Copenhagen School

The Copenhagen School of security studies is an academic school that employs a critical approach to security studies. It is part of the postpositivist movement in the field of international relations (IR), which became a salient part of post–Cold War scholarship. IR theorist Barry Buzan’s 1983 book People, States, and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations forms the bedrock of the school’s academic thought. Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde are two well-known scholars connected with the school. At the core of the school is the way in which many different types of security issues interact with domestic politics. Drawing on the ideas of the ontology of constructivism within the field of IR, the Copenhagen School looks at threats to states (i.e., national security) as matters that are socially constructed. The term Copenhagen School was first used by Professor Bill McSweeeny, an expert in peace studies at the University of Dublin and one of the Copenhagen School’s principal critics.

Securitization is a seminal feature of the Copenhagen School, whereby actors turn regular issues of domestic level politics into issues of high politics that affect states on a national level (i.e., when something becomes an issue of national security). Security as a socially constructed phenomenon is highly subjective. This view held by the Copenhagen School is a guiding aspect of its view on security and security-related issues. The securitization process comprises three distinct phases:

  1. The creation of an existential threat (i.e., an issue or event such as climate change) before a referent object (i.e., a state or group of states) (this phase is called the “speech act”).
  2. The commencement of special/emergency/extraordinary actions in an attempt to secure and protect the referent object against the existential threat.
  3. The receiving of the speech act by one or more audiences.

One of the major problems associated with this process, particularly the third phase, is the lack of control that a securitizing actor ultimately has over the way in which the audience receives and subsequently processes or interprets the speech.

Proponents of the Copenhagen School speak of the issues of security in terms of different facets of contemporary international politics and societies. These facets can be taken as different areas or fields, such as the state and society, the state and the military, levels of politics and, the field of economics and its impact on other areas, as well as the environment and the many changes within it and how it affects people and states. As such, the Copenhagen School (through security studies theory) addresses a truly wide spectrum of issues and events that affect the world today and people living within it. The depth of analysis within each field can be significant and is therefore able to engage with and “widen” the materialist security studies practiced more traditionally. This capacity to examine and analyze objects and events within the international system by means of various sectors represents one of the main pillars of the Copenhagen School.

One of the major problems of security concerns is that what is considered a threat in one country may not necessarily be considered a threat in another country. Different states are faced, in many cases, with their own unique set of issues that cannot easily be translated from one state to another or from one region to another. Thus, regional security complex theory, a theory of regional security attached to the Copenhagen School (put forward by the school’s primary scholars), is used to approach the “clustering” of security in different geographical locales. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the South East Asia Treaty Organization constitute two examples of regional security arrangements formed as a result of patterns of cooperation and discord or hostility securitization and de-securitization processes.

The Copenhagen School has attracted much criticism from scholars of other IR theoretical areas. For example, some claim that it has taken far too strong a European perspective on issues related to security. Furthermore, the claim is often made that the school fails to conceptualize and problematize critical terms within the field. It might be beneficial if it, as Filip Ejdus (2009)—editor of the journal Western Balkans Security Observer—points out, “would devote itself more to the theorization of the term ‘political’ and take a clearer and better articulated normative stand in relation to the dichotomy political-security” (p. 1). Finally, a leading IR scholar, Lene Hansen, in her article “The Little Mermaid’s Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School,” published in 2000 in Millennium, has argued that the Copenhagen School fails to adequately include gender in its security scholarship.

Scott Nicholas Romaniuk

See also Constructivism ; Critical Security Studies ; National Security ; Politics ; Securitization

Further Readings

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. London, England: Routledge, 1997.

Buzan, Barry. People, States, and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations. Hemel Hempstead, NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1983.

Ejdus, Filip. “Editor’s Word.” Western Balkans Security Observer, v.4/13 (2009).

Huysmans, Jef. The Politics of Insecurity: Fear, Migration and Asylum in the EU. London, England: Routledge, 2006.

Knudsen, Olav F. “Post Copenhagen Security Studies: Desecuritizing Securitization.” Security Dialogue, v.32/3 (2001).

Wæver, Ole. “Securitization and Desecuritization.” In Ronnie D. Lipschutz (ed.), On Security. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Williams, Paul. “Critical Security Studies.” In Alex J. Bellamy (ed.), International Society and Its Critics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004.