The Functional Actor in the Securitization Process

What Social – Psychological Requirements of the Functional Actor Facilitate Securitization, According to the Social Identity Theory and the Social Balance Theory?

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2009 49 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Public International Law and Human Rights


Table of contents


1. Theoretical frame
1.1 The Securitization Theory
1.2. ‘Auxiliary Theories’
1.2.1 Henri Tajfel’s and John Turner’s Social Identity Theory
1.2.2 Fritz Heider’s Social Balance Theory

2. The Consideration of the Functional Actor from the Perspective of the ‘Auxiliary Theories’
2.1 The Functional Actor’s Position in the Securitization Constellation
2.2 A Possible Classification of the Functional Actor
2.3 Features Resulting From the In-Group Processes
2.4 Features Resulting from Intergroup Processes
2.5 Why and when is there a Securitizing Act? The Balance Theory Confirmed by SIT

3. Critique on the Limits of SIT in Clarifying the Functional Actor




The aim of this research paper is to ascertain, by means of the Social Identity Theory, the social psychological characteristics that facilitate the occurrence of the securitizing act on behalf of the actor of the Copenhagen School’s Securitization Theory, termed as functional actor, and more commonly known as ‚significant addressed audience’[1], in order to understand what are the factors that determine it to consent to securitization, since this category of actor has been left untheorized, despite of its key role in the securitization process.

The departure point is a question that the authors of the securitization theory, themselves address: “When does an argument […] achieve sufficient effect to make an audience tolerate violations of rules that would otherwise have to be obeyed? […] For individuals and groups to speak security does not guarantee success” as “securitization is not decided by the securitizer, but by the audience of the speech act.” (Buzan 1998:25,31) The only stipulation refers to the functional actor’s power to materialize securitization, being neither the referent object, nor the securitizing actor. The deficiency of theorization has impelled a social psychological elaboration of the functional actor’s distinguishing features that causes it to accept the securitizing act, since the absence of details in this respect leaves much space for interpretation, and leads to the investment of resources, when securitization analysis should not be centered upon the establishment of the actors, but upon the process and dynamics of securitization, according to the same author.

There are several assumptions from which this research paper starts: it could be easier anticipated whether the securitizing move would succeed or be impeded if there were a clearer delineation of those features of the chosen functional actor that facilitate securitization. Likewise, by the portrayal of the functional actors the theory would become more easily applicable in the security analysis, as it would help to easier determine who classifies as a significant addressed audience, before the completion of the securitizing move, since I interpret securitizing acts as those events in which the situational identity of the audience echoes its core social identity and its short term (group) identity, but also a part of its history. Accordingly, this could facilitate political decisions.

I consider the Social Identity Theory as the most appropriate theoretical approach in defining the functional actor, since the two theories display an evident complementarity. The social identity theory discerns the conditions in which individuals choose their ways of conduct in inter-group conflicting relations, in order to achieve a positive and higher appreciated position, while for the Copenhagen School “security is an area of competing actors”. (Buzan 1998:37) Both theories centre on ‘powerful’ inter-group processes, without ignoring the individual, the mobile for acting being identity, which must be dealt with immediately, and with all existing efforts. (Buzan 1997:24) Both consider identity evolving according to internal and external developments, and that it is subject to challenges because it is in its nature to yearn for survival and a positive appraisal. Both theories consider the individuals and their behavior as dominated by their apprehension of the social environment. “In a securitization situation, a unit […] relies on its own resources demanding the right to govern its actions by its own priorities” (Buzan 1998:26) whereas the social identity theory may explain the functional actor, seeing that it “translates social categories into human groups, in creating a psychological reality from a social one, […] it explores the psychological processes […] examines the group in the individual” and defines the self-concept as it derives from the social identities (group memberships), and the behavior as group behavior, since without the group, the individual fades[2]. (Hogg 1988:17) Thus, I consider that the social identity theory reaches beyond the securitization theory and can explain the processes which make it possible that the functional actor agrees with the securitizing actor, revealing preparedness to remain in the ‘affected’ or threatened group rather than to exchange it.

In addition to that, I shall employ Heider’s Social Balance Theory, which explains the interrelation of individuals and their adherence and behavior related to his environment, as the positions of the actors in the securitization theory are outlined generically, whereas “the way to study securitization is to study […] constellations […] and we, in security complex analysis need to find the main patterns of interaction.” (Buzan 1998:25,45) The balance theory explains relatively precisely how individuals construct their relations with other individuals and objects, so as to achieve psychological balance. Akin to the securitization theory, Heider refers only indirectly to the objective reality which affects the representations, and focuses more on the representations in an individual’s life space. (Heider 1959:213) Besides that, it seizes subtle social psychological processes in clean and simple formulations that can easily be proven by facts and by statistical data. Its application on the securitization constellation can reflect the relatedness of the functional actor to the others, and indicate uncomplicatedly the reasons why the functional actor chooses the direct conflict in order to protect its identity.

As the paper embraces a theoretical pluralism, the research methodology I shall employ is a connective and integrative theoretical analysis of the above mentioned approaches. I shall employ Heider’s Balance Theory in order to schematize optically the actors’ constellation, and to define the place of the functional actor in the ‘relations-network’. Thus, I shall set up a frame within which I shall apply the propositions of the social identity theory. I shall try to integrate the social identity arguments in the explanation of the functional actor in its dyadic relations to the other actors - respectively the securitizing actor and the threat actor, deriving its features from the in-group and inter-group processes. The prerequisite for the analysis are: the fulfillment of felicitous conditions of the securitizing move, time and space proximity of the threat, and most important, the functional actor’s consent to the securitizing act, since I will focus upon those functional actors that accept securitization, because Buzan claims that a security analysis is interested in those security events that succeed.

I shall base the paper on primary and secondary source analyses. The primary source analysis focuses on the theory of the Copenhagen School, on its quintessence and its shortcomings regarding the delineation of its actors. Likewise, the Social Identity Theory and the Social Balance Theory represent primary sources, as they bring the explaining arguments. The secondary source analysis refers to diverse studies, essays and analytical thoughts of other scholars to both the theories, for the development of critical standpoints regarding the securitization theory, these pertain among others to: Dominic Abrams - director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent; Michael Hogg - professor of Social Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, whose research focuses on group processes, intergroup relations and the self concept, and is closely associated with social identity theory; Karina Korostelina – research professor of conflict analysis and resolution; Paul Roe - researcher at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute; Ralf Emmers- Deputy Head of Studies at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore, but also other well-known names.

Despite of the elaboration of the functional actor from a different theoretical perspective, this paper does not claim to enlarge the securitization theory but only to work upon some aspects in order to make the theory easier applicable empirically, so that the grasping the securitizing move becomes more easily foreseeable. It does not have the claim to improve the degree of employment of the theory on countries with totalitarian regimes, where the issue to be secured often falls together with the securitizer, and political decisions with security relevance are not subject to ‘public’ agreement; or in regions of the world, where politics is driven rather by realistic calculations than by social psychological ones (i.e. North East Asia). In like manner, the social identity theory cannot help to establish when the crossing of the border from a high politicization to securitization occurs in societies with emergent democracies.

The paper is structured on three chapters. The 1st chapter is dedicated to the theoretical frame, comprising short presentations of the securitization theory, the social identity, and the balance theory. The latter ones shall be termed ‘auxiliary theories’ because they help the explanation of the securitization theory on another level. The 2nd chapter represents the core of the research activity, comprising the determination of the functional actor in accordance to the established variables and conditions. The 3rd chapter contains the critique to the limits of the social identity theory in answering the research question.

1. Theoretical frame

1.1 The Securitization Theory

The securitization theory developed in the late '90’s by the Copenhagen School (Security: A New Framework for Analysis, 1998) pertains to the latest security theories within the field of international relations . It distinguishes itself from other security theories in several aspects: first, it has widened the concept of security, which subsequently would not be characteristic only to the military sector but also to the political, economical, societal and environmental spheres. Second, it has “developed a substantial body of concepts to rethink security, most notably through its notions of securitization and desecuritization […],” which do not pertain exclusively to the state, but can be enacted by other for as well (Buzan 1998:24), providing a framework to analyze security, namely to understand how an issue becomes securitized or desecuritized. (Emmers 2007:110) Third, it has introduced a subjective approach to security analysis, turning security into a self-referential practice on the claim that security is not an objective existing reality but an inter-subjective[3] one, being the result of social[4], subjective[5], discursive[6] processes and determined by actors with political potential, that benefit from privileged positions[7]. (Emmers 2007:112)

According to the securitization theory, an issue can be non-politicized, politicized, securitized or desecuritized. It is non-politicized when the specific issue is not included in the public debate; it turns politicized when it is dealt with in the standard political procedure; it is securitized when a change within the usual working manner of entities within the state takes place and there are introduced measures beyond the standard political operating procedure[8] ; “securitization can be seen as a more extreme version of politicization”, which “is not fulfilled only by breaking the rules, nor solely by existential threats, but by cases of existential threats that legitimize the breaking of rules.” (Buzan 1998:23,25) An issue is desecuritized when the state of emergency is reversed to the political routine by “shifting of issues out of emergency mode and into normal bargaining processes of the political sphere”. (Buzan 1998:4) Desecuritization represents “the optimal long range option since it means not to have issues phrased as threats against which we have no countermeasures”. (Buzan 1998:29)

Securitization is a 3 step process: it begins with the identification and the presentation of the threat in a rhetoric of existential threat; it continues with the request of emergency of extraordinary measures beyond the normal politics, since if the issue in question is not dealt with immediately and with all existing efforts, ‘everything else will be irrelevant (because we will not be here or will not be free to deal with it in our way)’. (Buzan 1997:24) The securitization process completes with “the effect on their inter-unit relations by breaking free of rules” (Buzan 1998:6), namely the acceptance on behalf of the concerned that the issue is an existential threat.

As securitization is not an act pertaining exclusively to the state, the actor to raise the awareness of the security meaning of the threat by the security rhetoric is known to be the securitizing actor (also: securitizer), and can be political leaders, governments, bureaucracies, trade unions, popular movements, pressure groups, lobbyists, etc. (Buzan 1998:40) Its security speech act is called securitizing move and is addressed to an audience considered significant, termed significant addressed audience or functional actor. In the securitizing move, the securitizing actor declares a referent object to be existentially threatened, and frames the issue either as a special kind of politics or as above politics, calling accordingly for “politics beyond the established rules of the game. (Buzan 1998:23) The referent object is something with a legitimate claim to survival, i.e. an essential value related to the functional actor, the state, the national sovereignty, the national economy, the environment, the collective identity, individuals, an ideology, etc . The functional actor is usually established constitutionally, being the parliament, the junta, a crisis committee, the president/dictator, etc (Gromes/Bonacker 2007:7), but can be also the public opinion, politicians, officers, elites from various sectors, etc. It recognizes the security speech, and by its interpretation as having security meaning it can authorize and initiate extraordinary measures known as securitizing acts. If the functional actor accepts the reality of the threat to the referent object as illustrated in the securitizing move, and expresses it consent to the instauration of the state of emergency and to the initiation of extraordinary measures, than a securitizing act takes place. If the consent does not exist, “we can talk only of a securitizing move, not of an object actually being securitized”. Thus the securitizing act represents the legitimate consequence of the consent to the securitizing move. (Buzan 1998:24-31)

In order to obtain securitization, it does not suffice that the securitizing actor presents an issue as a matter of survival, employing rhetoric of the threat, for it does not have the power to turn its securitizing move into a securitization act, but only to place it high on the security agenda. Likewise, securitization cannot be achieved only by breaking the rules. (Buzan 1998:25) To complete the securitization process, the securitizer needs the free consent of the functional actor, inasmuch as ‘the security act is negotiated between the securitizing agent and the audience’, (Buzan 1998:26) and securitization is a phenomenon that is decided upon by the two. (Buzan 1998:32,33,40) ‘The functional actor (without being the referent object, or the actor calling for security on behalf of the referent object)… is an actor who significantly influences the decisions in the field of security’, holding a key position in the entire process, (Buzan 1998:36) as it legitimizes actions with consequences on the idea of the state[9]. In accordance to this, the reaction sequence performed by the functional actor is deeply related to the securitizing move and cannot be treated as an independent episode.

The specificity and likewise shortcoming of the securitization theory is that it ignores the objective existing reality of the threat and focuses on the securitizing actor’s subjective recording of the threat in his speech act, considering ‘the utterance as the primary reality’ (Buzan 1997:55), after John Austin’s speech act doctrine: ‘saying is doing’. Thus, it centers on the illocution[10], ignoring the perlocution[11], examining the conversational stratagem in ‘raising a new extraordinary – negative - agenda of politics and security’, but not its effects. Because of this, the securitization analytical tool impairs the employment of the theory in prospective direction, being applicable successfully only retrospectively, as securitization takes place just with the occurrence of the securitization act, otherwise the analysis would not cover the entire securitization phenomenon. With this, the theory reaches its limit.[12]

Nonetheless, since the Copenhagen School has a constructivist approach to security, to cover the entire affair by regarding only the securitizing move, it may be expedient to surpass the limits of the illocution (securitizing move), by paying attention to the social psychological characteristics of the audience, in the existing actors’ constellation, and see what is that which facilitates or predicts perlocution (securitizing act). This could help the analyst understand the ‘processes of constructing a shared understanding of what is to be collectively responded to as a threat” (Buzan 1998:26) and support him/her in making more precise predictions about the chances for a securitization act to occur, since “security analysis is interested mainly in the successful instances of securitization – the cases in which other people follow the securitizing lead, creating a social, inter-subjective constitution of a referent object on a mass scale.” (Buzan 1998:39)

1.2. ‘Auxiliary Theories’

The potential of the two chosen theories in explaining the functional actor relies in their seizing it in the processes of internal organization while being confronted with the foe, and reflects its behavior as voluntary or self-regulating, being molded in accordance to its internal motivations that is the functional actor’s attitudes and beliefs. (Hogg 2001:153) The social identity theory illustrates the functional actor’s social awareness and its engagement to social acting, based on social psychological determinants of action, as it connects the individual, collective and relational elements of self. On the other hand, the social balance theory reflects the social psychological mechanisms that proceed when organising the social environment dichotomously, incorporating the 4 classical processes of the social identity theory in a more schematic way. The two theories support the other’s arguments in the sense that the social identity offers a more detailed explanation of the causal factors of the social balance’s adversary and alliance attitudes.

The two theories support the operationalization of the functional actor in the sense that, in my opinion, there are usually two kinds of functional actors: ‘social-political ones’ (formal, institutional) and ‘social psychological ones’ (informal, non-institutional) which may fall together, the first having the political competence of legitimizing extraordinary measures, the latter having the moral competence, and the capacity of exerting also a moral pressure, next to the legitimization of action. Whereas the first represents the ‘official’ organization for the promoting of the latter’s interest and differ from a sector to another, the latter stays the same, in the sense that it manifests constant characteristics in relation to its environment (referent object, securitizing actor, threat actor), being identifiable on the basis of these. To this extent, according to the two above-mentioned theories, the ‘social psychological functional actor’ is that actor, which, sharing the understanding of what is the meaning of the referent object, and what a security issue is, and being convinced that extraordinary measures presented by the securitizer are necessary, legitimizes them, having a strong internal and psychological connection with the referent object, manifesting readiness to join the securitizer for defending the referent object out of internal motivation and opposing the threat actor directly proportional with the subjective significance of the referent object for the functional actor, the two emerging blocks (functional actor/securitizer versus threat actor) excluding each other.

1.2.1 Henri Tajfel’s and John Turner’s Social Identity Theory

The social identity theory (SIT) is a psychological theory about the intergroup relations, group processes and the social self.[13] Together with the self-categorization theory, the stimulus classification theory and the minimal group studies, SIT forms the Social Identity Approach. (Zick 2008:413) Social identity is an open, dynamic, permanently changing system that exceeds the self and determines the relationship with the environment. It functions for the individual in various manners, reflecting its pursuit of self-esteem, increasing social status, personal safety, support, protection, and recognition. (Korostelina 2007:62,67) SIT states that the social identity of individuals is defined by their membership in diverse social groups which are valuable and bear emotional significance to them (Tajfel in Brown 2000:311) and where they develop and emphasize attributes inherent to the groups, as well as a positive social identity that differentiates them from other groups they do not pertain to. The higher the importance of the individual is projected, the stronger the identification with the in-group, and the more positive the difference from the out-groups. If the comparison falls negative for the individual, he/she will take action in order to change his/her own negative evaluation into a positive one. The result is obtained on the basis of four processes: categorizations, social comparisons, distinctiveness and social identification with the in-group, in the permanent struggle of the individuals and groups to achieve a positive position compared to others. Thus, SIT tries to respond to two main questions: how the short term identity given by group membership contributes to shaping the individuals’ core social identity, and cements it by the enumerated 4 situational processes; and to the question regarding which reasons and needs enhance the preparedness of individuals/groups to enter conflicts and competitions[14].

The key concepts of SIT enjoy a high degree of applicability in explaining the mechanisms evolving behind the securitizing move. Categorization[15] is defined as being a subjective cognitive process which simplifies the perception of the environment by structuring a high diversity of stimuli into a more accessible number of definite and meaningful categories, generating thus a clear focus on certain aspects which accentuate the distinction and the similarities between them, and providing a better orientation and definition of the individual’s place in society. (Hogg 1988:19, Tajfel in Worchel 1986:16) The categorization process applies to both physical and social level, and is effective particularly when it has immediate relevance to the self appraisal being one of the causes of simplified, stereotypical judgment, employed on the in-groups, the own self and on the out-groups. The consequence is a perception of the environment in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’, whereas the individual perceives himself as being identical with the group and by doing this the individual ‘transforms’ into the group itself (depersonalization). (Hogg 1988:20,21) In addition, he perceives the out-groups more homogeneous than they are in reality, having a generalized image about them.

The activated process subsequent to the identification of the self with the group is that of social comparison[16] as the in-group is not sole. This mechanism accentuates or even exaggerates the distinctiveness between the in-group and the out-group, trying to place the in-group into a positive position compared to the out-group, and to grant it a positive social identity. The positive distinctiveness motivates the individuals to maintain their membership into the in-group. In case the comparison falls negative for the in-group, the members of the group may try to initiate actions to turn the comparison positive. The action alternatives are translated into 3 ways:

1. Social mobility (switching to other group, because group boundaries are flexible);
2. Social creativity (since group boundaries are unbreakable, the individual finds strategies to improve the in-group’s status, a cognitive alternative to the status quo. The options are: redefining the negative evaluated characteristics; adopting new dimensions of comparison; changing the out-group);
3. Social competition (the direct confrontation with the out-group). (Hogg 1988:27-28, Taylor/Moghaddam 1994:84, Tajfel in Worchel 1986:9)

The social identification with the in-group is thus a predictor for one’s behavior towards the out-groups, since this is determined by the feeling of membership in the in-group. The mere identification with the in-group and the categorization of ‘we’ and ‘them’ suffice for a discriminative thinking and acting towards the out-group, and a favoring of the in-group, which “are ways to achieve for one’s own group a positive outcome of an intergroup comparison.”(Mummendey 1995:660) The identification with the in-group brings about pride of belonging to the group and commitment to it, and triggers crisis when the in-group is discriminated. The stronger the social identification with one’s group the more compensatory the membership becomes, when the individual experience is negative. The social identification goes hand in hand with the social distinctiveness, since the former comprises the latter, individuals manifesting general tendencies to reach them both, as they are both crucial for their positive social identity. Thus, social identity is an intervening social mechanism in situations of social change, and the effects of these changes on their subsequent intergroup behavior and attitudes. (Tajfel 1974:76)

1.2.2 Fritz Heider’s Social Balance Theory

The theory starts with the observation that the individual is situated in a causal network of the environment, which has 2 facets: the mediation that is the part close to the skin of the organism, the stimuli that act upon the organism and the influence of the person upon the environment. The second facet is the distal environment comprising vitally relevant persons and things. The mediation separates the individual from the distal environment, but also sets up a functional connection by the diverse variety of mediating events: sentiments, thoughts, wishes, emotions, and other perceptual abilities. Individuals direct their perceptions and actions to the content of the distal environment. The proximal event is interpreted in terms of relatively invariant contents of the environment, which means that individuals have definite ideas about fittingness, consonance and dissonance and the possible conditions and effects of the various existentially significant modifications and entities. The implicit knowledge of the conditions allows the distal parts of the environment to be influenced in purposeful actions. Thus Heider’s theoretical scheme is an implicit model of perception, motivation, action, and norms. (Heider 1959:296-298)

For Heider, the sentiment (liking/disliking) is the connection to a diversity of situations. Two entities form a balanced unit if they are perceived as belonging together in a harmonious manner, without stress, with no pressure of change. Attitudes, beliefs, similarities, familiarity, homogeneity, proximity, interaction, common goals, property, interdependence, benefit, etc bring them together. Accordingly, the relations can be sentiment relations and unit relations[17]. They can be weakened or strengthened, yet both tend towards harmony, stability, and balance. Unbalanced situations are non-units. There are two kinds of unbalanced situations: the temporary, positive ones usually sought for escaping the boredom of the equilibrium, and to seek adventures that stimulate to further thinking; and the negative ones of distance, conflict, separateness, shortly: disunity. No matter of which kind the non unit is, as long as balance does not exist, the situation will tend to achieve balance. (Heider 1959:175-218)


[1] This actor will be termed in this paper ‘functional actor’.

[2] The membership to groups is the source of social identity. (Brown 2000:xvii)

[3] By the reaction of the audience to the security speech act. . “Security ultimately rests neither with the objects, nor with the subjects, but among the subjects (Buzan 1998:31) and is established inter-subjectively. (Buzan 1998:25)

[4] Buzan 1998:31. By the interaction and coexistence of environments, values and power, some issue gain superior significance and strong political effect.

[5] By the perception of a threat by actors, who construct their threat perception in a discourse that they transmit to other involved actors.

[6] By the speech act they address to the audience.

[7] By those who have the power to decide whether to deal with an issue as a security issue.

[8] The theory does not provide for a definition of extraordinary measures.

[9] That is to say to the physical base and the institutions of the state. The physical base is represented, among others, by the nation/people, the territory, the natural resources, etc. The threat to nation is thus to be seen as a threat to identity, whereas the threat to the state’s institutions (?!) as a threat to sovereignty. (See Buzan, 1991, Chapter 2)

[10] Illocution is the term employed by Austin when referring to express what the speaker does in saying something.

[11] Perlocution expresses what is done by saying something.

[12] Worthy of mentioning is that Austin himself focuses only on the speaker within the speech act, neglecting the addressee. Being a discourse and speech act theory based of Austin’s principles, it is obvious that the securitization theory also leaves out this key element in the conversation, focusing only on the manner of provoking a securitizing act but not on the act itself.

[13] This categorization pertains to the Boston College, accessed on 25th.01.2009. http://wfnetwork.bc.edu/glossary_entry.php?term=Social%20Identity%20Theory,%20Definition(s)%20of&area=All

[14] Conflicts and competitions are the infringement of social levels: entities take their issues out of their boundaries, causing them to become also issues of other entities. i.e. ranking, distribution, value conflicts (see Zick 2008:389)

[15] This notion is also put in use by Doise.

[16] The concept was previously employed by Festinger in 1954, and extended by Tajfel and Turner. Festinger’s fundament for the theory was his interpreting the self-definition in notions of social identity achieved as a social comparison which reflects the outcome of the individual’s strive to achieve a satisfactory image of himself. (Tajfel 1978:68)

[17] Sentiment relation refers to a unit on the base of attitudes, beliefs, and common goals. Unit relation refers to physical belonging.


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Title: The Functional Actor in the Securitization Process