You Make My Work (Im)Possible: Reflections on Professional Conduct in the Discipline of International Relations

9 April 2014, 0038 EDT

This is a guest post by Professor Cynthia Weber, Department of International Relations at the University of Sussex

Five months ago, ‘Michaela’ posted this query on the website Political Science Rumors in a thread called ‘a good place to study queer IR?’

  • am currently a MA student looking to move into a PhD program in the next 2 years. I am interested in studying queer IR and was wondering if you can recommend some good programs. I’m more interested in systemic theorizing than individual level (1st image) type of stuff. Thanks.

A Google search for Political Science Rumors describes the site as ‘The forum for Political Scientists to discuss Political Science and rumors in the profession’.  Others describe it more harshly: ‘Caffeinated’  describes it as ‘that nest of vipers’ that should not be listened to by anyone ‘unless you are a therapist and then please do!’.  The site seems to be directed at ABDs, recent PhDs, and others just starting out in the field who are looking for information about educational programs, conferencing, publishing, and landing a job.  But, as Caffeinated points out, it can have a nasty edge to it, which is something an MA student like Michaela would not necessarily know.

Michaela’s post generated four types of responses.  One was to query what Queer IR is.  A second was to answer her question with concrete suggests for where to study.  A third was to warn her that studying Queer IR would never get her a job.  A fourth was to be gleefully homophobic in ridiculing queers, Queer IR and specific pieces of Queer IR scholarship as well as OPs (Oppressed Peoples) and ‘our current crop of gender/ethnic/sexual “studies” departments’ that OPs apparently work in and support.  A large number of posts – which I will not repeat here – were in this fourth category of responses. The website – which posts comments anonymously and refers to posters through randomly-generated pseudonyms – allows readers to vote ‘Yea’ in favor of posted comments or ‘Nay’ against posted comments.  Leaving out comments that were ambiguous, this is how the votes tallied as of April 5, 2014:

  • Openly Hostile and/or Overtly Homophobic posts: Yea – 210       Ney – 18
  • Supportive/Constructive posts that answered Michaela’s question: Yea – 41         Ney – 3
  • Fight-back posts against the Hostility and/or Homophobia: Yea – 9           Ney – 16
  • Michaela’s original post asking where to study Queer IR was also voted on:  Yea – 4; Ney – 8.

A colleague brought this feed to my attention because the Queer IR scholarship attacked in the feed was authored by me.  After nearly three decades of doing poststructuralist, feminist and queer scholarship, such attacks are old news.   What is deeply troubling to me about this feed is not what these attacks mean for me personally or for my scholarship but what the gleefully hostile and/or homophobic posts and their endorsements by the site’s community of readers do in and to (those in) the discipline of IR.  Among the things they do are:

  • Normalize the ‘non-OP’, who is presumptively white, heterosexual, heteronormative, cisgendered, hegemonically masculine, and US and the US-centric neo-positivist scholarship this figure produces in IR and in Political Science more generally as the standards against which all other scholars and all other scholarship are and should be judged;
  • Set the ‘OP’ up as intolerably different because the ‘OP’ exemplifies an alternative way of thinking about and doing IR;
  • Make the ‘OP’ bear the unjustified wrath of the normalized ‘non-OP’, who often takes it as his unquestionable right to define what ‘successful’ scholars and ‘successful’ scholarship look like in ways that protect ‘non-OP’ privilege as if it were neutral and natural;
  • Bully the ‘OP’ into either assimilating to normalized ‘non-OP’ standards, giving up on their own intellectual interests, or fighting against ‘non-OP’ standards, even though the ‘OP’ generally lacks the disciplinary and material capital to make this a fair fight;
  • Encourage a mode of unprofessional conduct within Political Science and IR that makes not only the intellectual work of the ‘OP’ impossible but the existence of the ‘OP’ within Political Science and IR impossible; and
  • Celebrate this unprofessional conduct as if it were professional and professionalizing.

These techniques that set very specific kinds of normalizing disciplinary standards, bully individuals within the discipline, and pass as if they constituted professional disciplinary training do not come from nowhere.  They are taught by some Political Science and IR professors (mainly normative ‘non-OP’) to their graduate students as part of the ‘professionalization process’.  For this reason, we Political Science and IR professors are as responsible for the hostility and abuse directed toward non-normative students and colleagues and their non-normative approaches to scholarship as are the graduate students and junior colleagues who tend to use Political Science Rumors.

Rather than dismissing the snide comments on Political Science Rumors as harmless or laughing them off (as if homophobia were funny and not a system of power and pleasure that keeps one’s rivals in check; Schulman, 2009:47), we have a professional duty to recognize the damage these comments do in and to our discipline.  We have a further obligation to check our own behavior if it teaches our students that it is perfectly acceptable to deauthorize vulnerable people and to marginalize their legitimate intellectual endeavors because they challenge our own.  Instead of ridiculing and dismissing talented, non-normative scholars who think differently to us, we should strive to make their work possible rather than impossible and to value the contributions they and their work make to our profession.

This is not (as neo-positivists will likely interpret it) a call to do away with scholarly standards in favor of an ‘anything goes’ relativism.  Nor is it a call for epistemological and methodological pluralism that is practiced through what Sarah Schulman calls ‘a false discourse of tolerance’ that suggests that excluded people ‘can be painlessly included without anyone else’s position having to be adjusted’ (Schulman, 2009:51).  Rather, it is a call for scholarly standards to be applied fairly to all individuals and all work in the field.  That requires us to build and enforce meritocracies that do not assume that what/who is normative is necessarily more or less valuable than what/who is non-normative.

The loss of unearned privilege that genuine meritocracy demands may well account for many of the Political Science Rumors posts in response to Michaela’s question.  For as Schulman points out, ‘If success means opportunity at one’s level of merit, those now falsely inflated would be removed from the category of “successful”.  This necessary equation, one that no one wants to admit to, reveals the frightening truth.  Oppressed people, people unfairly excluded from full participation, cannot have their rightful place until the people who exclude them experience a diminishment of their own access and power’ (Schulman, 2009:51).  This goes some way toward explaining why so-called Disciplinary IR has developed so many strategies for preserving its power.

Happily, a wide variety of scholars of Political Science and IR – from ‘mainstreamer’ to various types of ‘critical’ scholars – exhibit a very different kind of professional behavior that makes the careers of excellent yet marginalized scholars and their scholarship possible.  It is these sorts of scholars who we should celebrate.

In that spirit, I want to conclude by celebrating some of the scholars inside, outside and on the edges of IR who have made my own work possible.  These scholars include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • John MacLean and Robert Cox, who taught me how to read IR through critical theory;
  • Thaïs Morgan, who taught me how to read poststructuralism through feminist and queer lenses;
  • Carol Cohn, who taught me what a considered gendered analysis in/of IR looks like;
  • Spike Peterson and Ann Tickner, who taught me that if you build a platform for discussion about a marginalized topic like Feminist IR  or Queer IR, people will find it, appreciate it, and use it to influence generations of scholars to come;
  • Anna Agathangelou and LHM Ling, who taught me how the postcolonial ‘the House of IR’ organizes itself using race, gender, sexuality, and class;
  • Michael Shapiro, who taught me how to do cultural critique as IR;
  • Robert DiClerico, who taught me what excellent teaching looks like;
  • Jim Rosenau, who taught me how to do research-led teaching;
  • Diane Rubenstein, who taught me the seriousness of humor and how to mobilize it in IR;
  • James Der Derian, who taught me it is possible to do filmmaking as IR;
  • Rob Walker, who taught me how to mentor graduate students by mentoring me;
  • Cynthia Enloe, who taught me how to write for 18 year olds and to aspire to be a kinder presence inside and outside of the discipline;
  • Tim Luke, who taught me how to write for the future;
  • Tom Biersteker, who taught me how to stand up for the IR underdog not just with words but with deeds;
  • Sarah Schulman, who taught me how reasonable my anger is and how to use it more effectively in my thinking and my actions;
  • Naeem Inayatullah, who taught me how to think fury globally and to take seriously the global fury of others;
  • Richard Ashley, who taught me how to interrupt Disciplinary IR; and
  • My colleagues in IR and Global Studies at Sussex University, who teach me what ideal forms of collegiality looks like by practicing them everyday.

I have failed to live up to every one of their intellectual and professional lessons in my turbulent career as an IR scholar and in my activist work inside and outside of the discipline.  But I have never forgotten or taken for granted what these scholars so generously gave me and what their ethical professionalism does for so many others in the discipline and for the discipline.  They – and many others like them – make my work possible.

I hope Michaela and the many more ‘Michaelas’ out there find supportive people like these who will make their work possible as they embark upon their personal and intellectual journeys in relation to IR.