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Is securitisation a hopelessly

flawed theory, or merely an

incomplete one?
Laura Bartley - 2018
2199 Words

Twenty years following the publication of the seminal ​Security: A New Framework
for Analysis by Buzan ​et al​. (1998), the innovation of its core idea ‘securitisation’ has led to
the continued interest in and application of the theory. Indeed, the development of the term
‘securitisation’ in the 1990s by Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde at the Copenhagen Peace
Research Institute (where the ‘Copenhagen School’ derives its name) has been praised as
being ‘one of the most significant conceptual innovations to emerge out of debates over the
nature of security in recent decades’ (Peoples and Vaughan-Williams 2015, p. 92) and
‘possibly the most thorough and continuous exploration of the significance and implications
of a widening security agenda for security studies’ (Huysmans 1998, p. 186). This is largely
due to the Copenhagen School’s (CS) departure from the traditional realist understanding of
security and its state-centric focus on military threats which jeopardise the survival of the
state (Williams 2003, p.511). However despite the praise of its innovation and analytical
usefulness, some argue that several theoretical weaknesses (for example internal tensions,
overemphasis on linguistic speech act methodology, and under-theorised terminology)
highlight the inherent flaws and potential incompleteness of the theory (Heinrich and
Szulecki 2018; Balzacq ​et al​. 2016; McDonald 2008; Stritzel 2007, Hansen 2000).
Thus, the purpose of this essay is to provide a critical assessment on the current
operability of securitisation theory (ST) by taking into consideration the strengths and
limitations of its different formulations (i.e. beyond the original Copenhagen School
approach). One of the main research aims will therefore be to question to what extent the
flaws within ST indicate ‘incompleteness’, and also whether these flaws are indeed beyond
hope of improvement and thus render the securitisation project ‘hopeless’.
Firstly in order to proceed with a thorough analysis of the operability and usefulness
of ST, it is necessary to first provide a brief outline of the origins, core assumptions and main
insights provided by securitisation. The essay will then proceed to a discussion of internal
divisions that have emerged within ST, specifically the under-theorising of the concept of the
audience and the tensions between the philosophical and sociological approaches.1 Finally the
essay will conclude by identifying and exploring different developments which could help

Due to constraints of essay these two limitations are focused on indepthly, however many other
limitations of securitisation could be analysed. For further critique see Balzacq ​et al​. (2016)
bolster some of the discussed theoretical and methodological limitations in order to ultimately
assess whether ST is hopelessly flawed or merely incomplete.

Assessing the Contribution of the Copenhagen School and Securitisation

In order to understand how the ST has succeeded in providing a new framework

which provides useful insights and challenges conventional security studies approaches to
security, it is first necessary to situate and define securitisation theory. The CS’s project was
fuelled by a c​oncern in the post-Cold War environment of making the term ‘security’
meaningless as they recognised the ‘intellectual and political dangers in simply tacking the
word security onto an ever wider range of issues’ (Buzan ​et al. 1998, p.1). The novelty of
Buzan ​et al​.’s approach is clear when looking at the initial purpose of CS to provid​e ‘a new
framework for analysis’ in how we define what is and what is not security. ​As such the CS
defines security as ultimately ‘about survival’ but it also means something distinctive in that
it is always socially constructed ‘it is when an issue is presented as posing an existential
threat to a designated referent object’ (ibid, p. 21). It follows then, that a pivotal aim of their
research is to explore what new threats emerge and how these threats become a security issue
- which is conceptualised through ST (ibid, p. 4).

The concept of securitisation draws heavily on the theory of language, specifically the
work of Austin (1962) and ‘speech act theory’, as security does not refer to something
objectively ‘real’ but rather is brought into being through discursive action (Buzan ​et al​.
1998). The oft cited definition of securitisation is that it occurs ‘when a securitising actor uses
a rhetoric of existential threat thereby takes an issue out of what under those conditions is
“normal” politics’ (ibid, p. 24). Security is thus a ‘speech act’ where the utterance of the term
‘security’ is not necessary but what is ‘essential is the designation of an existential threat...
and the acceptance of that designation of by a significant audience’ (p.25). It is important to

highlight here the significance of intersubjectivity, that an issue is securitised when a specific
audience accepts this securitising move and thus securitisation is not about a subjective
observation of security but rather intersubjective understandings. Finally, Figure One
illustrates the simplified process securitisation can take (minus desecuritisation)2, and indeed
conceptualising of ST as a process is one of the greatest strengths of the theory. This is
because CS’s conceptualisation of security enables the deepening and widening of security
(with any issue allowed to to be securitised) but crucially ensures that the term remains
analytically useful - with security being understood as a process rather than an ever growing
range of issues. As such the CS’s securitisation theory has succeeded in being one of the most
innovative attempts at redefining security and today there exists a wide range of literature on
the empirical application of securitisation theory showing its continued analytical power.3

Internal Tensions and Debates within Securitisation Theory

Nonetheless despite the innovation put forth by CS in their conceptualisation of ST,

challenges have been highlighted with many academics being critical of a range of
theoretical weaknesses that may indicate the inherent flaws and potential incompleteness of
the theory (Heinrich and Szulecki 2018; Balzacq ​et al​. 2016). This section intends to unpack
two of these frequently cited limitations in order to later discuss some of the changes
proposed to tackle these perceived weaknesses.

Under-theorising of the concept of the audience

The first limitation which has gained increased attention recently, is that the
audience’s role in accepting a securitising move (and also who the relevant audiences are) is
under-theorised and lacks clarity in ST. For instance, Williams (2011, p. 213) argues that the
concept of the audience has been left ‘radically underdeveloped’ and this is directly
recognised by Wæver (2009) who agrees that the term ‘audience’ requires ‘a better definition
and probably differentiation.’

Desecuritisation is the reverse process, movement from securitised to politicised/depoliticised. Again
due to space constraints cannot be discussed in great depth here.
Examples range from significant research in the areas of migration (Waever and Buzan 1993);
HIV/AIDs (Sjostedt 2011); and non-Western cases (Wilkinson 2007)
It is worth recalling the significance of the audience to ST, as Balzacq ​et al​. (2016, p.
499) points out that one of the core assumptions of ST is that securitisation is an
intersubjective process that depends on audience acceptance. However this idea of audience
assent raises questions relating to the nature of this acceptance/rejection, as well as how ST
accounts for the presence of multiple audiences with different impact potential. Moreover this
weakness of being unable to ascertain the role played by audience acceptance/rejection has
important empirical implications as ‘how we know when [securitisation] happens [is]
radically under-theorised’ (McDonald 2008, p.572). If we cannot ascertain the level of
acceptance needed or fail to account for one side of the intersubjective process, or struggle to
find a method of measuring audience impact on the process then the analytical usefulness of
ST gets called into question.

However it is important to note the positive development in this area as there has been
increasing engagement with the concept of the audience within the literature, and moreover
this in fact can have a positive normative implication as the focus of analysis moves to
multiple actors (outside the realm of ‘the state’) who can claim the right to ‘speak security’.
For instance there has been an effort to differentiate different types of audiences that are
involved in the securitisation process (Judge ​et al.​ 2018, p. 162). One proposal comes from
Salter (2008) whose ‘dramaturgical’ approach involves the disaggregation of the audience
into different settings: popular, elite, technocratic and scientific. In this case each setting
provides the audience with varying degrees of securitising potential. Additionally the work of
Léonard and Kaunert (2011, p. 58, cited in Balzacq ​et al​. 2016) proposes the inclusion of
Kingdon’s public policy ‘three stream model’ in ST which allows analysts to differentiate
between the various audiences, their level of impact in accepting/rejecting but also considers
how different audiences interact and relate to one another.

That said overcoming this difficulty of the audience in ST potentially reveals a deeper
tension between subjectivity and intersubjectivity within the theory. In order to fully ascertain
the acceptance of a specific securitising move there is a need to separate securitisation as a
process that takes places in a broader context (e.g. with pre-existing actors, audiences,
contexts) from the performativity of security speech act (Andrew ​et al 2018; McDonald
2008; Stritzel 2007). This is a recurring tension that stems from the differences between the
philosophical and sociological approaches which we shall discuss next.

The tensions between the philosophical and sociological approaches
As hinted to in the last section, another limitation in relation to ST is summarised
effectively by Stritzel who posits that ST suffers from ‘several internal tensions in general, too much weight is put on the semantic side of the speech act
articulation at the expense of its social and linguistic relatedness and sequentially’ (2007, p.
358). The lack of clarity in relation to how to analyse security can said to arise from the lack
of clarity over how the CS define security (Paterson 2017, p. 41). There is an inherent
contradiction in several of the definitions put forth by Waever and Buzan, in one case
security is understood as purely a speech act ‘by uttering “security,” a state representation
moves a particular development into a specific area, and thereby claims special right to use
whatever means necessary to block it’ (Waever 1995, p. 55). However in another example
CS state that ‘what is essential is the designation of an existential threat requiring emergency
action..​.and the acceptance of that designation by a significant audience​’ (Buzan ​et al​. 1998,
p.25, emphases added).

Moreover, Table One summarises the differences in approach within ST, the
philosophical approach4 follows closely the ideas of CS with some refinement drawing of
post-structural analysis and use of Derridean terms, the ‘sociological theory of securitisation’
proposed by Balzacq (2011) places greater emphasis on power relations, practices and
context (but still views discursive practices as important just alongside non-discursive ones).

This strong focus on speech act by the philosophical approach points to some of the
other limitations often cited, for instance limiting ST to purely linguistic analysis (no visual
media or images, bureaucratic practices, institutionalism mechanisms) and leads to ‘actor

Coined by Balzacq (2011)
centrism’ to the neglect of other aspects of ST (e.g. legitimacy/authority in who speaks)
(Heinrich and Szulecki 2018, p. 42). One of the most compelling arguments against this
reliance on speech act theory is that it cements this notion of a speech act event and neglects
the temporal and fluid model of securitisation, as put by Salter (2008, p. 324) it ‘does not
match the complexity of contemporary social dynamics of security.’

For Balzacq (2011) the tension between the two positions is a result of a flawed
understanding of Austin’s speech act theory and the conflation of illocutionary and
perlocutionary acts. However Guzzini (2011, p 335) argues that actually this is already
included in the original concept saying that ‘the idea of speech act here refers to process, not
a single kind of bombshell event.’ Additionally Hansen (2011) also disagrees that the
philosophical approach does not include context. Nonetheless despite the differences in the
two approaches, both appear to be in agreement that pure focus on rhetoric sans any
contextual understanding is an inappropriate approach and potentially suggests a movement
towards a truly more comprehensive framework.


‘The critique of securitisation theory has not been fundamental but rather
constructive in order to widen its appeal and range.’

- Heinrich and Szulecki (2018, p.44)

To conclude, this paper has attempted to address the question of whether

securitisation is a hopelessly flawed theory or merely incomplete, and argues that its flaws do
indicate a level of incompleteness (i.e. it lacks of a fully comprehensive framework) however
it is not irredeemably flawed. For instance many of the critiques regarding the limitations of
ST diminish the truly successful analytical and theoretical innovation of the CS’s
understanding of securitisation as a social process. Yet as the above quote from Heinrich and
Szulecki highlights, these critiques often serve the purpose of strengthening and widening the
appeal of ST. Moreover, this consistent engagement and revision to ST is necessary in order
to overcome its current limitations.
Indeed, there are potential developments to use these weaknesses as a means of
strengthen ST more generally as clearly there is a need for greater revision and refinement of
the original, thin canonical model put forth by the CS. For instance through establishing a

bridge between the internal divisions by fostering common ground for increased integration
between the philosophical/post-structuralist and sociological/pragmatist approaches to ST.
Additionally there is the opportunity to create clearer guidance for future (empirical) research
and a more systematic conceptualisation of terminology by developing a clearer
understanding of the role of the audience (and their acceptance/rejection) - this could be done
in tandem with greater integration. Nonetheless ST remains a useful and important theory in
security studies.

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