Feminist IR 101, Post #10, Feminist Scholarly Community

Jun 9, 2011

One of my favorite characterization of feminist theorizing is in Sarah Brown’s 1988 Millennium article, where she calls feminist work “fundamentally a political act of commitment to understanding the world from a perspective of the socially subjugated” (p.472). From this and other reading in feminist theory and praxis, I’ve always seen feminism as not just an intellectual interest in gender as a force in global politics, but also as a politics of knowledge, and a politics of scholarship. As a politics of knowledge, to me, it is a commitment to multiple knowledges, perspective, (inter)subjectivity, and changing the power dynamics of science.

As a politics of scholarship, I’ve always thought that there are ways feminist thought suggest scholars treat each other and each other’s research. I’ve articulated it as a research claim before: “I make an ontological, epistemological, and methodological choice that my process of knowledge-acquisition is constructive in nature … in this spirit, I explicitly choose not to emphasize debates between or among feminisms. Instead, … I note where feminisms disagree, but focus on how those disagreements can be seen as contributing to a more complete understanding of political situations rather than as confounding knowledge.” (Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq, p.41).

In theory, this has meant to me that my purpose in feminist theorizing is solidaristic, bridge-building, and pluralistic. In Hayward Alker’s terms, I’ve seen the substance of feminist IR in the debates, discussions, and disagreements. In Christine Sylvester’s terms, I’ve seen it as art. In my terms, I’ve embraced feminist IR theories as multiple.

But I think that feminist research process is more than about how one writes one’s research. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what feminist theory tells one about how to be a professor, a scholar, and a political scientist, but rarely articulated it. When I have, I’ve called it a “pay it forward” idea of how to operate in the academic community. But what does that mean, and how do I see it as explicitly (and necessarily) feminists?

If feminist IR theory is critical of the violent and competitive nature of the international system which selects for dominance, masculinity, and power-over, feminist IR theorists should be critical of the cut-throat and competitive nature of the academic pursuit of international relations, which selects for dominance, masculinity, and power-over. If feminists suggest that, instead of complicity with the competitive international system, feminisms suggest alternative policy strategies – including but not limited to empathy and care, then feminisms might suggest that instead of complicity with the competitive academic system, we should live and experience our careers with empathy and care. If feminisms suggest drawing attention away from the traditional halls of political power (and their necessary narrowness) in studying global politics, feminisms might also suggest drawing attention away from the traditional halls of scholarly power (and their necessary narrowness). If feminisms suggest that they have an inherent political commitment to the margins of global politics, they might also have a commitment to the margins of academia – to people traditionally disempowered, either by theoretical/methodological proclivity (outside the mainstream), institution, location (around the world), or position (graduate student, adjunct faculty, junior faculty, teaching faculty, etc.)

If the feminist political movement has talked about feminisms as a community, working together to show and correct gender subordination; feminist research is a community, working together to show and correct gender subordination in global politics; and being a feminist scholar is being part of a community, working together to show and correct gender subordination in academic political science and international relations.

There are those who will say that their main concern isn’t the academic community – in fact, after years or decades of the community’s mistreatment, masculinism, and exclusivity – who needs it? And the real world needs feminism more, right? At the same time, that logic, however true, can often serve as an excuse for not “practicing what feminist theory preaches” (or some other cliche like that) within the academic community. And perhaps for good reason – it is much easier to write about empathizing with potential enemies in far away lands that it is to empathize with people who treat you poorly in an academic context. It is much easier to talk about sacrificing self-interest for the good of others and/or a community in a distant country than it is to sacrifice self-interest for the good of others and/or a community in our lives and in our careers.

And, certainly (and before I get 1000 comments about it), I haven’t been flawless at practicing what feminisms preach in my career. I’ve tried to take a solidaristic view of feminist theory, to put advancing the needs of the collective over advancing my needs, to work to care for others – but I have been far from perfect at it. But I didn’t write this post to say I was good at it, or to hold myself up as an example. Instead, I wrote it because I truly believe feminist theorizing tells us a lot of good stuff about global politics, but it also tells us, perhaps through that good stuff, a lot of good stuff about how to be scholars of international politics. And perhaps I wanted to remind many – most of all, myself – of that enduring legacy that our intellectual work has in instructing our day-to-day work.


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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.