Accusations, name-calling and more... A guide to the recent drama in security studies
One might assume that the academic world isn’t exactly a hotspot for exciting drama, but every once in a while, academics disagree so strongly that anger and frustration takes over. Now, I wouldn’t expect most people to be following the recent drama in the security studies community, despite its riveting discussion of referent objects, ontological assumptions and security perceptions. But this time, it is not just academic. This time, it is filled with accusations of racism, character smearing, and, frankly, a lot of insults.
The drama concerns four people, with a bunch of the academic community sharing their two cents. Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan, heavyweights of the security studies community, have had their theory, and their character, called into question by allegations of racism. The academic beef began back in August when Allison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit called out securitization theory in an article titled; ‘Is Securitization theory racist? Civilizationism, methodological whiteness, and antiblack thought in the Copenhagen School’ (2020)
Amongst the critiques are claims that securitization theory is anti-black, universalist, euro-centric and portraying Africa as a savage region whilst glorifying Europeanness. But this is not just critical scholarly work highlighting some issues with the theory, rather it questions whether securitization theory even has any analytical value anymore, concluding that “perhaps what remains is simply the word securitization” (Howell and Richter-Montpetit, 2020, p.17)
Such strong accusations are sure to get a reaction from the security studies community. The theory has become a house-hold name in the field, regularly featuring in security studies syllabuses the world over. Securitization theory, which offers a non-traditional view of security threats, analyzes how issues become ‘securitized’ in the first place by portraying issues as existential threats to domestic audiences. The theory has helped scholars analyze the power associated with securitizing issues such as immigration, climate change and other states, and how security threats can be understood as social constructions rather than material inevitabilities. Given that it is often used to display caution towards the dangers of securitizing acts, for example by highlighting the security threats portrayed by anti-immigration politicians around the world, allegations of racism are sure to bat an eye.
Nevertheless, Allison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit’s article makes such claims, and with over 5500 downloads it is safe to say it has garnered a lot of attention within the community. Whether the critique is warranted or not is up to interpretation, but one thing is for sure: Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan both reject it. So what exactly are the claims of racism based upon? First and foremost, it is through a belief that securitization theory has roots in civilizationalism. Howell and Richter-Montpetit define it as follows:
"Civilizationism is a term used to describe racist (theoretical) perspectives that contain three assumptions:
(1) Civilizations can, and ought to, advance, and some (Western)civilizations are more ‘advanced’;
(2) civilizational progress is not only technological and material, but political and moral; and
(3) the ‘underdevelopment’ of certain civilizations represents a problem for, or threat to, developed ones.”(2020, p.7)
By mere association and by citing sources that the authors deem civilizationalist (like Arendt, Schmidt, Foucault, Hobbes and more) they believe securitization theory is built upon a racist foundation. They claim that racial dilemmas are also evident in the core work of securitization theory. Here the theory uses what Howell and Richter-Montpetit call racialized discourses, arguing that securitization theory generalizes Africa, characterizing it by weak, failing states, and primal concerns, while ‘Europeanness’ is glorified as the place where “normal, civilized politics exist” (Howell and Richter-Montpetit, 2020, p.10)
Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver are, to put it lightly, very agitated by the allegations. So much so that they published a 4000 word reply in the Security Dialogue journal from which the critique article was first published, and an additional 90 page document in which they go into depth on the topic. In the reply article, they express their distaste by what they deem being “unfairly accused of a racist deed” (Buzan and Wæver, 2020) They do not only defend the theory and themselves, but also call into question the integrity of the racism accusations.
In a section pointedly titled How not to make an academic argument, Buzan and Wæver argue that the methodology and reasoning of Howell and Richter-Montpetit’s claims are so flawed that the “ .. article could perhaps best be used as a teaching tool for how not to make an academic argument” (Ibid, 2020, p.2) The response then systematically highlights misquotations in the article, argues that they selectively nitpicked some texts while ignoring others to fit their narrative, and contends that securitization theory does not glorify 'Europeanness' but rather acts as a cautionary analytical tool for the threats of securitization in all regions of the world.
Buzan and Wæver (2020) then express their dissatisfaction with the approach to racism that Howell and Richter-Montpetit have. They make it clear that they understand that research on racism in international relations is indeed a very necessary subject of study. However, they believe that Howell and Richter-Montpetit “water down the meaning of racism so that it captures practically everyone in social science” (Ibid, p. 7) and in the process harm the very real need for a serious, warranted response to racism. In an interview with the University of Copenhagen student newspaper, Wæver goes on to explain that he feels conflicted about replying to the critique:
“I know very well who would like to use what I say. There are loads of right wingers who will jump on this and use it to say: Look how crazy they all are, these anti-racists. I have absolutely no desire to support or to become a spokesperson for them”. -Ole Wæver (Rasmussen, 2020)
Responding to the writers of the racism article, Wæver is concerned with what he believes to be harmful, frankly bad, research;
“Howell and Richter-Montpetit dilute the concept at a time when real racism is gaining ground. What should we call it, if the word just signifies virtually all of the social sciences? And at the same time, the article makes a mockery of critical research. I’ve heard from colleagues who sincerely thought this was a hoax, a parody that someone had tricked the journal into accepting in order to de-legitimize anti-racism. I wish it was.” - Ole Wæver (Ibid, 2020)
This entire situation is a weird one to watch unfold. It raises concerns that many may not have fully considered; are some of the most utilized social science theories racist? And if they are, does that fully dilute the analytical value of these theories? Should securitization theory really be abandoned because it builds upon civilizationalist theoretical perspectives? And on the grander scale, how will the fear of accusations of racism fit into the future of academia?
These dilemmas are sure to gain more traction in the coming years, as Howell and Richter-Montpetit release their upcoming book on racism in security studies. It’ll be exciting to see if their argument gathers more support then and how they respond to Wæver and Buzan’s critique.
Howell, A. and Richter-Montpetit, M. (2020) ‘Is securitization theory racist? Civilizationism, methodological whiteness, and antiblack thought in the Copenhagen School’, Security Dialogue, 51(1), pp. 3–22.
Wæver, O. and Buzan, B. (2020) ‘Racism and responsibility – The critical limits of deepfake methodology in security studies: A reply to Howell and Richter-Montpetit’, Security Dialogue.
Rasmussen, D.M. (2020). Professor Ole Wævers teori er blevet anklaget for at være så racistisk. [online] uniavisen.dk. Available at: https://uniavisen.dk/verdenskendt-fredsforsker-anklaget-for-racisme-jeg-har-aldrig-haft-det-saa-daarligt-med-mit-liv-som-akademiker/?fbclid=IwAR1uNi33cv75ZGq5byxHOqgSQcWdrSIUjCunOPNYLaizXhPWsD5lG8QlEsc [Accessed 15 May 2020].