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Politics and Protection


Rajesh M. Basrur

UNDERSTANDING SECURITY: A NEW PERSPECTIVE
By T.K. Oommen
Macmillan Publishers, Delhi, 2006, pp. ix 174, Rs. 320.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 5 May 2006

The post-Cold War period has produced much speculation, review and reformulation of thinking in security studies and international relations theory. Beyond the concern with immediate practical questions such as “what is the new configuration of power in world politics?” and “what are the sources of insecurity for states and societies today?” lie deeper theoretical issues. The discipline of international relations is driven by differences on fundamental issues between realists, liberals, and constructivists. Their debates on the essential constituents of international relations and the extent to which change is possible are reflected in security studies, which itself is engaged in much discussion as to what constitutes security. As democracy sweeps across the world – if not always in structural form, then at least in aspiration of some kind – there is growing acknowledgement that the frame of reference for security is no longer the state, but people. The state remains essential to the attainment of security, but it is simultaneously the source of insecurity. Politics – who controls the state, and how it is organized to navigate the pulls of divergent inter-state as well as intra-state interests – is the key.   In this slim, thought-provoking volume, T. K. Oommen brings his theoretical strengths to bear on a wide terrain that traverses the realms of sociology and political science. His understanding of security seeks to go beyond traditional distinctions, such as those between realists and liberals in international relations theory and between levels of analysis in social science theory. He rejects the realists’ “minimal understanding” for its “conceptual skimpiness” and the liberals’ holdall outlook for its “conceptual obesity” (p. 136). Instead, he argues that security/insecurity emerges from the interaction of state, market, and civil society. Moreover, realists and liberals fail to give due place to symbolic violence, to which the author correctly accords as much prominence as he does to physical and structural violence. Without denying the importance of military and economic sources of insecurity, Oommen focuses on three basic forms of violence and insecurity: genocide (broadly, all deliberate physical annihilation of humans), culturocide (liquidation of identities), and ecocide (environmental destruction). Some may find the book leaning overly toward issues of identity and ethnic conflict. But it does a signal service to the discipline of security studies by doing so, for it underlines aspects of contemporary conflict that are central to human security today.   Chapter 1 of the book looks at the history of security and at ...


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