Book review: Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception

by Andrew W. Neal, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 288pp., £80/$US104.00 (Hardback), ISBN: 9781474450928

“How do we know security when we see it?” was the question that remained in my head during the whole time I was reading this book. I went to the kitchen to grab a coffee and my brain started drifting to “How do we know it? How… when we see it? I closed my eyes in my cozy bed and, suddenly, I started asking: “How…but how?”. It was like an ear worm that this genius question lived in my mind, from the first time I read it to the last page of Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception by Andrew W. Neal. And although it sounds like that the question was never answered, this is a false assumption. The question was indeed answered by the author in the same chapter it was posed to the reader. Nevertheless, my inner chanting simply represents what I took from the reading of the book and what I will, definitely, continue applying to my academic life: the challenging of the taken-for-grantedness of – apparently tautological – concepts such as security.

Context is the key element is here. Drawing on Ciuta and on Foucault’ problematization, Neal proposes seeing security as a concept of its time, defined by historical context. This ontological stand is derived from a very strong opposition to the developments of the Copenhagen School’s securitization theory (ST). While the ST imposes a strict definition of security to avoid the “everything becomes security” trap (Neal 2019: 45), Neal’s contextual/historical conceptualization of security is compared to a moving target that fits perfectly the constant changes we face in society.

”Security as Politics is a book that not only questions the concept of security and its position within the “spheres” of politics, but it also intends to bridge the gap between theory and practice.”

Security as Politics is a book that not only questions the concept of security and its position within the “spheres” of politics (Neal 2019: 90), but it also intends to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Its central discussion, presented in the first five chapters, revolves around the fact that “security was once an anti-political ‘exception’ in liberal democracies” (Neal 2020)[1], limited to the level of “‘high politics’ and statecraft” (Neal 2019: 4), but now it can be seen practiced in the ‘normal’ political arena. Neal’s argument focuses specifically on the field of professional politics, and the role of politicians such as parliamentarians in the fusing of security with “normal” politics. Therefore, in the last chapters, Neal chooses to represent his conjectures empirically by using the political developments of the UK Parliament as a case study: from a pre-Cold War era, to a post-9/11 paradigm, and addressing the changes happening from 2010 onwards. The case chosen helps guiding the reader through a complex field with a light and easy pace that only mirrors the well thought structure of the book. This can be exemplified during the presentation of its methodology in chapter two, and the explanation of politization and the political game involving security issues in chapters three and four.  

The book starts revising the literature and scholarships on security, and the first chapter introduces a harsh criticism towards securitization and its anti-political nature that endures along the book. Even though his intention was not to refute the ST, this is the inevitable feeling that lingers with the reader. According to Ole Wæver (2011:470), “theory-related insights should be accumulated, while the theory is kept intact as long as it is the best instrument for generating such insights”. Regardless of ST’s failures and gaps, a lot of what we think about security nowadays comes from the constructivist nature of securitization. Dating the ST as not applicable anymore feels like erasing the insights accumulated by a whole scholarship. Additionally, the theory has also evolved, and although the author mentions such developments, they are not acknowledged as valuable analytical tools because they still come from a dated source. At the same time, Neal keeps coming back to securitization to explain concepts and events which might be somehow confusing. Nevertheless, I agree with the book’s main argument that security is beyond the state of exception, and that the contextual definition seems more appropriate rather the strictly defined criteria. I wish only to stress that an evolved version of the ST should be as much regarded as the concept of politization in the book, generating therefore an interesting and more fruitful theoretical debate. 

”the author turns difficult subjects and concepts into smooth and enjoyable learning experiences.”

Criticisms aside, as I mention before, the author turns difficult subjects and concepts into smooth and enjoyable learning experiences. Following the book’s rationale, Neal points to two reasons for the “invasion” of security matters to the realm of the day-to-day of professional politics: first “the widening scope and reach of security policy and practice” (Neal 2019: 273) and second “the declining deference among parliamentarians towards governmental security authority” (Neal 2019: 273). The former reason is presented along the first three chapters of the book, along with the changes that happened overtime on the other side of the coin: the arena of “normal” politics. And I was pleased to see the thorough analysis that the author made sure to include of not only the developments concerning “widening and deepening what it means to speak ‘security’” (Hagmann et al 2018: 3), but also the evolution of what means to practice politics. The later argument for such a merger can be found by the end of the third chapter and on the subsequent ones. One example of this “security failure” that led to a distrust in the Parliament is the UK’s traumatic experiences supporting the decision of the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003, and consequently denying support during the 2013 crisis in Syria. A subject that would in prior times be strictly delegated to the “royalty” of security professionals, was at that moment held strongly in the hands of politicians. 

Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception is a “must read” for critical security scholars and practitioners alike. Neal is very clear in his writing, making the reading experience extremely gratifying, especially for early career academics that are still getting used with the heavy “technostrategic language” (Cohn 1987) of the security field. Hopefully, the question “how do we know… when we see it?” will remain with me, not to be limited to its application on the definition of security, but to other concepts that seem static from a societal point of view as well. Thus, it is addressing theoretical and empirical approaches to security, that the book becomes a great source of knowledge to deconstruct given assumptions and to break dated paradigms.


Cohn C (1987) Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12(4): 687–718.

Hagmann et al. (2018) The politicisation of security: Controversy, mobilisation, arena shifting, European Review of International Studies 5(3): 3-29.

Neal A W (2019) Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Neal A W (2020) Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Available at:

Wæver O (2011) Politics, security, theory, Security Dialogue 42(4-5): 465-480. Available at:


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