Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams on Private Security Companies, Global Security Assemblages, and Africa

Short excerpt of Interview published on Theory Talks, March 7, 2011.

… Q.: You introduce the notion of ‘security assemblages’ to describe the complex mixes of actors involved in security governance. Does this mean a departure from the status quo of assuming that states are always in the center of security governance?

A.: RA We introduced the notion of ‘security assemblages’ to denote something which one can find in most settings, namely, a pluralization of the nature of security actors involved. Yet the specific mix of actors, their relationships, or how the field is assembled is not something one can predict or theorise a priori, but rather an empirical question that requires investigation. The more traditional approach meant, because of its Weberian heritage, that one always starts out assuming that security involves only or mostly the army or police, i.e. public actors with a monopoly of the use of force. Instead, we start out by saying that most of the time, security governance involves other actors in addition to the state, to ask, well, which actors are they, what is their relationship to public actors, and what are the implications. 

In almost any setting across the globe, one will now find the army, the police, military police, customs, national and transnational private security companies, secret services, risk consultancy firms… This means we need to re-open the question of the state, of how it is being re-articulated, partially dis-assembled and re-assembled, in negotiation with private security actors. What forms of power do the different actors in such a global assemblage have? That varies, as does the role and strength of the state across different settings. You could—as we did in Africa in the book—find a whole range of different actors, different public actors, different private actors, and some actors quite surprisingly with forms of power you would not necessarily expect to find or wouldn`t even see in the traditional approach to security studies. To capture these forms of power, we work with Bourdieuian concepts of forms of capital. There is an empirical question here; we want to hold on to the idea that the state still matters and the notion of the public itself has continued relevance as a form of Bourdieuian capital in the assemblage. The security field itself, we argue, is structured by this ‘obsession’ with the public and the private, so the state doesn`t disappear—even if the state is very weak in terms of the capacity to do things, public and private actors still invoke the capital of the notion of the public to be able to do what they do and to be able in some cases restrain what other actors can do.

Q.: Last question: What are the biggest misconceptions about the subject that you are studying?

A.: RA There are so many misconceptions about private security in Africa but at the same time private security is a big field. I think the biggest misconception is this idea that all forms of private security are more or less the same. It is the ‘Executive Outcomes’ reading of private security which constitutes one of the biggest misconceptions. This view holds that there are mercenaries running around like crazy in Africa, and other continents. Obviously, the idea of big men with big weapons still holds some truth, and this form of private security hasn’t ceased to exist but the fact is, that a most of the private security actors in Africa (and globally) are not armed and they are certainly not engaged in military or quasi-military activities. In fact, private security guards in Africa, and elsewhere too, are among the poorest paid employees you would find. Their power and impact on the security field come not so much from the barrel of the gun, but from the embeddedness of private security within broader structures of social power, both locally and globally. That is an important point that we try to demonstrate in Security Beyond the State.

MW Then there is the frequent association between increased privatisation and decreased state legitimacy, like it’s a zero-sum game. This is a very tight conceptual link, which underpins a lot of the literature on private security in IR. This whole way of thinking about politics is not always entirely wrong, but recognising the pervasiveness of private security in Sweden, Denmark, and the UK helps a great deal in getting rid of the conceptual idea that because it is private, it must by necessity and automatically mean delegitimation of the state. In fact, our research indicates that it isn’t that simple anywhere in the world. Rather than the association ‘increased private security-decreased state legitimacy’, we should pose questions about the nature of the relationship between security, the state, and other agents—and we can see that the relationship is more complicated than most of our inherent categories allows us to hang on to. In the global security assemblages that we investigate in the book, the relationships between the private and the public, the global and the local, are negotiated and complex, but nowhere can the private be said to represent a straight-forward erosion of state authority or legitimacy. Whether in resource extraction in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, or in urban security in South African and Kenya (the four empirical cases in the book), we are witnessing a reconfiguration of the public and the private, the global and the local, so that instead of a simple retreat of the state we are witnessing its re-articulation and the emergence of new geographies of power. (full long interview text).

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