Defining social constructivism in security studies: the normative dilemma of writing security.

Author:Huysmans, Jef

In Western Europe--but also elsewhere--we have recently witnessed an offensive of security language in the societal and internal-affairs sector. The multiple references in political and academic debates to a new security construction that relates terrorism, drugs, immigration, and asylum has generated a new agenda in security studies. (1) It focuses on how questions of cultural/ethnic identity and public order-traditionally perceived as domestic issues--have entered an international or transnational security agenda. How has this security continuum that interrelates drugs, terrorism, migration, and the internal market been constructed in contemporary Western Europe? (2) What are the consequences of approaching identity questions from a security perspective for the definition of the state and the rearticulation of a European order after the Gold War? This debate is very stimulating from a conceptual or scholarly point of view; however, some of the key authors researching this phenomenon express a certain uneasi ness about the subject, as we can read in, for example, the conclusion of Ole Waever et al.'s book that develops the concept of societal security:

Societal security cannot avoid the risk of legitimising non-state security policy. Accepting other voices speaking for society will always involve a de-legitimisation of the state that "should" be the protector of society. It then becomes a problem that anyone can try to speak on behalf of society.

The closeness to fascist ideology is troubling: is it therefore inadvisable to raise this agenda of societal security? Isn't there a risk that the result is to legitimise xenophobic and nationalist reactions against foreigners or against integration--"We are just defending our societal security!"? This could be a risk, but it seems to us a risk we have to take. This danger has to be offset against the necessity to use the concept of societal security to try to understand what is actually happening. (3)

Slightly different, but expressing a similar displeasure with writing about internal security, is Monica den Boer's reflection on the "internal security gap" ideology:

The question is whether Europe's internal security is at stake as a result of immigrants taking advantage of Europe's exposure. The "internal security-gap" ideology ignores the lack of substantial evidence about the effectiveness of border controls against crime and illegal immigration, and injects a belief into the public that international crime and illegal immigration are new phenomena reinforced by the abolition of internal border controls. (4)

Authors in this field seem to have a degree of discomfort about writings--their own and other people's--on societal issues from a security perspective.

The question does not arise in the same way for all authors, however. Some will argue that there is no objective evidence for regulating migration from a security perspective. And this settles their problem. Their contribution consists of arguing that a misperception is at work and that this should be remedied. But another group of authors, whom I will call social constructivists, cannot so easily escape the nuisance. They share with the former group that transforming migration into a security problem is (partly) the result of a practice of definition; security is what agents make of it. But, instead of making this act of definition dependent on cognitive processes of an agent resulting in a correct or incorrect perception of a threat, they understand the creation of a security problem as a social phenomenon. Security questions such as the internal security continuum result from a work of mobilization in which practices work upon each other and thus create an effect that we call a security problem. This effe ct is a structural effect that is beyond the intentions and control of the individual's practices of definition. Immigration as a security problem is thus not a natural given; it does not just pop up as a new threat manifesting itself and triggering a security policy trying to curtail the danger.

Turning immigration issues into a security question involves a mobilization of certain institutions (e.g., the police), a particular kind of knowledge (security knowledge), and specific expectations concerning the social exchanges between various social groups. It is an intersubjective understanding of security, rather than a subjective one. The central level is not the individual's history or mind but the interaction between different actions articulating a security knowledge and mobilizing security expectations in an already institutionalized context. (5)

In this interpretation, speaking and writing about security is never innocent. It always risks contributing to the opening of a window of opportunity for a "fascist mobilization" or an "internal security-gap ideology." Moreover, this "danger" is always very pertinent in security studies since security analysis is mostly performed in already heavily politicized contexts. In other words, security writings participate in a political field where social questions are already contested in terms of crisis, threats, and dangers. Furthermore, like many social scientists, "all security studies scholars are engaged in intensely practical and political projects, whether these are defined as 'policy relevant knowledge' or 'Praxis.'" (6)

Social-constructivist authors face a normative dilemma that is central to their research project. They are sensitive to how security "talk" about migration can contribute to its securitization (7)--that is, it can render migration problematic from a security perspective. They may point out how criminological research establishes a relationship between crime and immigration; for example, by looking for a correlation between Turkish immigrants and trade in heroin, they establish a discursive link, irrespective of whether the correlation is confirmed or not. The discursive link is thus embedded in the very setup of the research; in other words, from the very beginning the research embodies an assumption, often already politicized, that a particular group of aliens may have a special relationship to crime. (8) This observation is of course not a dilemma as such: it becomes a dilemma for social-constructivist authors only when they realize that this interpretation feeds back into their own research. They also pro duce security knowledge that therefore could as such be securitizing. If an author values a securitization of migration negatively, she faces the question of how to talk or write about the securitization of migration without contributing to a further securitization by the very production of this knowledge. The normative dilemma thus consists of how to write or speak about security when the security knowledge risks the production of what one tries to avoid, what one criticizes: that is, the securitization of migration, drugs, and so forth. (9)

In this article I use the normative dilemma as an entrance point for defining social-constructivist research projects in security studies. Peter Katzenstein's 1996 Culture of National Security formulated a social-constructivist research agenda by emphasizing the causal work of norms and the importance of identity questions in security policies. (10) Surprisingly, the book did not reflect on the significance of language in social relations. As a result, its theoretical framework reads somewhat like a traditional institutional sociology, ignoring the significance of the so-called linguistic turn for social theory. The social constructivism formulated in this article differs from that in the Katzenstein volume by putting the social significance of language at the heart of the research project. It argues that the dilemma and the social-constructivist research program rely on a performative and generic understanding of language. Focusing on the social significance of language moves the theoretical basis of social constructivism away from a positivist sociology of norms and roles. It also brings IR social constructivism more into line with major developments in social theory in the last couple of decades.

In the next section, I briefly explain how the dilemma and social constructivism are based on a particular understanding of language. The two final sections identify different constructivist research projects on the basis of their distinct ways of approaching the normative dilemma. Differences in the way they introduce a generic and performative interpretation of language define key characteristics of the research projects.

The Constructive Quality of Security Utterances

The normative dilemma does not fall out of the blue: it is a direct result of the interpretation of security as a social construction. I assume that the specific meaning of the normative dilemma is undeniably related to a specific conceptualization of security as an effect of mobilization. Language plays a crucial role in this mobilization. Although the process cannot be reduced to a linguistic one, the social mobilization of security expectations relies heavily on the use of security language; for example, that of security knowledge produced by police agencies and the military; the media's articulation of dangers; social movements' arguing over the reality of a threat and different forms of countering it. Speaking or writing about an issue in security language has an integrative capacity. It enables the connecting of isolated features such as, for example, migration, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, drugs, and the European internal market into a meaningful whole (below, I will refer to this whole as a secu rity field). Thus, language operates as a mediating instrument that brings social practices into a particular communicative, institutionalized framework. Language is not just a communicative instrument used to talk about a real world outside of language; it is a defining force, integrating social relations.


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