Securitization Forum: Back on Tour With the Copenhagen School – Better to Travel Than Arrive

30 September 2015, 1841 EDT

A full twelve posts in to the forum, the question posed by Jarrod and Eric about why securitization theory’s travels in the US have been so pedestrian compared to its extensive tour schedule in Europe and elsewhere has already been explored from a considerable number of angles, with various diagnoses made. Details differ, but the overall consensus appears to be that securitization theory (at least in its original theoretical form) is in all respects too alien to the disciplinary ecosystem of American IR to be able to gain any substantive foothold amongst the US discipline’s dominant conceptual and methodological species under current conditions. Furthermore, incentives for its import are lacking on the part of both buyers and sellers: the former argue that it doesn’t provide sufficient added value compared to existing options to justify its price, whilst the strong (mainly) European market for securitization theory has meant that there’s been little incentive to try and crack American IR/Political Science.

If this is the case, then why not just accept this stalemate? Does it really matter if much of American IR simply prefers to stick with its current conceptual toolkit? What’s really to be gained by insisting that all theories are present in all places?

Observed from this perspective, the question of whether we need a theory of securitization even in American IR is too easily dismissed. Certainly Juha provides an excellent overview of what sort of insights securitization theory can generate and effectively dispels some common criticisms which may (hopefully) prompt some in the US to (re)consider their view of securitization theory as a result. Many, however, will remain unconvinced and untroubled. After all, an affirmative answer to the question of whether we need a theory of securitization carries a hefty burden of proof, especially when you’re trying to convince a skeptical audience (mainstream American IR) that they need something that they’re sure they don’t need.

It’s still premature to conclude that American and European IR need to agree to differ, however, and exploring a question that follows on from Juha’s can provide new insights into the curious case of securitization theory’s lack of traction in the US: What is lost, omitted or even prevented as a consequence of securitization’s very limited Stateside travels?

The answer lies in Juha’s observation that securitization is “too political for the liking of many”, which I think is entirely correct. However, I think there’s something bigger going on here than simply discomfort with how securitization theory exposes the political nature of security in a very matter of fact way that has to do with the anxiety that this exposure causes. Centrally, I contend that precisely because of the debates it generates and its refusal to fit into established ontological and epistemological boxes, securitization theory reveals not only the political nature of security, but also – and arguably more significantly – the political nature of IR as a discipline.

This is not accidental: as Eriksson (1999: 349) observes, the “spirit of the Copenhagen school [is] to invite and open up the discussion of security rather than to entrench into a fortified position” (1999: 349). Consequently, engagement with securitization theory makes it increasingly difficult to ignore the reality that just as “it is always a political choice to securitize or to accept a securitization” (Buzan, Wæver & de Wilde 1998: 29), it is also a political choice to use/not use a particular concept, theory and/or method to study security.

Many will see this as a good thing overall, although they may not necessarily agree about what this means for the principles and practices of scholarship. For a discipline, however that is often distinctly anxious about its status and identity in the face of repeated internal and external challenges to its (mainstream) presentation of itself as scientific, objective and apolitical, such a stance is too easily perceived more as threat than opportunity.

In this respect, securitization theory’s marginalized position in American IR reveals a distinctive political economy of knowledge based on the privileging of certain approaches (and people, and languages, and countries/regions) and the marginalization or even stigmatization of others (for example, feminist, queer and/or post-colonial approaches). As a result, it becomes evident how the discipline of IR disciplines its adherents, and polices its own disciplinary boundaries. The “proper” use of “approved” theories, concepts and methods is rewarded, while excessive deviation from canonical norms often comes with a disproportionately hefty burden of proof that can incur tremendous professional costs.

The overall effect is that attitudes quickly become dogmatic rather than pragmatic when deep status quo challenges arise. Respectful debate is to be encouraged…but don’t be too radical or bite the hand that feeds you too hard. We see this mostly clearly evidenced in the solutions proposed by many to critiques of securitization theory — add in this condition, drop this point, refine that definition, and/or revise this claim or position to address the problem of apparent underspecification/underdevelopment/inconsistency. In short, make securitization more compatible with what theory is meant to look like and do.

Yet as Ole Wæver discussed at ISA in 2010 (coincidentally on a panel that Jarrod convened), many of the criticisms of securitization theory actually relate to issues of method and methodology, rather than to the theory itself. Refinements or revisions to the theoretical framework might well make securitization theory easier to work with insofar as it can be brought closer to accepted standards for something called a theory. But I’m unconvinced that such efforts actually enhance explanatory power much beyond the specific case in response to which a particular change is proposed. Indeed, much of the time this approach exacerbates the original problems, inadvertently contributing to the impression that securitization theory is unwieldy, inaccessible and lacking the ability to generate novel insights into security compared to other approaches (which, as Juha has already established, is not the case).

The key point of that discussion was that the problem is rooted in how we often understand theory and in what we expect it to do. Theories are reasonably minimalist models about how things work or happen that inevitably lack detail and precision. They are not meant to explain everything or account for every circumstance, and should not be rejected for failing to do this. As a result, in the words of statistician and mathematician George Box, “all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful”.

Box’s maxim points to the fact that theorizing should not be an end in itself. Rather, theory is there to inform and structure – but not dictate – our thinking and analysis. At the same time, perceived utility depends on the extent to which a theory is able to produce a desired outcome cleanly and efficiently. And taking this into account, the characterisations of American IR included this forum suggest that securitization theory is always going to fall short of what is deemed a desirable outcome, if only because the theory is not sufficiently definitive or defined in its conceptualization of security. Moreover, this is not only an American problem, but rather reflects IR’s current overall political economy of knowledge, with neo-positivist approaches set as the gold standard to which we should aspire if we wish to succeed in terms of employment, publication metrics, and other esteem indicators.

So to return to my question. What is lost as a consequence of securitization theory’s relative absence from American IR is an opportunity to create a more equitable and less punitive knowledge economy in our discipline. To be clear, I am not suggesting that popularizing securitization theory in the US would achieve this and I share Can’s skepticism about the politics of such an endeavor. Instead, I am advocating for applying securitization’s central insight to the discipline of IR itself as well as to security as one of IR’s main objects of study. As Juha notes, securitization theory is at its heart about power politics ­­– who gets to speak and who gets silenced; who gets taken seriously and who gets dismissed; who can exercise agency and who cannot. It is then incumbent on us to examine the conditions under which these outcomes occur and the political implications of the conclusions we draw, including for our disciplinary politics and practices.

Understood this way, securitization theory exemplifies the adage that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Securitization theory is unlikely to ever do all the work that some expect of it even with extensive revisions, since the fundamental problem is misguided expectations about what theory is and what it can/should do. For those who are willing to reconsider these expectations and take up more of the analytical  and political burden themselves, however, securitization theory is an insightful, engaging and occasionally frustrating travel companion whether touring Copenhagen, Kyrgyzstan, America or elsewhere.