Securitization Forum: The theory gap and securitization as a form of identity politics

25 September 2015, 0416 EDT

This is the ninth contribution in our securitization forum. Scott Watson is Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Victoria, Canada.

In their initial post, Jarrod and Eric nicely demonstrate both the incredible influence of the securitization framework and the relative paucity of securitization scholarship among American IR scholars. As they convincingly show, the success of securitization is evident by the growing number of citation counts and the spread of securitization to fields outside of IR. From my perspective, the strongest indicators of the success of securitization theory are less empirical – it feels as though it has re-energized the subfield of security studies, opening it up to a more diverse range of scholars, and providing a launching point for new avenues of inquiry. Indeed, its greatest impact may be measured by how often it is used as a departure point for novel forms of inquiry, into: affect and emotion, visual imagery, the politics of security, and bureaucratic practices, to name a few. While securitization theory certainly has limitations, exclusions, and blind spots, on the whole the framework lends itself to critical reflection and inclusion of multiple perspectives – it is a vibrant research programme. Testament to its success is that securitization is now often used as the ‘foil’ against which new studies seek to differentiate themselves.

Given these successes, the lack of receptivity to securitization among American IR scholars is puzzling, and potentially troubling. It may be that the framework doesn’t travel well to the American context, but the excellent studies that do apply securitization to the American context belie such an explanation (Higgott, 2004; Hayes, 2009; Sjostedt, 2010). There are likely a large number of reasons for the lack of American interest in securitization. Among the more mundane explanations are the professional considerations to do with career advancement, favored publication outlets, the emphasis on ‘policy relevance’ and the close connection between American academics and policy makers. This is not to suggest that securitization studies do not produce policy relevant findings, but I would aver that they are less likely to produce policy recommendations desirable to policy makers. Methodological differences are also likely at play. Securitization studies mostly employ interpretive methods – discourse analysis and ethnographic research. The commitment to positivist methods among major segments of American IR means they are less likely to be exposed to the work, or accept its methods as legitimate. It is even less likely to lead to scholars learning and adopting a new epistemology and methodologies.

I would however, not place sole responsibility for this divide by over-generalizing and dismissing American IR. There are peculiar aspects of securitization theory that limit its appeal outside of the European context. There is, for instance, a relatively high barrier of entry to the study of securitization, which at times appears to require detailed knowledge of speech act theory and the intricacies of illocution/perlocution, or of continental philosophers that are less frequently taught in American political science/IR departments. Actual empirical analysis using the securitization framework is often couched in lengthy revisions of the framework, or at least through engagement with the seminal debates that emerged in the early period of securitization’s life. The situating of ‘great debates’ in the securitization literature outside the debates that have animated American IR obviously lessens its appeal there. This does not mean that American scholars should or could not become schooled in these literatures and debates, but that few are and there is little incentive to do so.

The lack of incentive to learn a new literature and framework stems, in part, from the availability of schools of thought popular in the United States that do, more or less, what securitization does: such as social constructivism, misperception, and framing. While none of these frameworks capture exactly what securitization attempts to do, they are relatively reasonable facsimiles. If a scholar is interested in understanding how political elites came to regard something as a threat and to implement emergency measures, they could use “Social Theory of International Politics”, “The Culture of National Security” or “Perception and Misperception” as their framework. To compare with one measure employed by Jarrod and Eric, Jervis’ book counts 4385 citations, very close to “Security: A New Framework for Analysis” and “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”. While there are numerous important distinctions between the securitization framework and the misperception framework, they both offer an account of subjectively and intersubjectively held perceptions of threat. In short, there are tools already available to American IR scholars that allow for the analysis of how threats are constructed and how political actors come to propose war, military invasion, border security etc. as the appropriate response to these threats.

I would further speculate that there is a normative dimension as well: securitization has been tied to a de-securitizing agenda in which security is seen as normatively bad or as a failure of the political process; whereas many American scholars still see value in security itself, even if they want to check its abuse. IR scholars critical of securitized practices in the United States tend to address problems of misperception, faulty reasoning, the use of inappropriate historical analogies, or threat exaggeration – all of which maintain a normative commitment to security as a potentially positive development in certain circumstances, while critiquing its use in a particular episode.

This of course ties to the objective/subjective/intersubjective dilemma at the heart of securitization. Again, at the risk of overgeneralizing, many American IR scholars hold to the claim that certain developments are objectively threatening, regardless of how they are perceived or represented. Securitization offers an ambiguous position on this issue, with a tendency toward intersubjectivity and a rejection of objectivity. There is of course an emerging analysis of new materialism in securitization studies that muddies this generalization, but on the whole, securitization tends to privilege social construction and leaves analysts without a position from which to discriminate between real threats and constructed threats. In a policy oriented academy, this is a serious disadvantage for the securitization framework.

The last provocation I would offer is that one’s position on securitization is a form of identity politics among academics. Securitization theory maintains a certain level of interest (or disinterest) simply because of repeated claims that it resides on the European side of a constructed Europe/America binary. The reality is that the growing body of work on securitization could benefit greatly from further engagement with American scholarship in IR, political science, sociology, and communications; just as American security studies would benefit greatly from greater engagement with securitization and a host of continental philosophers that have influenced much of the interesting work being done in and around, or in contrast to, securitization. So long as both groups of scholars construct their self-identity in terms of this binary, security and securitization studies will be poorer for it.