Journal Article


Understanding security in the vernacular in hybrid political contexts: a critical survey

Published on 1 January 2013

In this article we propose two alternative yet interrelated definitions of security, which jointly encapsulate its dual and contested nature. These definitions were constructed to guide a literature search designed to uncover evidence of how security looks ‘from below’ or ‘in the vernacular’, through the eyes of ‘end-users’ of security arrangements, and how it is determined in the power laden and multi-levelled contexts of contemporary violent conflicts.

According to the first (or supply side) view: security is the creation and maintenance of authoritative social orders including, but not confined to, those we term states. According to the second (or demand side) view: security is a basic entitlement of those who are supposed to be protected by these social orders.

We argue that these definitions make it easier to navigate the conceptual, moral and policy confusion which pervades discussion of security and development. This confusion stems from a deep duality in the theory and practice of security itself, which complicates the relationships between security and political power in the hybrid political orders of ‘fragile’ and conflict-torn states.

The literature searches largely confirmed our initial hunch that all too little existing research properly defines security, analyses it with empirical rigour or scrutinises it from the point of view of its supposed beneficiaries, let alone according to their own vernacular understandings of safety and security.

Exactly whose security, from whom or what, and through what means tend to be the crucial unasked questions. Nor for the most part does contemporary research sufficiently conceptualise security as a politically contested object or empirically investigate its troubled relationship to political power.


Robin Luckham

Emeritus Fellow

Publication details

Luckham, R. and Kirk, T.
Conflict, Security and Development, volume 13, issue 3


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