The Oceanic Conference on International Studies (and Finally, Some Thoughts on Feminist Method)

Jul 8, 2010

I spent the last week at the Oceanic Conference for International Studies (OCIS) in Auckland, New Zealand, a conference that was something of a luxury for me in that I had no leadership responsibilities, and got to be in a beautiful city I’d never been to literally on the other side of the world.

While zorbing and bungee jumping would normally be the highlight of such a trip, actually, the Conference was. I didn’t know what to expect at first; after all, this was a regional conference far outside of my region – would there be any work of interest to me? I was pleasantly surprised on a number of levels however. First, I learned a lot about things I didn’t know about. The conference opening address taught be about the history and current struggles of the Maori people in New Zealand. I got to hear a number of interesting empirical presentations about pacific life and cultures. Second, this was hands-down the best run conference I have ever been to (and I am counting the several I have run) – the organization was perfect (literally), the accommodations were excellent and affordable, the conference facilities were amazing, adequate networking breaks were provided, and there were totally rocking (frequent and yummy) meals, snacks, and (gasp) cakes.

The thing I really got out of OCIS, though, was the panels. I don’t get to go to a lot of panels at ISA, or even at APSA sometimes – because I am frequently doing organizational work, service stuff, and professional development panels and stuff – so I’m not saying the panels @ OCIS were better than the other ones that I don’t really get to see (though I think they might have been). That said, I attended ten panels over three days (fine, nine, if you don’t count the one I was on). Highlights included: Jacqui True’s talk about gender and norms, Megan MacKenzie’s talk about the role of the family in security, Ann Tickner’s keynote on an alliance between feminist and postcolonial historical narratives, Spike Peterson’s discussion of intersectionality in feminist IR, Katrina Lee-Koo’s talk on the place of gender in Australian IR, Miranda Alison’s talk on inclusion of women combatants in peace processes, Tulia Thompson’s talk on heterogender in Fiji, talks by Tony Burke and Laura Shepherd on ethics and security, Penny Griffin’s talk on sex and global political economy, Juanita Elias’ presentation on the incorporation of feminist agendas, and Ruth Jacobsen’s discussion of the challenges of feminist data collection. The list could be longer. These presentations (and others) were high-quality and very interesting. OCIS left me not only with a reinvigorated enthusiasm for the research program that I am a part of but also with a renewed sense of desire to tackle its hard questions.

It is in that spirit that I now return to the discussion of feminist method that Patrick started a couple of weeks ago. I never ended up posting mostly because I was incredibly busy, but also because posting at that time would have required me to work through some of the methodological difficulties I had been struggling with recently, a place of discomfort for me. But the question of “is there a feminist methodology?” or (more how I would put it) “what is the appropriate methodological approach for feminist work in IR?” is an important one, and I’ll share some thoughts.

First, there is not one feminism in IR – there are diverse feminisms – liberal ones, constructivist ones, critical ones, postcolonial ones, poststructuralist ones, postmodern ones, marxist ones, etc. Those different “takes” on feminisms do have different methodological outlooks based on different epistemological assumptions.

Second, I’ve described several times that I see feminist method as a journey – one of observation, critique, revealing, reformulation, reflexivity, and action, guided by feminisms’ principles. While none of those steps are necessarily unique to feminist research, perhaps that they are linked or how they are linked is particularly feminist. If methodology is the intellectual process guiding reflection on epistemological assumptions, ontological perspective, ethical responsibilities, and method choices (Ackerly/Stern/True 2006, p.8), Patrick is right that reflexivity is a substantial part of and contribution to how to “think like a feminist” – but there’s more to it, I think.

Third, then, “thinking like a feminist” in IR, I think, has a number of key elements, which I’ll gloss over here and discuss in more detail if any readers are interested. Those include:

1) Many feminisms share with (other) critical approaches an understanding that the relationship between the knower and the known is fundamental to knowledge, and that therefore all knowledge is political, social, contextual, and intersubjective. Feminisms add, however, that a crucial part of the position(s) of knowledge(s) is their position along gendered hierarchies of social and political thought

2) With (some) other scholars, (many) feminisms see knowledge as personal, theory as practice, and reflexivity as a key part of the research process. Unlike (most) other scholars, feminisms view that reflexivity through gendered lenses, where, in Jill Steans’ words (1998, p.5), “to look at the world through gender lenses is to focus on gender as a particular kind of power relation” and therefore to trace out the ways in which gender is not only central to understanding international processes, but the ways in which gendered assumptions shape our research on gendered assumptions.

3) Like (some) development scholars, feminist researchers have recognized a difference between power-over and empowerment. Feminists, however, both understand the key role that gender has in that distinction, and that it is to be analyzed not only in the world “out there” but also in the discipline.

4) As some feminists have recently discussed (like a 2010 forum in politics and gender), feminist work is likely to look to deconstruct the quantitative/qualitative divide in IR rather than taking a “side” in it – feminist stakes in epistemology and method (where they exist) are about the purpose of the tools (in service of discovering and deconstructing gender hierarchies) rather than what the tools are. That is (oversimplified, of course) it is a question of positivism/post-positivism instead of a question of quantitative/qualitative. While not all feminists/feminisms would agree, I would argue that quantitative methods could be used effectively to serve (postpositivist, epistemologically skeptical) feminist ends.

5) This does not mean that most feminisms see utility in the use of gender as a variable (which usually means “sex” as a variable in practice in the literature). Feminist questions above all inspire feminist methods. Feminist questions often ask “how do masculinities and femininities define, constitute, signify, cause, reproduce, and become reproduced by x?” rather than “are women more x?” – the former question is one about gender hierarchy; the latter is an essentialized approach to sex that assumes that gender hierarchy either does not exist or is irrelevant to answering the question. (Most) feminisms in IR prefer the first.

6) Though there are no essential tools for feminist IR, there are a group of tools feminisms have found useful: dialectical hermeneutics, ethnography, critical discourse analysis, in-depth case studies, feminist interviewing, and other tools. Good feminist method essays (like Brooke Ackerly’s in Audie Klotz and Deepa Prakash’s edited volume) and books (Ackerly/Stern/True 2006, and Ackerly/True 2010) expand on these ideas.


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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.