Skip to main content

Transforming Citizenship through Hybrid Governance: The Impacts of Public-Private Security Assemblages

Mid-Term Report Summary - SECURCIT (Transforming Citizenship through Hybrid Governance: The Impacts of Public-Private Security Assemblages)

In cities across the world, we see processes of security privatization and pluralization. Increasingly, people’s lives and property are protected by uniformed security guards, by voluntary neighborhood watches, and in many cases also by armed vigilantes. These private security providers do not necessarily compete with public security forces such as the police; often, they collaborate. Together, they are central to what we call public-private security assemblages. Protecting citizens and maintaining public order have traditionally been seen as core state functions. The monopoly on the legitimate use of violence has been central to definitions of the state. The SECURCIT project is researching what it means when the state actively shares this monopoly. Focusing on security assemblages, with particular emphasis on the role of the private security industry, the research team is looking for new ways to understand transformations in governance and citizenship. The team members study what happens to governance when non-state security providers take on a public role, and explore how this impacts the relationships between citizens and the state.

In many contexts, these transformations in security governance – its privatization, pluralization, hybridization and globalization – can exacerbate existing divisions between different categories of citizens, limiting their rights, shifting the burden of responsibility for public safety disproportionately on vulnerable groups and individuals, and diminishing state accountability. The SECURCIT project focuses on these emergent political configurations around security and the associated forms of inequality. Our empirical focus is tripartite: we focus first, on the composition and functioning of security assemblages across urban/national contexts; second, on the impact of hybrid security governance in three urban contexts; and third, on the transnational mobilities of security actors, technologies, discourses and practices that are essential elements of more localized security assemblages. We have been conducting long-term fieldwork to understand what happens when governance is achieved through public-private assemblages, spending time with different types of security professionals and different groups of urban residents. In this fieldwork, our assemblage approach also leads us to focus on the role of various types of non-human elements (e.g. communication and surveillance technology, weapons, cars, gates, dogs).

Our initial findings underline the extent to which public and private are unstable categories, with blurred boundaries; these are labels that do not necessarily coincide with state and non-state. Whether security professionals are seen as public or private is contextual and depends on how they manage relations with each other, and with different groups of urban residents. They learn how to perform either a public or a private role. Across the different cities, we have been focusing on the politics of manipulating these relations and performances. For instance, security privatization does not necessarily mean that the state is weakened. Outsourcing contentious security practices to supposedly neutral, professional companies can be a state strategy, intended to deflect critical attention. In so doing, it helps further specific political agendas. Often, privatization exacerbates differentiated citizenship, labeling certain classed or ethnic groups as dangerous and others as in need of protection. In other cases, privatization is presented as efficient and cost-saving, but actually allows profit accumulation within networks of elites who are not contained by neat public-private divides. Finally, we also see non-state security providers – from companies to gangs – taking on a public role, providing public services and engaging in various symbolic practices in order to produce a sense of legitimacy and consent. This, in turn, allows them to pursue their own economic and political projects. These various performances of “public” and “private” security provision, our findings indicate, rely strongly on specific brokers and boundary objects within security assemblages.