An Interview with Dr. Christopher Ankersen.
Accidents happen. Things fall apart; tornadoes strike; the earth quakes; buildings collapse; lives are affected. However, in order for most formal preventative or response activities to take place, someone in authority must declare what has happened (or is likely to happen) to be a disaster. Only once this step has occurred will effort and resources be allocated. Accidents happen, but disasters are declared.
Within the field of security studies, Barry Buzan, Ole Weaver, and Japp de Wilde launched an extensive research agenda in 1998 with the publication of their book Security: A New Framework for Analysis. In this book, the authors develop what they call securitization theory, which explains how ordinary issues are transformed into security issues. This transformation has many effects, the chief amongst them being that declaring something to be a security issue removes it from the realm of regular politics and places it into the prioritized space of emergency politics. Here, as if by magic, issues are accorded respect, receive attention, are allocated resources, and are often placed beyond criticism or above reproach. Security trumps routine.
The authors are clear that such a profound transformation does not occur by itself or by accident. Indeed, the power of their theory lies in how it traces out the process of securitization. A securitization agent takes up the cause to begin the process by indicating an existential threat that has the potential to seriously harm a particular referent object. Usually, the securitization agent indicates who the appropriate security actor is to effectively deal with this threat. All of this effort is directed at one or more audiences, groups that must be persuaded (by might or reason) of the argument. If the securitization is successful, the identified threat and the proposed solution become security issues, and receive, as mentioned above, special treatment.
Securitization theory has been applied in several ways. Some have used it explain how the AIDS crisis was formally declared to be a security issue. Others have looked at how privacy has been interpreted and securitized: if you want to hide something, you must be hiding something, so to speak. Of course the theory is not uncontroversial, but it has enjoyed a significant place within security studies, from both mainstream and critical observers.
I believe that adopting a modified version of this theory can be useful in helping us understand better several aspects of disasters that go beyond a first-order technical perspective.
1. Why is it that we sometimes take action and sometimes we don’t?
2. What kind of social power is required in order to be able to carry out that kind of designation?
3. What is the process by which this kind of designation takes place?
4. What criteria are used in designation and why?
My research aims to describe the utility of adopting such an ostensible perspective when dealing with disasters. It describes how securitization theory can be modified for use in this field; what its limitations are; and uses a number of brief cases to highlight how this point of view can shed light on the politics of disasters.