Rita Abrahamsen & Anna Leander: Routledge Handbook of Private Security Studies. Routledge: Oxon and New York, 2016
von Kendra Briken, Glasgow
No doubt the academic interest in Security Studies has risen over the last decades, and so has the publication outcome. It comes as no surprise the Handbook on Security (Martin Gill, ed.) saw its second edition in 2014. In 2016, Routledge put another log on the fire, focussing on ‘Private Security Studies’. Rita Abramhamsen and Anna Leander edited what could clearly be understood as a thoroughly thought through add on to the academic and practitioners’ needs.
The book aims to follow an interdisciplinary approach. This seems obvious since Security Studies in itself are created from within different disciplines. It also mirrors the themes relevant for Private Security Studies (PPS): law and economy play a crucial part to fully understand markets and regulation. Furthermore, the editors also invited non-academics. Given that practitioners in general and consultants in specific play an important role in the ways in which field access is gained in this area, this seems appropriate and is reflecting the community of practice within security studies. Consequently, the 26 chapter stem from a well-balanced and refreshing composition of senior researchers, early(er) career academics, and consultants; both sexes contribute equally. Geographically, Asia is underrepresented, and of course the Anglo-Saxon world dominates.
The contributions are assembled in four parts: Historical perspectives on Private Security (1), The place of the private in contemporary security (2), Debates about private security (3), and the Regulation of private security (4). The aforementioned Anglo-Saxon bias seems to translate into a rather unfortunate Western-European centric perspective in the historical framing. Here, again, and like in many other handbooks, a clear division of labour is undertaken. The making of the state and the role of the private forces as well as the emergence of of private and public policing focus on the Western European state building. To give but the most obvious example, the Peel model and its function is showcased and the mainstream narrative re-narrated without any critical engagement or acknowledgement of literature questioning this idealisation. The next section presents the rise of the international system, and last not least colonialism is discussed but with regards to company violence only. Whilst all sections are of high quality, the ‘historical perspectives’ should at least hint at the existing post-colonial policing approaches. In this perspective, the historical part could be seen as the weakest in the book, which is by now means the contributors fault. With only 4 articles, this part is by far the smallest one; a fact that should have been explained by the editors in the introduction.
A comprehensive reading of the following sections allows for a more reflective understanding of Private Security Studies, though. Most authors either engage with the state of the art of the existing literature, or at least the cross-reading of different sections fills gaps. Abrahamsen and Leander, both known scholars in the Security Studies community, certainly set the tone in line with their own theoretical reference points (post-structuralism/ Copenhagen School). However, the main parts reflect a very bold choice of politically and academically relevant themes. The second part highlights the ‘place of the private’ , and it is interesting enough that this ‘place’ kicks off with actors, namely the private security guards. This reflects the at first sight eclectic order in this part of the book. But of course all areas of society discussed here – military logistics, intelligence, cyber security, maritime security, humanitarian spaces – are challenged by the new place of the private in contemporary security, and this is a smart way of putting it. The place of the private can either mean the shifting from public or, to be more precise, state/governmental structures to privately regulated ones, but it can also mean the intrusion of commercial security into the private lives of subjects.
The ’Debates’ section (3) encompasses the usual suspects – private policing and surveillance, private security guards, mercenary markets, privatization of security, and the privatisation of punishment in the US – and more recent topics, making this a topical and timely read. The focus on markets includes ‘Security fairs’ (Leila Stockmarr), but also a dedicated chapter on ‘Postcoloniality and race in the global private security markets’ (Amanda Chisholm), and ‘Private security and gender’ (Maya Eichler). Hopefully the integration of these articles leads to a focus on PPS integrating intersectionality and power structures at the very same time, and ‘normalises’ critical engagement with race, class, and gender within PPS.
The closing section is essential for al social scientists to gain a better understanding on rules and regulations. Very often, it remains a neglected part in PPS, and it would be interesting to re-read and reflect on the very often rather facile ‘security assemblages’ in terms of a more materialistic perspective inspired by law and regulations of private security.
The Handbook of course has its flaws and this lies in the nature of a handbook. However, Abrahamsen and Leander manage to map the landscape of private security studies convincingly and successfully. The handbook allows people interested in the broad field to get an idea of the different but connected topics of private security studies. So whilst some of the articles might lack some more balanced engagement with the existing literature, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Last not least it seems worthwhile to comment on the price politics. Given that academics offer their work not for free but are paid by their institutions, and given that a Handbook should reach a broad public, the price remains scandalous. The book sits at £130. To buy single chapters (one of the worst marketing spoofs it seems) is possible, but it is doubtful any non-institutional affiliated researcher, let alone activist, could afford the amount of money asked for (roughly £29 per ‘item’). Hence the Handbook is not an accessible guide priced to allow for a broad readership, but clearly focuses to fuel the academic market. Given the amount of work and craft(wo)manship the editing and writing process included, this is a pity.
Chancellor’s Fellow; Department of Human Resource Management
University of Strathclyde