The Duck of Minerva

Feminist IR 101, Post #5 War and Security (in Theory)

23 January 2011

There’s been a small break (understatement) in my posting as I dealt with some pressing stuff personally and professionally, and to post about some time-sensitive stuff (like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which I couldn’t resist, though I did resist talking about Wikileaks). I will now return to “Feminist IR 101,” a series of posts designed to provide audiences that had (intentionally or not) an understanding of feminist approaches to IR that caused them to misinterpret the intentions, goals, and potential contributions of feminist work in IR, particularly when assigning reviewers and performing reviews.

The last few posts before Feminist IR 101’s winter break were really an attempt to provide the basic tools that would help readers to understand the words and concepts employed in feminist research in international relations/global politics; the post-winter break posts will delve more into topic-based contributions that feminist lenses might make to seeing and understanding the ways that the world(s) ‘out there’ work(s), and how that is interdependent with, and intersubjective with, our theorizing about it.

I start where my work largely falls, in gender and security, or Feminist Security Studies – something I’ve written a fair amount about, theoretically and empirically, including, most recently, a feminist Special Issue of Security Studies, and a book, Gender and International Security: Feminist Perspectives. What does feminism contribute to thinking about security?

Feminists (including but not limited to Ann Tickner, Spike Peterson, Anne Runyan, Jindy Pettman, Christine Sylvester, Laura Shepherd, Annick Wibben, and myself) have argued that feminisms not only contribute to but transform both the central concerns of security studies and its methods, purposes, prescriptions, and performances.

So the first answer to how feminisms read war/security is – multiply and too broadly to discuss in one (readable) blog post. I’m going to make two posts – one about theory and the other about practice – but it will still necessarily be only a small snapshot of what Feminist Security Studies is/can be.

Feminists point out that there are genderings in concepts of international security that are often t ken for granted as gender-neutral if not even objective. Looking for women in global politics shows feminists that secure state often contain/make insecure people, especially at their margins, and especially women, which leads to questioning interstate gender relations; relationships between sexisms and militarisms; and the gendered natures of states, interstate relations, international institutions, and the international system structure as well as our perceptions and/or performances thereof.

Feminists have suggested that one of the key contributions of scholarship looking for women and gender in global politics to thinking about war and security is seeing them as fundamentally differently defined than the “common sense” understandings which pervade contemporary security scholarship. In “common sense” understandings, security is about the threat, use, and control of military force (so argues Steve Walt), and war is a time-deliminted but sustained violent conflict between two states, which starts and ends as/when those states decide it does (so argue Jack Levy and Bill Thompson).

Instead, feminisms have seen security policies as performed in/on women’s bodies, and personal security at the margins/periphery as every bit as important as (and often threatened by) state security/ies at the center/core of the international system. As such, they define security broadly and multidimensionally (see Ann Tickner’s work), and war/violence as a system (see Betty Reardon’s work) or a continuum (see Chris Cuomo’s discussion). Feminists have asked different questions about war(s) as well, including (but not limited to) how wars are sensed/sensual (see Christine Sylvester’s work), performed/enacted/experienced (see Judith Butler’s work), and how warring parties feminize each other (and relatedly how gender relations occur in/with wars, see the work of Spike Peterson). Feminists have provided evidence that gendered logics and war logics are co-constituted, that genderings operate as causes of war(s), and that studying war(s) and security without reference to/cognizance of/”control for” gender hierarchy is incomplete.

On the one hand, some say “so what?” or argue that these ideas are too broad or sweeping, or normatively weighted.  To the first, I’d argue that this work has a sort of “choose-your-own-ending” answer to the “so what” question. It could be strictly “practical”: operationalization of any traditional security policy is going to fall short of “working” to its fullest capacity without recognizing/taking account of gender subordination. It could also be fully transformative: security is not what “we” thought it was, nor do any of our traditional causal or constitutive analyses “work” fundamentally. To the second, well, of course, given the nature of the medium here – but there are hundreds of feminist books and articles that explore these assertions, and I could provide more guidance than I do here via email or personal conversation. To the last, of course the work is normatively weighted. All work is, some is just ignores its normative content. Feminist politic(s) are explicit; feminist security narratives (see Annick Wibben’s new book) are explicitly narratives. That’s a strength, in my view, not a liability.