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Security and the problem of context: a hermeneutical critique of securitisation theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2009


How do we know when we are dealing with security issue? This is a cardinal question in Security Studies, and securitisation theory provides and authoritative yet incomplete answer, mainly because it rules out that the meaning of security can vary contextually. To overcome this limitation, we need a hermeneutical perspective centred on the liminality of security as a category in-between theory and policy, which produces a more precise algorithm for empirical research. A contextual hermeneutics of security signals that normative awareness is necessary even in the absence of a unifying normative manifesto, also confronts the spectre of the “death of security” invoked by those who object to the potentially endless broadening of its meaning.

Research Article
Copyright © © British International Studies Association 2009

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1 The key texts are Ole Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, in Ronnie D. Lipschutz (ed.), On Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 46–86; Ole Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 34:1 (1996), pp. 103–132; Barry Buzanet al., Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder, CO.: Lynne Rienner, 1998).

2 Walter B. Gallie, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56 (1956), pp. 167–198.

3 David Baldwin, ‘The Concept of Security’, Review of International Studies, 23:1 (1994), pp. 22–3.

4 Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers. The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 48.

5 Charles Taylor, ‘The Hermeneutics of Conflict’, in James Tully (ed.), Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), p. 226.

6 Michael C. Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics’, International Studies Quarterly, 47:4 (2003), p. 512.

7 Jeff Huysmans, ‘The Question of the Limit: Securitization and the Aesthetics of Horror in Political Realism’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 27:3 (1998), pp. 569–589; Jeff Huysmans, ‘The European Union and the Securitization of Migration’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 38:5 (2000), pp. 751–777.

8 Tim Dunne and Nicholas J. Wheeler, ‘We the Peoples: Contending Discourses of Security in Human Rights Theory and Practice’, International Relations, 18:1 (2004), pp. 9–23.

9 Christopher S. Browning, ‘The Region-Building Approach Revisited: The Continued Othering of Russia in Discourses of Region-Building in the European North’, Geopolitics, 8:1 (2003), pp. 45–71; Atsuko Higashino, ‘For the Sake of “Peace and Security”? The Role of Security in the European Union Enlargement Eastwards’, Cooperation and Conflict, 39:4 (2004), pp. 347–368; Helene Sjursen, ‘Changes to European Security in a Communicative Perspective’, Cooperation and Conflict, 39:2 (2004), pp. 107–28.

10 Morten Kelstrup, ‘Globalisation and Societal Insecurity: The Securitization of Terrorism and Competing Strategies for Global Governance’, in Stefano Guzzini and Dietrich Jung (eds.),Contemporary Security Analysis and Copenhagen Peace Research (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 106–16; Barry Buzan, ‘Will the ‘Global War on Terrorism’ Be the New Cold War?’, International Affairs, 82:6 (2006), pp. 1101–18.

11 Stephan Elbe, ‘Should HIV/AIDS Be Securitized? The Ethical Dilemmas of Linking HIV/AIDS and Security’, International Studies Quarterly, 50:1 (2006), pp. 119–44; Colin McInnes, ‘HIV/AIDS and Security’, International Affairs, 82:2 (2006), pp. 315–26.

12 Ole Wæver offers his own assessment of the ‘internal problems’ and ‘external criticism’ of securitisation theory in ‘Securitization: Taking Stock of a Research Programme in Security Studies’, paper presented at the PIPES seminar, University of Chicago, 24 February 2003, especially pp. 26–30.

13 Thierry Balzacq, ‘The Three Faces of Securitization: Political Agency, Audience and Context’, European Journal of International Relations, 11:2 (2005), pp. 171–201; Holger Stritzel, ‘Towards a Theory of Securitization: Copenhagen and beyond’, European Journal of International Relations, 13:3, pp. 357–83. See also Williams, ‘Words, Images’.

14 Mathias Albert, ‘Security as Boundary Function: Changing Identities and Securitization in World Politics’, International Journal of Peace Studies, 3:1 (1998), pp. 23–46; Bill McSweeney, ‘Identityand Security: Buzan and the Copenhagen School’, Review of International Studies, 22:1 (1996),pp. 82–93; Bill McSweeney, ‘Durkheim and the Copenhagen School: A Response to Buzan and Wæver’, Review of International Studies, 24:1 (1998), pp. 137–40.

15 Lene Hansen, ‘The Little Mermaid's Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 29:2 (2000), pp. 285–306; Iver B. Neumann, ‘Identity and the Outbreak of War: Or Why the Copenhagen School of Security Should Include the Idea of Violisation in its Framework of Analysis’, International Journal of Peace Studies, 3:1 (1998), pp. 7–22; see also Balzacq, ‘Three Faces’ and Williams, ‘Words, Images’.

16 Claudia Aradau, ‘The Perverse Politics of Four-Letter Words: Risk and Pity in the Securitisation of Human Trafficking’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 33:2 (2004), pp. 251–77; Claudia Aradau, ‘Security and the Democratic Scene: Desecuritization and Emancipation’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 7:4 (2004), pp. 388–413; Andreas Behnke, ‘The Message or the Messenger? Reflections on the Role of Security Experts and the Securitization of Political Issues’, Cooperation and Conflict, 35:1 (2000), pp. 89–105; Johan Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates? On the Political Role of Security Analysts’, Cooperation and Conflict, 34:3 (1999), pp. 311–30; Johan Eriksson, ‘Debating the Politics of Security Studies. Response to Goldmann, Wæver and Williams’, Cooperation and Conflict, 34:3 (1999), pp. 345–52; Jeff Huysmans, ‘Language and the Mobilisation of Security Expectations. The Normative Dilemma of Speaking and Writing Security’, paper for the ECPR Joint Sessions, workshop Redefining Security, Mannheim, 26–31 March 1999; Ole Wæver, ‘Securitizing Sectors? Reply to Eriksson’, Cooperation and Conflict, 34:3 (1999), pp. 334–40; Michael C. Williams, ‘The Practices of Security: Critical Contributions. Reply to Eriksson’, Cooperation and Conflict, 34: (1999), pp. 341–4.

17 Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, ‘Liberalism and Security: The Contradictions of the Liberal Leviathan’, Copenhagen Peace Research Institute Working Paper 23 (1998), p. 1; see also Jeff Huysmans, ‘Minding Exceptions: The Politics of Insecurity and Liberal Democracy’, Contemporary Political Theory, 3:3 (2004), pp. 321–41.

18 Notable exceptions are Nils Bubandt, ‘Vernacular Security: The Politics of Feeling Safe in Global, National and Local Worlds’, Security Dialogue, 36:3 (2005), pp. 275–96; Matt McDonald, ‘Securitization and the Construction of Security’, European Journal of International Relations, 14:4 (2008); Balzacq, ‘Three Faces’.

19 I refer generically to ‘hermeneutics’ in this article conscious that this masks its schisms and overlooks many of its nuances as well as its critiques. In doing so, I hope to draw attention to the significance of context, interpretation, and the liminality of meaning, while at the same time not make the argument hostage to the many debates that fracture hermeneutics itself. My reading of hermeneutics draws very broadly from Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, translated by K. McLaughlinand D. Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd edition (London: Sheed & Ward, 1989); Stanley Fish, Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1980); Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics Vol. 1, Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

20 A significant variety can be found under this broad theoretical umbrella – critical security studies, constructivist, feminist and post-structuralist approaches. Key texts are Ken Booth, (ed.), Critical Security Studies and World Politics (Boulder, CO.: Lynne Rienner, 2005); David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Manchester and Minneapolis, MN.: University of Minnesota Press/Manchester University Press, 1998); Peter Katzenstein, (ed.), The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams, (eds), Critical Security Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Richard Wyn Jones, ‘Message in a Bottle? Theory and Praxis in Critical Security Studies’, Contemporary Security Policy, 16:3 (1995), pp. 299–319.

21 Buzan et al., Security, p. 35.

22 Stephen Walt, ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’, International Studies Quarterly, 35:2 (1991),p. 213.

23 Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, p. 55.

24 Williams, ‘Words, Images’, p. 513.

25 Buzan et al., Security, p. 27.

26 Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers, pp. 70–1.

27 Arnold Wolfers, ‘National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol’, Political Science Quarterly, 67:4 (1952), p. 485.

28 Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, p. 110. As Williams observes, this conception of what security is about is the product of the ‘Schmittian legacy’ traceable in Wæver's work. Williams, ‘Words, Images’, pp. 514–15; see also Ole Wæver, ‘Security Agendas Old and New, and How to Survive Them’, Working Paper No. 6, Universidad Torcuato di Tella, September 2000. It is important to note that this continuity can also be observed in other approaches, from critical security studies to constructivism to the paradigm of human security. Other attempts to examine the concept and meaning of security maintain, albeit in a slightly modified form, this ‘essence’ of security. See Jeff Huysmans, ‘Security! What Do You Mean? From Concept to Thick Signifier’, European Journal of International Relations, 4:2 (1998), pp. 234 and 236. See also Behnke, ‘Reflections’, pp. 90–91.

29 Jeff Huysmans, ‘Revisiting Copenhagen. Or, on the Creative Development of a Security Studies Agenda in Europe’, European Journal of International Relations, 4:4 (1998), pp. 500–1; Williams, ‘Words, Images’, p. 516; McDonald, ‘Securitization and the Construction of Security’.

30 Buzan et al., Security, p. 27.

31 Barry Buzan, ‘Rethinking Security’ after the Cold War’, Cooperation and Conflict, 32:1 (1997),p. 19.

32 Buzan et al., Security, p. 35.

33 Wæver, ‘Taking Stock’, p. 9, footnote 33.

34 Buzan et al., Security, p. 33.

35 Ibid., p. 26.

36 Buzan et al., Security, p. 31.

37 Buzan, ‘Rethinking Security’, p. 20.

38 Ibid., p. 27.

39 McSweeney, ‘Identity and Security’.

40 Buzan et al., Security, p. 205.

41 Ibid., Security, pp. 35 and 203–7; Huysmans, ‘Revisiting Copenhagen’, 493.

42 Ibid., Security, p. 25.

43 Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, p. 116.

44 Wæver, ‘Taking Stock’, p. 28.

45 Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, p. 50; Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, p. 106; Buzan et al., Security, p. 26.

46 Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era, 2nd edition (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991).

47 Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

48 Buzan et al., Security, p. 26.

49 Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, p. 55, original emphasis.

50 Buzan et al., Security, p. 26.

51 Ibid., p. 27.

52 Buzan et al., Security, p. 33; also Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, p. 109, fn.30.

53 Balzacq, ‘Three Faces’, pp. 188–90

54 See Buzan et al., Security, pp. 31–2; 208; and Wæver, ‘Taking Stock’, p. 33

55 Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers, p. 465.

56 Buzan et al., Security, pp. 24–5.

57 Carsten Bagge Laustsen and Ole Wæver, ‘In Defence of Religion: Sacred Referent Objects for Securitization’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 29:3 (2000), p. 719, emphasis added.

58 Laustsen and Wæver, ‘Religion’, p. 732, emphasis added.

59 In the same article, the statement ‘fundamentalism is securitized’ means at one point that fundamentalism must be defended against challenges to it, while later ‘fundamentalism is securitized’ means that states must defend against fundamentalism (pp. 720–3). This contradiction does not simply reflect the mutual securitization of ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘secularists’ (p. 723); rather, it signals the use of ‘securitization’ to denote two different practices.

60 Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, p. 106.

61 Ibid., p. 106.

62 Buzan et al., Security, pp. 24–5.

63 Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, p. 50.

64 Ibid., p. 50.

65 Buzan et al., Security, p. 36.

66 Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, p. 120. Wæver also offers a second, conflicting interpretation: integration can be read as security policy directed against the existential threat posed by Europe's own bloody past. See also Jouko Huru, ‘On the Changing Essence of Security’, in Jouko Huruet al. (eds),New Dimensions of Security in Central and Northeastern Europe, Research Report No. 83 (Tampere: Tampere Peace Research Institute, 1998), especially pp. 19–21.

67 Browning illustrates an empirical context in which actors ‘do’ security without explicitly ‘talking security’ in ‘Region-Building’. See also Williams, ‘Words, Images’, pp. 526–7.

68 Ole Wæver et al., Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe (London: Pinter, 1993).

69 Buzan et al., Security, pp. 24 and 122.

70 Wæver, ‘European Security Identities’, p. 114.

71 Buzan et al., Security, p. 25.

72 Ibid., p. 120.

73 Wæver, ‘Taking Stock’, p. 27.

74 Ibid., p. 26.

75 Ibid., p. 27.

76 See Peter Lawler, ‘Scandinavian Exceptionalism and European Union’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 35:4 (1997), pp. 565–94.

77 Buzan et al., Security, p. 32; also Balzacq, ‘Three Faces’.

78 Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers.

79 Buzan et al., Security, p. 24, emphasis added.

80 Wæver, ‘Securitizing Sectors’, p. 337.

81 Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers, p. 48, original emphasis.

82 Buzan et al., Security, p. 34.

83 Here Buzan et al. follow Taylor very closely. Taylor argues that ‘That one must confront one's language with that of one's subjects doesn't involve accepting this language’, in ‘The Hermeneutics of Conflict’, p. 228.

84 Buzan et al., Security, p. 31.

85 Buzan et al., Security, p. 24; see Wæver, ‘Taking Stock’, p. 9.

86 See Ole Wæver, ‘Identity, Communities and Foreign Policy’, in Lene Hansen & Ole Wæver (eds.), European Integration and National Identity: The challenge of the Nordic States (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 20–50; Buzan et al., Security, pp. 176–178

87 Williams, ‘Words, Images’, p. 519. Paul Roe examines the constitution of ‘migrants’ and ‘the migrant’ as referent objects of securitization in ‘Securitization and Minority Rights: Conditions of Desecuritization’, Security Dialogue, 35:3 (2004), pp. 279–94.

88 Hansen, ‘The Little Mermaid’.

89 John W. Meyer and Ronald L. Jepperson, ‘The “Actors” of Modern Society: The Cultural Construction of Social Agency’, Sociological Theory, 18: 1 (2000), pp. 100–20.

90 Skinner, Visions of Politics, p. 1.

91 See for example Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers; Louise Fawcett and Andrew Hurrell (eds), Regionalism in World Politics: Regional Organisation and International Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Peter Katzenstein, A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005); Anthony D. Lake and Patrick Morgan (eds), Regional Orders: Building Security in a New World (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997). For regional studies using securitization theory, see Graeme Herd and Joan Löfgren, ‘“Societal Security”, the Baltic States and EU Integration’, Cooperation and Conflict, 36:3 (2001), pp. 273–96; Higashino, ‘For the Sake of Peace and Security’; Sjursen, ‘Changes to European Security’.

92 Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey, ‘The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies’, Review of International Studies, 32:4 (2006), pp. 329–52.

93 See Matti Jutila, ‘Desecuritizing Minority Rights: Against Determinism’, Security Dialogue, 37:2 (2006), pp. 167–85; Mark Neufeld, ‘Pitfalls of Emancipation and Discourses of Security: Reflections on Canada's “Security with a Human Face”’, International Relations, 18:1 (2004), pp. 109–23; Paul Roe, ‘Misperception and Ethnic Conflict: Transylvania's Societal Security Dilemma’, Review of International Studies, 28:1 (2002), pp. 57–74.

94 Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, ‘“It Sounds Like a Riddle”: Security Studies, the War on Terror and Risk’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 33:2 (2004), p. 395.

95 Dunne and Wheeler, ‘We the Peoples’, p. 9, emphasis added.

96 Behnke, ‘Reflections’, p. 96, emphasis added. See also Matt McDonald, ‘Environment and Security: Global Eco-Politics and Brazilian Deforestation’, Contemporary Security Policy 24:2 (2003), pp. 69–94.

97 Huysmans, ‘Language and Mobilisation’, p. 25.

98 Rasmussen, ‘Riddle’, p. 392.

99 Ibid., p. 388.

100 Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, ‘Reflexive Security: NATO and International Risk Society’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30:2 (2002), p. 308, emphasis added.

101 Helena Rytövuori-Apunen, ‘Forget Post-Positivist IR! The Legacy of IR Theory as the Locus for a Pragmatist Turn’, Cooperation and Conflict, 40:2 (2005), p. 163.

102 Nicholas Thomas and William T. Tow, ‘Gaining Security by Trashing the State? A Reply to Bellamy & McDonald’, Security Dialogue, 33:3 (2002), p. 380.

103 Bubandt, ‘Vernacular Security’, p. 291.

104 Bubandt, ‘Vernacular Security’, p. 276. However, Bubandt also claims that his ‘argument is not a relativist assertion that there are multiple cultural constructions of security’ (p. 277). This statement seems difficult to reconcile with his claim that vernacular security allows a ‘break with the universalist pretensions of the concept of ‘human security’’ (p. 278).

105 Buzan and Wæver, Regions and Powers, p. 71.

106 Patrick A. Heelan, ‘Hermeneutical Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Science’, in Hugh J. Silverman (ed.), Gadamer and Hermeneutics (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 226.

107 Rita Floyd, ‘Towards a Consequentialist Evaluation of Security: Bringing together the Copenhagen and the Welsh Schools of Security Studies’, Review of International Studies, 33:2 (2007), p. 349.

108 Reinhart Kosselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, translated by Todd Presner, Kerstin Behnke, and Jobst Welge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

109 Matt McDonald, ‘Human Security and the Construction of Security’, Global Society, 16:3 (2002), p. 288. McDonald argued later that ‘security is not an ontological given’, in ‘Environment and Security’, p. 73 and 86.

110 J.M Bernstein, ‘Grand Narratives’, in David Wood (ed.), On Paul Ricoeur. Narrative and Interpretation (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 114–5.

111 See Williams, ‘Words, Images’, p. 524. For a detailed discussion, see Felix Ciutǎ, ‘Narratives of Security: Strategy and Identity in the European Context’, in Richard Mole (ed.), Discursive Constructions of Identity in European Politics (London: Palgrave, 2007), pp. 190–207.

112 Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp. 302–7. See also Paul Ricoeur, ‘Life in Quest of Narrative’, in David Wood (ed.), On Paul Ricoeur. Narrative and Interpretation (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 20–33; Jerome Bruner, ‘Life as Narrative’, Social Research 54:1 (1987), pp. 11–32; Jerome Bruner, ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’, Critical Inquiry, 18:1 (1991), pp. 1–21.

113 See Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates’, p. 316. For a study of such conceptual ‘contamination’, see Felix Ciutǎ, ‘Region? Why Region? Security, Hermeneutics, and the Making of the Black Sea Region’, Geopolitics, 13:1 (2008), pp. 120–47.

114 Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates’, p. 314.

115 Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates’, p. 313; Williams, ‘Practices of Security’, p. 342.

116 See Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates’; Eriksson, ‘Politics of Security’, and Huysmans, ‘Language and Mobilisation’.

117 Buzan et al., Security, p. 40, emphasis added.

118 Buzan, ‘Rethinking Security’, p. 21; Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates’, p. 322; Wæver, ‘Securitizing Sectors’, p. 335.

119 An argument made for some time by the post-positivist IR literature. See for example Michael C. Williams, ‘Identity and the Politics of Security’, European Journal of International Relations, 4:2 (1998), pp. 204–25.

120 The normative dimension of hermeneutics has been the subject of its sustained dialogue with Critical Theory, and following Hans-Georg Gadamer, Richard Bernstein argues that the idea of emancipation is ‘already intrinsic in hermeneutic understanding’. ‘The Constellation of Hermeneutics, Critical Theory, and Deconstruction’, in Robert J. Dostal (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 271.

121 See Huysmans, ‘Language and Mobilisation’, p. 11; in contrast, see Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates’, p. 321.

122 See Ciutǎ, ‘Why Region?’.

123 Yale H. Ferguson and Richard W. Mansbach, ‘Between Celebration and Despair: Constructive Suggestions for Future International Theory’, International Studies Quarterly, 35:4 (1991), p. 367.

124 See for example Molly Cochran, ‘Deweyan Pragmatism and Post-Positivist Social Science in IR’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 31:3 (2002), pp. 525–548; Peter M. Haas and Ernst B. Haas, ‘Pragmatic Constructivism and the Study of International Institutions’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 31:3 (2002), pp. 573–601; Gerard Holden, ‘Who Contextualizes the Contextualizers? Disciplinary History and the Discourse about IR Discourse’, Review of International Studies, 28:2 (2002), pp. 253–70; Iver B. Neumann, ‘Returning Practice to the Linguistic Turn: The Case of Diplomacy’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 31:3 (2002), pp. 627–52. For a useful overview of the case-study methodology, see Roger Gomm et al. (eds) Case Study Method: Key Issues, Key Texts (London: Sage, 2000).

125 For a first cut, see Felix Ciutǎ, ‘The End(s) of NATO: Security, Strategic Action and Narrative Transformation’, Contemporary Security Policy 23:1 (2002), pp. 35–62. See also Ciutǎ, ‘Narratives of Security’, especially pp. 200–5.

126 See for example Jutta Weldes et al., ‘Introduction: Constructing Insecurity’, in Jutta Weldes et al., (eds), Cultures of Insecurity. States, Communities, and the Production of Danger (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), especially pp. 19–20.

127 Karin Fierke, ‘Changing Worlds of Security’, in Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams (eds), Critical Security Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 248.