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Securitization Forum: Three challenges to securitization theory in the U.S.

September 21, 2015

This is the fifth contribution in our forum on securitization theory in the U.S.  Sirin Duygulu recently got her PhD in political science from UMass, Amherst and currently teaches at Okan University, Istanbul. Her research focuses on the use of security language by transnational advocacy campaigns.

I believe when questioning the reasons behind the limited traction that securitization literature has so far had in American IR, three set of factors worth consideration. These factors are: the historical development of IR scholarship; the relatively close ties between the policy world and the academic world in the US; and the limited dialogue between framing and securitization literatures.

Whether IR is an American field of study (one dominated by American scholars/ way of thinking) has been a matter of debate for the last four decades. Some scholars, like Hoffman (1977), claimed that particular conditions created a fertile ground in the US for IR to become a discipline and others argued that such historical roots turned IR into a “hegemonic” (Smith 2002) or a “not so international” discipline (Waever 1998).

As a reflection of the Western roots of the discipline, IR has evolved to traditionally concern itself with great power politics and focused on understanding/ explaining/predicting the priorities and concerns of these actors. The issues and concerns pertaining to non-great powers (as well as non-state actors) have only gradually found their ways into the discipline. Despite the efforts to make the field more global in its focus, great power politics remained largely at the core of the discipline. As such, the acts, perceptions and policy choices of great powers, especially in the study of international security, are largely approached as “causes” or “dynamics” of international affairs to build analyses on rather than “consequences of particular processes” to be analyzed. Thus, when Obama called “Ebola a ‘global security threat’” or when Clinton administration declared HIV/AIDS as a “threat to national security,” the fact that these issues are health problems in their essence and not security threats do not necessarily get noticed, rather they get embedded into what is referred to when talking about “threats to American security.”

The reason why American security concerns do not get questioned is also related to the close ties between the academic world and the policy world in the US. The nature of the issue at hand and the epistemological approach of the securitization theory require the scholars to have some distance from both the “author” and the “audience” of the security frame in order to be able to reflect on the process of securitization. When the ties between those who securitize an issue and those who analyze it are close, analyzing the process gets even more difficult. This echoes Oren’s (2002) discussion on how the intertwined nature of the policy and the academic worlds in the US led the literature’s perception and depiction of America’s chief enemies to change over time with almost no acknowledgement of such change.

While securitization theory is yet to attract significant attention in American scholarship, the questions of how agendas get set; how, why and through which mechanisms different issues get prioritized on political and social agendas is a well-developed line of study within the field of American politics. The strategic packing of issues with the purpose of triggering public attention and political action is studied through the lenses of framing theory. Most of the insights of the framing literature show parallels with the insights of the securitization theory. The attention paid to framing theory could have potentially provided a fertile ground for securitization theory to find itself a receptive ear in American scholarship. Despite such potential, as an increasing number of scholars (such as Watson 2012) highlight, the limited dialogue between framing and securitization literatures curtailed both literature’s ability to learn from each other’s’ insights and also limited the traction securitization theory had in American scholarship.

Naturally the factors I highlighted above are broad generalizations and the increasing attention that both securitization theory and other critical theories get from American IR is a testament of how IR is evolving, albeit slowly, toward becoming a more global discipline both in its focus and also in its methodological and epistemological approaches. Yet, bringing securitization theory to the center of American IR would require conscious efforts to tackle a number of intertwined obstacles.


Hoffman, S. 1977. An American Social Science: International Relations, Daedalus 106(3):41-60.

Oren, I. 2003. Our Enemies and US: America’s Rivalries and the Making of Political Science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Smith, S. 2002. The United States and the discipline of International Relations: ‘‘hegemonic country, hegemonic discipline’’. International Studies Review 4(2):67 – 85.

Waever, O. 1998. The sociology of a not so international discipline: American and European developments in International Relations. International Organization 52(4): pp 687 – 727.

Watson, S. D. 2012. “Framing” the Copenhagen School: Integrating the Literature on Threat Construction. Millennium 40(2):279-301.


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