De burgemeester als regisseur van het lokale veiligheidsbeleid? Criminologisch onderzoek naar de betekenisgeving van het thema veiligheid door Vlaamse burgemeesters

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Security is often understood as a basic human need, valued by individuals, communities, organisations and states. Arguably, the very idea of modern government was conceived to provide us - the collectivity - with security. Deborah Stone (2012) describes it as the most potent and dangerous of all policy goals, because leaders can use it to trump all others. But the imprecision of the term allows diverse measures and policies to be justified in the name of security (Zedner, 2009). The goal of my research is not to establish the meaning of this essentially contested concept as a thing, concept or condition. All that we can know about security is what people do in its name (Valverde, 2011).
I start from the observation that local governments are increasingly identified as the optimal point of departure to establish security policies on the one hand and to put them into practice on the other. In Belgium, the mayor is even appointed 'director of the local security policy' because of their specific institutional position on the axis of different policy domains and levels, and because of their privileged relationship with the emergency services. The mayor, then, clearly has an important role in defining what 'security' entails. But how these locally elected politicians interpret and experience this demanding duty, how they understand and delimit the concept of security and how they (re)define their role accordingly is clearly underdeveloped.
The purpose of my doctoral thesis is to understand and explain how Flemish mayors ascribe meaning to security. Not by getting inside the mayor's head - as the phenomenologists would do - but rather by putting our heads together. The knowledge acquired is hermeneutically constructed. In other words, my point of departure is an interpretative perspective. Meaning emerges when a-priori knowledge and experience are mobilised and viewpoints are confronted (cf. Wagenaar, 2011). This insight inspired me to use the metaphor of a conversation to structure my research.
The first part, the theoretical conversation, begins with a reflection on my ontological and epistemological stance by engaging with ideas and insight from phenomenology, hermeneutics, social constructionism and complexity theories. The resulting perspective - an interpretative approach of human reality - constitutes the leading frame of reference for the following steps of the research. One of the key insights is that my background knowledge, disciplinary tradition and personal interest in this topic serves as a prerequisite to understand and explain how Flemish mayors ascribe meaning to the concept of 'security'. I subsequently sketch how the concept of security has acquired several layers of meaning over the course of the last hundred years (cf. Zedner, 2009) and trace back the historic role of the mayor on this domain.
In the second part, the empirical conversation, the emphasis shifts from the theoretical to the empirical realm: the lived experience of mayors themselves. First of all, I describe the methodological choices, which resulted in semistructured face-to-face interviews with seventeen Flemish mayors. I present the content of the topic list, describe the articles that were used during the interviews to make the content of the topic more tangible and report on the considerations that were given in selecting the seventeen Flemish mayors. While the general description of the resulting sample highlights the idiosyncratic nature of their stories, I subsequently give an overview of the transversal themes and topics that were discussed during the conversations with the mayors. I explore the depth and width of the topic and describe its place as a local policy domain within the local government, administration and emergency services. I describe how the mayors assess the state of security in their municipality and value various policy measures, notably CCTV and administrative regulation. Finally, I depict how they reflect on their own role in providing security: taking responsibility, taking action, bringing people together, communicating and directing the local governance of security.
In the concluding chapter, the analytical conversation, the insights from the theoretical and the empirical conversation are confronted. The data-analysis was inspired by a constructionist grounded theory approach. This resulted in the identification of thee 'interpretative repertoires', defined by Potter & Wetherell as "basically a lexicon or register of terms and metaphors drawn upon to characterize and evaluate actions and events." (Potter & Wetherell, 1987, p. 138). They correspond to three distinguished positions the mayors rely on to think and talk about the topic of security. These standpoints provide them with a point of reference, criteria, strategies and rhetoric to give meaning to security.
Within the interpretative repertoire of policy, the mayors position themselves as the conductor of the governance of security. From a central, albeit distant position, he or she oversees the local municipality, defines the general strategy and monitors the interplay between the different actors and organisations involved. The vocabulary is technocratic, concise and rational. Security, then, is the result of an effective and efficient local organisation. Within the repertoire of responsiveness, in contrast, tangible issues of insecurity and unsafety are at the forefront. The mayors are identified as the father or mother figure with close ties with the local residents and is committed to fulfil their expectations. A fast and pragmatic reaction on individualised interest of the citizen, whereby the performativity and expressivity of policy interventions are emphasized. Finally, within the repertoire of the rule of law and state of justice ("rechtsstaat"), the mayors emphasize their attributed role as officer of the administrative police, charged to maintain public order and guard the general interest. From this independent position, they guard the legitimacy and lawfulness of claims, while at the same time considering fairness and justice.
The metaphor of the mayor as the director of the local governance of security was refined to three distinguishable positions from which the mayors make sense of the various claims. The associated interpretative repertoires allow them not only to cope with the ambiguity of security, but also to harvest it in creating arguments in favour or against the various claims that are being made. Crucially, these repertoires are employed by the mayors in order to present solutions. In other words, Flemish mayors approach the topic of security from a solution-focused intentionality. The significance and importance of security is established by combining these insights, thereby constituting an interpretative explanation for the way Flemish mayors attribute meaning to the topic of security.
Date of Award7 Oct 2014
Original languageDutch
SupervisorEls Enhus (Promotor), Sofie De Kimpe (Jury), Jenneke Christiaens (Jury), Karen Celis (Jury), Anton Derks (Jury), Dan Kaminski (Jury) & Alex Cachet (Jury)


  • mayor
  • security
  • safety
  • policy
  • meaning
  • hermeneutics
  • interpretative research

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