What Security Makes Possible: Some Thoughts on Critical Security Studies

Author/s (editor/s):

Anthony Burke

Publication year:


Publication type:

Working paper

Find this publication at:
IR Working Paper 2007/1 (PDF, 128KB)

Anthony Burke, ‘What Security Makes Possible: Some Thoughts on Critical Security Studies’, IR Working Paper 2007/1, Canberra: Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Affairs, The Australian National University, June 2007.

It has become commonplace to accept that security is a ‘contested concept’. How contested, however, seems to be what is at stake for critical approaches to security. With the US Congress poised to ask for a National Intelligence Estimate on the security impacts of human-induced climate change; with terrorism, people movements and disease the focus of national security policy; and with various conceptualisations of human security informing national policy and new global norms, we are well into the ‘broadening and deepening’ phase once seen as revolutionary. At the same time, state-centric discourses of security remain very powerful, and global patterns of insecurity, violence and conflict are getting more destructive and uncontrollable.

In this light, this paper surveys some of the key insights and approaches in the broad area of critical security studies, especially the securitisation theme of the Copenhagen School and the emancipatory agenda of the Welsh School. It assesses their value and their limitations, and puts forward an argument for the value of a deeper line of critique that puts security’s ontological claims into question. Without breaking with the ideal of emancipation, this is also to question security’s status as a end, and to reveal it as a form of power which may conceal other agendas and produce insecurity. This line of critique is of use not only for rethinking state responses to military threats, secessionism, terrorism and people movements; it has value for retaining critical perspective in a time of such apparent innovation.

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