Securitization theory and its critics

Course content

The theory of securitization has established itself worldwide both as a seemingly quite operational tool to structure empirical studies and as one of the focal points of several major debates in security studies. Or more bluntly put: as a favored target for a sizable and varied critique. Many debaters have noticed that the theory especially during the 1990s and early 00’s was exceptionally receptive to criticism and continued its development in exchanges with other ‘schools’ (Critical Security Studies, Agenda setting theory, feminism, Paris School) as well as ad-hoc critics.

In contrast to this productive, early period, in a ‘middle period’, some major interventions went largely unanswered by the ‘founders’ of the theory. In particular, it became common to depict the state of the art as two competing versions of securitization theory, the original speech act based one from Copenhagen (sometimes called ‘philosophical version’) and a more inclusive and process-centred one spearheaded by Thierry Balzacq (‘sociological version’). Sorting this out demands a close attention to questions about the nature and purpose of theory.

In recent years, the theory has continued to grow worldwide and across disciplines to be applied to a widening range of issues, but at the same time the trend in leading theoretical journals especially in Europe is to depict securitization theory as hopelessly flawed not least as an allegedly ‘critical theory’ and therefore beyond repair and ready to be dumped.

One approach to re-assessing and possibly updating the theory would be to relate it to the evolution of ‘real world’ security affairs. The original theory emerged and evolved in close contact with the security issues of the day – with theoretical moves often prompted by the need to intervene in policy debates – from late Cold War developments to the immediate post-Cold War agenda of migration, ethnic conflict in the Balkans and European integration. Much has happened on the security agenda since the ‘Framework book’ was published in 1998. Climate change has taken on increased urgency, terrorism prompted a global war on it, military security re-entered Europe as a security concern, and a global pandemic was happily securitized in most countries.

One contemporary session will focus on populism. A 30 years old Copenhagen School book could seem to have it covered: ‘Identity, Migration and the new (!?) security agenda in Europe’ (Wæver et al 1993). However, it is doubtful whether the concept of ‘societal security’ promoted in that book actually fits current populist dynamics and it should be confronted with recent theories about risk society and ontological security.

Another crucial security issue might prompt rethinking of fundamentals in the theory: climate change. The theory has always been mostly a warning against the political dangers of accepting claims about security threats at face value; but what if we really need to securitize climate change to deal with it? A lively debate has emerged around this dilemma – with implications for the underlying general theory.

In the seminar’s re-assessment of the theory, particular attention will be paid to what possible improvements of the theory can be identified and conversely what fundamental errors of construction can be identified that inherently limit any possible evolution of the theory. Thus, a central focus will be discussion of ’theory development’. Two main reference points for assessing this are philosophical/analytical criteria about the quality of a theory and empirical-political-practical ones concerning the ability of a theory to relate productively to actual security practices. The original presentation of securitization theory was anchored (loosely) in speech act theory and one session will examine whether a more thorough engagement with philosophy of language can provide a more solid foundation for an improved version of securitization theory.

The seminar is expected to serve for participants as 1) an introduction to one specific theory, securitization theory, 2) an insight into the general field of security studies, especially the various mostly European ‘critical’ schools, 3) a state of the art discussion of the current and future shape of securitization studies, 4) an overview of possible forms of usage of the theory and thus a possible launching pad for one’s own analyses, 5) understanding of the dynamics of theory development in general including the motivations and considerations by those actors articulating theory as well as the structure of a field of debate, 6) an introduction to the usage of meta-theoretical and philosophy of science criteria for assessing ‘what is a good theory?’ and what improvements of a theory constitute progress and which ones actually water it out or undermine it.

The course is taught by the person who originally coined the term securitization and therefore liable for most of the problems that followed.


Full-degree students enrolled at the Department of Political Science, UCPH

MSc in Political Science

MSc in Social Science

MSc in Security Risk Management

Bachelor in Political Science


Full-degree students enrolled at the Faculty of Social Science, UCPH 

Bachelor and Master Programmes in Sociology

MSc in Social Data Science


The course is open to:

  • Exchange and Guest students from abroad
Learning outcome


  • About some of the many issues in contemporary security studies as reflected through debates about one influential theory
  • In-depth knowledge of various versions of securitization theory and their application to different sets of security issues.



  • Students will hone their ability to analyze security issues as well as reflectively mobilise the theories used for this purpose.
  • Think about theory; what a theory is, what it does, and how to assess its strength and weaknesses



  • Critical thinking
  • Awareness of the situatedness and contingency of theorizing and theory development
  • Oral communication and writing

The main format will be 2 hours sessions based on readings with a presentation by the teacher and discussion in groups and/or collectively. Much emphasis will be placed on actual discussions, so the seminar really presupposes preparations, i.e. active reading of the texts. As a quid-pro-quo, the teacher will make the readings prioritized, i.e. specifying which texts are crucial and which ones are less unavoidable in order to ensure a common basis for discussions.

Two books and a number of articles:

  • Barry Buzan, Jaap de Wilde and Ole Wæver, Security: A new framework of analysis, Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner 1998.
  • Thierry Balzacq (ed.) Securitization Theory: How security problems emerge and dissolve, London: Routledge 2011.

The syllabus will contain the appropriate number of pages distributed across key articles from the theory debates as well as a list of optional readings that might be relevant for students who pick a particular theme for their exam.

Participants are expected to have a general understanding of theories of international relations equivalent to the department’s course in ‘International Relations’ at the BA. Knowledge of a particular policy area (i.e. climate, migration, pandemics or war) is useful as is as an openness to sociology of science, philosophy of science and theories of language.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Oral examination
Type of assessment details
Synopsis oral exam
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

- In the semester where the course takes place: Synopsis oral exam

- In subsequent semesters: Free written assignment

Criteria for exam assessment

Criteria for exam assessment:

Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings

Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings

Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28


Course number
7,5 ECTS
Programme level
Full Degree Master

1 semester


Department of Political Science, Study Council
Contracting department
  • Department of Political Science
  • Social Data Science
  • Department of Sociology
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Social Sciences
Course Coordinator
  • Ole Wæver   (2-747c456e6b7833707a336970)
Saved on the 16-11-2023

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