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Politics and International Relations (PIR): People


Oliver Kearns

Oliver Kearns
Oliver Kearns
Edinburgh UK
Research Interests
Secrecy, War and media, Debris, Covert state violence, Presence/absence, Drone strikes, Witnessing

I successfully finished my PhD in March 2017.


PhD Politics, University of Edinburgh (2012-17)

MSc Development and Security, University of Bristol (2011-12)

MA (Hons) International Relations and Philosophy, University of St Andrews (2007-11)

Research interests

My research focuses on the existence of state secrecy in the public sphere – how the covert and clandestine overlap the public realm through the traces they leave in their wake. My thesis examines news and social media representations of contemporary covert counter-terrorism – from drone strikes to 'kill/capture' special forces raids – and the role of both secrecy and absence in shaping those representations and the understandings of state violence that result from them.

While it is now widely recognised that narratives and images of war can legitimise violent state foreign policy, by demonising enemies and de-contextualising suffering, today's covert counter-terrorism is rarely glimpsed in public. Instead, it is reported on through the rumours and debris it leaves behind, from speculative details to rubble and smoke. The thesis examines how this residue affects the legitimisation of covert violence. Through a comparison with lynching in the United States a century earlier, the thesis argues that the public traces of these events hint at both secrecy and conspicuous absences among what remains, including the absence of the bodies and identities of those targeted. Together, secrecy and absence allude to unverifiable possibilities about what took place. These allusions can disrupt attempts to foster public assent, but also delimit the kind of ethical concern given to these operations. The thesis explores the implications of this for imagining and prompting a more ethical witnessing of hidden violence and absent bodies.


Dr Andrew Neal and Dr Xavier Guillaume


ESRC +3 Studentship

Deans List (Arts), University of St Andrews, 2008/9 and 2009/10

Journal articles

Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes. 2017. Political Geography, 57, 13-23.

State secrecy, public assent, and representational practices of U.S. covert action. 2016. Critical Studies on Security, 4(3), 276-290.

Notorious places: Image, reputation, stigma. The role of newspapers in area reputations for social housing estates. 2013. With Ade Kearns and Louise Lawson. Housing Studies, 28(4), 579-598.

Blog posts / commentary

Public "traces" of drone strikes are reshaping what it means to witness warfare. LSE USAPP - American Politics and Policy, 15 March 2017.

Libya: 'protecting civilians' vs 'supporting the rebels'. ZBlogs, 10 April 2011.

Côte d'Ivoire, Libya and the 'Arab Spring'. Pambazuka News, 523, 31 March 2011.

The problem with polarising the debate on genocide. Pambazuka News, 489, 8 July 2010.

Conference papers

Rumours, debris and the public existence of covert drone strikes. British International Studies Association Annual Conference, Edinburgh, Scotland, 17 June 2016.

Covertness and the residue of contemporary counter-terrorism. International Studies Association Annual Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, US, 18 March 2016.

Silence as presence, silence as non-human in the debris of state violence. Silence in Political Research, Edinburgh, Scotland, 7 December 2015.

Witnessing the terrorist ghost: the communal shaping of subjectivities in coverage of the bin Laden raid. British International Studies Association Annual Conference, Dublin, Ireland, 20 June 2014.


Tutor, 'International Relations Theory' (Masters), University of Edinburgh, 2015/16

Tutor, 'Theories of International Relations' (undergraduate honours), University of Edinburgh, 2013/14, 2014/15


Co-convener, International Relations Research Group, University of Edinburgh, 2013/14.

Member of the European International Studies Association, the War and Media Network, and the International Transparency and Secrecy Research Network.