Critical Security Studies

Critical security studies is an academic discipline that advocates a social constructionist approach rather than a realist approach to security studies. In security studies, realism is a central school of thought that argues that individuals are self-centered beings whose behaviors must be kept in check by a security-focused state. Realism also holds that states are competitive and self-interested and must keep one another in check (e.g., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Alternatively, constructionists believe that reality is socially constructed; thus, security is formed through persuasion, culture, shared values, and social identities. There are three main schools of critical security studies: (1) the Critical Security Studies of the Welsh School (CSSWS), (2) the Paris School (CSSPS), and (3) the Copenhagen School (CSSCS). This entry compares and contrasts these schools in general and discusses the philosophy and criticism of CSSWS in particular.

The CSSWS was developed at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and the foundations of this school are an outgrowth of the work of professors Ken Booth and Richard Wyn Jones. The CSSWS views security studies through the lens of emancipatory theory. The CSSWS has several characteristics; most notable is that it places the emphasis on individual security rather than on that of the state. The roots of its critical perspective are said to derive from theorist Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School (notably Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Jürgen Habermas), and its emphasis is on fostering the emancipation of individuals as a path to peace. The CSSWS is also said to be distinguished from other schools of security studies in its aim to foster a political awareness of critical security rather than just political event analysis.

The CSSPS believes that security is not the only concern of international relations scholars, as this school is grounded in sociology and the writings of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Didier Bigo of Kings College, London, is a leading figure of this school.

Meanwhile, the CSSCS has its roots in the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute and emphasizes the social aspects of security and the idea of securitization, whereby the issue of national security is used to justify individuals in society claiming more power over others. Barry Buzan of the London School of Economics and Political Science is a leading figure of this school. Security studies scholars regularly debate the extent to which the aims of constructionism, realism, and liberalism (another school of security studies) overlap.

The CSSWS, the CSSPS, and the CSSCS place a strong emphasis on social constructionism and an ever-changing social discourse. As previously mentioned, the CSSWS, in particular, places the emphasis on individual security rather than on that of the state. The CSSWS notes how the state can threaten the security of individuals, especially those who are disenfranchised by the current world order. Rather than emphasize the power and authority of states, this perspective looks to social justice (e.g., eliminating gender, class, and other barriers) to emancipate the individual in order to achieve peace.

Leading theorists of the CSSWS include founders Booth and Wyn Jones. Booth is cited for equating security to emancipation and asserting that states are primarily a means (not an ends) for ensuring the individuals’ security because states often create insecurity and are only meant to be instruments. He also argues that the construct of a state is too uncertain a concept to form a sole basis for theorizing security. Wyn Jones has articulated the nature of the emancipation of the CSSWS by noting that complete emancipation will never be fully realized because there will always be a goal for improvement and greater emancipation.

Critics of the CSSWS approach have argued that the CSSWS and its theorists are more focused on making social progress through dialogue than with articulating what is ethically good. Others have questioned whether the CSSWS’s goal of emancipation might be better versed in the language of justice, human rights, or economics. Finally, critics have asked for more clarification of the emancipationist response to global acts of human genocide and mass killing. Scholars continue to engage with CSSWS thought as a means for understanding events such as Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014; the 2014 race rights protests in Ferguson, Missouri; and the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. These and other similar events continue to shape the social discourse on security.

Gordon Alley-Young

See also Cold War ; Constructivism ; Copenhagen School ; Frankfurt School

Further Readings

Booth, Ken. “Security and Emancipation.” Review of International Studies, v.17 (1991).

Browning, Christopher S. and Matt McDonald. “The Future of Critical Security Studies: Ethics and the Politics of Security.” European Journal of International Relations, v.19 (2011).

Gaan, Narottam. “Critical Security Studies: Emancipatory Challenges.” Journal of International Affairs, v.14 (2010).

Mustapha, Jennifer. “An Analytical Survey of Critical Security Studies: Making the Case for a (Modified) Post-Structuralist Approach” (n.d.). (Accessed December 2014).

Newman, Edward. “Human Security” (n.d.). (Accessed December 2014).

Pupinis, Mantas. “Critique of the Chapter National Insecurity: Threats and Vulnerabilities from Barry Buzan’s People, States and Fear” (n.d.). (Accessed December 2014).

Stateless Diplomat. “Emancipation vs. Power and Order: Dichotomies of Critical Security Studies” (n.d.). (Accessed December 2014).