Emancipation vs Power and Order: Dichotomies of Critical Security Studies

Kenneth Booth advanced this argument in his paper Security and Emancipation (1991). His broad definition of emancipation includes “war and the threat of war… poverty, poor education, political oppression and so on” (p. 319). Booth’s article provides the foundations for Critical Security Studies (CSS) and more specifically the ‘Aberystwyth School’. Also known as emancipatory realism or “utopian realism”, CSS build on an epistemology advanced by the Frankfurt School which asserted the place of interdisciplinary study and knowledge which opened opportunity for social change (Rush, 2004). This approach allowed CSS to frame security as a political process from which threats are “imagined and legitimised” (Nunes, 2012, p.347). However, CSS and the Aberystwyth School have been widely critiqued. Further, the popularity of CSS within the security community has contributed in part to its downfall: to engage in critical analysis of the mainstream discourse has become more difficult as this approach has become mainstream itself (Nunes, 2012). Additionally, CSS has provided little in the way of a normative reconstructed agenda, and indeed has been said to engage poorly with normative theories of politicisation (ibid.). 
Having set out the background to the prompt, this essay intends to engage with Booth’s original article; first noting the underlying assumptions of Booth’s emancipation theory and critically engage with their foundations. Consequently, some analogy between emancipation at a human level and at the international level will be drawn, outlining the problematic consequences at the extensions of utopian realism. Finally, this paper will suggest an alternate theoretical model to frame critical security studies, and infer some on-the-ground constructs which may be consequent.


Booth’s contention for emancipatory security rests on two central foundations: the individual as the referent object and ends-focused strategy. This section will critically discuss each of these foundations in turn in order to provide background for further discussion of referent objects in the following part, and finally a discussion of alternative theory in the penultimate section.
Booth argues that discourse and policy must be ends focused. He asserts that power and order are simply means to the ends of emancipation (p.319). He also argues, in similar style, that states are primarily means to ensure the security of individuals (p.320). However, in a traditional realist manner, Booth neglects to consider how security as a human right coexists and overlaps with other essential rights, of which “emancipation” is composed. Though his definition of emancipation incorporates several non-derogable human rights, he does not extend them beyond the referent object of the individual. Individual security must co-exist alongside group rights such as the rights of ethnic minorities, the right to practice religion, and the rights to family and community (Thornberry, 1991). Indeed, some rights can only be exercised in community and are essential supports to other individual rights (see:  Perry, 2011; Anagnostou and Psychogiopoulou, 2010; Thornberry, 1991). 
Additionally, the risk-averse nature of security studies inherently entails that focus be distributed according to strategic weight: this implies that though states are constructs intended to enforce a social contract for the security of their citizens, they too are constructed of citizens who seek to limit their vulnerability to threats, real and percieved. 
Further, it can be argued that means focused practices fulfil an indispensable role; providing struggle, stimulation, formulation which creates networks and relationships (see: Geels and Verhees, 2011; Izzo, 2012; Schubert, 2012). An example can even be found in the introduction to Security and Emancipation is entitled “word problems and world problems”, which outlines Booth’s own conversations with the wider discipline through interactions with copy-editors and “sharp-edged language” (Booth, 1991, p. 313). The chapter infers that the definition and redefinition of language within strategic studies has contributed to its development, facilitating fresh thought on the epistemological bases of the field’s jargon. Thus, Security and Emancipation is not only a demonstration of the importance of means as ends in themselves, but also demonstrates, that where energies may be misplaced in searching for security, they may also reap rewards.


Security studies, and particularly strategic studies, often engage in debates surrounding the constituents of power politics, epistemologically based in hierarchical, often binary power relations. Booth argues that power and order are for the benefit of some at the expense of others and that this creates the existential threats of internal conflict. However, emancipation has the same potential to create hierarchical benefits: emancipation of one might cause another to develop “opposition to the “excesses” of personal freedom” (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999, p.73). All freedoms have corresponding restrictions (Dworkin, 1977). Indeed, this was the basis for the Hobbesian state of nature, which required the restriction of the liberty of all to create a more stable society (Hobbes and Gaskin, 1998). Booth’s emancipatory practice neglects to address the plurality of human desires, and where distinct ambitions exist the freedom to pursue those ambitions can facilitate the construction of inequality. As Hobbes’ state of nature concept highlights, where person A is free to act, person B is forbidden to sabotage A, or by definition prevented as both instances cannot occur simultaneously (Hobbes and Gaskin, 1998, XIII). 
Peoples (2010) notes that “emancipation” is subject to multiple western and non-western conceptions (see: Adeniyi, 2011; Kandiyoti, 1987; Adler, 1977). Post-colonial theory may even assert that for some emancipation explicitly requires a non-western definition in order to avoid self-contraditction. Additionally, “emancipation” is not the same as capacity building, or unfashionable “state-building”, in the western liberal tradition. Capacity building implies support in self-determination whereas emancipation is a dictated course for that determination. Capacity building is used by development agencies, such as the United Nations Development Program, to mean facilitating capacity of peoples in strengthening and maintaining capability to set and achieve their own goals (Capacity Development | UNDP, 2012).The distinction is grounded in practiced uses of each term; while “emancipation” can be argued to be preferred by power politics or liberalist approaches, while “capacity building” might be by constructivist or post-liberalist discourse. 
Further from this, power and order need not create vertical hierarchical structures which benefit some at the expense of others. Foucault theorised that power is not exercised by some upon others but flows through social systems: “Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere” (Foucault, 1990, p.212). Thus, vertical or horizontal structures by virtue of power politics are likely the result of Wendt-ian construction, and alternative constructs of power are available within the literature (see: Sending and Neumann, 2006; Piomelli, 2004).
Emancipation of the individuals can be equated to sovereignty in a Westphalian system. Traditional sovereignty provides recognised states with emancipation. However, this is what creates the construct of anarchy in the international system, as shown in Table 1 below.
Table 1
Referent Object
State of Nature
Westphalian Sovereignty
Domestic Law,
Markets, Social/Cultural Norms
International Law, Power Politics, Collective Security
Table 1 shows how “emancipation” as defined (or ill-defined) by Booth requires tandem with order and regimes in order to offer true security. Thus, to claim emancipation as the true “ends” to security, beyond power and order is an impractical and even unethical notion. 
Social norms which construct strict regimes of cooperation offer a viable alternative to traditional vertical power structures while still offering the kind of emancipation Booth envisages, not unlike liberalism’s collective security (see Table 1: International Regimes).


Booth’s argument for emancipatory security is appreciative but critical in particular of post-modernist approaches to security. It asserts:
“Politics is about deciding, but the subtext is proving a disengaged standpoint 
for decisions. Post-modernism… offers no escape from might is right” 
(Booth, 1991, p.316)
Booth infers that shifts away from “Machiavellian ethics and a Clausewitzian philosophy of war” (ibid.) can produce limited contribution to the creation of global security. However, since Security and Emancipation new theory has emerged which may be able to address this longstanding gap in CSS. Post-liberalism, for example, discusses security in terms of a kind of “political capitalism”, under which sovereignty and autonomy, precedents to freedom, are not perceived as inherent rights of states or nations but may be “earned” as policy goals (Chandler, 2010). Post-liberalism makes explicit “liberalism’s contract of governance [which] presupposes the state’s obligation for the security … of its citizens” (Tellidis, 2012, p.434). Autonomous sovereignty, in post-liberalist theory, will be permitted when the international community perceives a state to pose no threat to their own security or its own. This lends to the idea that security can ultimately come from a form of complex interdependence, normative regimes and through mass cooperation. Further, the post-liberalist framework moves away from some of the critics of the imposition of liberalist security and peacebuilding practices, such as the debate between cultural relativism and universalism and post-colonialist structures (Richmond, 2009). Additionally, advocates of post-liberalism in security studies claim that the shift in perceptions of sovereignty and autonomy will allow relief from “the preoccupation of the international community with the territorial and institutional securitization of the post-conflict state, rather than its preoccupation with delivering tangible results in the spheres of social justice, community development, and everyday life” (Tellidis, 2012, p.429): Human security to be resituated via everyday, local agency in peacebuilding, allowing “community IR” to take root and interact with elite policy (Richmond and Mitchell, 2012). Post-liberalism approaches security in such a way as to meet international relations at the nexus of the right to self-defence, sovereignty, self-determination and collective security. Such a paradigm could allow policy development to support capacity building and emancipation as distinct, but not mutually exclusive, strategies which can be applied to nations as fit. 


This essay has highlighted the misleading dichotomies particular to Booth and the Aberystwyth School’s approach to Critical Security Studies: international v. individual; ends v. means; power politics vs. collective security.  False dichotomies are by no means a unique shortfall of security studies, or indeed international relations. However, Booth himself asserts the active, practical role of security studies in the lives of peaceful and post-conflict societies. For this reason, practitioners must be more wary than most of their affect. Security and Emancipation has continued to exert influence throughout Security Studies and CSS over twenty years (see: Browning and McDonald, 2013; O’Brien and Barnett, 2013; Dannreuther, 2007). However, CSS has overall failed to reconceive Booth’s notion of security as simple self-determination under international law. Dannreuther proposes:
“It is possible for security itself to escape this bind if it is reconceived as emancipation from unchosen restraints” 
[emphasis added] (2007, Part I, Chapter 2).
The above quote demonstrates that security studies seek to redefine emancipation. However, this simply demonstrates that CSS needs to revisit Booth’s “word problems world problems”: continuous change simply results in “the virtual impossibility of reinventing old words for new circumstances” (Booth, 1991, p.313) and we can’t have “emancipation” under both the old and the new ways. 


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