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The Construction of the Maras

Antonia Does

3. Securitization theory

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3.1. Securitization theory according to the Copenhagen School

1The Copenhagen School, which emerged from the Conflict and Peace Research Institute of Copenhagen, finds its academic roots in Barry Buzan’s 1983 book People, States and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations. The School has contributed various concepts to the field of security studies, most importantly those of securitization and desecuritization. While Ole Wæver formulated the concept of securitization for the first time in the mid-1990s (Wæver 1995), Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde dealt with it in greater detail in their book Security: A New Framework of Analysis in 1998.   

2The Copenhagen School traditionally defines international security in a military context. According to Buzan et al.(1998: 21), “security is about survival” and from this understanding a matter is presented as “posing an existential threat to a designated referent object”, traditionally but not necessarily the state, comprised of government, territory and society. It is important to note the difference between this traditional, monosectoral approach and the Copenhagen School’s new, multisectoral framework with a broader agenda and four additional categories of the concept of security: political, economic, societal and environmental security. Broadening the concept of security beyond the military sector and beyond the state as the only actor, also enables the identification of new referent objects, such as national sovereignty (political security), national economies (economic security), collective identities (societal security) or species and habitats (environmental security) (Emmers 2011: 137). Buzan et al. (1998: 207f) furthermore highlight a methodological incompatibility between the traditional and the new approach, for while the former objectively views the threats and the referent objects, the latter is rooted in the social construction of these factors. In addition to widening the concept of security in this way, the Copenhagen School also contributes to deepening security studies by including actors other than the state.

Chart 1: Securitization spectrum

Chart 1: Securitization spectrum

Source: Emmers (2011: 138)

3In order for security studies not to become too broad and thereby to lose their relevance, the Copenhagen School aimed to contribute to the field an analytical framework of securitization and desecuritization (Emmers 2011: 138). The Copenhagen School established a spectrum along which public issues can be classified – ranging from non-politicized through politicized to securitized matters (see Chart 1). Non-politicized issues are those that the state does not deal with and that are not part of public debate. Politicized issues are tackled within the political system and are part of public policy calling for government action. Securitized matters, at the end of the spectrum, are those which ask for extraordinary means, beyond normal political procedures of the state (Emmers 2011: 138f). According to the Copenhagen School, matters are moved from the politicized into the securitized area of the above-shown spectrum via an ‘act of securitization’. More precisely, Buzan et al. (1998: 23) state that “securityis 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”, which is why securitization can therefore be considered a more extreme version of politicization. By the same token, desecuritization implies the reverse process of moving issues from the emergency level back into the normal political arena.

4According to Emmers (2011: 140), every securitization is composed of a security act (by speaking the language of security and asking for the adoption of extraordinary counter-measures) and a political act (a political decision to articulate the threat in such a way as to convince the target audience). These two components highlight the difficulty of drawing a clear line between politicization and securitization, for example in cases when political reasons constitute the motivation behind securitization as when politicians seek to boost their popularity to increase their chances of re-election (Emmers 2011: 144). It is relevant to pay attention to such political motivations in securitization processes – especially as regards the case of Central America’s northern triangle and the way the maras are portrayed and handled (see Chapter 4).

5The explanation of the securitization process by the Copenhagen School relies on two stages identified by Emmers (2011: 139). The first one regards the portrayal of certain issues and the second even more important stage concerns the success of securitization that is dependent upon an audience being convinced or accepting that a specific referent object is indeed existentially threatened. In Wæver’s first concept, security is equated with a speech act, while securitization refers to how an issue is linguistically portrayed as an existential threat. Next to generally affirming this concept, Buzan et al. (1998) additionally put more emphasis on the role of constituencies to acknowledge and thereby to ‘back up’ a speech act. By such consent, speech acts – then defined as securitization moves – turn into securitizations. In this regard, speech acts shift from being “productive of security” to being “one component of the inter-subjective construction of security” (McDonald 2008: 566; emphasis in the original).

  • 1  “Securitization is not a self-referential practice but an intersubjective process” (Balzacq 2011b: (...)

6At the first stage of securitization, state or non-state actors – for instance trade unions or popular movements – portray certain issues, persons, groups, or entities as existential threats to a target object or community (Emmers 2011: 139). Issues are designated as national or international security issues because they are considered more important than others. They may even be dramatized and presented to be a ‘supreme priority’ in order to enable securitizing actors to deal with them prior to other matters. By doing so, it becomes apparent that security is a socially constructed, “self-referential practice” (Buzan et al. 1998: 24) because an issue is transformed into a security question by simply framing it as a threat, not necessarily because of the existence of a real existential threat. On the other hand, the Copenhagen School views securitization as an “intersubjective [practice] of a securitizing actor acting towards a significant audience” (Stritzel 2007: 362f) as the audience plays an important role in receiving the discourse (Buzan et al. 1998: 30). Nowadays, scholars still lack a clear position on whether the character of securitization is intersubjective or self-referential and illocutionary (Balzacq 2011b: 6). By arguing that securitization cannot be both at the same time, Balzacq (2005) suggests a tendency towards self-referentiality, as the Copenhagen School initially ignored the audience as a unit of analysis. In a later piece, however, he discards securitization as a self-referential practice by clearly referring to it as intersubjective (Balzacq 2011b: 3).1Although non-state actors gradually become more important in the securitization model, the process as such seems to remain dominated by “powerful actors in privileged positions”, mostly at state level (Emmers 2011: 139; Collins 2005: 570f). This factor is particularly relevant in the second stage when it comes to convincing an audience of the discourse.

7The above-mentioned portrayal alone does not automatically make an issue a security matter. In a second stage, the securitizing actor must convince a relevant audience (for example public opinion, politicians, or military officers) that a specific referent object is indeed in substantial danger. It is then with the audience’s acknowledgement that extraordinary political measures can be imposed in order to tackle the threat. Furthermore, the audience, or more specifically constituencies, tolerate “the use of counteractions outside the normal bounds of political procedures” (Emmers 2011: 139) at this level of ‘urgency’. The success of a securitizing move – consequently a successful securitization – does not depend on the adoption of such extraordinary means, however, but simply on the acknowledgment of the security threat by the audience. It is important to note that the audience, in this understanding of securitization, “excludes the wider population and consists solely of political elites and some state institutions such as the military” (Emmers 2011: 140). Even when the general population rejects a security discourse and deems the extraordinary measures to be illegitimate, the securitization move can still be successful when accepted by a smaller audience (Collins 2005).

8The Copenhagen School’s new analytical framework adds so-called ‘facilitating conditions’, which influence the success of a securitizing move. These conditions are the determining factors under which a speech act (or securitizing move) works and is accepted by an audience. Firstly, internal conditions of linguistic-grammatical form determine the way the speech act is carried out and the way a matter is presented as an existential threat. Secondly, external, social or contextual conditions emphasize the position of the securitizing actor, for example whether he or she holds a position of authority which could facilitate the acceptance of a speech act by the audience. Additionally, an external condition can also be related to threatening features of the portrayed issue that either facilitate or impede securitization. In summary, a successful speech act therefore depends on a “combination of language and society” (Buzan et al. 1998: 32).

9Portraying an issue to be an existential threat therefore lies at the core of the security conception of the Copenhagen School, which links it to the aforementioned notion of survival and thereby also to the traditional understanding of security studies. The so-called ‘speech act’, seen as the starting point of the process of securitization, suffices for the designation of an existential threat, irrespective of whether it constitutes a threat of that magnitude in reality or not (Emmers 2011; Buzan et al. 1998).

3.2. Critiques of the Copenhagen School’s concept of securitization

  • 2  Although securitization theory has been primarily developed in a European context, the different p (...)

10Despite the Copenhagen School’s widened agenda of security studies, its approach to securitization has often been criticized for being too limited, too focused upon the speech act and thus not serving a useful purpose in the study of real world situations (Balzacq 2005, 2011a & 2011b; Stritzel 2007; McDonald 2008). Various scholars have thus called for more attention to be paid to different factors to extend the concept beyond the speech act (or securitizing move), making it more applicable to empirical research and more able to explain “the development of specific security problems” (Balzacq 2011b: 4) – an example of which is the Central American maras. These attempts to broaden the concept of securitization are very useful when it comes to the empirical part of this thesis because they provide the basis for analyzing the construction of the maras from various angles.2

11Before going into detail about these factors, it is crucial to first of all elaborate on the two main forms of securitization: ‘philosophical’ and ‘sociological’ as Thierry Balzacq (2011b) calls them. The underlying insight of securitization is that “no issue is essentially a menace” (Balzacq 2011b: 1) but turns into one via discursive politics. It is precisely this development that is explained differently from a philosophical and from a sociological perspective within securitization. The philosophical view, which lies at the heart of the Copenhagen School’s approach to securitization, is based on the power of language and the core concept that “by saying it something is done” (Wæver 1995: 55), which therefore equates security with a speech act. On the other hand, securitization is sociologically viewed as a strategic or pragmatic process that cannot be detached from “practices, context, [the disposition of the audience] and power relations that characterize the construction of threat images” (Balzacq 2011b: 1).

12Balzacq (2011a & 2011b) largely bases himself on the sociological view and its implications for how securitization is related to a broader reality that goes beyond the speech act. Securitization, seen as a practice, can be of a linguistic or non-linguistic nature, according to him and, as Balzacq suggests, the non-linguistic version does not negate the linguistic but in fact incorporates several of its characteristics. Instead of clearly determining one approach to be linguistic or not (most are non-linguistic), Balzacq deems it more important to see in which way the philosophical and the sociological form of securitization that match his three assumptions: (1) the centrality of the audience, (2) the co-dependency of agency and context and (3) the dispositif as well as the structuring force of practices. These three assumptions will provide the line of discussion for assessing the views of different scholars and their points of critique as regards the Copenhagen School’s understanding of securitization.

3.2.1. The audience in securitization processes

13A first factor that deserves greater attention in a more comprehensive theory of securitization is the audience, according to several critics. The Copenhagen School’s conceptualization of the audience in securitization processes is most often criticized for its vagueness and lack of precision, which has led to various suggestions on how to reconceptualize or refine the audience’s role as well as its composition (Léonard & Kaunert 2011). Balzacq (2005, 2011a & 2011b) – one of the strongest advocates in this respect – reformulates the assumptions of securitization in such a way as to give the audience a central role. He argues that effective securitization is audience-centered because it is the audience that has to agree with the claims of the securitizing actor. A so-called ‘empowering audience’ is characterized by being directly causally linked to the issue and by the “ability to enable the securitizing actor to adopt measures in order to tackle the threat” (Balzacq 2011b: 9). In order for an audience to agree with the portrayed claims, the securitizing actor has to identify with its needs, feelings and interests. More precisely, “the speaker has to tune his/her language to the audience’s experience” (Balzacq 2005: 184) in order to achieve a perlocutionary effect.

14In addition, several scholars have put forward the idea of viewing the audience as actually consisting of multiple audiences (Balzacq 2005; Salter 2008; Vuori 2008; Léonard & Kaunert 2011). Regarding the different roles of different audiences, Balzacq (2005) importantly distinguishes between formal and moral support for a securitization move. While moral support is usually not sufficient, he highlights the importance of formal support, such as that provided by policy-making institutions, in order to adopt a policy to counter a security threat (Balzacq 2005: 185). The securitizing actor thus always aims at convincing “as broad an audience as possible” (Balzacq 2005: 185) in order to remain socially connected with the individual target group. Roe (2008) concretizes this by dividing the audience into (1) the general public providing moral support for an issue to fall within the area of security and (2) policy-makers (e.g., parliamentarians) who formally support the adoption of extraordinary means to deal with the threat. When talking about different audiences, one must also mention that securitization moves can be intended for a general audience as well as limited to an elite audience (Léonard & Kaunert 2011: 61). A securitization move can furthermore succeed with one audience even when it fails with another one (McDonald 2008; Salter 2008). Despite the reconceptualization as regards multiple existing audiences that are marked by “different logics of persuasion”, Léonard and Kaunert (2011: 63) find that the relationships between these audiences and the impact they may have on the policymaking process still need to be addressed more thoroughly.

3.2.2. The context of securitization moves

15A second factor that is commonly mentioned as being under-theorized is the context of securitization which is not incorporated in the securitization framework, the latter focusing largely on the “performative role of the speech act rather than the conditions, in which securitization itself becomes possible” (McDonald 2008: 572). The Copenhagen School claims that the concept of security modifies the context, provided that the rules of the speech act are successfully applied. On the contrary, Balzacq (2005 & 2011b) proposes that the process is the other way around and security statements have to be related to an “external reality” in order for the audience to be convinced. In this way he dissociates himself from the Copenhagen School’s internalist view of context and argues in favor of an externalist approach. Such a view highlights how the way in which a securitizing actor portrays an issue needs to resonate with a context, and the success of such a portrayal depends on the “perceptive environment” (Balzacq 2005: 182). This externalist approach also argues that securitization is a “historical process that occurs between antecedent influential set[s] of events and their impact on interactions” (Balzacq 2011b: 14).

16Equally Stritzel’s idea of embeddedness stresses the importance of an externalist position, as both the securitizing actor and the speech act gain their power from embedding the security statements in their “broader discursive contexts” (Stritzel 2007:  360).  Ignoring the context of securitization makes it very unlikely that the complete social process related to it can be grasped because the speech act in fact relates to only one statement at one particular point in time (Stritzel 2007: 377). In this regard, McDonald also finds that the Copenhagen School defines the context too narrowly, with the focus lying exclusively on the time of intervention – the moment of articulating a security threat. This focus prevents analyzing security as something that is constructed over time and that includes different processes and representations (McDonald 2008: 564).

17The Copenhagen School has acknowledged the problem of focusing on the speech act over the social and political context – even though this acknowledgement has been criticized for not being fully redressed (McDonald 2008). McDonald identifies three ways in which the Copenhagen School can be said to engage with contextual factors. First, external conditions for securitization moves can vary from sector to sector (e.g., military, environmental, political, societal). Second, the School emphasizes the backing-up of a speech act by the audience in the new framework, which may highlight the importance of the context. Third, the above-mentioned ‘facilitating conditions’ also indicate a more externalist, comprehensive understanding of securitization (McDonald 2008: 571f). As Stritzel (2007) points out, these conditions provide a framework that is better suited to an empirical analysis of securitizations. However, McDonald (2008: 571) criticizes the fact that the Copenhagen School’s recognition of the “conditions historically associated with [a] threat” relates to context but leaves it under-theorized.

3.2.3. Bureaucratic practices, policy tools, and images

  • 3  “A thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, (...)

18The Copenhagen School’s strong focus on the speech act (or securitizing move) accords with its greater emphasis on language. Such a focus carries the risk of ignoring other forms of representation – such as images, material or bureaucratic practices – that play an important role in constructing and communicating security and that are not only consequences of the speech act itself (McDonald 2008; Balzacq 2011b). Indeed, “security problems can be designed or they can emerge out of different practices, whose initial aim (if they ever had) [sic] was not in fact to create a security problem” (Balzacq 2011b: 2). In this respect, Balzacq (2011b: 18) argues in favor of understanding securitization as a “pragmatic (sociological) practice” instead of “universal pragmatics (speech act)” as mentioned above. By doing so, he aims at broadening the analysis from the moment of creating towards the process of constructing security – without totally moving away from the causes of securitization. Balzacq (2005) and McDonald (2008) also point out the important role of dominant or powerful (political) leaders in successfully carrying out the securitizing move and thereby constructing security. Following from the insight that security practices are mainly enacted via policy tools employed by securitizing actors, agents or agencies to tackle a threat, Balzacq is one of the authors who increasingly views securitization with an emphasis on two kinds of tools. Firstly, the focus falls on regulatory instruments (such as policy regulation or constitutions) that permit and prohibit certain practices with the goal of influencing the behavior of individuals and groups and secondly, capacity tools, which impose ‘external discipline’ on these social actors. He additionally relates this to Michel Foucault’s dispositif3 that embodies a “specific threat image through which public action is configured to address a security issue” (Balzacq 2011b: 16).

19In addition to policy tools and bureaucratic practices, images or visual representations are also key components of the construction of security or more precisely of securitization. Because political communication is more and more embedded in televisual images, for example, Williams (2003) calls for securitization theory to broaden its understanding of media, structures and institutions. The way in which ‘security’ and ‘threat’ are communicated and perceived is greatly affected by the transmitting medium (e.g., speech, print, or electronic). This probable connection between securitization and the media not only extends beyond the speech act but also relates more precisely to the audience and the context. Vultee (2011: 81) suggests, in this respect, that threats can only then be securitized “when the securitizing move is enabled by a context – a frame”. For example, with the case of the ‘war on terror’, he finds that “securitization works as an independent media frame” (Ibid.: 91) – with which several particularities of the concept ‘security’ can be highlighted or concealed. Similarly, Williams (2003) and Möller (2007) have also dealt with images of the 11 September terrorist attacks as forms of securitization. In addition, Hansen (2011) focused on the example of the 2005 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper.


1  “Securitization is not a self-referential practice but an intersubjective process” (Balzacq 2011b: 3). Nightingale & Cromby (2002: 705) furthermore state that language is not “wholly self-referencing; instead language performs flawed, incomplete reference”.

2  Although securitization theory has been primarily developed in a European context, the different points of critique that will be discussed in this section aim not only to broaden the concept but also to make it easier to use the theory outside a European context (Emmers 2010).

3  “A thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions […]. The dispositif itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements”, according to Foucault (1980: 194).

Table des illustrations

Titre Chart 1: Securitization spectrum
Légende Source: Emmers (2011: 138)
Fichier image/png, 36k


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