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date: 23 February 2018

Defining–Redefining Security

Summary and Keywords

International security studies (ISS) has significantly evolved from its founding core of “golden age” strategic studies. From the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s through to the 1970s, strategic studies virtually was ISS, and remains a very large part of it. The fact that it continues to stand as the “mainstream” attacked by widening/deepening approaches further speaks to its status as a “core.” This core consists of those literatures whose principal concern is external military threats to the state, and the whole agenda of the use of force which arises from that. This core was originally focused on nuclear weapons and the military-political rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, but has since adapted its focus to changes in the salience and nature of military threats caused by the end of the Cold War and 9/11. It includes literatures on deterrence, arms racing, arms control and disarmament, grand strategy, wars (and “new wars”), the use of force, nuclear proliferation, military technology, and terrorism. Debates within ISS are structured, either implicitly or explicitly, by five questions: (1) which referent object to adopt, (2) whether to understand security as internally or externally driven, (3) whether to limit it to the military sector or to expand it, (4) what fundamental thinking about (international) politics to adopt, and (5) which epistemology and methodology to choose.

Keywords: international security studies, strategic studies, ISS, security, international politics, military threats


The purpose of this essay is to set out the story of how international security studies (ISS) widened and deepened around its founding core of “golden age” strategic studies. Labels vary both for the field as a whole and for some of its component parts. To avoid confusion, we use the terms “strategic studies” and “traditionalist” to designate that part of ISS which takes the military agenda and the use of force to be the main, or for some exclusive, subject matter of the field. We understand ISS to be a mainly Western subject, largely done in North America, Europe, and Australia, with all of the Western-centrisms that this entails. There is an antecedent war studies, military and grand strategy, and geopolitics literature including writers such as Clausewitz, Mahan, Louis Fry Richardson, and Haushofer whose work still remains relevant. We are not going to cover either this literature, or that on strategic studies, except as they relate to our main subject. The literature we label ISS that developed after 1945 was distinctive in three ways. First, it took security rather than defense or war as its key concept, a conceptual shift which opened up the study of a broader set of political issues, including the importance of societal cohesion and the relationship between military and non-military threats and vulnerabilities. The ability of security to capture the conceptual center of ISS dealing with defense, war, and conflict as well as the broadness of the term was famously expressed in Wolfers’s definition of security as “an ambiguous symbol.” In laying out the ability of security policy to subordinate all other interests to those of the nation Wolfers stressed the rhetorical and political force that “security” entailed despite having very little intrinsic meaning (Wolfers 1952:481). Second, this literature was distinct because it addressed the novel problem of nuclear weapons, and the consequent shift from war fighting to war avoidance. Third, ISS was much more a civilian enterprise than most earlier military and strategic literatures, bringing in civilian experts ranging from physicists and economists, to sociologists and psychologists. The centrality of the civilian element reflects the fact that ISS has largely flourished in democratic countries, while strategic thinking in non-Western countries has generally remained more firmly in the grip of the military. This civilian element is crucial to understanding how and why ISS widened and deepened.

To construct an overview of widening and deepening requires three things: first, that we identify the orthodox core from which widening and deepening can be distinguished; second, that we locate the widening/deepening debate and terminology on the broader terrain of ISS; and third, that we give an account of the most important widening/deepening perspectives. Since the essays on International Security of the Compendium, of which this essay is a part, provides more detailed essays both on the individual widening/deepening approaches covered in this essay, and on the linkages between ISS and the mainstream international relations (IR) theoretical debates about realism, liberalism, and constructivism, we refer readers to those for more detailed presentations. Unlike the Compendium project more generally, which covers peace research in a separate set of essays, we include it as an important part of the widening/deepening story. This essay is about the larger map of widening/deepening perspectives, how they branch out from strategic studies and what their main points of convergence and divergence are.

The standard story of the evolution of ISS is one that puts strategic studies and its concept of security at the center. During the Cold War strategic studies was challenged by peace research; after the end of the Cold War, the challengers were “critical,” widening/deepening perspectives of various kinds. During the Cold War, attacks went through the oppositional concept of peace, rather than through security, and it is therefore only toward the end of the 1980s that the widening/deepening terminology appears. Peace research was, however, important for how widening/deepening perspectives were able to seize the opportunity of the ending of the Cold War. As we shall see, there are significant commonalities between Cold War peace research and post–Cold War approaches as well as important differences.

To provide an account of the genesis and evolution of widening/deepening perspectives requires that we have a good understanding of what ISS is and what its boundaries are. It is, for instance, a good question – and one that stands at the center of debates between traditionalists and wideners/deepeners – whether there is a limit to how “wide and deep” an approach can be before it falls off the map of ISS. While there is a general consensus across the tradititionalists–widening/deepening board that strategic studies stands at the core of ISS, there is thus much less agreement on what falls in and what not. Since what we are concerned with in this essay is the evolution of an academic field and not the uncovering of “the best concept,” we cast the net widely, defining ISS as those approaches that either adopt or are engaged with the strategic studies core. This includes those who adopt the concept of security, but also those who go through oppositional concepts such as “peace.”

Casting the net widely in this way exposes a significant divide across the Atlantic. It is certainly not true to say that widening/deepening is a European story, and adherence to traditionalism a US one. But it is true through the whole history of ISS that there has been considerably more interest in widening/deepening in Europe, as well as more debate around the concept of security, than in the US. If our story thus seems to have a somewhat Eurocentric flavor, the reason is more in the history of the field than in the fact that we are European authors. Indicative of this is that International Security, for instance, did not publish one article on gender, post-structuralism, or postcolonial approaches, and Kolodziej’s Security and International Relations (2005), which effectively summed up and spoke to the traditionalist-widening agenda of the 1990s, defined conventional constructivism as the most radical widening perspective to be addressed.

What are the substantial questions around which debates over “security” – and “peace” – evolve? There are, we argue, five questions which have either implicitly or explicitly structured debates within ISS since the genesis of the field in the late 1940s: (1) which referent object to adopt, (2) whether to understand security as internally or externally driven, (3) whether to limit it to the military sector or to expand it, (4) what fundamental thinking about (international) politics to adopt, and (5) which epistemology and methodology to choose. Explicit discussions of these questions usually happen when established approaches are contested and their answers cannot be taken for granted. The widening/deepening terminology refers specifically to the first question (should security be deepened to include other referent objects than the state, e.g. the individual, the ethnic group, the environment, or the planet itself?) and the third (should security be widened beyond the military sector, e.g. the economic, environmental, societal ones?), but also more broadly to the questions of the internal/external, security politics, and epistemology.

This essay first provides an account of the five questions laid out above. This account grants particular weight to the strategic studies core that widening/deepening perspectives have responded to. Second, it describes the Cold War challenges posed by peace research with a particular view to how these debates impacted later widening/deepening debates. Third, in the main section of the essay, the post–Cold War landscape of widening/deepening is presented. The Conclusions section looks at the consequences of widening and deepening for ISS. Table 1 summarizes how the main widening/deepening approaches to ISS stand in relation to the five questions.

From the onset of the Cold War during the late 1940s through to the 1970s, strategic studies virtually was ISS, and it still remains a very large part of it. The fact that it continues to stand as the “mainstream” attacked by widening/deepening approaches further speaks to its status as a “core.” This core consists of those literatures whose principal concern is external military threats to the state, and the whole agenda of the use of force which arises from that. This core was originally focused on nuclear weapons and the military-political rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, but has adapted its focus to the changes in the salience and nature of military threats caused by the end of the Cold War and 9/11. It includes literatures on deterrence, arms racing, arms control and disarmament, grand strategy, wars (and “new wars”), the use of force, nuclear proliferation, military technology, and terrorism.

Turning to the first question, strategic studies, whether in the form of “national security” or, later, as “international security,” takes the nation/state as the analytical and normative referent object. Securing the state is seen instrumentally as the best way of protecting other referent objects. The “national” of “national security” should thus, as many observers have pointed out, more appropriately have been labeled “state security,” yet, what the Cold War concept of “national security” entailed was in fact a fusion of the security of the state and the security of the nation: the nation supported a powerful state which in turn reciprocated by protecting its society’s values and interests.

The second question is whether to include internal as well as external threats. Since security is tied into discussions about state sovereignty (whether as something to be protected or criticized) it is also about placing threats in relation to territorial boundaries. As the Cold War and the external threat that the Soviet Union was believed to pose became institutionalized in strategic studies, the concept of “international security” came to accompany, but not replace, “national security,” and was eventually more influential in giving the field its name, hence international rather than national security studies. This labeling concurred with the growing disciplinary status of international relations (International Security 1976), which was based on distinguishing international from domestic politics, with ISS increasingly becoming a subfield of IR. The internal/external dimension was partly reopened as the Cold War ended and the overriding concern with the external threat of the Soviet Union disappeared from American and Western security discourses.

The third question is whether to expand security beyond the military sector and the use of force. Since ISS was founded during the Cold War and the Cold War came to be so overwhelmingly about the military (conventional and nuclear) capabilities of foes, friends, and self, “national security” in strategic studies became almost synonymous with military security. This did not mean that other capabilities were not considered; the founding editors of International Security stressed, for instance, the need to incorporate economic vigor, governmental stability, energy supplies, science and technology, food and natural resources. These were, however, to be incorporated because they impacted on “the use, threat, and control of force,” and thus on military security, not because they were to be considered security issues in their own right (International Security 1976:2).

Table 1 ISS perspectives in relation to the five questions

ISS perspective

Referent object



Views of security politics


Strategic studies

The state

Primarily external

Military (use of force)


Positivist (from quite empirical to formal modeling)



Both (constitution of boundaries)


Change of realism possible, but not utopian/idealist

Deconstructivst and discursive


States and collectivities



Change of Western dominance possible, but difficult to accomplish

Critical theory, deconstructivist, historical sociology

Peace research

State, societies, individuals


All (negative: predominantly military

Transformation possible

Positivist (from quantitative to Marxist materialist)

Human security

The individual

Primarily internal



Mostly highly empirical or soft-constructivist


Individual, women



Mostly transformative

From quantitative to post-structuralist

Critical security studies

The individual



Transformative (emancipation)

Critical theory (hermeneutics)

The Copenhagen School

Collectivities and the environment




Speech act analysis

Conventional constructivism

The state



Transformation possible


Critical constructivism


Mostly external


Transformation possible

Narrative and sociological

The fourth question is whether to see security as inextricably tied to a dynamic of threats, dangers, and urgency. “National security” developed in a political climate where the United States, and the West more broadly, understood themselves as threatened by a hostile and powerful opponent. As in Herz’s (1950) famous formulation of the security dilemma, “security” had to do with attacks, subjection, domination, and – when pushed to the extreme – annihilation. This would lead groups to acquire more capabilities, thus in the process rendering their opponent insecure and compelling both sides to engage in a “vicious circle of security and power accumulation” (Herz 1950:157). Security was about the extreme and exceptional, with those situations that would not just raise inconveniences, but could wipe out one’s society (Williams 2003). During the Cold War, this seemed rather commonsensical to strategic studies: the Soviet Union constituted a clear threat, and nuclear weapons were justified as a way to both contain and deter the Soviet Union. As the debates over the expansion of the concept of security gained ground in the 1990s, this linkage of security to urgency, and to extreme and radical defense measures, was central.

On the fifth question, epistemology and methodology, strategic studies understood security in objective terms as measuring “the absence of threats to acquired values” (Wolfers 1952:485), relying upon a largely materialist epistemology that looked to military, but also economic and other resource capabilities. Some included subjective factors such as fear, perceptions, intentions, and beliefs, but usually as something that clouded objective, materially based decisions. Most strategic studies scholars followed the positivist route, although quite a bit of this work was and is empirical and policy-oriented, and thus little affected by explicit epistemological debates in IR.

Taking a broader look at ISS, what binds the traditionalist core and the wideners and deepeners together is their shared use of the new lead concept in the post–World War II world: security (Yergin 1978; Wæver 1995; Buzan and Hansen 2009), rather than defense or war. Security was an inherently widening concept including the importance of societal cohesion and the relationship between military and nonmilitary threats and vulnerabilities. Because of the military-political imperatives of the Cold War, its implications for a wider, not exclusively military-political understanding of the subject were not initially fully felt. But from the 1970s onward, as the nuclear relationship between the superpowers matured, and events opened up concerns about economic and environmental threats, the original breadth carried by the term security began to reemerge, generating pressure to widen the international security agenda away from the military-political focus. Much of this literature stayed within the predominant national security frame of the Cold War, but some of it began to challenge the emphasis on material capabilities as well as state-centric assumptions, opening paths to studies of the importance of ideas and culture and to referent objects for security other than the state. These moves were accompanied by more critical and radical challenges to state-centrism, with the result that instead of flowing as a single river within one set of quite narrowly defined banks, ISS has broadened out into a delta of several distinct but interrelated flows of literature.

Early Widening/Deepening: Peace Research and Sectoral Expansions

Although the terms “widening” and “deepening” had not yet become established tropes in the 1960s and 1970s, early phases of widening and deepening started well inside the Cold War era. Widening/deepening came in two forms: peace research, and calls for widening that did not mainly come from peace research, but which challenged the primacy of the military agenda.

Peace research (PR) is generally understood as the classical normative counterpoint to strategic studies, looking to reduce or eliminate the use of force in international relations, and to highlight and critique the dangers in the (especially nuclear) strategic debate. On the question of the politics of security, peace researchers thus adopted a more optimistic, liberal, view of the possibilities for states to solve their conflicts without resorting to (nuclear) war. This shared view notwithstanding, PR was also home to heated debates over how its core concept, peace, should be conceptualized. One part of PR concerned with the military agenda was mainly organized around “negative peace,” defined as the absence of war and large-scale physical violence, while those adopting the concept of “positive peace” broadened it to include “the integration of human society” and all forms of group-based conflicts, not only inter-state ones (Journal of Peace Research 1964:2). The first formulations of positive peace in the 1950s and 1960s drew upon Karl Deutsch and his concept of security communities (Kemp 1985:134) and tied in more generally with a liberal belief in the possibility of overcoming differences between states through citizens’ communication, interaction, and trade. Positive-liberal PR widened security insofar as a broader economic and cultural agenda was considered significant for the attainment of “security,” and while it did not explicitly constitute citizens as distinct individual referent objects, it nevertheless argued that these were significant forces for change.

Toward the end of the 1960s, positive peace was reformulated to include “structural violence,” which referred to manifest injustices with physical material consequences, for instance hunger-related deaths in the third world, but also to phenomena with a less immediate, bodily impact like illiteracy (Galtung 1969:169). Structural violence opened up for an incorporation of a host of issues related to economic inequality, development, and differences between the global North and South, hence a widening of security beyond the military sector, and it provided a bridge between classical liberal-idealist PR and the new agenda of “critical peace research” which drew upon theories in the Marxist tradition (Wiberg 1988:53). Although Marxian in some of its analytical form, structural violence was opposed to violence, and therefore countered that strand in radical politics that sought to legitimize it as a response to oppression and exploitation. Crucially, particularly in the light of later debates over the concept of individual security, Galtung located the referent object of structural violence in human collectivities, not either states or individuals. Structural violence focused prophetically on the idea that conflicts at the sub-state or trans-state level may be equally as explosive, and hence threatening to the state, as those at the inter-state level. Epistemologically, this came closest to a qualitative, sociological tradition with an empiricist, soft-positivist leaning (Patomäki 2001:728) in that concepts had to be distinct and be applicable to – or found in – the real world (Lawler 1995; Väyrynen 2004:32). Theories referred to measurable material objects and actions, and were structural rather than hermeneutic or discursive (Galtung 1984:128).

The post-Marxist conceptualization of positive peace was challenged within PR on the grounds that military threats came with an urgency that exceeded that of development issues (Boulding 1978:348). Other critics pointed to the conceptual imprecision of structural violence and noted that there were no criteria on which researchers could decide whether positive peace was attained (Sylvester 1980:307). In a precursor to later critiques of widening security, it was held that “everything became peace.” The conceptual and epistemological diversity within PR with quantitative “negative” peace researchers on the one hand and more qualitative “positive” ones on the other led to a concern in the 1970s with “the two cultures problem,” that PR might bifurcate into two epistemological camps unable to speak to each other, training students who would either be “unable to read, let alone critically assess, a number of socially important pieces of quantitative research” or alternatively “be insensitive to the suffering that can occur from the violation of ethical norms” (Vasquez 1976:710–11). This two cultures problem was also seen in geographical terms: Western Europe was humanistic and post-Marxist, the United States was behavioral and quantitative (Onuf 1975; Reid and Yanarella 1976).

During the 1980s PR became gradually more specialized and there was a shift from “peace” to “security.” Nils Petter Gleditsch (1989:3), the editor of the Journal of Peace Research noted that “most authors avoid the word peace, possibly because it sounds too grand and pretentious.” This conceptual shift concurred also with the second body of Cold War literature that picked up widening/deepening themes, but which did not come from an explicitly peace research agenda. General calls for widening the security agenda beyond the military and into the environmental can be dated back to Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, which described the accumulation of pesticides through the food chain. That book benchmarked the belief that the side effects of industrialism were beginning to endanger local and planetary environments (Barnett 2007:184–8). The environmental agenda mainly stood on its own terms as threats through climate changes or through the degradation of land, biodiversity, the atmosphere, water, forests, coastal areas, and rivers (Barnett 2007:189). It arose from overlapping scientific and political agendas that had little to do with the superpower military rivalry (Buzan et al. 1998:71–2). This happened mainly as a response to events in the slow-moving sense: a generally rising concern about the (in)stability of the ecosphere. But there were also links to the core strategic agenda: Sagan’s (1983–4) piece on “nuclear winter,” and Ullman’s (1983) concerns with environmental “resource wars,” particularly in the third world.

A second benchmark is the 1973 Middle East crisis, which, especially in the US, put economic security on to the ISS agenda (Nye 1974; Knorr and Trager 1977), and also “interdependence” and International Political Economy (IPE) into IR (Keohane and Nye 1977). The use of the “oil weapon” by the Arab states forced the US to notice that it and the West were becoming dependent on oil imported from the third world, and that this, and other possible third world resources cartels, had strategic consequences (Connelly and Perlman 1975; Maull 1975; Odell 1975; Krapels 1977).

During the 1980s, these early calls became a more coherent and generalized debate about whether to widen the priorities of the security agenda, particularly by including environmental and economic security sectors (Buzan 1983; Ullman 1983; Brundtland Commission 1987; Nye and Lynn-Jones 1988; Mathews 1989; Nye 1989; Deudney 1990). In parallel with this new agenda, criticism of traditional national security rhetoric triggered a discussion about new concepts: common security (Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues 1982; Windass 1985; Väyrynen 1985; Buzan 1987) and comprehensive security (Chapman et al. 1983; Akaha 1991). Comprehensive security, particularly linked to thinking in Japan, but also elsewhere in East Asia, retained a national security focus but widened the agenda away from just military security to other concerns, particularly economic, political, and environmental threats. Common security became the most successful “expansive” concept of the 1980s coined by the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues chaired by Olof Palme. Although initially mostly concerned with disarmament, the concept opened up the discussion of global security problems as well as those faced by impoverished and persecuted individuals (Porter and Brown 1991:109).

Widening/deepening approaches were starting to make an impact on the strategic studies mainstream by the close of the 1980s. As a consequence there was an upsurge of conceptual and theoretical engagements with security which had been largely absent from the field since the early 1950s (Buzan 1991; Haftendorn 1991; Wæver 1995; Rothschild 1995; Baldwin 1995; 1997; Buzan et al. 1998). Most traditionalists were still strongly committed to a state-centric, military conception of security, of security as “the study of the threat, use, and control of military force” (Walt 1991:212), but they were now more pressured to defend this position. Wideners became contestants to be addressed, and up to a point the process of explicit defense hardened and narrowed the traditionalist position around its military core.

One key line of traditionalists’ defense against widening was the need for a concept that was analytically clearly defined (Walt 1991:213). Combining ontological, analytical, and political considerations, traditionalists also held that the state was the best defense against external and domestic insecurity in an imperfect world, and that the threat of military force was an important and coherent subject that ISS should be devoted to studying (Betts 1997; Williams 1998).

A Roadmap to the Widening/Deepening Terrain

As we move from the ending of the Cold War and into the 1990s and 2000s, we find increasingly explicit debate on the concept of security. In terms of the main labels on the terrain of ISS, the old strategic studies–peace research confrontation is being replaced by one between a new “traditionalist” position which includes strategic studies as well as large parts of the military, “negative” agenda of PR on the one side and a variety of widening/deepening perspectives, most prominently constructivism, post-structuralism, feminism, critical security studies, human security, postcolonialism, and the Copenhagen School on the other. The latter perspectives which we examine in more detail below all challenged the traditionalist military/state-centric, realist agenda, but they also differ significantly in how far they go in advocating non-state referent objects, non-military sectoral expansions, and an understanding of security as not necessarily bound to dangers, threats, and urgency. To many, post-structuralism and feminism appear as the most extreme deepeners on the terrain of ISS, post-structuralism because of its discursive epistemology and ontology, feminism because of its call for including women/gender. Looking in the opposite direction, toward those approaches which share most with traditional conceptions of security, we find constructivism, a form of security analysis that comes in a conventional as well as a critical form.

Widening/deepening perspectives not only diverge on the question of referent objects and sectors, they also have different trajectories leading them into ISS. Some strands, particularly human security, critical security studies, and feminism, developed out of the PR agendas of the 1970s and 1980s; others, especially constructivism, were more driven by epistemological and methodological debates coming out of the social sciences, including the general IR debate in the early 1990s between so-called rationalist and reflectivist approaches (Keohane 1988). As this distinction reflected American social science traditions more than European ones (where rationalist epistemologies had never had the same privileged position), there was a distinct US–Europe flavor to the map of the 1990s security debates: European approaches (critical security studies, Copenhagen School) were more strongly linked to the political, critical, and normative concerns of PR, while US constructivism developed from the rationalism–reflectivism debate with less connection to past normative approaches. Others, like post-structuralism, feminism, human security, and postcolonialism had mixed US-European – and to a growing extent also non-Western – roots, yet in terms of how these perspectives were institutionalized in journals, conferences, courses, and departments, it seems safe to say that they were generally more strongly embedded on the European side of the Atlantic.

In the sections below, we follow the convention of presenting the widening/deepening perspectives through the distinctive labels developed to identify these, even though there is sometimes considerable overlap and overspill of concerns, persons, content, and method among the different approaches. The overall story is one of increasingly explicit debate on the concept of security, yet there are also potential conversations that were not picked up, particularly across the Atlantic (Sylvester 2007).

Post-structuralism and Feminism

The two most radical non-traditionalist perspectives – post-structuralism and feminism – both crystallized in the latter part of the 1980s and played important roles in forming the broader terrain of widening/deepening post–Cold War ISS. Post-structuralism started out most strongly as a North American perspective but gradually gained more ground in Europe, while feminism provided a counterpoint to traditional approaches in both Europe and the United States. Post-structuralists were critical of how state-centrism constrains the possibilities for other referent objects of security, but also refused the traditional PR turn to structural-individual security as well as the latter’s materialist ontology and positivist epistemology. To post-structuralists, no materiality would ever be able to present itself outside of a discursive representation (Shapiro 1988; Dillon 1990:103). To see security – or peace – as discourse involved a shift from an objective conception of security where threats could be assessed, to a practice through which subjects were constituted. This implied a significant turn in security thinking in that actors or identities were no longer stable, given entities to which peace researchers or security theorists could refer. National security was not something that could be assessed through an analysis of which threats a nation confronted, but rather a process through which “the nation” came to be produced and reproduced with a particular identity. Threats themselves were therefore also discursive: to constitute something as threatening was to invoke “discourses of danger and security,” and to situate that “something” as of particular importance to the threatened Self (Dillon 1990:102). Drawing upon Foucault, post-structuralists also emphasized the significance of power for what was constituted as knowledge and truth.

Security politics, argued post-structuralism, was fundamentally about the construction of a radically different, inferior, and threatening Other, but also, since identity is always relational, about the Self. Post-structuralists argued that this took place not only against an external Other – usually other states and alliances – but against internal Others as these were “located in different sites of ethnicity, race, class, gender, or locale” (Campbell 1990:270). Post-structuralism in the 1980s explored these themes through two, sometimes intersecting routes: one which dealt with security as an abstract practice situated within the larger structures of state sovereignty (Walker 1987; 1990), and one which engaged the political context of the antagonistic superpower relationship (Dalby 1988; Nathanson 1988; Campbell 1990).

The most important challenge that post-structuralism confronted coming out of the Cold War was whether states needed enemies (Hansen 2006). Campbell’s Writing Security explicitly foregrounded the importance of the Other, arguing that while state identity could in principle be constituted through relations of difference, in reality the pressure to turn difference into radical, threatening Otherness was overwhelming (Connolly 1991:64–5, 209–10; Campbell 1992:55; Klein 1994). “Security” thus became an ontological double requirement: the state needed to be secure, but it also needed the threatening Other to define its identity, thereby giving it ontological security. The relationship between Self and Other became further complicated as the post–Cold War agenda shifted from one of two antagonistic superpowers to one of the Western Self debating whether to intervene in conflicts involving two or more Others, and later how to respond to the War on Terror (more on this topic can be found in the essay titled “Poststructuralism and Security” in this Compendium).

Early post-structuralism had affinities with post-Marxist PR, and so did feminism. During the 1960s and 1970s, gender concerns were generally subordinated to class ones in PR. A few game theoretical studies of women’s behavior in Prisoner’s Dilemmas appeared (Lutzker 1961; Ingram and Berger 1977), but these were not concerned with whether women might be facing particular security problems. The late 1970s and early 1980s had witnessed a growth in feminist literature in the humanities and social sciences, and contemporary feminist security studies can perhaps be benchmarked to Elise Boulding (1984), who held that women’s role as nurturer gave them a different view of war, peace, and security and made them more peaceful than men. But early security feminists were also careful to point out that gender is not a fixed biological identity, but produced through practices of socialization: “a boy is not born, but rather becomes, a soldier” (Elshtain 1987; Ruddick 1989:145).

The second stage in developing a feminist approach to security made a strong call to include “women” and “gender” as referent objects for security (for an overview see Blanchard 2003). The first book to include an extensive and conceptually explicit engagement with security from a feminist perspective was Tickner (1992) who put the case that to “consider security from the perspective of the individual” is to argue in favor of “definitions of security that are less state-centered and less militaristic” (1992:53). Situating feminist security studies on the broader terrain of ISS, feminists adopted a “multilevel and multidimensional” conceptualization based on the experiences of women (Enloe 1989; Tickner 1992:66).

Feminist security studies has come to comprise many sub-approaches which adopt different epistemologies and methodologies, including quantitative scholarship (Caprioli 2004). The Tickner-Enloe approach has, however, been the most prevalent and this approach has much in common with critical security studies and human security (see below) in calling for an expansion of the referent object to include individual “women” and non-military security sectors. Feminist analysis has as a consequence “generally taken a bottom–up approach, analyzing the impact of war at the microlevel” (Tickner 2001:48). It leads to a preference for methodologies that embrace an “ethnographic style of individually oriented story-telling typical of anthropology” (Tickner 1997:615) or “hermeneutic and interpretative methodologies” that “allow subjects to document their own experiences in their own terms” (Tickner 2005:19). While women support (and challenge) the security policies of states through military as well as non-military functions, they also face a series of gender-specific security problems that are not acknowledged within a state-centric conception of security.

Some feminists moved in a more post-structuralist direction (Sylvester 1994; Weber 1998), taking up a concern with the construction of identity. Here gender comes into analytical focus, first, as the way in which other referent objects – states, nations, or, for instance, religious groups – are gendered, that is, constituted as masculine or feminine. Second, gender comes into focus through an account of competing constructions of the gendered referent object itself and of the policy spaces – or silences – that ensue (Hansen 2001; Berman 2003).

Some of the key themes on the post–Cold War feminist research agenda have been sex trafficking across old East–West boundaries (Berman 2003; Aradau 2004); rape as a weapon of war and other forms of wartime sexual violence (Skjelsbæk 2001; Hansen 2001); the problems of women in peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, and post-conflict reconstruction (Handrahan 2004; Higate and Henry 2004); women and children as combatants and men as victims of sexual violence (Jones 1994; Carpenter 2003; 2006; Alison 2004; Fox 2004); and the impact of the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (Cohn et al. 2004). After September 11, a strong feminist concern has also been with the gendered implications of the War on Terror, including the legitimation of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as in defense of women (Tickner 2002; Enloe 2004), the abuses at Abu Ghraib (Kaufmann-Osborn 2006), and the advent of and increase in female suicide bombers, in the Palestine–Israeli conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Iraq (Brunner 2005; Gonzalez-Perez 2007; Ness 2007). In exploring these themes the role that hegemonic masculinity plays in sustaining militaristic security policies is also consistently explored.


Conventional constructivism presents a counterpoint to traditionalist materialist analyses by highlighting the importance of ideational factors, that is, culture, beliefs, norms, ideas, and identity. It usually centers on analyzing state behavior dealing largely with the same issues as strategic studies, and includes positivist as well as post-positivist epistemologies. Conventional constructivism was the least radical widening approach, locating itself within “a traditional, narrow definition of security studies” in which the task was to take the “hard case” of national, military state-centric security, but to explain it through ideational rather than material factors (Katzenstein 1996:10). This contrasted with European approaches, feminism, and post-structuralism, which focused explicitly on the conceptualization of security, debating whether it should be “individual,” “national,” “gendered,” or “societal,” a deepening which in turn facilitated widening across economic, societal, cultural, environmental, and political sectors (Walker 1990; Rothschild 1995; Wæver 1995; Krause and Williams 1996; Smith 2005). If, argued Katzenstein (1996:11), in what became the landmark conventional constructivist study, The Culture of National Security, constructivists could prove that ideational explanations could account for outcomes missed by materialist realist – and to a lesser extent liberal – theories, then “it should be relatively easy to apply this book’s analytical perspective to broader conceptions of security that are not restricted to military issues or to the state.” As this statement illustrates, conventional constructivists were traditionalists not only insofar as they accepted a concept of military–state security, but in that they conformed to a substantive and epistemological traditionalist research agenda which held that ISS and IR should be devoted to explanations of state behavior. Security, in short, is a behavior to be explained, not as argued by most other deepening approaches, a concept which is inherently contested and political (Der Derian 1995; Wæver 1995).

Critical constructivism looks to other collectivities than the state, yet is mostly concerned with military security and it adopts narrative and sociological post-positivist methodologies. Critical constructivism branched off during the latter half of the 1990s, distinguishing itself from conventional constructivism by analyzing discourses and the linkages between the historical and discursive constitution of identities on the one hand and security policies on the other. Critical constructivists argued that conventional constructivism reified the state as the object of analysis, and that this entailed a normative privileging of the state as the preferable referent object for security (Zehfuss 2001; Weldes 1996; Rumelili 2004). Epistemologically, critical constructivists challenged conventional constructivism’s increasing embrace of positivism (Laffey and Weldes 1997).

Since conventional constructivism in particular remains concerned with a military, state-centric agenda, it has, not surprisingly, been attacked by other widening approaches for being “essentially a form of rationalism” focused on states and military security (Campbell 1998:218; Smith 2005:39). Yet, while constructivism provides less of an explicit deepening of the referent object beyond the state than other widening/deepening approaches, there are still important ways in which it ties in with a longer liberal, idealist, PR agenda. One body of constructivist work has brought social theory and historical sociology to bear on classical PR and ISS themes and concepts. This includes Adler’s (1992) account of the significance of the American strategic epistemic community, and his and Barnett’s reinvigoration of Deutsch’s security community theory (Adler 1997; 2008; Adler and Barnett 1998). Other constructivists are more critical of liberal assumptions about the explanatory power of democratic systems as well as of the normative privilege accorded to the (allegedly) democratic West, such as in Williams and Neumann’s (2000) analysis of NATO enlargement as an exercise of symbolic power. Another body of critical constructivist work has drawn on linguistic theories and in some cases on post-structuralism, arguing that key realist concepts like the national interest do not arise from objective material conditions but are discursively constituted through representations (of countries, peoples, etc.) and linguistic elements (nouns, adjectives, metaphors, and analogies) (Weldes 1996; Fierke 1998; 2000).

The Middle Ground

Having located post-structuralism and feminism as well as constructivism at the extremes of the widening/deepening spectrum, the main approaches on the middle ground include the Copenhagen School, critical security studies, human security, and postcolonial security studies. All of these are explicitly concerned with the widening/deepening discussion, and where the Copenhagen School is closer to a traditional conception of security when arguing in favor of medium size referent objects, the other three approaches often overlap in defending an individual concept of security as well as a specific third world/postcolonial security problematic.

The Copenhagen School grew partly out of the 1980s debates about widening and security, and partly out of a late Cold War discussion about regional security as something reflecting indigenous dynamics additional to superpower interventionism. Whether or not this focus on the regional level should count as widening from the core ISS literature, or as something mainly within it, is arguable. But in terms of the widening/deepening debate, the most distinctive contributions of the Copenhagen School have been the concepts of societal security (Wæver et al. 1993) and securitization (Wæver 1995; Buzan et al. 1998).

The concept of societal security, defined as “the ability of a society to persist in its essential character under changing conditions and possible or actual threats” (Wæver et al. 1993:23), was initially developed in response to post–Cold War national/ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe and to the fears of immigration and integration within Western Europe. It constituted a specific sectoral addition to the earlier widening literatures from the 1980s that had mainly focused on the economic and environmental sectors. While the state was the referent object for political, military, environmental, and economic security, it was “society” that constituted the referent object for societal security (Wæver et al. 1993:26). This opened up for the study of “identity security” and pointed to cases where national minorities were threatened by “their” state, or where the state, or other political actors, mobilized society to confront internal or external threats. The Copenhagen School explicitly constituted this as a middle position between traditionalist state-centrism on the one hand and equally traditional PR and critical security studies’ calls for “individual” or “global security” on the other.

Securitization refers to the process of constructing a threat as existential to some valued referent object, and using that to call for exceptional measures in response. Securitization “frames the issue either as a special kind of politics or as above politics” and a spectrum can therefore be defined ranging public issues from the non-politicized (“the state does not deal with it”), through politicized (“the issue is part of public policy, requiring government decision and resource allocations or, more rarely, some other form of communal governance”) to securitization (in which case an issue is no longer debated as a political question, but dealt with at an accelerated pace and in ways that may violate normal legal and social rules) (Buzan et al. 1998:23). Also, securitization is positioned as a way of limiting an excessive widening of security (Buzan et al. 1998:1–5).

In keeping with the US–European difference in the extent to which the concept of security is explicitly addressed, the Copenhagen School has to date been much more discussed within Europe than in the US. Both societal security and securitization have generated criticisms, mainly about the analytical, political, and normative implications of adopting the Copenhagen School’s perspective. One of the most significant challengers has been critical security studies, where Ken Booth has argued that the Copenhagen School does not move far enough in the direction of “real people in real places,” that it mistakenly ties together security and survival, and that it is state-centric, elite-centric, discourse-dominated, conservative, politically passive, and neither progressive nor radical (Booth 2005b:271; 2007:106–7, 163–9). Hansen (2000) has pointed to the problem that securitization theory cannot account for cases where those who are threatened have no possibilities of voicing their (potential) security problems. The Copenhagen School’s conceptualization of securitization through discourses of drama and emergency rather than bureaucratic routine have also been criticized for missing the “effects of power that are continuous rather than exceptional,” for instance the concrete everyday practices undertaken by the police and groups of “security professionals” patrolling the border (Bigo 2002; Huysmans 2006:5).

Critical security studies also emerged around the ending of the Cold War, and is similar to PR in its normative aims, especially regarding the emphasis on individual security over state security, but using mainly post-positivist methodology. Critical security studies is usually defined as the work by Ken Booth and Richard Wyn Jones and their Aberystwyth students and collaborators and it has picked up the critical theory Frankfurt School tradition that was part of critical peace research in the 1970s (Booth 1991; 2005a; 2007; Wyn Jones 1995; 1999; 2005; Bilgin 2003; 2004; Dunne and Wheeler 2004; CASE Collective 2006).

Conceptually, critical security studies argues that “individual humans are the ultimate referents” for security, as states are unreliable providers of security and too diverse to provide for “a comprehensive theory of security” (Booth 1991:319–20). This makes for a pessimistic view of global security: states make individuals insecure and the neoliberal economic structure further exacerbates this condition. Booth (2007:395 ff.) speaks of a “new twenty years’ crisis” to be soon followed by “the great reckoning,” a range of environmental, political, and humanitarian disasters, unless radical changes are made in many basic aspects of human conduct. The transformation of individual/global security away from this pessimistic account of the present is facilitated by the concept of emancipation. Emancipation functions as the goal of individual security as well as the analytical and political engine and is defined by Booth (in terms reminiscent of Galtung’s structural violence) as “the freeing of people (as individuals and groups) from those physical and human constraints which stop them carrying out what they would freely choose to do” (Booth 1991:319). Despite its post-positivism, critical security studies argues in favor of an objective definition of security insofar as the critical security analyst can determine which security problems are particularly threatening, and therefore have a normative claim to priority (e.g. human over state security). Yet it also has an intersubjective definition insofar as individuals’ own definitions of security problems should be taken into account. It sees the role of security theory as awakening and creating the security audience, not, like the Copenhagen School, only to analyze how audiences respond to securitizing moves (Booth 2007:163–9).

Human security is closely related to PR, common security, and critical security studies and dedicated to the view that human beings should be the primary referent object of security. Like an earlier strand of PR, it seeks to merge the agendas of ISS and development studies, arguing that ISS should include issues of poverty, underdevelopment, hunger, and other assaults on human integrity and potential. In its current guise, human security can be benchmarked to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) concept of human security launched in 1994. It was subsequently adoped by several states, most prominently Norway, Canada, and Japan, whose security agendas emphasized human rights, development, and humanitarian intervention giving human security the advantage of being promoted from a strong institutional base (Suhrke 1999; Axworthy 2001; Neufeld 2004).

The original UNDP formulation opted for an expansion of security along several dimensions. Security should be broadened beyond territorial defense, national interests, and nuclear deterrence to include “universal concerns” and the prevention of conflicts, but also crucially be seen as a cooperative global effort to eradicate poverty and underdevelopment (UNDP 1994:22). The referent object was shifted from nation-states to “people.” To be “people-centered” is to be “concerned with how people live and breathe in a society, how freely they exercise their many choices, how much access they have to market and social opportunities – and whether they live in conflict or in peace” (1994:23). This implied a radical widening of the types of threats and sectors to which security was applicable, to food, health, the environment, population growth, disparities in economic opportunities, migration, drug trafficking, and terrorism.

Like structural violence, the concept of human security has been attacked for being so broad that it becomes academically and politically vacuous (Paris 2001). Other critics questioned the wisdom of adding “security” to what they held was essentially a human rights agenda (Buzan 2004), and pointed to the ease with which states co-opted human security rhetoric without actually changing their behavior (Booth 2007:321–7). But whatever the academic doubts about human security, it successfully provided a rallying point for a diversity of political actors seeking to boost the support for development issues and humanitarian foreign policies.

Another link to critical peace research goes through postcolonial security studies, which points to the Western-centrism of ISS, arguing that the non-Western world requires security theories that incorporate colonial history as well as attention to the specific state formations in the third world. Postcolonial theory comprises a broad range of perspectives (Grovogui 2007), but generally converges on calling for moving beyond a focus on state and regime security (Ayoob 1997). One body of postcolonial ISS overlapped with social theory and historical sociology in pointing to the need for conceptualizations of security that acknowledge the specificity of the third world. Drawing on the work of Charles Tilly, Keith Krause (1996), for example, held that the state-centric concept of security advocated by traditionalist realist approaches was based on a particular European history of state formation that entailed an understanding of security as oriented toward external threats and resting upon “a strong identification of the security of the state with the security of its citizens” (Krause 1996:320, emphasis in original).

Postcolonialism also holds that the non-Western state has followed a different trajectory, but takes issue with the view of this state as “failed” or “underdeveloped,” seeing it as “the aftereffects of the unequal encounter with Western colonialism” (Niva 1999:150; Barkawi and Laffey 2006). This line of postcolonial ISS emphasizes “the material and ideological struggles of historically situated agents in a neoliberal world order” (Agathangelou and Ling 2004:518) and resonates with critical IPE as well as Marxist peace researchers’ account of imperialism and structural violence in the 1960s and 1970s. Complementing this is a critique of the Western political and academic construction of “the Southern,” “the Oriental,” the “underdeveloped,” and the “failed” Other (Niva 1999; Doty 1996). These inferior identities assume “an unchanging ‘precolonial’ cultural essence” that can be mobilized by the West, for instance in arguments against nuclear proliferation to the third world but also by the non-Western elites seeking to boost their position domestically and abroad (Niva 1999:150–2; Biswas 2001; Grovogui 2007:240–1). Anthropologists working from a postcolonial perspective also warn against assuming that a universal, globally shared concept of security exists. They argue that ethnographic field studies can identify local constructions of security that differ from what is commonly assumed in (Western-centric) ISS (Masco 1999; Bubandt 2005; Kent 2006). A crucial implication of postcolonialism is thus that a different understanding of the non-Western subject appears, and incidentally, since identity is relational, one of the West itself. This means that other referent objects may come into analytical focus, but also that “security” itself may be constituted in distinct non-Western terms that require the adoption of new epistemologies and methodologies (Grovogui 2007:232–3).


Although the ending of the Cold War certainly opened up space for widening and deepening approaches to ISS, it was not their principal cause. As the account above shows, many of these developments were under way during the 1970s and 1980s, and some had roots or echoes in Cold War PR. A good part of widening was driven by events such as the oil crisis and the slowly rising awareness of human impacts on the environment, and this was given more room by the decline of the military agenda post-1990. Much of the deepening, whether feminist, constructivist or post-structuralist, came from academic debates originating within the social sciences and moving into IR and ISS during the 1980s. And as the PR/critical security studies story shows, there will always be normative resistance to any attempt to confine the security agenda to a state-centric, military agenda. In our view, widening and deepening are here to stay. They are well institutionalized in the journals and associations, and academic training processes and funding sources of ISS and IR, and the rising salience of non-military issues constructed in security terms, whether environment, identity, human rights, or economy, seems likely to continue. They thus rest on deep foundations both in the social sciences as a whole, and in the directions of public policy concerns. Whatever changes shape the future of ISS, even if the military agenda does reassert itself as central again, it seems unlikely that all of the widening and deepening developments in ISS will be rolled back. Peace researchers, constructivists, critical security theorists, feminists, and post-structuralists have scored deeply in moving the understanding of threat away from purely material calculations toward more social and political understandings.

Widening and deepening nevertheless raise profound constitutive questions about ISS and what it should include and what exclude, and this is likely to remain an area of controversy. It is a legitimate and difficult question whether widening and deepening have fragmented ISS, and made the subject incoherent, as some claim, or whether they have produced a more nuanced and sophisticated conversation about a range of shared concerns. Is it possible to have a field in a disciplinary sociological sense if there is little or no conversation among the different perspectives? Some studies identify IR as moving into self-referential camps, and their reasoning is applicable to ISS as well (Sylvester 2007; Wæver 2007). Often a US–European divide is also identified as an important fracture line within ISS. Europe has had more PR, more critical theory and more post-positivism of all sorts. The US has had more strategic studies and more positivism.

Our reading of the evidence is that ISS remains to an important degree a single conversation, but one that now has a much wider, deeper, and more sophisticated take on how to interpret any given event or issue. Widening and deepening can, and we think should, be appreciated as a kind of division of labor in which contributions from varying perspectives can deepen understanding about shared concerns. Arguably, the new strands make ISS more politically questioning, though in saying that we by no means discount either the oppositionalism of much PR during the Cold War, or realist opposition to the US wars in Vietnam and Iraq. As it has gone with 9/11 and “global war on terror,” so it will probably go with other big events/questions in the future. Whether the traditionalists like it or not, the process and meaning of securitization are now as much a part of ISS as discussion about threats and how to handle them.


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International Relations and Security Network. At, accessed Jul. 2009. Center for Security Studies, ETH, Zürich, Switzerland – a good collection of links to both current security issues and centers of research. From here one can get to the institutes, journals, and organizations that are too many to list individually here.

Human Security Gateway. At, accessed Jul. 2009. Those interested in Human Security should start here.

The Boston Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights. At, accessed Jul. 2009. This site provides a wealth of material, including a collection of syllabi on gender, feminism, and international relations.

CASE Collective. At, accessed Jul. 2009. In Europe; a good road to especially the younger generation of scholars working with the new European approaches.

International Security. At, accessed Jul. 2009. Joint webpage for the International Security Studies Section (ISSS) and International Studies Association (ISA), and the International Security and Arms Control (ISAC) section of the American Political Science Association (APSA).

Project on Defence Alternatives (PDA). At, accessed Jul. 2009. A liberal, cooperative approach to military security.

Millennium: Journal of International Studies. At, accessed Jul. 2009. This is one of the central outlets for post-structuralism, feminism, critical security studies, postcolonialism, and the Copenhagen School.

Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. At, accessed Jul. 2009. This journal is another crucial venue for critical, deepening perspectives.

Security Dialogue. At, accessed Jul. 2009. An important journal for widening/deepening debates.


This essay is to a large extent based on text extracted from our book The Evolution of International Security Studies (2009). A much more detailed account of the deepening and widening of International Security Studies can be found there.