The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

IR and the communicative turn

January 9, 2006

The new academic year is underway and it is time to start thinking more seriously about a paper I’ve promised for the International Studies Association annual meeting in San Diego in March. Warning: that is a large pdf.

I’m returning to a topic I explored a few years ago — the role of “framing” in global debates about norms, policies and ideas.

The panel proposal had to be in by June 1, so my paper was partly motivated by something I blogged about in late May: the ongoing framing contest about the militarization of space. Some people in the Pentagon are promoting new technologies, such as “Rods from God,” while opponents are trying to defeat a new “Death Star.”

Provocative frames, eh?

This is the panel: Taking the “communicative turn” seriously: assessing the relationship between material power and political discourse.

Panel Abstract: Panelists will evaluate the importance of political communication in world politics. While scholars of international relations and foreign policy practitioners frequently argue that “talk is cheap,” the field has arguably taken an interesting “communicative turn.” Scholarship increasingly scrutinizes political rhetoric, argument and debate as if words matter. Papers on this panel take communication seriously and evaluate its important vis-a-vis material power. Major questions will be addressed, such as: Is discourse an effective weapon of the weak? How seriously should we take the public statements of foreign policy elites? Can framing contests be won?

I’m supposed to write about this question: “What should we make of framing contests in international security studies?” In my paper abstract, I promised to explore these questions: What can be made of “framing contests”? Do labels/frames make any difference? Is strategically crafted political communication a more effective weapon for the weak — or for the strong? What are the implications for international security outcomes?

I’ve thought about what I’m going to say, and have done some reading, but am certainly open for suggestions.

Alternatively, if you are an IR student or scholar thinking of making a “communicative turn,” but aren’t ready to jump into the conversation, you might be interested in law professor Larry Solum’s brief account of “speech act theory.” Larry makes a basic point that is nonetheless often overlooked:

When we use language, we don’t just communicate information or say things about how the world is; when we use language, we do things. We command, request, apologize, contract, convey, and admonish. Speech act theory focuses on the ways in which language (both oral and written) can be used to perform actions.

Larry’s helpful post includes a number of links and he explains a popular typology of speech acts.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.