Securitization Forum: Do we need a theory of securitization?

25 September 2015, 0404 EDT

This is the eighth contribution in our securitization forum. Juha A. Vuori is acting Professor of World Politics at the University of Helsinki in Finland. <plug> He would like you to order his Critical Security and Chinese Politics (Routledge, 2014) for your library. </plug>

As we can see from the citation counts put forth by Jarrod and Eric, securitization as a keyword or notion has become very enticing, even to the degree that it is used in articles to do things without any references to the securitization studies literature. There seems to be something self-explanatory in the term as such, which may partly explain some of the confusion in the critical literature on it. Other alternative terms that engage similar phenomena, such as security framing or threat politics, do not appear to have the same appeal as the notion of securitization. Intuitively, securitization is about how security comes about.

While how security comes about is an important part of how and why security is studied within securitization studies (which has outgrown securitization theory by now), it is important to note how the theory of securitization goes beyond describing the social mechanisms and causalities involved in the social construction of security. This is the crux of my post.

Securitization theory, what is it good for?

The theory of securitization was developed for specific purposes (desecuritization) in a particular place (Europe) in a particular time (late Cold War). The approach served the preference for less security and more politics: to speak about national security did particular things that were problematic in light of democracy in 1980s Europe (and have continued to do so, even as the claimed threats have changed; diffuse technocratic securitization enacts limits of democracy too; Huysmans 2014). Accordingly, part and parcel of securitization studies has been the genealogical study of how security has come to have such performative power (Wæver 1989: 14, 2012b).

The original set-up of the theory came with pre-installed politics and a general policy recommendation: it is more conducive to treat identities as identities, religion as religion, the environment as the environment, and so on, and to engage their politics through the particular modalities and rationalities of those fields rather than those of security. The theory started with studying contestation of security in 1980s Eastern Europe, and was a tool for contesting security itself.

Yet, the politics of the theory can become effectual only in its application to particular instances (Wæver 2011: 469). Indeed, neither the contexts nor the purposes of theories remain static, rather, they change with each application. The issue then is not only who initially developed a theory and for which purpose, but who uses it, where, and for what purpose.

Concomitantly, the question is whether we (still) need a theory of securitization.

Some have ‘provocatively’ suggested that the second generation of critical studies of security is a pale afterlife in light of the emancipatory purpose of the first generation (Hynek & Chandler 2013). Even though not all initiators and competitors of the securitization approach have been comfortable with labelling it as ‘critical’ (particularly with the UK connotation of the label), it is fairly safe to describe it as ‘cynical’ (Wæver 1989: 52) or ‘sceptical’ (Wæver 2012a: 53) in regard to security speech. The theory is a tool to unmask the operative logic of power politics in the guise of security claims and to strip away their innocent appeal, to make security speech unable ‘to function in the harmonious self-assured standard-discourse of realism’ (Wæver 1989: 38). Rather than a total ‘escape’ from security, the point is to alter ‘security’ from the inside, to return issues labeled with security back within political debate. While the political notions used to engage future bads have proliferated, there still remains the need to critically engage security speech too.

But is it not just a theory about the social construction, framing, or social mechanism of X?

The politics of constructing security issues can be approached from a variety of angles, but there was a reason for why speech act theory was chosen as the preferred basis for securitization theory.

For Wæver (2011: 470), the theory of securitization combines a Schmittian concept of security with an Arendtian concept of politics, as it is ‘strung between Schmittian (anti)political exceptions and an Arendtian co-creation’ (Greenwood and Wæver 2013: 501). In other words, ‘the political conception of securitization theory is inspired by Arendt, implemented through speech act theory’ (Wæver 2014: 27, emphasis in original). Like Onuf’s (1989) social constructivism, the theory’s operative ontology is based on speech act theory and the construction of social reality.

If and when security is considered to be a social construction, would it not suffice to study such processes like any other social construction of X? Or, as such processes resemble framing (Watson 2012), could securitization not be studied as the framing of X? Is securitization not just ‘an ideal-typical model of a particular and limited-scale social mechanism’ (Patomäki 2014: 38), or ‘a distinct theory of discourse’ (Stritzel 2014: 51)? Why is there a need for a specific theory of securitization?

The theory of securitization is more than the framing of threat politics. Securitization theory is a theory of the event when a security status comes about, i.e., a theory about when the deontic modality or status function of an issue is transformed (which can be a very prolonged and gradual process). It is not just an issue of threat construction or studying assuaging rhetoric: it is about the creation, reassignment, or elimination of rights, responsibilities, authorizations, legitimations, and so on.

Yet, the theory is about more than just the social mechanisms involved in such processes (the study of which can be part and parcel of studying securitization): Wæver’s (1989, 1995) project has been to produce a theory of the politics of speaking security, about the ‘power politics of a concept’ (Buzan et al. 1998: 32), which takes the approach beyond discourses and rhetoric ‘to a theory of political co-production between multiple actors of social states’ (Wæver 2014: 28). Indeed, political status transformations should not be studied ‘neither in or by single actors nor as socially determined and thereby unpolitical’ (Wæver 2014: 28): ‘politics is a sphere of re-presentation of the social – it is not the social, nor can it ever be’ (Wæver 1989: 11).

Securitization as just the social construction, frame, or discourse of X would lose sight of the political aspects of securitization theory and lose its critical purchase, which should be avoided even when the theory is combined with approaches to framing (e.g., Paltemaa and Vuori 2006), social mechanisms (Guzzini 2011), or resonant values and threat images (Stritzel 2007, 2014). In this way, securitization studies can provide contributions to other fields such as the study of social mobilization, criminology, and urban geography.

While security tends to produce a depoliticizing effect, political and social contexts cannot close off securitization or desecuritization. While many security issues and policies are path-dependent, there is always a possibility that something unexpected will take place. This is why scholars and theories should not explain away the openness and ‘in-betweenness’ of politics (Wæver 2014). Accordingly, I would suggest that rather than not taking politics into account to sufficient degree (Stacie Goddard and Ronald Krebs in this forum), the theory is too political for the liking of many.

Ay, there’s the rub: the theory is too political for ‘science’ the way it is understood in the US context (Jackson 2011). This may also be why so many want to chip away at the theory and to turn it into the social construction, frame, mechanism, rhetoric, or discourse of X. At the same time, the theory is not focused on norm-construction and cynically unmasks its issue of concern, which may not be to the liking of liberal constructivists, and too ontologically suspect in its approach and obtuse in its style for many political realists.


Buzan, B., Wæver O. and de Wilde, J. (1998) Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Greenwood, M. T. and Wæver, O. (2013) ‘Copenhagen–Cairo on a Roundtrip: A Security Theory Meets the Revolution’, Security Dialogue, 44(5–6): 485–506.

Guzzini, Stefano (2011) ‘Securitization as a Causal Mechanism’, Security Dialogue, 42(4–5): 329–341.

Huysmans, J. (2014) Security Unbound. Enacting Democratic Limits, London and New York: Routledge.

Hynek, N. and Chandler, D. (2013) ‘No emancipatory alternative, no critical security studies’, Critical Studies on Security, 1(1): 46–63.

Jackson, P. T. (2011) The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. Philosophy of Science and its Implications for the Study of World Politics, London and New York: Routledge.

Onuf, N. (1989) World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Paltemaa, L. and Vuori, J. A. (2006) ‘How cheap is identity talk? A framework of identity frames and security discourse for the analysis of repression and legitimization of social movements in mainland china’, Issues and Studies, 42(3): 47-86.

Patomäki, H. (2014) ‘Absenting the absence of future dangers and structural transformations in securitization theory’, International Relations, OnlineFirst (Oct 2014), 33-40

Stritzel, H. (2014) Security in Translation. Securitization Theory and the Localization of Threat, Houndmills and New York: Palgrave.

Stritzel, H. (2007) ‘Towards a theory of securitization: Copehagen and beyond’, European Journal of International Relations, 13(3): 357–383.

Wæver, O. (2014) ‘The Theory Act: Responsibility and exactitude as seen from securitization’, International Relations, OnlineFirst (Oct 2014), 26-32.

Wæver, O. (2012a) ‘Aberystwyth, Paris, Copenhagen: the Europeanness of New “Schools” of Security Theory in an American Field’, in A. B. Tickner and D. L. Blaney (eds) Thinking International Relations Differently, London and New York: Routledge, 48-71.

Wæver, O. (2012b) ‘Security: A Conceptual History for International Relations’, paper presented at the The History of the Concept of ‘Security’: from the Roman Republic to the Risk Society of Today conference, 26–28 November 2012, organized by the Centre for Advanced Security Theory.

Wæver, O. (2011) ‘Politics, Security, Theory’, Security Dialogue, 42(4–5): 465–480.

Wæver, O. (1995) ‘Securitization and desecuritization’, in R. D. Lipschutz (ed.) On Security, New York: Columbia University Press, 46–86.

Wæver, O. (1989) ‘Security the speech act: Analysing the politics of a word’, Working paper no. 1989/19, Copenhagen: Centre for Peace and Conflict Research.

Watson, S. D. (2012) ‘”Framing” the Copenhagen School: Integrating the Literature on Threat Construction’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 40(2): 279–301.