This book explores citizens’ perceptions and experiences of security threats in contemporary Britain, drawing on perspectives from International Security Studies and Political Psychology. The empirical chapters are based on twenty focus groups across six British cities and a large sample survey conducted between April and September 2012. These data are used to investigate the extent to which diverse publics share government framings of certain issues as the most pressing security threats, to assess the origins of perceptions of specific security threats ranging from terrorism to environmental degradation, to investigate what makes some people feel more threatened by these issues than others, to examine the effects of threats on other areas of politics such as harbouring stereotypes of minorities or prioritising public spending on border control over health, and to evaluate the effectiveness of government messages about security threats and attempts to change citizens’ behaviour as part of the risk management cycle. The book demonstrates widespread heterogeneity in perceptions of issues as security threats and in their origins, with implications for the extent to which shared understandings of threats are an attainable goal. The concluding chapter summarises the findings and discusses their implications for government and public opinion in the future. While this study focuses on the British case, its combination of quantitative and qualitative methods seeks to make broader theoretical and methodological contributions to scholarship produced in Political Science, International Relations, Political Psychology, and Security Studies.
This chapter highlights the importance of the subject matter of the book and situates the approach and contribution in the fields of International Relations and Political Psychology. While spending on national security in the UK since 2001 has more than tripled to £3.5 billion (Cabinet Office, 2008), it remains unclear how the objectives of the National Security Strategy are received by the British public, whether they are aware of and/or understand those objectives, and if they feel more or less ‘secure’ as a result of their existence. One aspect of this lacuna is a broader lack of social scientific research, including a tendency within security studies to focus on elite perceptions and constructions of security threat. Another is a lack of understanding of the political psychology of different threat perceptions, of the kinds of information and communications that heighten or reduce sense of threat when there are multiple existing threats, as opposed to singular threats from international terrorism or immigration, and of the consequences of different threat perceptions for other political attitudes and behaviours. Having discussed these problems this Introduction maps out how the chapters that follow seek to redress them.
This Chapter highlights the importance of the subject matter of the book and situates the approach and contribution in the fields of International Relations and Political Psychology. It explores existing insights into the question of what ‘security threats’ are and how we can study everyday perceptions and experiences of them. In the IR and Security Studies literature the impact of the social constructivist turn, alongside the broadening and deepening of the security agenda, has meant that threats are now widely seen as produced through dialogue and interaction between states and non-state actors alike. What has tended to be overlooked, however, is the role of public opinion and everyday views, stories, and experiences in shaping securitizing moves and conditioning their ultimate success and/or failure. In turn, two main problems are identified with psychological and behavioural analyses of threat: first, that research tends to focus on discrete security threats, such as from terrorism, immigration, or the environment, limiting understanding of threats in general, and, second, the predominant focus on threats at the national or personal level at the expense of other levels at which threats may be experienced by citizens.
Chapter Two outlines the 2012 study ‘Public Perceptions of Threat in Britain’ designed in order to address the gaps in the literature identified in Chapter One, along with the approach to analysis of the data. The study combined representative macro-level insights into public opinion with non-representative micro-level thick descriptive accounts of individuals’ everyday stories, experiences, and (de)constructions. The chapter sets out how an initial tranche of ten mini-focus groups, or ‘triads’, of three people, was conducted to explore questions such as how participants conceptualise ‘security’ and ‘security threat’ and whether they agree or disagree with and/or are affected by a range of government messages about security. Observations of the mini-focus groups and analysis of the transcripts were used to reflexively inform the development of an online survey that was administered to 2004 respondents in June 2012. The chapter outlines the questions asked, and why. A second wave of ten mini-focus groups was then conducted in September 2012, which concentrated on more specific areas of concern in the light of the first two stages of research. The last part of the chapter discusses the approach to analysis.
Chapter Four examines the consequences of identifying both more or less security threats, and also specific security threats such as from immigration, for political attitudes and behaviours. Using the survey data, it looks at the effects of the breadth of global, national, community and individual threats identified, and then with respect to specific security threats individuals identify from terrorism, immigration, the economy and the environment, on voting behaviour, attitudes towards immigrants and minorities, and policy preferences. Among the findings are that voting is unique in that only global and national considerations appear influential—thus the fact that it is often the focus of studies of, for example, economic threat is misleading. The Chapter also demonstrates and explains differences in the effects of threats such as terrorism and immigration from the economy and the environment.
The Conclusion sums up the research, explores its implications, and draws lessons for the future for both academic and policy-making communities. The implications of the research are several, spanning government and its understandings of how the public views security threats and how the public perceives, experiences, and responds to messages about security threats, academic research in IR and Security Studies and how it conceives of public opinion and the role of the citizen in the risk management cycle; and academic research in Political Psychology and its understandings of the origins and consequences of threat perceptions.
Chapter Five takes as its starting point the various ways in which elite responses to security threats such as the National Security Strategy both summarise government perceptions of the most salient threats and are also intended to send messages to the public and shape their behaviour. It examines three dimensions of the relationship between elite and non-elite perceptions and experiences of security threat politics: 1) the extent to which the British public is aware of the NSS or of other government messages and efforts to mitigate security concerns; 2) whether such awareness is associated with heightened or reduced levels of threat perception; and 3) what citizens think of such messages. The various stories people tell – of economic insecurities, fear of crime, and Islamophobia – problematise the narrow and homogenising imperatives of the National Security Strategies, and open up alternative narratives about identity, border-production, and multiple overlapping (in)securities. Awareness of any government security programme and of the NSS is low, about 10 per cent of the survey sample for each, with surprisingly little overlap between the two. Awareness of government strategies for security is also associated with perceptions of more threats.
Chapter Three brings together insights from the focus group and survey data on the scope of threats and their origins. It debunks previous claims that there are few systematic influences on threats and goes further in clarifying the variation in the origins of different threats at different levels. It begins by summarising how participants in group discussions defined and understood the key concepts of ‘security’ and ‘threat’, and the vernacular methods of perception, measurement and categories of understanding of security. The Chapter shows a recurring scale of understanding consisting of four primary levels –personal, community, national, and global. From the survey data, it focuses initially on the breadth, or number, of security threats that individuals identified in total at the global, national, community, and personal levels. It also examines what those threats were. The second part of the Chapter analyses the specific threats of terrorism, immigration, the economy, and the environment. Among the findings is that mortality salience and authoritarian attitudes are strong predictors of the number of threats that individuals identify and on the identification of specific threats such as terrorism and immigration.