International Security Studies: Critical Security, Human Security and Copenhagen School Approaches


Within this changing world, new approaches to studying security have emerged.  Critical Security Studies, the Copenhagen School, and Human Security approaches all endeavour to broaden the concept of security and all are to a degree critical of the ‘traditional’ conceptualisation of security as the protection of the state against outside military threats.  Instead, they have attempted to expand ‘security’ vertically, to allow for different referent objects – the ‘who, or what’ which is to be secured (Krause & Williams, 1997, p. 34), as well as horizontally, through the recognition that outside military threats are not the only, nor the largest threats to security.  Philosophically they share much, however there are some important differences to be aware of, namely their epistemology of security, referent objects, purpose, and methodology.  These differences will be explored to develop an understanding of their implications.

Firstly, it is important to understand that ‘non-traditional’ studies like these three have been developed due to a belief in a fundamental error within the traditional approaches.  Within the dominant ‘traditional’ approach to security studies, security is largely considered to be the ‘military defen[c]e of sovereign territory’ within an anarchic system; ultimately ‘defending the state against, and deterring “external” military threats’ (Newman, 2010, 2001).  For the non-traditional approaches discussed here, this is an untenable statement; it ignores the group that gives the state legitimacy, and it ignores all other sources of threats to human survival.  This leads us into the first of many differences with these ‘schools’ of thought.

Critical Security Studies and Copenhagen scholars consider ‘security’, as an ‘essentially contested’ concept, since it gains meaning from society and context (Collins, 2010; Mutimer, 2010).  In contrast, Human Security scholars would be unlikely to accept these claims (Newman, 2010), since their conception of security is based on a set notion of ‘protection of the vital core of all human lives from critical and pervasive threats’ (Owen, 2004, p. 20).  These differing understandings of the nature of security underpin much of the other differences between these approaches.

Security Epistemology

Both Human Security and Critical Security Studies scholars are critical of the realist ‘objectivist’ epistemology.  They recognise a subjectivity and indeterminacy to knowledge, since they are neither ‘set apart’ from the world, nor is the world set apart from them; instead all participants are socially constructed (Mutimer, 2010).  Both of these approaches consider that this ‘constructed’ nature of human understanding, leaves things open for change.  This leads them to the belief that particular attention must be paid to the moral, normative dimension of their analyses, since they can affect the world.  Bringing about positive change, whether in developing better understandings of security, or bettering the lot of those most disadvantaged, is considered an important focus of their analyses.  These beliefs firmly place them in the ‘post-positivist’ camp.

This is in sharp contrast to the Copenhagen school approach, which is largely positivist.  While they agree with the socially constructed nature of world politics, they consider it possible to maintain this objectivity because of what they see as a stabilisation within this ‘social construction’ (Buzan et al., 1998).  They base their analyses on the premise that this will continue, and add to it the ‘facts’ they develop through a discourse analysis of manifested ‘securitizations’.  However analysts are not required to consider the ‘securitized’ threat claim real, since the ‘analyst and actor are fundamentally and conceptually different’ (Floyd & Croft, 2010, p. 45).

Referent Objects

Scholars from all three schools have rejected the ‘traditional’ concept of the ‘state’ as the exclusive referent, the ‘who, or what’ which is to be secured (Krause & Williams, 1997, p. 34).  Instead, to differing degrees, and for different reasons, they all accept a vertically expanding conception of the referent object.  For Critical Security Studies and Human Security, this extends ‘the security of nations [downwards] to the security of groups and individuals’, and ‘[upwards] to the security of the international system, or of a supranational physical environment’ (Rothchild, as cited in Alkire, 2003, p. 16; see  also Rothchild, 1995, p. 55).  Critical Security Studies is particularly critical of the ‘neo-realist’ focus on the state, and so does not prioritise the state at the expense of groups and individuals (Gustavsson, 2006; Krause, 1998).  This is based on the idea that ‘states are unreliable as primary referents because while some are in the business of security some are not; even those which are producers of security represent the means and not the ends; and states are too diverse in their character to serve as the basis for a comprehensive theory of security’ (Booth, 2005). Instead, they consider the referent to be multidimensional, but essentially centred on the individual, within a community (Krause, 1998; Krause & Williams, 1997, 1996).  This is similar to Human Security scholars, who have an ‘unapologetic focus on the person, on people and peoples and community’ (McIntosh & Hunter, 2010, p. 9), however, while essentially agreeing with many of the issues with the state, they are more pragmatic in their utilisation of it (Newman, 2010).  In contrast, while Copenhagen advocate a ‘deepening’ of security areas, and so allow for alternatives to the ‘traditional’ referent, they remain predominantly state-centric.  This limitation is largely due to their consideration that a large sub-group, a ‘limited collectivity’ which provides an understanding of ‘we’ (Buzan et al., 1998, pp. 36-37), is required to successfully frame, or ‘securitize’ an issue as a threat.

As this section identifies, though they differ in how far this willingness extends, all have a willingness to look beyond the referents in ‘traditional’ approaches.  This highlights the differences in the purpose and scope of the three non-traditional approaches, discussed below.

Purpose and Scope

These three approaches to security have differing purposes, and adjust their scope accordingly.  Critical Security Studies scholars research to gain ‘contextual understanding and practical knowledge’ (Krause, 1998, p. 321).  They seek to offset the dominance of ‘traditional’ security studies by highlighting their deficiencies by developing a greater understanding of security, and broadening and deepening the field of studies (Krause & Williams, 1996, p. 230; see also C.A.S.E Collective, 2006).  For some, it also attempts to promote norms for a ‘global community’, breaking down ‘identity politics’ to encourage a removal of the self-other dichotomy (McDonald, 2002, p. 9).

Whilst agreeing with Critical Security Studies on some of the deficiencies of traditional security studies, Copenhagen School analysts aim for objectivity.  Through analysis of past or emerging situations, the Copenhagen school seeks to explain the ‘securitization’ process, that is, how matters are made into issues of security; and how issues are ‘desecuritized’, by being returned from a ‘security’ agenda to the realm of normal politics.  They seek an understanding of how threats are constructed and developed into shared understandings that enable ‘extraordinary measures’ without claiming those threats are objective (Waever, 2004).The purpose of this is ‘closer to traditional security studies’ whereby they attempt to ‘grasp security constellations and steer them into benign interactions’ (Buzan et al., 1998, p. 35).

Benign interactions are not enough for Human Security proponents. Their ‘academic approach and … fledgling policy movement’ (Newman, 2010) seeks to develop arguments for and promote policies to create peace and stability for individuals and their communities, especially for the most disadvantaged.  In spite of their ‘human’ focus, Human Security proponents prefer to moderate existing assumptions and structures with ‘persuasive policy-relevant insights’ rather than ‘alienate’ those who could make the changes they desire (Newman, 2010, 2001).  Being ‘pragmatic’, they usually consider a ‘strong’ state to be an important tool for achieving their goals (Newman, 2010), highlighting a commitment to conditional sovereignty; if governments expect non-interference, and a ‘monopoly on the use of force’, then (normatively) they should accept their ‘duty to protect’ (Pettman, 2005, p. 144).

As can be seen here, the Copenhagen School approach is more about viewing the world as it is, while Human Security and Critical Security Studies seek change, through attempts to show how the world could be (Floyd & Croft, 2010, p. 23).  Their methodology should provide clues on how they produce the argument for change.


As Browning and McDonald (2010) inform, ‘these critical approaches differ … in terms of which … questions are prioritised and the answers that are produced’(Browning & McDonald, 2010, p. 4).  This can be seen by identifying the basic methodology of these three ‘schools’.

Of the three approaches, the Copenhagen School has developed the most coherent analysis methodology, with ‘Securitization’ theory.  Securitization is ‘a speech act’ producing a discourse claiming an ‘existential threat’ to a referent object, which upon ‘successful securitization’ will lead to the ability to take ‘extraordinary measures’ to secure it (Buzan et al., 1998, p. 21).  This theory maintains that “‘[s]ecurity’ signifies a situation marked by the presence of a security problem and some measure against it” (Waever, as cited in Friis, 2000, p. 3).  The Copenhagen school also broadens the conception of security with ‘sectors’ to provide alternative ‘views of the same issues’ in order to understand the interplay between units, sectors and levels (Buzan et al., 1998, p. 168).

In contrast to this relatively clear methodology, Critical Security Studies scholars are given wide latitude.  Since the purpose of Critical Security Studies is not to explain, but to understand, they instead focus on the ‘”how questions”: how the referent is constructed, how issues are ‘securitized’, and how might these issues be resolved, with an emancipatory or non-emancipatory goal’ (Krause, 1998).  The focus here is delving deeper to bring out the underlying assumptions, so they can be critically examined.

Even further contrasted is Human Security, with an almost non-existent methodology for analysing or measuring Human Security.  Recent attempts by Alkire (2003) and Owen (2004) have begun to specify measurement and analysis tools for this purpose, however there is no consensus on this as yet; much of the work in this area is heavily influenced by developmental studies.  This has not deterred Floyd (Floyd, 2007), who claims that analysis is not actually the purpose of Human Security, instead the purpose should be seen as the identification of existential threats, and the application of normative utility towards an ‘enabling capacity’ (Hoogensen et al., as cited in Floyd, 2007, p. 44) to highlight insecurities for those unable to speak for themselves.  Floyd (2007) points out the ‘activist’ side of Human Security with the claim that Human Security ‘offers an outlet to all those dissatisfied with security analysis, who are more interested in achieving securitization than simply analysing it’ (Floyd, 2007).  This has led Floyd to consider that Human Security ‘offers an alternative to security analysis per se’ (Floyd, 2007, p. 39).


There are many shared features within this broad ‘critical’ area, however they each have some important differences which set them apart.  These broad areas, including epistemology, referents, purpose and methodology have been shown to be quite different, not only in terms of concept, but also of coherence. These differences may lead to amalgamation, or creation of something entirely new from this beginning, however it is clear that these approaches are becoming increasingly relevant in our modern world.



Alkire, S. (2003) ‘A Conceptual Framework for Human Security’, Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE) Working Paper 2,  available:

Booth, K. (2005) ‘Introduction to Part 1’ in K. Booth, (ed.) Critical security studies and world politics,Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Browning, C. S. & McDonald, M. (2010) ‘The Future of Critical Security Studies: CSS, Ethics and Pathways for Future Research’, in SGIR 7th Pan-European International Relations Conference, Stockholm, Sweden, 9-11 September 2010, The Standing Group on International Relations.

Buzan, B., Wæver, O. & de Wilde, J. (1998) Security: A New Framework for Analysis, London:Lynne Rienner.

C.A.S.E Collective (2006) ‘Critical Approaches to Security in Europe: A Networked Manifesto’, Security Dialogue, 37 (4), 443-487.

Collins, A. (2010) ‘Introduction: What is Security Studies?’ in A. Collins, (ed.) Contemporary security studies,2nd ed., Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Floyd, R. (2007) ‘Human Security and the Copenhagen School’s Securitization Approach: Conceptualizing Human Security as a Securitizing Move’, Human Security Journal, 5 available:

Floyd, R. & Croft, S. (2010) ‘European non-traditional security theory’, EU-GRASP Working Paper 1.

Friis, K. (2000) ‘From Liminars to Others: Securitization Through Myths’, Peace and Conflict Studies, 7 (2), 1-16, available:

Gustavsson, J. (2006) Securitization of Immigration And Asylum: A Critical Look at Security Structure in Europe, unpublished thesis (Masters), University of Lund.

Krause, K. (1998) ‘Critical Theory and Security Studies: The Research Programme of ‘Critical Security Studies”, Cooperation and Conflict, 33 (3), 298-333.

Krause, K. & Williams, M. (1996) ‘Broadening the Agenda of Security Studies: Politics and Methods’, Mershon International Studies Review, 40 (2), 229-254.

Krause, K. & Williams, M. (1997) Critical security studies: concepts and cases, Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press.

McDonald, M. (2002) ‘Security, sovereignty and identity’, in Jubilee Conference of the Australasian Political Studies Association, Australian National University, Canberra, October 2002, Australasian Political Studies Association.

McIntosh, M. & Hunter, A. (2010) ‘Perspectives on human security: The emergent construct’ in M. McIntosh & A. Hunter, (eds.), New Perspectives on Human Security,Sheffield: Greenleaf Publishing Limited, 1-13.

Mutimer, D. (2010) ‘Critical Security Studies: A Schismatic History’ in A. Collins, (ed.) Contemporary security studies,2nd ed., Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Newman, E. (2001) ‘Human Security and Constructuvism’, International Studies Perspectives, 2, 239-251.

Newman, E. (2010) ‘Human Security’, International Studies Encyclopedia Online.

Owen, T. (2004) ‘Challenges and opportunities for defining and measuring human security’, Disarmament Forum, 3.

Pettman, R. (2005) ‘Human Security as Global Security: Reconceptualising Strategic Studies’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 18 (1), 137-150.

Rothchild, E. (1995) ‘What is security? (The Quest for World Order)’, Daedalus, v124 (n3), p53(46).

Waever, O. (2004) ‘Aberystwyth, Paris, Copenhagen: New ‘Schools’ in Security Theory and their Origins between Core and Periphery’, in International Studies Association, Montreal, March 17-20,

2 responses to “International Security Studies: Critical Security, Human Security and Copenhagen School Approaches

  • Len Robinson, Chair, Department of Political Science, Salisbury University

    Thank you for posting this summary. For someone like myself who is just now getting immersed in the Critical Security Studies literature (hey, better late than never!) this type of concise overview and lit review is extremely helpful. Thanks!

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