[X] counts as a [Security Issue] in [Context C]

By August 2, 2013

For over a decade, I have been concerned about the theoretical inconsistencies of the Copenhagen School’s securitization framework. A derivative of the linguistic turn in International Relations, securitization has generated a great deal of scholarly debate within security studies. In my case, I have shared Thierry Balzacq’s concern that the Copenhagen School’s “speech act view of security does not provide adequate grounding upon which to examine security practices in ‘real situations.’” Like Balzacq, I have hypothesized that the social construction of security issues must be audience-centric, context-dependent, and power-laden. Yet, I have found the philosophical and sociological approaches to securitization wanting for a coherent theoretical explanation of the mechanism by which securitization can be successfully achieved in a particular context. This was the primary motivation for my decision to pursue a PhD at SOAS, University of London. I wanted to understand exactly how security issues are socially constructed.

A few weeks ago, one of my FAS colleagues, Mark Jansson, asked me to elaborate on my research. He then posed a set of questions that could serve as a Q&A introduction to my academic research for this blog. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to answer his questions about how my research would apply in particular WMD contexts as the answers to his questions presupposed an understanding of the theoretical debates in which my research is situated. In lieu of a Q&A, I have therefore decided to instead provide the FAS Community with a high-level theoretical overview of my alternative theoretical approach to the social construction of security issues. So, here it goes.

Fundamentally, my research seeks to resolve the mechanism by which the social construction of security issues is achieved. By mechanism, I mean the “how and why a hypothesized cause, in a given context, contributes to a particular outcome” (Faletti/Lynch). As outlined in my as yet unpublished works, my own hypothesis is that the Copenhagen School is correct is asserting that language plays a defining role in the social construction of security threats. Nevertheless, I argue that the securitization framework does not explain how language is used to socially construct a security issue because I reject the notion that the “magical power” of conventional language alone is sufficient to explain such complex social constructions. Furthermore, I share the view with other scholars that the Copenhagen School itself is based upon irreconcilable theoretical inconsistencies arising from its simultaneous commitments to realism, constructivism, and post-structuralism. I therefore have abandoned the securitization framework entirely in search of an alternative philosophical approach.

Although it might come as a surprise, my alternative approach draws not on the International Relations literature for theoretical inspiration. Instead, it looks to the philosophy of the mind literature, especially the work of John R. Searle. In his social ontology, I believe there exists a theoretical framework capable of providing an explanation for how a specific non-security issue can be transformed into a security issue and vice versa. My argument centers on the fact that a security issue is nothing more than a standard social fact, typically of the subclass Searle calls institutional facts. This suggests that there is nothing particularly “special” or “magical” about the social construction of security issues. They share the same conceptual properties as all other institutional facts. They are nothing more than a specific form of “X counts as Y in Context C,” in which the Y is a security issue whose declaration, when collectively agreed upon by a referent social group, bestows certain rights, obligations, and other deontic powers on specific actors as entails from the function: “We accept (S has the power (S does A)) in [Context C].”

Michael Edward Walsh is a PhD Student at SOAS, University of London. He also serves as a senior fellow at Georgetown University and a visiting researcher at The University of Zurich. This post is derived from his as yet unpublished paper entitled, “A Searlean Approach to Security: The Social Construction of Security Issues.” Copyright held by author. Original post here.

Categories: research, security