What is the Copenhagen School approach to security studies?

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The Copenhagen School's approach to security studies is an innovative framework for the discipline, rejecting the traditional notion that the goal of security is to guarantee the safety of the state from objective, military threats to its survival. Instead, it posits a more expansive notion of security based on the...

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The Copenhagen School's approach to security studies is an innovative framework for the discipline, rejecting the traditional notion that the goal of security is to guarantee the safety of the state from objective, military threats to its survival. Instead, it posits a more expansive notion of security based on the post-structuralist idea of reality as a social construction. It assumes that the relationship between an observing subject and its objects of cognition is one of unity, making all facts relative.

The concept of "securitization," introduced in Security: A New Framework for Analysis, by Buzan, Waever, and de Jaap, is central to its theory. Securitization is a prioritizing "speech act" which takes a given political issue outside of its normal realm and frames it as either a special kind of politics or as somehow above politics. In this way, the concept of security can expand to include the political, social, economic, and environmental spheres. And thus, the theory implies, a security threat is always a matter of choice.

Yet the securitization process is more democratic than that of the traditional security hierarchy, in that although "political actors" put objects on the agenda through speech acts, only through an intersubjective process of negotiation with the political "audience" can they gain acceptance.

The Copenhagen School's theory of security, then, is a subjective and inclusive approach, in contrast to the objective and hierarchical framework of the traditional discipline.

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The Copenhagen School approach to security studies is a critical approach that also draws on ideas of constructivism.  It is an approach that is unique largely in its focus on the way in which issues of security interact with domestic politics.

The Copenhagen School emphasizes the idea of “securitization.”  This term is used to refer to a process by which certain actors take issues of domestic politics and transform them into issues of national security.  When they do this, they give themselves much more freedom of action because the issues come to be seen as issues of national security which are, therefore, above politics.

The Copenhagen School is connected to constructivism because it focuses on how threats to national security are socially constructed.  It argues that political actors work to portray certain issues as threats to national security.  For example, in the US, the war on terror can be seen in this way.  Because political actors have (this school would say) convinced us that terrorism is a serious threat, we have allowed them to take extraordinary actions so long as they say that these actions are being taken to prevent terrorism.  We can see this in the reaction to the revelations about programs in which the government has been collecting data about phone calls that we make.  Ordinarily, this would make most Americans very angry.  However, the government has defined this as something that has to be done to protect us from terrorism.  Therefore, it becomes a matter of security, not of personal rights and liberties. 

This is what is unique about the Copenhagen School.  It focuses on how the idea of security is invoked and used by political actors to give themselves more freedom of action on issues than they would have if they did not “securitize” those issues.  

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