We need a societal perspective on security threats

What are the societal consequences if certain groups in our society feel less secure? A Nordic research project led by the Swedish School of Social Science (Soc&kom) examines security threats from a different perspective.

The SEPOS (Social exclusion, polarization and security in the Nordic welfare state) project is based on the notion that the threats affecting societal security must be addressed from a broader perspective and that social issues must be given more attention. Instead of identifying on risks, the project focuses on understanding social dynamics and the root causes of problems.

“Studies on extremism and global security issues have largely been based on traditional security research, focusing on state security. Our aim is to examine security issues from a societal perspective and to consider experiences of safety. Our project builds on the concept of human security, that covers also social aspects” says Karin Creutz, one of several Soc&kom researchers involved in the project.

Terrorism, extremism and hate crimes have been among the most hotly debated issues in the 2000s. Up until now, these security threats have been primarily dealt with by analysing various individuals, high-risk groups and activities and then taking measures to counter the threats.

“We want to go to the root of the problems and understand their societal context. Research shows that factors such as marginalisation, experiences of exclusion and a lack of trust in the system may increase interest in extreme action, but its dynamics has been understudied,” Creutz points out.

“Disciplines such as social work and social policy have been sidelined from research on radicalisation and terrorism. The central role played by social problems is easily forgotten. One contribution of our project is highlighting these perspectives and providing new insights for security research.”

Creutz compares the situation to the discourses on addiction and what was previously known as the war on drugs: initially, the problems were treated almost exclusively as security issues, but over the years, the social aspects and the connection to people’s societal welfare came to be understood. Similarly, various negative societal phenomena can be countered, and societal security and welfare can be increased by addressing problems such as marginalisation and lack of participation in society.

Targeting minorities

An important element of the research project sets out to explore the unequal distribution of safety and security in society. The experience of safety is an important cohesive force, and the researchers are interested especially in the experience of security among racialised persons and minorities.

We have witnessed in the 2000s the development of a culture of security, or ‘securitisation’, with measures that often affect minorities. In the worst case, security and control measures may reduce rather than increase societal safety.

“If certain groups feel targeted and labelled as a security threat and become second-class citizens, it is a question of structural discrimination. Measures not based on such fundamental principles as people’s right to equal treatment contribute to the creation of an unequal society. In addition to all the damaging effects of discrimination on the individual, collective and societal levels, it can also reduce people’s trust in the system,” Creutz states.

An important reason for the successes of the Nordic model is people’s trust in the authorities. If the trust in the authorities and in societal structures reduces, it can have many negative consequences. For example, victims of crime may not feel confident enough to contact the police. Consequently, the experience of safety and measures that can be taken to enhance it are crucially important.

Suvi Keskinen, professor of ethnic relations, has previously investigated the consequences of ethnic profiling and will continue to explore this topic in the SEPOS project. Her research group will examine the experiences of racialised minorities concerning their sense of security in society. For example, the researchers will analyse the relationship between minorities and the authorities, particularly the police. A key question to be addressed is the extent to which ethnic profiling leads to a deterioration of minorities’ trust in the police.

Another element of the SEPOS project will analyse the relationship between anti-Islamic movements and jihadism. The researchers will inspect the reciprocity between the groups’ ideologies and actions. A key issue in this part of the project is how different forms of extreme propaganda affect each other. Previous research has shown that radical groups often reinforce and activate their ideological opposites. ISIS, for instance, has taken advantage of the message of right-wing radicals to harness broader support for its own message.

“We know that, for example, anti-Islamic propaganda about Muslims not belonging to Europe and about Islam being an enemy of Europe is also used by ISIS, which repeats the same message: that Muslims do not belong to Europe and that Europe is an enemy. In the same way, we can see a reciprocity in various actions: an act of violence by ISIS is often followed by acts of violence against minorities,” says Creutz.

A third part of the project will analyse political violence and antidemocratic mobilisation. The focus will be on the dynamics between radical and populist discourses that justifies and normalise racism, as well as the societal consequences of a rhetoric of hate and online bullying. The scholars will examine, for example, politicians’ experiences of online bullying and whether it influences their political activity and participation in social debate.