs who are fully loyal to the government and are required to keep logs of Internet users’ browsing information. They are also willing to divulge the anonymity of web users to the government upon request. This information serves as an important piece of support for Foucault’s argument because by making Internet users transparent, it gives the government the ability to punish dissidents. Furthermore, the work that the Internet police do, the impact that the cascading hierarchy of surveillance has on media corporations, along with the mandatory Internet registration policies, make it even simpler to track down and implement individualized punishment upon dissidents. Citizens are fearful of this and are disciplined to behave as if a guard were present. In the end, the CPC’s surveillance mechanisms enable it to assume the role of the guard in the middle of the Panopticon. Its power is guaranteed even in the absence of an actual authoritarian figure asserting power. However, this is only a part of the complicated process.

On a brief historical note, China’s tendency to censor its citizens dates back to the imperial era where emperors’ monopoly of violence allowed them to censor virtually anyone and anything that they deemed unfavorable. In the Maoist era, propaganda was utilized to hyper-emphasize a set of ideas such as Maoist beliefs. The hegemonic status of the emphasized belief delegitimized competing ideologies, which, in many ways, silenced them. Not only that, there was the imminent threat of force from patrolling Red Guards who persecuted any and all dissidents. This was essentially the form that censorship took in history.

As noted by Shambaugh, in addition to the advent of the digital age and hence information technologies, the government has realized that it can no longer exercise censorship as coercively as it once did. First, although China has kept its borders closed and maintained for much of history, Deng Xiaoping’s economic and cultural reform policies changed this.65 The CPC started vigorously supporting and expanding cross-cultural exchange programs and other opportunities for its next generation of citizens. More importantly, China gradually opened its borders and its markets to the outside world. For the first time ever, it became unprecedentedly vulnerable to Western criticism because its image began to matter in its endeavor to attract Western transnational corporations. Second, along with market liberalization, as the discourse on became more widespread and normative, the CPC was no longer able use the same aggressive censorship tactics that it once did. Human rights norms, along with the necessity to retain a decent reputation, pressured China to change its system of surveillance and punishment.

In the contemporary era, the word censorship alone fails to adequately describe China’s situation—self-censorship is evolving to become a superior descriptor. Although coercive force is necessary as an emergency provision, the viability of censorship no longer depends on it, as will be elaborated upon later in the section. It was understandable that citizens would censor themselves when being threatened by Red Guards on patrol with rifles and an unchecked sense of power. Public executions were rather common and citizens were extremely fearful of the power of Red Guards. But the government no longer denounces beliefs in the manner it did during the Anti-Rightest Movement. Discussion of does not necessarily result in castigation or persecution. Although authoritative figures and threats no longer exist in the same threatening form, peculiarly, the majority of citizens are still willingly choosing to comply and censor themselves. This is the form that censorship, or, more fittingly, self-censorship in China has taken upon.

While the theories put forth by Castells, Morozov, Shambaugh, etc. are incapable of explaining the changing nature of censorship, Foucault’s analysis on the internalization of disciplinary behavior provides a solid foundation for interpreting this phenomenon. There are three parts to the internalization of disciplinary individuality. First, there is internalization, which is to make a certain set of attitudes or beliefs a subconscious part of one’s existence through learning. Second, disciplining is training an entity to obey a certain set of guidelines by using punishment to correct disobedience. Lastly, individuality in this case speaks to the ability of the system to directly internalize discipline at the individual level. Putting this concept into perspective, from the very beginning, Chinese citizens are trained to obey a set of behaviors. If necessary, both corporations and the Propaganda Department have the ability to use coercive force in their disciplinary endeavors. As individuals learn through their constant interactions with society, normative behaviors gradually begin shaping their interests.

Using this preposition, Foucault argues that if a given institution is able to normalize disciplinary behavior, that it will be able to guarantee power even in the absence of a figure to assert this power. As Constructivists discuss, individuals only know what they are told and are constantly learning from their interactions with society. Through their newly acquired knowledge, individuals gain new perspectives, acquire new interests, and arguably become less egocentric. While individuals’ knowledge increases, norms, ideas, and cultures begin having an impact on their interests as their identities are shaped and reshaped. This aligns with March’s logic of appropriateness in which he argues that norms restrict behaviors. Actors will normally make the appropriate action given the social context that they are in. Generally speaking, there many decisions that individuals could potentially make. However, based on the logic presented, social norms inform individuals what is right and wrong. In effect, this gradually eliminates a lot of the decisions that would be deemed inappropriate by society. Thus, the domain of decisions that an individual can make is reduced. Ultimately, only appropriate decisions that are deemed as socially normative remain, and actors normally choose from this set when making decisions.

Relating this back to Foucault and China, social context and interactions have taught individuals how to behave. In other words, they are disciplined. For instance, a new journalist in the media industry is indoctrinated upon signing with a corporation. Immediately following this rite of passage, he is constantly monitored and taught how to behave by supervisors and other associates in the corporation. As he embarks on the learning process, the norms of not only the company, but also the overarching media industry, begin to shape his identity. As a journalist, he will have learned that actions such as writing articles criticizing the overarching ideology of the government are not appropriate. On an everyday basis, even without the imminent threat of punishment from his supervisor, his grasp of appropriateness causes him to reconsider publishing content that the government finds unfavorable. In essence, the hypothetical journalist, along with almost all figures within the media industry, is exercising self-censorship. This example is by no means unique because the same analysis can also be applied to media conglomerates as a whole as well as netizens. Everyone is affected by the censorship system—whether that is directly, indirectly, or even subconsciously.

Prior to continuing this analysis, it is necessary to clarify the fact that normative by no means equates to prohibitive. Actors are not prohibited from making decisions that are not normative. Foucault, along with Constructivists in general, does not go as far as to argue that absolute social compliance exists. Instead, they recognize that dissent from what is normative is, arguably, inevitable and does occur because actors are independent entities and that the vast majority of decision-making is individualized. Despite the presence of dissent, Constructivists’ overarching contention remains unhindered. First, although dissent does exist, individual cases of dissent are not sufficient in overriding established social norms. Accordingly, the cognitive pressure from social norms will continue to affect the decision-making process of individuals—insofar as the norm remains intact.

In regards to China, the physical and psychological control that the Chinese government exercises is by no means as absolute as North Korea. As mentioned earlier, as sophisticated as the system may sound, there are ways in which citizens can easily bypass censorship. Citizens can effortlessly download VPNs and search information on a censored subject if they so desire. A small minority of dissidents will inevitably try to find ways to take advantage of minor security lapses. However, this does not undermine the premises of Panopticism. First and foremost, Foucault would acknowledge that although docile bodies are disciplined, that once again, absolute control is virtually impossible. The point is that the presence of minor dissent does not undermine the real power of the guard and the structure’s overall efficacy. Just like how the government can easily shut down VPNs, the guard in the Panopticon can just as easily punish dissidents. Instances of dissent remind prisoners of how to behave, which serve to reestablish the norm. The inherent structure of the system, namely the unequal gaze, will always favor those in control. In the end, the government will still retain the ability to cognitively create a realm that promotes self-censorship amongst citizens.

Western media organs and even government-controlled mediums like CCTV often report cases of dissent, such as the jailing of a journalist. Even in China, human rights activists and journalists have in fact continuously reported on the everyday injustices in China. As a result, they are jailed and disciplined by the government. The story of Chinese journalists like Gao Yu further clarifies this point. Yu has been one of the most prominent journalists in exposing “state secrets” and going against the government by calling for structural reform of the CPC. She has been doing so for many decades both domestically in China and internationally. She has been jailed before and, according to BBC, was recently jailed again for “illegally provid[ing] state secrets to foreigners.”66 Cases like this showcase the fact that since decision-making is individualized, individuals make the final decision of whether or not they want to dissent. However, as shown in Yu’s case, every time she willingly and consciously dissents, the government attempts to discipline her.

Going back to Foucault, the point is that Yu’s endeavors, along with other attempts at dissent, have not resulted in normative change. The government retains an absolute sense of power, collective dissent remains unseen, and government loyalty remains unhindered. Although activists like Yu hope that their heroism will increase citizens’ consciousness of the government’s unjust actions and thus promote collective dissent, the reality is that this response remains unseen. But stories of figures like Yu being jailed for dissenting have contributed to the life-long learning process of citizens in general. These cases have, and will continue to affect citizens by teaching and re-ingraining in them what appropriate behavior is. In the end, as Foucault predicts, the unobstructed norm will continue to cognitively pressure individuals to make appropriate decisions, which thereby promotes self-censorship.

In regards to force and coercion, the government has the ability to, and does use force to ensure that those who dissent are punished. Use of force in this sense is necessary to reconfirm the fact that it does have the ability to punish any and all dissidents. Taking that citizens are disciplined, their knowledge of the system, combined with the normative pressure to conform, become necessary elements in creating an environment that cognitively induces self-censorship amongst citizens. This eliminates the government’s necessity to threaten the average non-dissenting citizen with force because force can be replaced by knowledge.

The purpose of the Panopticon is to produce docile inmates. But instead of inmates, a powerful impact of the censorship system is that it creates a class of docile citizens who are loyal to the government (the concept of loyalty will be explored next). On an everyday basis, these citizens do not actively seek to dissent, which is partially because they have a preconceived notion that the government is constantly watching them. They have personally seen and learned that transgressors who go against the government are punished rather severely. Next, the internalization of disciplinary individuality has taught citizens to self-monitor themselves even in the absence of a guard-like agent. In effect, this produces a society in which citizens are deterred form going against the government, disciplined to act based on what is appropriate, and are willing to self-censor their own behavior on the Internet and in the media.

As compact as Foucault’s Panopticism may seem, there are two unique effects of censorship in which Foucault may have overlooked. First, although prisoners are traditionally seen as helpless figures imprisoned within the Panopticon, they can also be seen as loyal subjects of the system. The role of the prisoner himself need not be overlooked. Prisoners are seemingly trapped for eternity, and it is understandable for them to hold a vendetta against the system. While deviation is not normative, even with absolute control, instances such as security lapses do occur. Seeing that their situation is hopeless, some prisoners will attempt to escape the Panopticon. At this point, other prisoners have already learned about how hopeless their situation is and that escape is practically impossible. Instead of watching the escape happen and doing nothing, or also trying to escape themselves, it is likely that prisoners themselves will report this activity to the guard.

Relating this back to China, as much as citizens may detest the system, their loyalty to the country as a whole make them unconditional subscribers to the CPC. From the time of the Qin and Han dynasties, to the Maoist era, and on to the status quo, the government-engrained ai guo mindset mentioned earlier has made patriotism an exceptionally powerful norm in China.67 Williams and Humphries’ analysis shed light on this mentality:

“In Chinese societies, citizenship differs from Western conception in that it denotes less of a contractual relationship between the individual and society and more of an inheritance of identity, bound to nationality and loyalty... If certain people are considered Chinese, and therefore Chinese citizens, then it is imperative that they also be loyal citizens to the nation-state of China. Patriotism becomes a necessary condition for citizenship.”68

Although citizens may disagree with various individual aspects of the government, this patriotic attitude that is ingrained in citizens makes them believe that the government’s actions promote the general welfare of the people. Hence, while prisoners report dissidents trying to escape, the loyalty of Chinese citizens toward the country compels them to also report suspicious social activity in the media and on the Internet. Citizens’ trust in the government is continuously fostered by the government’s everyday attempts to overly propagate its heroism. For example, as broadcasted by publically controlled media organs such as the infamous CCTV, the CPC is able to assume a heroic position by constantly catching ‘bad guys’ in society. In the past, the authenticity of some of these stories has been questioned. However, despite occasional criticism from both domestic and international forces, the absolute power and control that the Propaganda Department has in the public sector allows it to unyieldingly set whatever media agenda it desires. In some ways the situation at hand can be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy with the government as the sole dictator in the process. This discussion is important because media control explains the critical factor of loyalty and the role that it plays in the entire process.

As mentioned earlier, individuals only know what they are told and what they have learned through social interactions. As the storyteller, the government is able to convey whatever information it wishes to its citizens, which teaches them how to, and how not to act. It has assumed this position as far as history dates back because of China’s media structure. The notion that China’s media has liberalized is rather deceiving because it is a relatively new phenomenon. As Shen Ding points out, “[w]hile China's political system is becoming increasingly unstable and repressive, it is [still] imperative for the Chinese government to control the political outcomes of the country's dramatic economic and social transformation.”69 Let’s briefly examine at a contemporary episode of this.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 stunned the world, and was arguably one of the biggest events of the decade. Not only is it one of the most censored topics in China, but also the government has banned all discourse relating to the event since its initial occurrence in 1989 and has retold the story in its favor. Citizens can still access information about Tiananmen through VPNs if they so choose, but this beside the point. The point is that the government’s ability to retell the story deceives citizens by hiding the truth from them. The government’s absolute control allows it to actively persecute anyone (even lawyers) who dares to defy the government’s implicit memorandum. As The New York Times recently reported,

“One of China’s best-known civil rights lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, has been in police custody since last spring. What prompted the arrest? Joining a private gathering, at a friend’s apartment, to discuss the violent crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square 25 years earlier.”70

In accordance to Foucault’s reasoning, since knowledge is power, those who control the spread of knowledge have the power. There are many citizens today who are still unaware of the occurrence of Tiananmen Square. Time will only produce more citizens who are negligent on such issues as those of the older generation who witnessed the event decease. Although Western academics have continuously expressed concern regarding this matter, China remains unyielding and continues to ignore most of this criticism.71

In the end, most citizens will revert back to believing that the government is acting for the betterment of the people. As Foucault and other constructivists demonstrate, citizens instantiate their experiences and understandings through their actions. As the primary storyteller, the government is able to artificially inject these experiences and understandings in the minds of citizens, which influences their decision-making. Thus, citizens will remain loyal to authoritarian governments like China that are able to systematically filter and set the media agenda. Similar to the prisoners in the Panopticon, this mindset makes Chinese citizens loyal subjects of the government who will patriotically serve as docile watchdogs of the government. Connecting this analysis back to the bigger picture, loyal citizens who trust the government reaffirm the social norms that are in place and make dissent an inappropriate action. This in turn promotes self-censorship amongst citizens—even in the absence of coercive force.

The second unique the aspect of the system that was not mentioned by Foucault is the role that technology plays in Panopticism. Foucault formulated Panopticism decades before the rise of the Internet. As seen in China’s censorship system, the effectiveness, efficiency, efficacy of Panopticism in the digital age is in many ways compounded. Technology has allowed governments to implement massive surveillance systems that automatically track users’ information 24 hours every day, which is extremely effective. Not only that, the notion of self-censorship by its very nature speaks to the efficiency of the system because of the fact that the positive results that the government is able to yield is at maximum proportionate to the real number of resources that it devotes. In principle, the government does not have to devote any resources at all to the cause—it merely needs to exist.

In all, the Panopticon is useful metaphor for understanding psychological control. Although this is by no means absolute, it appears that the government’s censorship tactics are gradually creating a Panopticon-like state for Chinese citizens. The censorship system in China disciplines, and thus produces docile bodies that are willing to exercise self-censorship in the absence of punishment. But in addition to that, as I have argued, by taking into account China’s historical system of control, it also produces subjects who are patriotic and are loyal to the government. This level of cognitive control will only become more prominent as social norms become increasingly ingrained in the subconscious minds of citizens.

Although Panopticism and self-censorship may appear similar, there is an underlying cause and effect relationship between the two. The two concepts are analyticially distinct because Panopticism explains the self-censoring inclination of citizens. The unequal gaze that the government possesses, its ability to survey its citizens at virtually all times, its ability to internalize disciplinary individuality, its ability to control knowledge and convert it into power, its ability to produce docile bodies, along with all of the other peculiar intricacies of Panopticism and the Panopticon, explain the role that cognition, knowledge, and power play in inducing self-censorship. Chinese citizens are the recipients of the government’s panoptic practices. Recalling the definition of self-censorship from earlier, self-censorship describes individuals willingly censoring themselves. In retrospect, by creating a Panopticon-like state, the Chinese government creates a sociopolitical atmosphere that naturally stimulates and encourages self-censorship.

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