Identity and Desecuritisation: The Pitfalls of Conflating Ontological and Physical Security

by Bahar Rumelili. 2015. In Journal of International Relations and Development 18 (1): 52–74

Key words: ontological security, physical security, (de)-securitization
Summary by Margaux Dandrifosse – IBEI


Micro-summary: It is possible to de-securitize the physical survival of an entity while maintaining its distinct and stable identity vis-à-vis an “other”.

Summary: This article provides an innovative framework which extends the possibilities to study securitization and de-securitization. It redefines security by introducing a distinction between ontological and physical security. Rumelili argues that entities (individuals, groups, or collective actors) aim to achieve both forms of security, and both depend on a relationship to an “other”. Ontological security consists of a stable identity and differentiated being in relation to the other. For physical security, this other is considered as a threat to physical survival. Accordingly, while physical security requires the other to be considered as a security threat, ontological security depends on any type of stable and differentiated identity in relation to this other. Securitization produces physical security and can lead to either ontological insecurity, if the other is framed as a threat for the first time entailing a change in identity, or ontological security, if repeated securitizations occur and thereby create a stable identity and distinction of the other as a threat. De-securitization deconstructs the other as a physical security threat.

Based on this framework, the author argues that it is possible to de-securitize the physical existence of an entity, so that the entity no longer perceives any threat to its physical survival, while maintaining a stable and distinct identity vis-à-vis the other. The segmentation of security into ontological and physical, therefore, implies that it is possible to de-securitize minority issues while maintaining their collective identity as distinct from the majority.

However, Rumelili emphasizes that the interconnectedness of ontological and physical security poses challenges to successful de-securitization. Indeed, attempts at de-securitizing the physical existence of an entity may destabilize its identity and distinction vis-à-vis the other, which can result in ontological insecurity, the loss of identity or being. As a response, entities will attempt to re-create a stable identity in relation with the other to re-establish their distinct being. This often implies framing the other as a security threat. This produces renewed securitization of the physical survival of the entity.

Consequently, Rumelili argues that the challenge for de-securitization lies in combining the de-securitizing of physical existence with the maintaining of a stable identity and distinction vis-à-vis the other. She suggests that this could be done through the transformation of the relationship with the other. For instance, by creating other power-relationships of superiority/inferiority, modernity/backwardness, or of responsibility towards the other. Nevertheless, she leaves this challenge open for further research.

Follow-up: The author has significantly impacted the field of securitization and de-securitization by introducing a novel framework to conceptualize security. It, therefore, opens the door to further research. Further works on the topic by the author include: “Breaking with Europe’s pasts: memory, reconciliation, and ontological (In)security” (2018) and “Integrating anxiety into international relations theory: Hobbes, existentialism, and ontological security” (2020). Rumelili has also extensively worked on Turkey, and the relationship between Turkey and the EU mainly in the realm of identity.

Relevance for the SECUREU Project: The author’s distinction between ontological and physical security builds on and challenges Roe (2004)’s claim that minorities cannot be de-securitized without losing their collective identity. This highlights an emerging debate in the literature: can national minorities be de-securitized without losing their collective identity as distinct vis-à-vis the majority?

It would be interesting to examine how the interactions between ontological and physical security have occurred in the securitization process of migrants and minorities in the EU, and which mechanisms have created the friend/enemy dynamics. Are all Member States experiencing the same securitized identity in relation to minorities, or have some Member States/individuals reached a stage where migrants and minorities are considered as the “other” but not as a security threat? Moreover, it would be policy-relevant to consider whether xenophobia would weaken in the EU if the relationship between the majority and national minorities and migrants was redefined in other, non-securitized terms. Would the definition of another power-relationship between minorities/migrants and the majority reduce xenophobia?