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Relinquishing nuclear weapons: identities, networks and the British bomb

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Recent analysis on the prospects for achieving a world free of nuclear weapons has tended to focus on a set of largely realist strategic security considerations. Such considerations will certainly underpin future decisions to relinquish nuclear weapons, but nuclear disarmament processes are likely to involve a more complex mix of actors, issues and interests. The article examines this complexity through a sociological lens using Britain as a case-study, where relinquishing a nuclear capability has become a realistic option for a variety of strategic, political and economic reasons. The article examines the core ideational and organizational allies of the UK nuclear weapon ‘actor-network’ by drawing upon social constructivist accounts of the relationship between identity and interest, and historical sociology of technology analysis of Large Technical Systems and the social construction of technology. It divides the UK actor-network into three areas: the UK policy elite's collective identity that generates a ‘national interest’ in continued deployment of nuclear weapons; defence–industrial actors that support and operationalize these identities; and international nuclear weapons dynamics that reinforce the network. The article concludes by exploring how the interests and identities that constitute and reproduce the ‘actor-network’ that makes nuclear armament possible might be transformed to make nuclear disarmament possible. The purpose is not to dismiss or supplant the importance of strategic security-oriented analysis of the challenges of nuclear disarmament but to augment its understanding by dissecting some of the socio-political complexities of nuclear disarmament processes.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2010

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