Where are you in the story of security?

Rethinking Security’s Alternative Security Review project is committed to understanding what security means to people across the UK and using that knowledge to change the national narrative on security policy. Zsófia Hacsek explains how our research partners at Coventry University have used a review of theoretical approaches to security to devise a practical and inclusive methodology for hearing from all kinds of people, and how you can get involved in our research over the rest of this year.

Rethinking the meaning of security

For many decades, the story of security, both in theoretical works and practical policy, has been about countries within the international community. Security Studies in academia started as a branch of International Relations: the main security threats identified in this narrative were military conflicts between countries. The two competing theoretical approaches in the field, realism and liberalism, both took a ‘4 S’ approach for granted: that they represented the scientific analysis of strategic actions by states to preserve the status quo.

In the early 1990s, both researchers and policy-makers started to question whether this was really the only way to think, write and talk about security. The point of the so-called Critical Security Studies that grew out of a 1994 conference in Toronto was not to create yet one more theoretical approach on security like realism and liberalism. Indeed, it argues for the need of many different approaches to discuss questions that have been neglected before, such as: what can security possibly mean? What other dimensions are there aside from the ones thematised in mainstream Security Studies? Who has been included in discussions about security, and whose voices are rarely or never heard?

At the same time, an important concept was introduced in the 1994 edition of the United Nations (UN) Human Development Report: human security. It straightforwardly criticised the idea that Security Studies should focus merely on military threats and militarised responses. Instead, it helped to nurture a new, parallel security discourse that aimed to put people and their needs in the spotlight. The spectrum of possible human security issues is broad and encompasses human needs: food (in)security, housing (in)security, job (in)security, political (in)security, and many more. These categories are interconnected, and they cross-cut different levels, from an individual’s subjective sense of (in)security to planetary issues like climate change which require joint action to deal with.

Humanising national security

The impact that Critical Security Studies and the human security concept have had remains difficult to measure. On the one hand, they have succeeded in proving that the discourse around security can be more multi-level, multidimensional, and can involve more actors and narratives than previously assumed. On the other hand, Critical Security Studies has resulted in many different fragmented discourses, and the human security discourse has led to a possibly problematic dichotomisation of ‘state/national security’ (of countries as actors) and ‘human security’ (of people).In the UK, as elsewhere, there is the danger of having two or more security discourses that run parallel to each other but cannot really communicate.

A possible way to resolve this problem is to acknowledge that, whereas various critical approaches in security studies are needed (including constructivist, feminist, postcolonial, poststructuralist, queer, and many more), academics should still facilitate dialogues between them. The same applies to ‘state’ and ‘human’ security: while each has an important role, a security discourse in which both ‘the country’ and ‘its people’ play an equally important role seems desirable. They are, in the end, not separate entities: for instance, millions of employees of the state administration – from firefighters to teachers, soldiers to healthcare workers – bridge the gap between ‘the state’ and ‘the people’. So the goal is to emphasise the human dimension of the state, and to make a smoother exchange between ordinary people’s everyday understandings of security and policy-making and practice within the national or local contexts.

In other words, if we accept that ‘the state’ is an essential, central actor in promoting the nation’s human security, but that it is the people’s experience of that security that really matters, then it is crucial that everyone’s voice is heard better at every level of UK government. Even more so if such voices have not been heard before due to power disparities in society.

How can you contribute to the story of security?

The Alternative Security Review is a civil society-led initiative that is reviewing the UK’s approach to security. As Rethinking Security’s partner in the Review, the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University (CTPSR, CU) has used its thorough review of literature on various conceptual approaches to security to define a methodological approach that can build a more inclusive understanding of security in the UK.   Over the months ahead, we will use robust academic research methods to get a much richer picture of what security means to people and communities across the country. Meanwhile, we intend that the eventual results of our research will have an impact on other domains, like nation-wide or local decision-making.

We want as many people from as many places, backgrounds and walks of life to get involved in our research and consultations. We will be using many different methods to engage with people, because people are different: some are happy to fill out a survey, but they do not have time to share long stories. Others are passionate storytellers who always find a way to speak and write about issues they care about.

But what if you desperately want to tell your story, but you’re not a person of (English) words? Then you can take photographs and let them lead the conversation. Or what if you are interested in how such a research project is delivered, and would like to try it yourself? Then you can apply to be a Citizen Social Scientist. There are many possible ways to get involved, and therefore many ways of telling the story of security. This month we have launched Visualising Security, which is based on the academic method of photovoice and photo elicitation. If you like taking photos and think that a picture can say more than a thousand words, you are welcome to participate!

After registering, you will be invited to an explanatory briefing, then you will have a two-week period to take at least 5 photographs. After that, you will have the chance to present your photos to researchers and other participants, explaining why and how they symbolise security for you. It is a great possibility to raise attention to issues that matter to you in your community, and to discover them more with the help of the photographic eye.

Over the rest of this year, the CTPSR team will be carrying out a range of other research activities, including large scale, representative surveys of people across the country, as well as of young people in particular. We will be organising consultations and focus group discussions with people and groups often overlooked in surveys and by policy-makers, interviewing some of those same policy-makers and the ‘experts’ they most trust, and launching an open call for evidence that anyone can use to send us their views on security and what matters to them.

There are some methods that we think would be really useful for getting views and developing policy responses but which are beyond the reach of our project. Citizen Assemblies, for example, are made up of randomly selected citizens who represent actual groups of the given country’s population (in age, ethnicity, gender, etc.) and who are asked to learn about, deliberate upon, and make recommendations in relation to social and political issues. They are very expensive, but we think bigger institutions (like the UK state itself) could very usefully work with them to develop security policy in future.

One thing we can still do with our resources is to invite citizens to get to know research processes themselves. If you have the interest to conduct your own mini research project in your local area, you could try Citizen Social Science with us. We hope to launch courses from the autumn on where you can learn about how to design research, how to choose the right method, how to respect ethical considerations during the process, how to analyse your collected data, and how to present your results.


Zsófia Hacsek is the author of Towards More Inclusive Understandings of Security in the UK, a literature review that informs Rethinking Security’s Alternative Security Review. She is Research Assistant at CTPSR at Coventry University. She has contributed to a broad range of topics from the dynamics of protest-related violence to the enhancement of a more migrant-friendly infrastructure in the West Midlands. She holds an MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Vienna and currently works on her doctoral research in CTPSR, in which she examines Coventry women’s perceptions of dignity and vulnerability.

If you are interested in participating in the Visualising Security component of the Review, please contact CTPSR at Coventry University via their registration form.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Zsofia Hacsek, from Towards More Inclusive Understandings of Security in the UK, p.12.

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