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Security Dialogue


Security, Technologies of Risk, and the Political: Guest Editors' Introduction

Claudia Aradau, Luis Lobo-Guerrero and Rens Van Munster
Security Dialogue 2008 39: 147
DOI: 10.1177/0967010608089159
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Special Issue on Security, Technologies of Risk, and the Political

Security, Technologies of
Risk, and the Political:
Guest Editors Introduction

Open University, UK, Keele University, UK,

University of Southern Denmark


societies has spawned numerous analyses of the new governance of
societies, the role of knowledge and the reshaping of modern subjects.
From natural disasters and terrorism to health and finance, risk is now
everywhere. While risk had long been a problem of thought, from antiquity
to modernity (Maso, 2007), its relation to security and politics has now
encountered renewed interest. From anthropology and criminology to cultural studies and sociology, the problem of risk has been rendered as the signifier of our present condition (Beck, 1992; Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982;
Luhmann, 1991; Foucault, 2007). But, as risks come to constitute more and
more areas of social and political life, it is necessary to ask ourselves, echoing
Michel Foucault (1997), what difference today introduces with respect to
International relations scholars concerned with the concept of risk generally
trace the notion back to the end of the Cold War, when major states and international organizations such as NATO, the UN and the EU began to refer to
their security environment in terms of risks rather than dangers. This change
in terminology has allowed for an understanding of the post-Cold War
security environment as highly uncertain and characterized by an explosion
of risks, including pandemics to organized crime, global warming, failed
states, terrorism, poverty and nuclear proliferation.
Given this representation of the security dynamics at play in the post-Cold
War environment, early appropriations of risk in the field of international
relations have tended to simply conflate the concept of risk with those of
danger and threat (Rasmussen, 2001, 2004). Failing to spell out the conceptual
difference between security and risk, these studies constitute the difference
2008 PRIO, www.prio.no
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Vol. 39(23): 147154, DOI: 10.1177/0967010608089159

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Security Dialogue vol. 39, no. 23, April 2008

between past and present mainly in semantic terms. Indeed, the notion that
today risk is everywhere differs little from Kleins (1997) formulation more
than a decade ago that security threats are socially constructed and now
every month is security awareness month.
This special issue of Security Dialogue, however, argues that more is at stake
in dealing with risk. It claims that identifying the referent of protection in
terms of risk has important implications for thinking security and politics. As
the following articles show, risk entails a qualitative difference of the present
in relation to the problem of security. Risk-based perspectives to security differ considerably from their threat-based counterparts in how they approach
the question of security and in the policy prescriptions and governmental
technologies they instantiate. Whereas the latter tend to emphasize agency
and intent between conflicting parties, risk-based interpretations tend to
emphasize systemic characteristics, such as populations at risk of disease or
environmental hazard. Moreover, threat-based interpretations rely on intelligence in an attempt to eliminate danger, while risk relies on actuarial-like
data, modelling and speculations that do not simply call for the elimination
of risk but develop strategies to embrace it. In short, whereas the concept of
threat brings us in to the domain of the production, management and
destruction of dangers, the concept of risk mobilizes and focuses on different
practices that arise from the construction, interpretation and management of
contingency.1 As a consequence, more difficult ontological and epistemological problems are at stake in dealing with the concept of risk than has been
recognized within the discipline of international relations. This special issue,
then, seeks to bring the debates about risk in the social sciences within the
horizon of the Foucauldian question of the present.

Security and Risk

Although the meaning and practice of risk have changed in history, within
modernity risk can be conceptualized as an estimation of the dangerousness
of the future. Risk refers to the probability of an undesirable event happening
in the future. As an attempt to tame uncertainty and contingency, our general
understanding of risks builds on the premise that they can be classified,
quantified and to some extent predicted. Risk can then be understood as a

Of course, there are also important continuities. Risk analysis often also draws upon intelligence reports to
calculate, assess and manage risks, while threat management is also about the management of a contingent future. For example, security technologies such as deterrence and mutually assured destruction
(MAD) could well be seen as practices that insure against the full exposure to a contingent and apocalyptic future of nuclear warfare (Cooper, 2004). In this sense, the concept of risk may also be a useful concept
from which to rewrite the history of the Cold War and the game-theoretical models deployed to calculate
and manage the probability of nuclear conflict.

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Claudia Aradau et al. Security, Technologies of Risk and the Political


family of ways of thinking and acting, involving calculations about probable

futures in the present followed by interventions into the present in order to
control that potential future (Rose, 2001: 7). Risk implies a specific relation to
the future, a relation that requires a monitoring of the future, an attempt to
calculate what the future can offer, and a need to control and minimize its
potentially harmful effects.
However, Ulrich Beck (1999) has argued that in late modern societies this
understanding of risk has given way to a new understanding, insofar as the
future has become catastrophic. Nuclear disaster and global warming are
threats that we can no longer calculate, quantify and predict. As a result, he
argues, we now live in a world risk society that is characterized by uncertainty, anxiety and risk awareness. Although this understanding of risk in
our late modern age has been questioned (see, for example, Ericson, Doyle &
Barry, 2003), Beck is probably right to argue that anxieties and lack of predictability have led to increased risk awareness and attempts to develop
novel solutions to manage contingency. Paradoxically, these solutions often
also have the effect of increasing anxiety about risk through their constant
focus upon catastrophic and dystopic imaginations of the future.
Within the academic field of international relations, the concept of risk
has shifted security away from the register of war and violence generally
associated with the concept of security. According to the Copenhagen School
of security studies, it is imperative to distinguish security in international
relations from the more mundane concept of risk, because questions of the
latter are not imbued with the same sense of danger, urgency and survival.
This view of security, however, has been contested by the constitution of
security through routinized practices of bureaucracies, where risk analysis,
calculation and management play an increasingly important role (Bigo &
Tsoukala, 2006). Indeed, as Salter shows in his discussion of aviation security
in this special issue, routine procedures of classification and categorization
are readily translated into attention to the proactive practices of security professionals to prevent the occurrence of dangers in the future. Governing social
issues through risk, then, has implied a routinization of security that can be
traced in many areas from homeland security and anti-terrorism policies to
critical-infrastructure protection and crime-fighting. For example, contributions from Gabe Mythen & Sandra Walklate, Marieke de Goede, and Oliver
Kessler & Wouter Werner explore how pre-emptive or precautionary strategies both prolong and modify risk management from retrospective calculations of harm to an outlook based on futurity, contingency and uncertainty.
Ontologically, risk shifts the security inquiry towards more heterogeneous
and diffuse practices that cannot be represented through simple binary
dichotomies of normality/exception and politics/security. Therefore, rather
than thinking of security and risk as belonging to two different orders, the
analyses in this special issue demonstrate that risk practices overlap with or

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Security Dialogue vol. 39, no. 23, April 2008

contest the military or political field customarily associated with security.

Asking what it means to govern through risk in a wide variety of contexts
(insurance and the financial industry, the aviation industry, international
organizations, international law, popular culture and aesthetics), the authors
unpack the heterogeneous mixture of continuity and discontinuity in the
governance of societies and populations.
The contributions to this special issue also show that the difference of the
present has important epistemological effects. While security practices were
essentially based on the possibility of empirically identifying and assessing
threats, risk reshapes the relation to what is knowable by introducing uncertainty and the unknowable at the heart of governing processes. Initially, the
risk society thesis has informed a radically discontinuous approach to
knowledge and politics. Beck locates the discontinuity in security practices at
the threshold of reflexive modernity, which is defined by a societys obsession with risks that cannot be calculated and have potentially catastrophic
effects that cannot be compensated for. Several articles in this special issue
draw upon Becks work to shed light on the transformation of risks in the
current political context. For instance, Mythen & Walklate deploy the conceptual framework provided by Beck to illuminate the changing nature of
terrorism in contemporary society. Similarly, Stefan Elbe considers how
Becks framework sheds light on the emerging securitization of HIV/AIDS.
Yet, these authors also acknowledge that the risk society thesis is limited
in its capacity to grasp the qualitative difference of the present. While the
risk society thesis can assist in tracing the global context of threats, Becks
rather sweeping arguments about modernity and risk society do not capture
the multiple and variable ways in which life is secured. The risk society
thesis fails to acknowledge that the identification of risk is not the same as
recognizing the uncertainty or uncontrollability of future events. What it fails
to capture, in other words, is that risk is a social technology by means of
which the uncertain future, be it of a catastrophic nature, is rendered knowable and actionable.
The distinction between calculable and incalculable threats, then, ignores
the multiple ways in which technologies of risk are deployed to identify, calculate, imagine, assess, prevent, compensate and mitigate the uncertainty
surrounding incalculable threats such as terrorism and pandemics. In fact,
the articles presented here consider a wide range of technologies that can be
deployed to render the future calculable. From the statistical and actuarial
practices of expert panels in, say, aviation security (Salter) or epidemiology
(Diprose et al.) to the practices of underwriting risk and derivatives (Dillon),
these contributions reveal how we are currently witnessing a hybridization
of technologies that seek to render contingency calculable.
Although risk manages the future by representing it as relatively calculable
in actuarial terms, it also needs to engage with that which exceeds calculabil-

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Claudia Aradau et al. Security, Technologies of Risk and the Political


ity. This excess of calculability, of actuarial probabilities, can be formulated

as uncertainty (OMalley, 2004), radical contingency (Dillon, 2006) or speculation (Keynes, 1936). Within this space at the limit, new technologies are
deployed to create an imaginary cartography of the future.
Risk management thus mobilizes knowledge while at the same time exceeding knowability. According to Alan Feldman (2005: 205), the risk structure of
modernity is the structure of the imperceptible, that which transcends human
perception in everyday life despite its immanence in, and parasitic relations
to the everyday. While the imperceptible exceeds everydayness, the strangeness of what is beyond the perceptible is tamed and reincorporated within
the functioning of society through cultural mechanisms. Risk simultaneously
surpasses the experiential structure of modernity, while returning now most
violently to an everydayness that is ideologically constituted. Stereotypes of
the other and imaginaries of the Islamic terrorist are insidiously reactivated
within the framework of risk. Frank Furedis culture of fear is astutely taken
up in one of the contributions to account for the pervasive acceptance of risk
governance (Mythen & Walklate), while other articles consider the cultural
mediation of risk through fiction and cinema (Muller) or design (Lacy).

Risk and the Political

The shift towards risk has significant political implications. In the risk
society thesis, hazards and insecurities are viewed as inevitable structural
threats that can only be solved through cosmopolitanism, a world based on
the negotiation of certain norms (Beck, 2005). Contrary to the cosmopolitan
future that Beck envisaged, contemporary concern with global risks has not
necessarily moved us in a more cosmopolitan and democratic direction.
Salter, for example, regards the airport as the space for all its connotations
with travel, freedom and global interconnectedness where an international
biopolitics of control happens (not unlike how Foucault saw the prison).
Similarly, Lacy and Muller trace the emergence of an intensified biopolitics
(biopolitics 2.0 or biopolitics redux) in contemporary risk society.
In critical analyses, security practices have been exposed as othering,
boundary-drawing and violent. The specification of an enemy is the very
condition of possibility for the deployment of security. Technologies of risk
operate on the basis of a capacity to generate populations at risk rather than
create enemies. In contrast to security, risk does not operate upon the logic of
a zero-sum game, since the profit for one population is not necessarily at the
expense of the other. In fact, when populations are organized in the form of
risk pools, they instantiate a political economy of profit and protection
rather than an ethos of danger. For example, in the health sector, individuals

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are increasingly constituted as patients at risk, expected to take responsibility for the management of their own health-risk portfolios.
Nonetheless, the moral economy of risk management depends on the
specification of groups at risk and risky, with prevention becoming the
necessary supplement to insurantial calculations. Groups at risk for HIV/
AIDS are then statistically described as dangerous (Elbe, in this issue), while
constructions of risk end up reinforcing gendered and racialized imaginaries
of the subject (Chan & Rigatos, 2002). Governing through risk also separates
the subject who is to be known and penetrated by the knowledgeable gaze
from its actions. As Paul Passavant (2005) has noted, what counts now is no
longer evidence about the actions of Iraq or North Korea, because we know
their true nature. Political subjectivity, orders of governance and liberal
regimes depend upon and evolve as a function of the transformation of risk
By transforming the distinction between normality and exception, risk
modifies our understanding of the relationship between politics and security
in at least two ways. On the one hand, the architecture of the normal takes
shape through heterogeneous and mundane actuarial practices, through the
arbitrary declarations of risky-ness and bureaucratic reallocation of power.
The imperceptible and unknowable captured by technologies of risk are
reinscribed upon concrete everydayness, thereby colonizing normality.
Rather than the limit of normality, risk infuses exceptionalism within the
governmentality of everydayness. On the other hand, the relation to the
exception is modified by the unknowable catastrophic event. At the horizon
of catastrophe, precaution, prudence or premediation imbue liberal regimes
with a different exceptionalism. The sovereign order is no longer simply
that of decision, but also that of imagination. Rather than cutting off the
sovereigns head in political theory, as Foucault suggested, new discussions
of risk are increasingly sensitive to the heterogeneous and strategic imbrication of sovereignty and governmentality. Their implications for the political
questions we are faced with today cannot be underestimated: Who decides?
is increasingly supplemented by Who gets to imagine the future?. The
imagination of the future has become one of the main political stakes (Salter,
in this issue; de Goede, in this issue). For Dillon (in this issue), the sovereign
will has been replaced by the contingency of the event, with its implications for the commodification of subjects and the transformation of individual and collective subjects of law.
The political subject that emerges out of risk governance is a subject split
between the injunction to embrace risk and the prudential warning to take
precautions against the unknowable but announced future catastrophe.
However, the subject is split not only through the contradictory imperatives
to which it is submitted, but also through the effects of risk for the rational
autonomous subject. Slavoj Z izek (1999: 342) has reproached Beck for leaving

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Claudia Aradau et al. Security, Technologies of Risk and the Political


intact the subjects fundamental mode of subjectivity: [the] subject remains

the modern subject, able to reason and reflect freely, to decide on and select
his/her set of norms, and so on. Rather than a rational autonomous subject,
the subject constituted through risk is governed through affects and anxieties
(Isin, 2004; Lacy, in this issue; Muller, in this issue). Although risk analyses
have so far taken the bionic subject as their point of departure (Dean, 1999;
Rose, 1999), subjects are increasingly interpellated through neurosis and
anxieties triggered by disaster-modelling and worst-case scenarios (de
Goede, in this issue). If risk becomes the equivalent of money, as Dillon
suggests, questions about the transformation of the abstract identity of
labour and of the subjects of capitalism are timelier than ever.
To conclude, the contributions to this issue are part and parcel of the
problem-space of risk, around which different theories and disciplinary
perspectives converge. Thinking and theorizing about risk fosters our understanding and directs us to the possibilities of problematizing and retheorizing the political that is embodied in technologies of risk. In this respect, the
articles of this special issue do not seek to provide a single or authoritative
definition or interpretation of risk as much as they invite us to reflect on the
ways in which security practices instantiate the political in the very process
of (in)securing specific forms of life.
* Claudia Aradau is Lecturer in International Studies in the Department of Politics and
International Studies, The Open University (UK). Her research interrogates the effects of
politics deployed at the horizon of security and catastrophe. She has worked on the securitization of human trafficking and migration, governing terrorism and exceptionalism. She
is the author of Rethinking Trafficking in Women: Politics out of Security (Palgrave, 2008) and
is currently co-writing a book on The Politics of Catastrophe (with Rens van Munster). Luis
Lobo-Guerrero is Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University and a member of
the Research Institute for Law, Politics and Justice at the same institution. His research has
mainly analysed insurance as a liberal security technology. His main theoretical interests
revolve around special risks underwriting and the biopolitics of security. He coordinates
the Biopolitics of Security Network (www.keele.ac.uk/biopoliticsofsecurity). Rens van
Munster is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of
Southern Denmark, Odense. He is interested in the politicization of immigration as a security issue, and currently focuses on questions of risk, precaution and terrorism. Together
with Claudia Aradau, he is working on a manuscript that explores the relationship
between catastrophe, modernity and the political. The guest editors of this special issue of
Security Dialogue acknowledge the financial support from COST Action A24 on The
Evolving Social Construction of Threats and would like to thank its chair, Jef Huysmans,
and participants at the COST workshops at the Open University and Keele University for
stimulating discussions. They would also like to thank J. Peter Burgess, Marit Moe-Pryce
and Vicki Squire for their comments and/or support during the editorial process.

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Security Dialogue vol. 39, no. 23, April 2008

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