Why is security an “essentially contested concept” and what ways are there to overcome this?

Term Paper, 2012

4 Pages, Grade: 1


Why is security an “essentially contested concept” and what ways are there to overcome this?

Although it seems that everyone has a basic similar notion of what the term security means and implicates, scholars have struggled to find a coherent definition and disagree on how far the concept can or should be expanded. This essay will show that security is indeed a highly contested concept, but that it has been questioned whether security can also be classified as an “essentially contested concept” in the way Walter Bryce Gallie introduced this term. The criticism of the classification of security as a contested concept as formulated by David Baldwin will be drawn into account as well as Arnold Wolfers' conclusion that security is a highly subjective matter. Furthermore, Ken Booth's suggestion for an interpretation of security in terms of emancipation in the Post-Cold War Era will be considered.

Starting with Wolfers essay gives the answer why there is even a need to narrow the concept of security down. For academic and political usage there would be too many misunderstandings if the term would not clearly specified. For Wolfers, security can be equalised – from an objective perspective – with the “absence of threats to acquired values” and – from a subjective perspective – with the “absence of fear that such values will be attacked.” Moreover, he sees security as a value from which a state can have or aim to have more or less. Baldwin and Booth overall agree with this view though Baldwin suggests that security would be better defined as the “low probability of damage to acquired values.” It also has to be noted that not all scholars see the different degrees of security but argue that there is only insecurity or (absolute) security. However, Baldwin shows that this perspective contradicts the common understanding and that complete security does not exist.

Wolfers explicates that one of the difficulties when defining security is its subjective nature. First, security can never be measured objectively but a state might over- or underestimate the dangers which threaten its values. But even if two states face the same threats and come to a similar evaluation they might introduce different policies. This has several reasons: On the one hand, reaching a higher security requires efforts and people need to sacrifices something else. As Wolfers depicts, states tend to have a lower protection than it might be considered necessary from experts because the efforts to reach this level of security seem to high for the people. One example for this are the frequent security checks one can find on airports. Although people care about safety when flying, complaints about the sacrifices they have to make – like waiting longer and passing a full body scanner - are not rare. Moreover, the policies a state implments to reach a certain level of security also depend on the type of external threats, on the values which the state wants to protect and domestic factors like traditions, preferences and national threats. Lastly, Wolfers emphasises that security should not always be linked to coercive power because this goal can also be reached by other means though it depends also on the ideological and moral views how much a certain state will rely on military forces. In a nutshell, one problem when trying to specify the concept of security is that only very few generalizations can be made because security itself is already very subjective.

Acknowledging this difficulty, Booth shows the contestedness of security by explaining how the concept changed over time and that in the Post Cold War Era it cannot only be associated with inter-state war anymore. He suggests that security should be seen in terms of emancipation which can be defined as the freedom to make choices and that the people should be treated as the “ends and not means”, that is that the individual human should be used as a reference for security. This stands in contrast with opinions which assume that security can be equalised with the accumulation of power and that the state should be the seen as the end and not the means. Here it is quite interesting to consider the class survey of what students consider to threaten their personal security and the security of their nation. Most of the students felt quite safe but they did see security threats for the state. This of course raises the question if now less security measures are necessary because the students feel relatively sage as individuals. Or should higher security measures be installed because some of threats for their nation might eventually threaten the individual?

The different light that Baldwin sheds on the definition of security does not only show again how highly contested this term is among scholars but he also explains why he does not view security as an “essentially contested concept” in the definition of Walter Bryce Gallie which is not mentioned in the two other articles. Baldwin highlights here three problems with this definitions: First, there is an ambiguity what this actually means. Secondly, he indicates that security may not meet Gallie's requirements and thirdly, he points out that even if the categorization would be true, the implications for security studies might be wrong. And indeed, Baldwin can show that security probably does not meet all the criteria of an essentially contested concept because there is for example no deep conceptual debate about this term in the way Gallie defines it. This would discriminate security from other terms like justice, democracy or a good Christian which classify as being an essentially contested concept. Furthermore, he argues that – depending on the interpretation – security can not be seen as appraisive, as “signifying or accrediting some kind of valued achievement” which is one of Gallie's criteria. Baldwin also criticises the way another scholar, Barry Buzan, used this categorization but did not give his own definition of the concept of security. Eventually, Baldwin concludes that “security is appropriately described as a confused or inadequately concept than as an essentially contested one.”

As already mentioned, Baldwin rephrases Wolfers' security definition in the “low probability of damage to acquired values” because this formulation focuses more on “the preservation of acquired values” and events like earthquakes can be included more easily. Following this definition, Baldwin points out two main questions to specialize the definition of security: “security for whom” and “security for which values.” However, depending on the research question, answers to more questions have to be provided as well in order to avoid confusion and enable a good academic communication: “how much security”, “from what threats”, “by what means “, “at what cost” and “in what time period.” Afterwards, Baldwin introduces three approaches to the value of security and argues that security can neither be seen as a prime value nor as a core value as other scholars claimed. He demonstrates that security is only a marginal value because people tend to use take risks and use resources which they could use to increase their security to pursue non-core values.

It can be concluded that security is indeed a highly contested subject but it depends on the interpretation of Gallie's criteria whether it can also be classified as an “essentially contested concept.” Further research on the meaning of the requirements Gallie stated might be necessary to give a more complete picture. Regardless of whether, security is classified as an “essentially contested concept” or not, it is important for the researcher to not use the classification as an excuse for not providing an own definition. It might be very difficult to establish one comprehensive concept for security but Baldwin's questions offer a good overview of how security as a concept can and should be narrowed down depending on policies one wants to compare or whatever the research question might be. Especiallywhen because of the discussion what counts as a “threat to the acquired values” of a certain state in the Post Cold War Era researchers have to be extra careful that security does eventually not get mixed up with other concepts. Drawing Wolfers essay into account, it is furthermore important to bear the subjectivenss of security in mind to avoid overhasty generalizations.


Excerpt out of 4 pages


Why is security an “essentially contested concept” and what ways are there to overcome this?
Utrecht University  (Roosevelt Academy)
Security in the Post-Cold War Era
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
403 KB
security studies, international relations, international studies, internationale beziehungen, IB, IR, essentially contested concept, Walter Bryce Gallie, Wolfers, Booth, Baldwin, internationale politik
Quote paper
Nora Görne (Author), 2012, Why is security an “essentially contested concept” and what ways are there to overcome this?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/189174


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