Securitization Forum: Securitization Theory is All Very Well, But Will it Sell?

23 September 2015, 0418 EDT

This is the sixth contribution in our forum on securitization theory in the U.S. Monika Barthwal-Datta is Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Australia. Her research focuses on critical approaches to security, food security, and the international politics of South Asia. 

It’s quite simple, I’m told. Securitization Theory doesn’t sell in North America.

Why? Because it’s not a ‘central’ IR theory.

I know this is not an earth-shattering revelation, and that it is actually widely accepted within the discipline that in the US, most people who study and ‘do’ IR prefer to stick to the mainstream theories. Still, it was quite sobering and ultimately insightful to be at the receiving end of this bias.

In early 2010, as an early career IR scholar, I explored the possibility of publishing my work in a prestigious US university press. The manuscript in question investigated the utility of Securitization Theory in understanding security practices in South Asia. In doing so, it particularly focused on non-traditional security issues (e.g. climate change, misgovernance and human trafficking), and the role of non-state actors as securitizing actors and security practitioners.

In response to the book proposal and draft chapters, the relevant book series editors sent me an initial review. In the email, I was told that the materials had been shared more widely with other members of the editorial committee, and that there were concerns about the ‘direction of the manuscript.’

The comments – very kindly conveyed, I have to say – were offered to me ‘not exactly as conditions under which [the editors] would be willing to review the manuscript, but rather as thoughts about its viability as a book in a major university press with a large North American audience’ – or indeed, ‘any press that relies to a degree’ on the same.

The editors welcomed the book’s focus on non-traditional security issues, and also stated that they were keen to ‘add to the coverage of security in South Asia.’ Their main concern – their only concern, as it turned out – was the fact that Securitization Theory was both a central focus of the project and the primary theoretical-analytical framework for investigating the case studies.

North American audiences, I was told, ‘are not themselves primarily concerned with the Copenhagen school and unlikely to be motivated to read the book either because [I] challenge it or because [I] find it has some utility for drawing out new issues.’ Also, while these audiences may be ‘roughly familiar’ with Securitization Theory, they ‘may not consider it in and of itself a sufficiently central IR theory to merit the book’s focus.’

A much better strategy, I was advised, would be to ‘think about what actually does motivate these people to buy and read books, and then think about how [my] research would likely engage them.’

It was suggested that one way to address this concern ‘might’ be ‘to consider issues/actors/ideas that are central to IR analysis, at least in the realism/liberalism/constructivism rubric that dominates much of the North American readership, and show that they’re actually unintelligible without attention to the types of concerns [I] raise [in the case studies].’

To me, this read as a not-so-subtle hint that I should re-examine the case studies through an engagement or critique of one of the mainstream traditional approaches in IR – one that ‘North American audiences’ would consider as a ‘sufficiently central IR theory.’

To be clear, I was never explicitly asked to take this position, indeed it was made clear that I could address their concern however I saw fit. Still, it became very hard to overlook the emphasis placed repeatedly on the contention that the ‘viability’ of the book was undermined by its preoccupation with the theory.

In other words, I was being told to think – Securitization Theory is all very well, but will it sell? The answer to this question was (if the editors’ comments were anything to go by) a resounding ‘no’.

So, my reading of their comments was: ditch Securitization Theory, find a mainstream IR theoretical framework to engage with the empirical stuff you are interested in, and the critical theory-averse North American audiences might decide to buy your book. And that it may get published in this (or any other) prestigious US university press.

Admittedly, the possibility of publishing my first book in a highly reputable university press was tantalizing. I am happy to report, however, that I never once regretted my decision not to compromise on the theoretical integrity of my work, just so it would go down easier or be considered fit for the metaphorical North American scholarly gullet.

A couple of years later, the book was published by Routledge in the UK, under its Asian Security Studies series. In the meantime, I bumped into one of the authors of the above-discussed email (i.e. one of the book series editors) at a conference. ‘We never heard back from you,’ the editor remarked after I introduced myself.

Caught a bit off-guard, I realised that while it did not take long for me to turn to other (UK-based) publishers in the quest to get published, I never actually replied to the email I discussed above. Perhaps I was too intimidated to reply at first, and then it was too late.

Today, I’m compelled to think that somehow, my silence in response to that email is not unrelated to the near-invisibility of Securitization Theory in the US.

On being told that my choice of theory was largely irrelevant to the scholarly audience in the US, my decision was to turn elsewhere to publish my work. I expect – though I don’t know for sure – that there may be others who may have faced similar critiques of their work, and possibly decided to take the advice offered and switch to a more ‘central theory of IR’. In doing so, they would have contributed to Securitization Theory’s near-absence in the US, but in a different way.

I wonder if IR PhD students across the US often get similar advice, and are encouraged – explicitly, or in more subtle and implicit ways that undermine the worth of critical theoretical approaches – to theoretically position themselves within the discipline by asking: what do North American audiences presumably want or value by way of theoretical expertise in/on IR?

The presumption that North American audiences are not really interested in anything other than the traditional theoretical fare in IR is both problematic and, frankly, insulting to those it focuses on.

But perhaps most worryingly for the discipline, it is damaging. It seriously undermines the potential to develop and nurture critical, innovative theoretical work within the discipline of IR. And in doing so, it contributes to both the silence, and the silencing, of different ways of understanding our complex world and finding new avenues for adequately addressing the challenges within it. While it is important that scholarly books sell, I’m not convinced it is more important that allowing the discipline to evolve and remain open to these possibilities.