Societal security

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Societal security is a concept developed by the Copenhagen School of security studies that focuses on the ability of a society to persist in its essential character. It was developed in the 1990s in the context of the end of the Cold War and moves towards further integration in the European Union. This paradigm de-emphasises the role of state power in guaranteeing security by confronting threats, highlighting instead questions of community identity and social dynamics.


The end of the Cold War prompted scholars to rethink the paradigm of security independently from the state and the military.[1] In Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of new states and sustained efforts to pursue the European Union (EU) integration. The new order called for a (re)conceptualisation of Europe and European security, which challenged classic understandings of security, as something that took place between states. The move towards an EU security was, thus, closely articulated around questions of EU identity, free movement of people and borders. The concept of societal security, developed by scholars associated with the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, is situated within this context.[2] Societal security relates to: "the ability of a society to persist in its essential character under changing conditions and possible or actual threats."[3]

The nation-state in Western and Eastern Europe[edit]

In 'Identity, Migration, and the New Security Agenda in Europe', Wæver notes the emergence of different conceptions of the nation-state, and further establishes a distinction between Western and Eastern Europe. In the West, a “decoupling of state and nation” takes place, as member states, by seeking more integration, accept to relinquish some of their sovereignty. This move towards a “post-sovereign” nation-state is due to “internationalisation and Europeanization” processes, as international institutions assume increased influence over domestic affairs.[4] Subsequently, communities, perceiving their identities to be threatened by this integration, can no longer call upon the state to protect them. A duality occurs between the security needs of the state and of society, where “state security has sovereignty as its ultimate criterion, and societal security has identity”.[4] In the East, the emergence of new states, formed after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, leads to more traditional attempts at merging the nation and the state; thus, conflicts arise when the coupling cannot be done (i.e. Yugoslavia).[5]

Aspects of societal security[edit]

In 'Security: a new framework for analysis', Buzan et al. formalise their broader understanding of security by introducing five sectors, each governed by “distinctive characteristics and dynamics”, and conceptualised around particular referent objects and actors (i.e. military, environmental, economic, societal and political). Societal security is about the survival of a community as a cohesive unit; its referent object is ”large scale collective identities that can function independent of the state.”[6]

Societal insecurities arise when “a society fears it would not be able to live as itself”, and stem from:

  • migration: the influx of people will “overrun or dilute” a group’s identity e.g. the need to define Britishness;
  • vertical competition: the integration of a group within a broader organisation e.g. euroscepticism with regards to EU integration, national-separatist claims; and,
  • horizontal competition: group is forced to integrate more influential identities within their own e.g. France’s cultural exception defending itself against American influences.[7]

Societal security is not tied to a territory, as is state security, e.g. the territory of the Kurds, where security matters of state and society widely diverge and enter into conflict.[8]

Sociological perspective[edit]

From a sociological perspective, the "societal security" concept embodies a certain view of security. It regards security as an "independent phenomenon": thus, societal security is neither a threat nor an opportunity; it is a center and base, upon which the reliability and certainty of collective life could be constructed. It rereads of security from "social" perspective, meaning that security is seen as based on collective life – the life of common people – instead of looking at differences and insisting on disagreement between groups and states that is a key factor in determining threats and distinguishing friends from foes. It views security as "social phenomenon", which does not need military weapons and soft power solutions. In other words, societal security does not integrate with power and remain by converting links to social capitals.[clarification needed] Finally, threats and opportunities could be considered as deterrent or impeller factors.

So the final goal of societal security is comfort and understanding the beauty of collective life – not an interest for government, not eliminating enemies, not confronting perceived threats to the nation.[9]

What does securitization do?[edit]

A community, acting upon these insecurities, will try to present an issue as being an existential threat endangering the survival of a group. Thus, securitization is a tactic that seeks to categorise an issue as an existential threat, for its prioritisation over any other issue (i.e. “absolute priority”). Addressing any other issue would be pointless, if the existential threat is not addressed first. Thereby, securitization justifies and legitimises the use of exceptional measures.

“’Security’ is the move that takes politics beyond the established rules of the game and frames the issue either as a special kind of politics or as above politics. Securitization can thus be seen as a more extreme version of politicization.”[10]

“…when a securitizing actor uses a rhetoric of existential threat and thereby takes an issue out of what under those conditions is “normal politics,” we have a case of securitization.”[11]

Making use of language theory, securitization is conceptualised as a speech-act, and as such, relies on linguistic techniques and audiences. The message has to be properly delivered (e.g. using appropriate vocabulary, framing, diffusion channels, etc.) for an audience to accept it.

“Thus, the exact definition and criteria of securitization is constituted by the intersubjective establishment of an existential threat with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political effects.”[12]

Not all speech-acts are successful. They have to be uttered by those holding enough social capital to be heard and taken seriously. Successful societal security speech-acts can only be uttered by the elites of specific communities. Because of their existential nature, only a few claims can be successfully securitised.


The concept of societal security developed by the Copenhagen School has been subject to several academic criticisms.[13] Theiler argues that when discussing societal security there is a tendency to reify societies as independent social agents. Theiler also states that a too vague definition of identity is deployed when discussing the concept and there is a failure to 'demonstrate sufficiently that social security matters to individuals'.[14]

Furthermore, understanding exceptional measures as extremely politicised responses and/or measures outside politics is problematic, as it implies different frames of action within a large scale of possible. What constitutes “normal politics”? Are these measures outside or within the frame of the law? Do they apply to everyone or only to a specific group? Do they hold policy implication? These questions are particularly relevant to appreciate the types of security measures a securitization through societal security could bring, i.e. what could a community do by securitising identities? Hence, this vagueness could indicate a decision not to engage with debates around exceptional measures or the limits of conceptualising the modus operandi of security measures outside of the state.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Bilgin, 2003.
  2. ^ Bilgin, 2003, p. 211.
  3. ^ Wæver, Ole, 1993. Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe, p. 23.
  4. ^ a b Wæver, 1995.
  5. ^ Wæver, 1996, p. 114.
  6. ^ Buzan, Wæver & de Wilde, 1998, p. 22.
  7. ^ Buzan, Wæver & de Wilde, 1998.
  8. ^ Buzan, Wæver & de Wilde, 1998, p. 119.
  9. ^ Navidnia, Manijeh (2009). Societal Security. Iran, Tehran: Research Institute of Strategic Studies (Rahbordi). pp. 69–83. ISBN 978-600-5282-12-2.
  10. ^ Buzan, Wæver & de Wilde, 1998, p. 23.
  11. ^ Buzan, Wæver & de Wilde, 1998, p. 24-25.
  12. ^ Buzan, Wæver & de Wilde, 1998, p. 25.
  13. ^ Arcudi, G. (2006), "La sécurité entre permanence et changement", Relations Internationales, 125: 97-109.
  14. ^ Theiler, T. (2003), "Societal security and social psychology", Review of International Studies, 29: 249-268.


Further reading[edit]

  • McSweeney, Bill (1996), "Identity and Security: Buzan and the Copenhagen School", Review of International Studies, 22: 81-96.

External links[edit]