Feminist IR 101, Post #9, Transforming IR

Jun 5, 2011

Twenty years ago, Robert Keohane proclaimed that “feminist standpoint theory provides a particularly promising starting-point for the development of feminist international relations theory.” From the feminist side, Sandra Whitworth declared that “the next stage of international relations theory will not be one that is merely critical, but one which is critical and feminist.” Ann Tickner set upon a project to “de-gender” International Relations as a field.

Even then, though, there were differences of opinions: Fred Halliday explained that “it is not as if consideration of gender will alter the teaching and research of international relations as a whole” and expressed concern that feminists wanting to fundamentally alter the world of the mainstream may “overstate the case” for gender-based approaches. Instead, feminists insist that their work “does not simply ‘add’ gender to an unchanged object of study … rather, the gendering of IR has forced, and continues to force, a more radical rethinking of what properly constitutes I/international R/relations to begin with, transforming the boundaries and conceptual basis of IR” (see discussion by Judith Squires and Jutta Weldes).

In the intervening 20 years, feminist IR has developed into the vibrant research program that I have been describing in this series of posts. The Feminist Theory and Gender Studies section of International Studies Association is one of its most vibrant, and puts together 50-60 panels at each annual conference. Feminist work now appears on many syllabi and is represented at many (if not most) conferences. Still, there remain tensions between IR as a discipline and feminist IR – not least the ones that inspired this series of post, given poor communication in the review process at an elite journal in the field. Feminists like Jill Steans have argued that “ultimately, the legitimacy of feminist work will only be recognized as a part of the discipline if the discipline is rethought in ways that disturb the ‘existing boundaries of both what we claim to be relevant in international politics and what we assume to be legitimate ways of constructing knowledge about the world’” (citing Marysia Zalewski).

As Ann Tickner tells us, there are “different realities or ontologies that feminists and non-feminists see when they write about international politics.”
In other words, feminist IR should not just be a part of IR, but should transform it. But what would that look like?

To say I have no idea would be an overstatement, I suppose – but the sort of drama appropriate to the blogosphere, perhaps.

After all, gender has been on the political agenda of most state governments, as well as the United Nations Security Council, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, and a number of other multinational governmental bodies. Feminist theorizing had focused on and incorporated that reality into building on, critiquing, and reformulating theorizing about global politics through feminist lenses. Feminists have provided evidence that gender is a pervasive power structure in global politics, guiding divisions of power, violence, labor, and resources and playing a key role in the preservation of race, class, sexual, and national divisions in global politics.

But what would re-theorizing IR through those lenses look like? We’ve done a fair amount of this work, but it hasn’t made its way into the mainstream of IR (in research or in classrooms) as pervasively as perhaps it might. For example, think about explaining feminist IR to students: what if one wasn’t doing it on “gender week” or in a “gender and IR” class, and what if “gender” wasn’t just a chapter in an IR text that you have to take another course to learn about.

Instead, if IR is fundamentally different when viewed through feminist lenses, and, as feminists claim, you cannot think about IR without thinking about gender – that is both a comprehensive and transformative statement. I have been thinking about transforming IR as a pedagogical mission primarily, and as a research mission secondarily. At a time when there is a lot of controversy in feminist IR about whether or not it is worthwhile to engage IR as a discipline, and when IR as a discipline continues to marginalize feminist work, I argue not only for engagement, but for increasing the intensity of that engagement.

What if feminists rewrote and rethought IR theory, starting on its terms? (see, e.g., Lauren Wilcox’s recent article in Security Studies) And what if IR actually read that work, taking it on its own epistemological and ontological terms? (here’s hoping there’s a great example to replace this parenthetical soon). This is not the only work of feminist IR, or even work that should hold a privileged position within feminist IR, but I think it is important.

In brief example: There is a significant research program (certainly too significant to cite individually here) on dyadic approaches to the causes of wars – interested in regime type, economic engagement, bargaining pathologies, and enduring rivalries – features of the relationships between states. Mainstream IR uses that term – “relationships” – something we all have (and know are more complex than person-type, economic interdependence, communication break-downs, and enduring rivalries) – but don’t really think about as we analyze “dyadic relationships” and war(s). Something as simple as asking – what would a feminist analysis of how “dyadic relationships” between states influence the likelihood of war look like? – opens up a productive avenue not only for intellectual exploration but engagement with (and transformation of) IR.

Among common definitions of the word “relate” are “associate or connect,” “have relation,” “social or sympathetic relationship with person or thing,” “to show or establish logical or causal connection between,” and “to find or show a connection.” In this spirit, a “relationship” is a “connection, association, or involvement,” “an emotional or other connection,” “having dealings with each other,” and “the mutual dealings, connections, or feelings that exist between two parties, countries, people, etc.” A couple of properties of relating and having relationships recur: they are bi-directional, interdependent/mutual, connected, have an emotional dimension, and can be among individuals or other entities. Feminists have often thought about global politics this way – as relational, as interdependent, as sensed/sensual.

A relationship, then, between states includes not only their relative or absolute economic strength, their regime types, or their state self-identities. It is not only one side relating to the other, which in turn relates to the first state; instead, it is states relating with each other, in context of other relationships, and constituting each others’ identities. It is not a result, but a process and a journey, where, often it is the sharing, the interpretation, and the principled opposition of these often antagonistic approaches …that truly constitute dialogue. Taking this definition of relating, and recognizing that many relationships are fundamentally gendered, feminisms looking at the dyadic causes of war might not only see different boundaries and issues than many traditional theories, but also different causal factors. The different boundaries include a focus not only on the properties of each state, but on relations international, broadly interpreted and a broader understanding of who is in and impacted by wars, where traditional dyadic approaches normally focus not only on states but “great states.”

While this is by no means a complete exploration, it perhaps lays some groundwork for transformative engagement and dialogue – something that might not only make feminist IR comprehensible to students, but also to those elite journal reviewers I started this series of posts to pick on.


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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.