The unbearable lightness of being? Reconfiguring the moral underpinnings and sources of ontological security

Derek Bolton

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While ontological security (OS) studies have gone through a recent evolution, shifting toward psychoanalytic and existential accounts of anxiety, this article argues there remains a deficient engagement with the affective environments within which actors operate. Specifically, focusing on shared emotions/affect allows for a thicker account of the mechanisms of OS-including the constitutive forces underpinning society/societal trust, the role/power of signifiers and narratives, and the basis upon which actors promote social change. Accordingly, it suggests Durkheim's social theory, his broader concept of 'religion' as an affective community constituted by faith in a moral order entwined with the sacred, offers a viable pathway to develop these insights and develop a new basis for the mechanisms of OS. The drive for OS thus becomes reconfigured as an effort to act faithfully toward a dynamic moral order, while ontological insecurity emerges from the unbearable lightness of being experienced within moral disorder. Following Durkheim's preliminary argument on nationalism representing the continuation of religion, we can then revise how/why nations are integral to OS and International Relations. Specifically, we can view foreign policy as informed by debates around how to act faithfully toward the moral order-a process interrelated with revitalization and renewal of the sacred.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)234-262
Number of pages29
JournalInternational Theory
Issue number2
Early online date12 Jan 2023
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2023


  • Durkheim
  • International Relations theory
  • foreign policy
  • moral order
  • nationalism
  • ontological security

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Law
  • Political Science and International Relations


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