The Societal Sector

by Buzan, Barry, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde. 1998. In idem, Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder, COLO: Lynne Rienner Pub.

Key words: societal security, identity
Summary by Margaux Dandrifosse (IBEI)


Micro-summary: Societal security refers to the security of self-constructed collective communities whose identity can be perceivably threatened at the local, regional, or global level.

Summary: In this chapter, the authors move beyond traditional conceptualizations of security to focus on the securitization of collective identities. To do so, they develop the concept of “societal security” and examine the manifestations of societal insecurities worldwide. This concept shifts the referent object of security from the state actor and its institutions, to any self-constructed collective community whose identity can be threatened. Societal security, therefore, refers to perceived threats to the identity of a group. The securitizing actors are diverse and vary from the state or opposition politicians, to social movements and religious leaders.

Three main types of threat to societal security are identified. The first one is migration, which implies a change in the population density and distribution of a specific area. Second, societal identities can be challenged horizontally, by neighbouring collectives exercising cultural, normative, linguistic, or religious influence on a population. The third threat lies in vertical conflicts over political power, integration attempts or secessionist claims. Additionally, it is emphasized that those threats differ in their nature, from calculated political strategies to naturally unfolding organisational changes. The particular community, when faced with a threat to its collective identity, can choose to respond by itself or to bring the issue at the state level.

The authors argue that different communities vary in the extent to which they are exposed to those diverse threats, depending on the factors forming the basis of their collective identity. Accordingly, the chapter looks at the different regionalizing effects of societal security threats worldwide. It is found that societal security regions, in almost all cases, coincide with securitization in the political and military realms. Moreover, the authors not only identify threats at the regional level, they also discuss local and global societal conflicts.

In Africa, the main societal conflicts are intra-state and vertical, between different tribes over power, and between local tribes and state actors. In Latin America, the societal threats come from American cultural prominence and indigenous challenges within the modern state. The United States possesses two main interrelated, societal conflicts. One puts multiculturalism in opposition to white Americans striving to preserve a unified state. The other lies in growing migration from Central America and Asia. Europe is vertically divided over its state-controlling national majorities and ethnic minorities. The Middle East, while striving for an all-encompassing Islamic identity to oppose Western imperialism, is societally fragmented along vertical lines between states and minorities, with a strong religious component. India is vertically ridden by ethno-religious conflicts and secessionist claims. In Southeast Asia, regionalization serves as a reaction against global Western imperialism. China follows a regionalizing pattern but minorities’ conflicts threaten implosion. In the former Soviet-Union, the societal threats all depend on Russia, its national minorities abroad and their role in state-building, and its regionalizing trends. Finally, an emerging global societal conflict opposes internationalized and liberal individuals transcending nation-states to those tied to their local roots and collective community.

Follow-up: This chapter (as well as the whole book) has had a significant influence on the securitization scholarship. It has become one of the main frameworks of analysis for securitization research. The concept of the societal actor introduces a new dimension and referent object of security, which has led further works to examine the links between security and identity. The authors have published a large number of contributions on securitization since this book. Buzan and Waever have worked together on “Macrosecuritisation and Security Constellations: Reconsidering Scale in Securitisation Theory” (2009).

Relevance for the SECUREU Project: This chapter can be considered as forming the basis for Roe (2004)’s argument emphasizing that minorities cannot be de-securitized because their collective identity depends on their societal security. It can also be linked to Rumelili (2015)’s concept of ontological security which links security and identity.

It represents an important theoretical framework for the Project. It shifts the referent object of security from the Member States or the EU to European collective identity communities. Accordingly, it goes beyond the understanding of minorities and migrants as security threats to the state, and examines to what extent they are securitized as societal threats to the collective identity of European majorities. Does securitization of migrants and minorities, therefore, emerge from below at the community level rather than being promoted from above? Who are the securitizing actors; state and EU officials, social organizations, or cultural groups? Framing migrants and minorities as societal security threats could also account for the growing xenophobia and right-wing populism in the EU. Therefore, are migrants and minorities perceived to pose a security threat to EU Member States or to the collective identity of European majorities? And how do those aspects coincide together?