Copenhagen School (international relations)

Copenhagen School (international relations)

The Copenhagen School of security studies is a school of academic thought with its origins in international relations theorist Barry Buzan's book People, States and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations, first published in 1983. The Copenhagen School places particular emphasis upon the social aspects of security. Theorists associated with the school include Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde. Many of the school's members worked at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute. The most prominent critic of the Copenhagen School is Bill McSweeney.

The primary book of the Copenhagen School is Security: A New Framework for Analysis written by Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde.

The theory focuses on three key concepts:

  1. Sectors
  2. Regional Security Complexes
  3. Securitization



Bill McSweeney is generally credited with coining the term 'Copenhagen School'.[1]


The concept of 'sectors' concerns the different arenas where we speak of security. The list of sectors is primarily an analytical tool created to spot different dynamics. In Security: A New Framework for Analysis, the authors list the following sectors: Military/state, Political, Societal, Economic, and Environmental. As such, CS theory can be regarded as 'widening' traditional materialist security studies by looking at security in these 'new' sectors.

Regional Security

The concept of regional security complexes covers how security is clustered in geographically shaped regions. Security concerns do not travel well over distances and threats are therefore most likely to occur in the region. The security of each actor in a region interacts with the security of the other actors. There is often intense security interdependence within a region, but not between regions, which is what defines a region and what makes regional security an interesting area of study. Buffer states sometimes isolate regions, such as Afghanistan's location between the Middle East and South Asia. Regions should be regarded as mini systems where all other IR theories can be applied, such as Balance of Power, polarity, interdependence, alliance systems, etc.

Regional Security Complex Theory should not be confused with Regionalism, a subset of IR from the 70s concerned mostly with regional integration. For more on regional security, see Buzan: Regions and Powers.


Securitization is probably the most prominent concept of the Copenhagen School. It is argued that 'security' is a speech act with distinct consequences in the context over international politics. By talking security an actor tries to move a topic away from politics and into an area of security concerns thereby legitimating extraordinary means against the socially constructed threat. The process of securitization is intersubjective meaning that it is neither a question of an objective threat or a subjective perception of a threat. Instead securitization of a subject depends on an audience accepting the securitization speech act.

Many critical security scholars, especially since 9/11, have used the term 'securitization' without giving proper credit to the Copenhagen School.

Some of the most detailed books on the subject are:

  • Understanding Global Security, Peter Hough,Routledge, 2008
  • Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear, ECPR, 2007
  • The Empire of Security, William Baine, Routledge, 2006


A criticism that has been advanced against the Copenhagen School is that it is a eurocentric approach to security. [2] Realists have argued that the Copenhagen School's widening of the security agenda risks giving the discipline of security studies "intellectual incoherence".[3] Hansen has criticized the absence of gender in the Copenhagen School's approach.[4] Other critiques focus on the role of the security analyst and the potentially conservative nature of the theory.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Mutimer, D. (2007) Critical Security Studies: A Schismatic History in Contemporary Security Studies, A. Collins (eds.), Oxford:Oxford University Press, p. 60
  2. ^ Wilkinson (2007) The Copenhagen School on Tour in Kyrgyzstan: Is Securitization Theory Useable Outside Europe?, Security Dialogue March 2007 vol. 38no. 1 5-25
  3. ^ Buzan, B., Waever, O. and de Wile, J. (1998), Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, p 2
  4. ^ Hansen, Lene (2000) 'The Little Mermaid's Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School',Millennium - Journal of International Studies, 29: 285-306
  5. ^ See Huysmans, ‘Revisiting Copenhagen’; and Johan Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates?: On the Political Role of Security Analysts’, Cooperation and Conflict 34, no. 3 (1999): 311-3

Further reading

  • Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver & Jaap de Wilde (1998), Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienne


  • Bill McSweeney, ‘Identity and security: Buzan and the Copenhagen school’, Review of International Studies, 22:1 (1996) 81-93.

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