Securitization Forum: Why Does American IR Ignore Securitization Theory?

21 September 2015, 1353 EDT

This is the fourth contribution in our forum on securitization theory in the U.S.  Ido Oren is associate professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Florida and can be reached at Ty Solomon is Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow and can be reached at

Eric Van Rythoven and Jarrod Hayes ask the timely question of why securitization theory has gained so little traction in American IR. They suggest that we should be puzzled by the absence of securitization theory from American IR given the high citation counts for the theory’s seminal works, its growing attractiveness to scholars in other disciplines, and the thirst for a power-oriented constructivism as an alternative to the liberal idealism that pervades American constructivist scholarship. We wish to make two inter-related points regarding the politics of securitization theory. First, somewhat in contrast to Eric and Jarrod, we argue that the absence of securitization theory from American IR should hardly be puzzling given the embeddedness of American IR in American political science, which is dominated by a neopositivist orthodoxy. Second, we want to sharpen Eric and Jarrod’s characterization of the geography of securitization theory. We suggest that the divide is not merely between the US and Europe, but that securitization theory has begun to take root wherever IR enjoys greater autonomy from political science, and/or wherever political science is not strongly attached to neopositivism, including Australia and Canada.

First, with regard to Eric and Jarrod’s question of why securitization theory barely registers in American IR scholarship, our answer is: because of the embeddedness of American IR in the discipline of political science, which strongly favors neopositivist methodology, with its presupposition of a mind-independent reality. The “problem” with Ole Waever’s concept of securitization is not with the substance of its claims (indeed it had no specific substantive claim attached to it) so much as with its being, at its core, incompatible with the “correspondence theory of truth” that is so ingrained in American political science. The notion that “security” is a speech act that is socially produced through discourse simply does not lend itself to the kind of hypothesis-testing methodology that dominates US political science. In contrast, European IR enjoys greater professional autonomy vis a vis political science. There are few if any departments of “political science” in the UK, for example. Most departments are named “politics” or “politics and international relations,” or some variant thereof. Moreover, the political scientists who work within these departments are, on balance, not nearly as committed to the canons of neopositivist hypothesis-testing as their American counterparts. Thus, all else equal, IR scholars in the UK and Europe who wish to ground their research in securitization theory have better prospects of getting jobs, tenure, promotions, and other professional rewards than American IR scholars enamored of the theory.

In fact, it is not just securitization that receives a cold shoulder from American IR. Any scholarship that smacks of “postmodernism” or “poststructuralism” is largely disregarded by mainstream IR/security studies. As others have commented, the epithet “postmodernism” serves as a disciplining device in American IR. Patrick Jackson for example, discusses how “postmodernism” is deployed as a dismissive maneuver, just as a very particular notion of “science” is used as a cudgel in the same manner. Approaches that presuppose a reality constructed by language either get ignored by many IR gatekeepers in the US or, at best, misunderstood (see here and here) by gatekeepers who then demand that these approaches transform themselves into neopositivist research programs. Again, the issue is not securitization theory per se but the divergence of its philosophical or ontological underpinnings from the neopositivist orthodoxy of American political science. As we noted, it’s tough, if not impossible, to get interviews, jobs, tenure, promotions, and the like in the United States when one’s work does not conform to this orthodoxy.

Second, we want to point out that securitization theory has received (nearly) as warm a reception in Australia and Canada as in continental Europe and the UK. Eric and Jarrod’s eye-opening observation that a single European journal (EJIR) has published far more securitization research than several top American IR journals combined goes some way towards demonstrating how much of an anomaly the US is in this regard. However, we want to suggest that the divide is not just between the US and the UK/Europe. Securitization theory seems to thrive in any country in which IR is not as institutionally dependent on political science, and/or political science is not as committed to neopositivism, as in the United States. Take Australia, for example. Whereas in US departments of political science IR scholars are typically outnumbered by Americanists (who play the lead role in enforcing the neopositivist orthodoxy), in Australian schools/programs of politics and international relations IR scholars often form the largest faculty group and IR draws the most students. Furthermore, Australian political science is far less positivistic and quantitative in orientation than its American counterpart (see here). Thus, it is not surprising that quite a number of Australian IR scholars have contributed to the securitization literature, including Matt McDonald, Megan MacKenzie, Alison Gerard, and Adam Kamradt-Scott. Securitization has also found a warm reception in Canada, as seen in work by Michael Williams, Mark Salter, and Scott Watson, among others.

In sum, securitization theory fares poorly in the US because it is incompatible with the hegemonic methodological orientation in the discipline in which IR is deeply embedded: political science. By contrast, securitization theory appears to be well-received in countries where the reputations of IR scholars are not highly dependent on political scientists, and/or where political science is not dominated by neopositivism.