International Relations Securitization
Rens van Munster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0091


The concept of securitization is generally associated with the Copenhagen school of security studies, which is generally taken to include Ole Wæver, Barry Buzan, and a range of other, more loosely associated, researchers. Originally devised by Ole Wæver, the concept of securitization provided a fresh take on the increasingly tiresome debate between those who claimed that threats are objective (i.e., what really constitutes a threat to international security) on the one hand, and those that maintained that security is subjective (what is perceived to be a threat) on the other. In an attempt to sidestep or bypass this debate, the Copenhagen school suggests that security should instead be seen as a speech act, where the central issue is not if threats are real or not, but the ways in which a certain issue (troop movements, migration, or environmental degradation) can be socially constructed as a threat. The idea of speech acts has a long tradition in philosophy and refers to the idea that by saying something, something is done. So, just as the naming of a ship is a speech act that brings something into effect, the uttering of “security” can be viewed as an act by which all kind of issues (military, political, economic, and environmental) can become staged as a threat. However, not all talk about security qualifies as securitization in the sense understood by Ole Wæver and his Copenhagen colleagues. A securitizing speech act needs to follow a specific rhetorical structure, derived from war and its historical connotations of survival, urgency, threat, and defense. This leads the Copenhagen school to define securitization as a speech act that has to fulfill three rhetorical criteria. It is a discursive process by means of which an actor (1) claims that a referent object is existentially threatened, (2) demands the right to take extraordinary countermeasures to deal with that the threat, and (3) convinces an audience that rule-breaking behavior to counter the threat is justified. In short, by labeling something as “security,” an issue is dramatized as an issue of supreme priority. One can therefore think of securitization as the process through which nonpoliticized (issues are not talked about) or politicized (issues are publicly debated) issues are elevated to security issues that need to be dealt with with urgency, and that legitimate the bypassing of public debate and democratic procedures. The Copenhagen school originally studies the dynamics of security across five different, nonexclusive sectors—military, political, societal, economic, and environmental—although later analyses of securitization have sought to expand the number of sectors. Because securitization enables emergency measures outside democratic control, the Copenhagen school generally opts for desecuritization, rather than securitization, as the preferable mode of problem solving.

General Overviews

The concept of securitization was originally formulated in Wæver 1995, and worked out more systematically in Buzan, et al. 1998. Although written more than a decade ago, the latter still stands as the Copenhagen school’s most elaborate treatment of the concept to date, and is therefore a must-read for anyone interested in the Copenhagen school’s understanding of the concept. Alongside the writings of the Copenhagen school, a few different varieties of overviews of securitization theory exist. Huysmans 1998 is an early review of the concept and remains one of the most useful texts to understand how securitization theory was part of the larger body of work done by researchers at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Williams 2003 is a critical appraisal of securitization theory and its relevance for the study of international relations and security. More recent overviews include Emmers 2007, which provides an undergraduate-level introduction to the key contributions and limitations of securitization theory. A more advanced discussion of central debates on securitization theory can be found in Peoples and Vaughan-Williams 2010. This overview also situates securitization theory in critical security studies more generally. McDonald 2008 provides a useful and up-to-date overview of the securitization framework and includes a systematic discussion of the analytical ambiguities that surround the concept. Balzacq 2010 is an overview that focuses on the different ways in which the speech act can be understood in the framework of securitization.

  • Balzacq, Thierry. “Constructivism and Securitization Studies.” In The Routledge Handbook of Security Studies. Edited by Myriam Dunn Cavelty and Victor Mauer, 56–72. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    Presents a social constructivist reading of securitization theory that, besides the Copenhagen school, also includes other constructivist interpretations of security that draw on securitization and speech act theory. Some preexisting knowledge of speech act theory, constructivism, and securitization theory is useful before reading this chapter.

  • Buzan, Barry, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde. Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

    Outlines the concept of securitization as a speech act that follows a specific grammar and rhetorical structure. Discusses the dynamics of securitization in the military, political, economic, and environmental sectors.

  • Emmers, Ralf. “Securitization.” In Contemporary Security Studies. Edited by Alan Collins, 109–125. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A straightforward introduction to securitization theory. Provides examples on how to apply securitization theory empirically, and is particularly suited for students on the undergraduate and early graduate level with little or no prior knowledge of the Copenhagen school and securitization theory.

  • Huysmans, Jef. “Revisiting Copenhagen: Or, On the Creative Development of a Security Studies Agenda in Europe.” European Journal of International Relations 4.4 (1998): 479–505.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066198004004004

    Details the development of the Copenhagen school and critically discusses the idea of securitization as a speech act that follows a specific grammar. It also links securitization theory to other innovations introduced into security studies by the Copenhagen school such as the concept of “security complex” and the idea that there are multiple sectors of security.

  • McDonald, Matt. “Securitization and the Construction of Security.” European Journal of International Relations 14.4 (2008): 563–587.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066108097553

    Outlines the conceptual framework of securitization theory, and points out some limits of the approach by arguing that its definition of securitization is too narrowly conceived. This is a good place to start for those interested in engaging debates about the nature and rhetorical structure of securitization as a speech act.

  • Peoples, Columba, and Nick Vaughan-Williams. Critical Security Studies: An Introduction. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    An up-to-date text that introduces the main tenets of the Copenhagen school in a systematic fashion. It also raises some points of critique, which makes it a particularly useful and rewarding read for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in search of an overview of the main debates and issues on securitization.

  • Wæver, Ole. “Securitization and Desecuritization.” In On Security. Edited by Ronnie Lipschutz, 46–86. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

    The first outline of the idea of securitization as a speech act. Sets out the main elements of securitization as a speech act and discusses the concept’s historical connotations of war and national security. The chapter also discusses normative implications of securitizing issues.

  • Williams, Michael C. “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics.” International Studies Quarterly 47.4 (2003): 511–531.

    DOI: 10.1046/j.0020-8833.2003.00277.x

    Provides an assessment of the foundations of this approach and its limitations, and sketches its significance for broader areas of international relations theory. Systematic and concise, this article can be read on the advanced undergraduate and graduate level.

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