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War as disease: biomedical metaphors in prevention discourse

Rodehau-Noack, Johanna ORCID: 0000-0003-3288-1554 (2021) War as disease: biomedical metaphors in prevention discourse. European Journal of International Relations, 27 (4). pp. 1020-1041. ISSN 1460-3713

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Identification Number: 10.1177/13540661211055537


Previous research has examined biomedical metaphors in discourses on military intervention, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. Starting from the observation that such metaphors also occur in the contemporary conflict prevention discourse, this article inquires into their intellectual origins and implications for the understanding of war and prevention. Drawing on archival analysis, it finds that they manifest in two ways in prevention discourse. In the cataclysmic notion, war is likened to an epidemic or plague. This metaphor was popularised by Christian pacifists in the 19th century and carried forth into 20th-century prevention documents. The more recent risk factor notion is couched in terms of enabling conditions for threats to the body politic. By engaging imagery on immunity and public health, it draws parallels between social and political organisation and functions of the body. The article argues that while both notions of biomedical metaphors of war in conflict prevention discourse are firmly rooted in modernist thinking, this intellectual legacy manifests differently. The cataclysmic notion associates war and disease with barbarism and thus paints prevention as a civilisational objective. The risk factor notion, on the contrary, represents war as a technico-scientific problem and thus shifts the focus towards governing and controlling war through knowledge and technology. Furthermore, both notions converge in the idea of a body politic that is to be protected and in the implicit assumption of world order in which war-as-disease is a temporary deviation from the ‘healthy norm’, while peace-as-health is the desired and default state of affairs.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2021 The Author
Divisions: International Relations
Subjects: J Political Science > JZ International relations
Date Deposited: 14 Oct 2021 15:54
Last Modified: 02 Dec 2021 10:33

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