The Duck of Minerva

Gender and Security: Theory and Practice

25 February 2010

My post-ISA blogging is slower than it otherwise would have been, due to an unfortunate interlude with food poisoning. But I figured I’d start with the “working group” that Jennifer Lobasz and I ran at ISA, called “Gender and Security: Theory and Practice,” which Charli mentioned in her previous post. A Working Group at ISA meets on the day before the conference, and then twice during the conference, and members are asked to attend common panels around the theme of the group.

The stated mission of our group was:

The “Gender and Security: Theory vs. Practice” working group aims to develop an evolving subfield of Feminist Security Studies by creating a discussion between key scholars in the field of gender and international relations and new voices seeking to grow and consolidate these research programs. Addressing subject matter of interest to the Peace Studies, International Security, Feminist Theory and Gender Studies, and Women’s Caucus sections of the ISA as well as the conference theme, this working group will deal with questions about the relationships between gender, war, and peace; between the theory and practice of gender and security; between gender/feminist theorizing on security and the mainstream of “Security Studies”; and between different branches of Feminist Security Theorizing.

In the last five years, work in Feminist Security Studies has proliferated, producing dozens of journal articles, several important books, and several journal special issues, including, most recently, a special issue of the journal Security Studies. This workshop is meant both to reflect on and analyze this recent proliferation of scholarship and to look forward to defining and developing Feminist Security Studies as a subfield. Gathering a group of approximately 20 junior and senior scholars working in the field, the Working Group will look at Feminist Security Studies both internally (what is this subfield) and externally (how does it relate to Security Studies/IR more generally, and what does it have to say about “real world” practice of security?) through a variety of panels, informal conversations, roundtables, and other presentations.

While I couldn’t be at all of the meetings, I caught snippets of very interesting conversations: Tuesday, about the “state of the field” in Feminist Security Studies and the relationship between theory and practice in various areas of research, including conflict, post-conflict reconstruction, foreign policy, and peacemaking; Thursday, the conversation that Charli referred to about the relationship between Feminist Security Studies and Security Studies more broadly; and Saturday, concluding conversations reflecting both on those discussions and panels. I very much enjoyed listening to and participating in these conversations, and its hard to pick what to talk about, but two things jump out …

First, at the Thursday meeting, we posed a number of questions to participants, some of which Charli mentioned:
1) What (if anything) can gender analysis tell us about international security that security analysis omitting gender cannot?
2) What (if anything) can Security Studies tell feminist theorizing about security that it would not have access to otherwise?
3) Is a conversation where the sum will be greater than its parts? If so, how do we get to those benefits? What are the potential risks?
4) Can we develop effective strategies for communication among scholars coming from substantially different epistemological understandings to make a bridge between Security Studies and Feminist Security Studies? Should we?

Particularly, most of you who know my work, know that the great majority of what I do is devoted to making links between Security Studies and feminist theorizing – so I’ve defended that as a mission many times and remain committed to it. That said, a commitment to engagement, in my understanding, also requires asking the third question on this list – particularly, what are the risks of engagement? Sarah Brown (in a special issue of Millennium 22 years ago) warned that, in engaging IR, feminism risked losing its ontological and epistemological uniqueness. I’m interested in this concern particularly as I read Charli’s post which effectively advocates instrumentalizing gender as the way to package, re-present, and sell “feminist” concerns to the security establishment. While I don’t want to argue that there aren’t policy benefits that come from such approaches, but do worry that being quick to accept (or accepting at all) that it is okay to “sell” gender emancipation as a means to “normal” (impliedly gender-neutral) policy ends is problematic, reifying both the secondary nature of gender concerns and the existing (gendered) hierarchy of policy concerns in the security arena.

So, to me, write about gender in gendered techno-strategic language? No so much. Or, at least, not exclusively. But that brings me to the second question – the one to which I don’t have the answer, entirely. That is – if it is important to speak to/with the security arena, but not appropriate to do it in a way that “sells out” gender emancipation (at its ultimate expense) – then how? Separately, works in Feminist Security Studies reformulate mainstream approaches to traditional security issues, foreground the roles of women and gender in conflict and conflict resolution, and reveal the blindness of security studies to issues that taking gender seriously shows as relevant to thinking about security. Together, these works, as a research program, show that gender analysis is necessary, conceptually, for understanding international security, important for analyzing causes and predicting outcomes, and essential to thinking about solutions and promoting positive change in the security realm. How to “sell” that, though? Still working on it. But many of the very bright, very engaged participants in the Working Group had a lot of very interesting ideas and important success stories that I thought walked the line better than I ever have. And I will try to share some of those in the coming weeks and months.