Tag: politics

The Politics of “Fitting” Feminist Theory in IR

(Note: This post is cross-posted at The Research Centre in International Relations at King’s College, London’s Blog)

Feminist theorists have long made and substantiated the argument that gender “matters” in International Relations (IR) theory and practice, and that it matters in complicated and hybrid ways. Gender analysis has been used (in my view effectively) across a wide spectrum of theoretical approaches, issue areas, and contemporary political events.  I thought about this as I was reading news stories and opinion pieces expressing disappointment that Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace  Prize. There are so many gendered dimensions to her story: her activism and agency; the gendered reaction to by the Pakistani Taliban; the gendered reaction to that repression around the world; the gendered narratives surrounding her candidacy for the Nobel Peach Prize; and then the gendered reactions to the Nobel committee’s choice not to select her. All of these gendered framings, reactions, and receptions went on in the context of a gendered conflict between gendered states in what I would argue is a gendered international system. Reading those stories was, to me, another example of how gender “matters” in global politics – an example which could richly inform IR theory.

But what part of IR theory? Where does feminism fit? Is it another “ism” to go along with realisms, liberalisms, and the like? Does it cut across the “isms”? Where does it fit politically? Epistemologically? Methodologically? This question has been tackled again and again by feminist IR theorists like Ann Tickner, Marianne Marchand, Cynthia Weber, Marysia Zalewski, and Jill Steans, as well as by some theorists in mainstream IR interested in the question of feminisms’ fit. In the rest of this short post, I suggest that perhaps fit and positionality are the wrong language to talk about the relationship between feminist work on global politics and the field of IR in which it is (at least partly) situated.

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The Cultural is Political

Recently, Mike Innes tweeted playfully that he feared the Duck had become a “creative writing” blog due to the proliferation of satirical posts about pop cultural topics. This tweet was in response to my refutation of Brian Rathbun’s (also satirical) assertion that nerd / metal-head subcultures in US society are mutually exclusive, a post which also included critiques of the genre-specificity of pop cultural research in IR, commentary on a recent documentary about heavy metal music (itself quite political) and a satirized commentary about the strictures of institutional rules and norms on the identities and research agendas of political science professors.

Admittedly, the post did not deal with any foreign policy issues per se.

Mike’s implication (confirmed in a second tweet) appeared to be that blogging about pop culture, or blogging as pop culture (that is as satire rather than as serious analysis) is not “real” political blogging. However much he may have been teasing, this got me thinking about what we mean as political scientists when we think or write or teach about popular culture as opposed to policy processes, and especially when we produce ‘creative’ products ourselves as political scientists versus what we consider ‘scholarly’ political science outputs. (Because apparently a blog post is ‘scholarly’ if it reflects a certain style of writing or addresses certain themes but is ‘creative’ if it deals with other themes or with similar themes using satire rather than social science jargon.)

In this post, and later this Spring at the International Studies Association Conference, I will argue that culture is politics; and that analyses that blend attention to culture with concern over conventional political and policy issues are particularly appropriate on blogs precisely because they are relatively neglected in the discipline (though, this is changing). However, in thinking through this claim, and in watching the comments thread on Megan’s fantastic gender-violence-fetishism post, I realize that one can mean very different things by “culture is politics.” Taking cultural products seriously, examining the politics by which culture is produced, and creating cultural products ourselves are three different roles political scientists can play as bloggers.

For example, taking culture seriously as a carrier of political values and norms is supremely important to what we do, and has been at least since the “cultural turn” in IR in the late 1980s. Of course by “culture” IR scholars used to mean things like nationalist narratives, religion, or gender norms. Feminist IR scholars have long shown how the stories societies tell themselves and representations they create not only about war and peace but also about more mundane things like sex and soup shape not only society but also foreign policy. And it wasn’t long before the lens was turned toward pop culture as well by the work of Juttes Weldes and others: literature carries these narratives, cartoons and comics do, but so too does TV, film, and music.

(The intersectionalities of creative writing, political action and policy processes these have a politics and a history, often forgotten. Take Dr. Seuss for example: we remember him for his children’s books, which have helped carry American values both throughout our culture and globally, but he got his start drawing political cartoons: World War II in some respects created him as a writer and artist.)

Today, classes on “Film and Politics” are proliferating in political science departments, and with good reason: political scientists are rightly interested not only in how cultural products like films and cartoons represent politics, but also in the causal and constitutive impact of those representations on actual political processes. While there has been less research (that I’m aware of) by political scientists into musical genres and politics, this only suggests a new niche for aspiring political scientists that needs to be filled – like other cultural niches whose political implications have been insufficiently explored, like fashion (but see Cynthia Enloe‘s work on militarism) or food (but see Ansell and Vogel’s work on beef) or sports (but see Tomlinson and Young on national identity and international sports events.)

A second strand of “pop-cultural” analysis here at the Duck (and in the discipline, as a few of the cites above suggest) concerns the politics of cultural industries – rather than analyzing representations in cultural products (like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones) we sometimes analyze, for example, representations in culture-industrial sites (like the Grammys or the Browncoats movement) or we sometimes look at the intersection of the two: how culture-industrial actors sometimes function intentionally as political actors through celebrity diplomacy of different types. In the field of IR, there is more and more literature across methodological divides that deals with these topics – from John Street’s conceptual treatment of ‘celebrity politicians’ to Huliaris and Tzifakis’s case studies on celebrity activism to James Fowler’s elaborate empirical analysis of the Colbert Bump.

But finally there is the manner in which, especially on Fridays, bloggers at the Duck post more light-hearted or creative cultural products of our own loosely related to the topics we study – our version of casual Fridays which manifest at other blogs as pictures of cats, children or squid. Here at the Duck you won’t find squid, but you may find polar bears. Sometimes this is truly “casual” blogging and sometimes we put significant creative effort into playfully blending cultural critique, political analysis and satire. It’s true that it’s sometimes hard to tell where political science leaves off and tomfoolery begins. But then, isn’t the very definition of ‘tom-foolery’ socio-politically constructed? Yes.

Though I don’t often give it much thought, if asked to think about it I guess I’d tend to be a fairly loose constructionist myself on which of these roles most befits political science bloggers any day of the week, but I suppose there is room for disagreement there. What do readers think?


Politics and Infographics

Cliff Kuang at Fast Company points to a short, interesting talk by Alex Lundry of TargetPoint Consulting.

Lundry quickly runs down the importance of infographics and data visualizations in the political realm. Bottom line: people are hard wired to learn through visualization, and infographics can be very powerful tools in political battles over ideas and policy:

It amazes me that we haven’t seen a faster uptake among professional politicians of data visualization, especially considering the sheer number of political operatives, consultants, and strategic communication firms. All it takes is about five minutes watching C-SPAN to realize that these folks are due for a major upgrade in the infographics department.

I also love Lundry’s updating of a famous H.G. Wells quote

Visual Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.

Personally, I think you need both visual and statistical in there, but in general I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.

[Cross-posted at bill | petti]


Bernanke op-ed in the Wall Street Journal

Ben Bernanke wants to assure people that the Fed isn’t just throwing money at the current problems, unaware of the long-term impact on inflation.

My colleagues and I believe that accomodative policies will likely be warranted for an extended period. At some point, however, as economic recovery takes hold, we will need to tighten monetary policy to prevent the emergence of an inflation problem down the road. The Federal Open Market Committee, which is responsible for setting U.S. monetary policy, has devoted considerable time to issues relating to an exit strategy. We are confident we have the necessary tools to withdraw policy accommodation, when that becomes appropriate, in a smooth and timely manner.

Gee–is everybody confident now? He goes on to tell how it will be done. A few observations:

1) The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is worried enough about confidence that he chooses to make this statement.

2) He does so in a form that allows no questioning or rebuttal.

3) To the extent that he discusses the tools to contract the money supply, it’s all pretty much the same as before. They aren’t nearly as all-powerful as he wants us to believe.

4) Bernanke says almost nothing about the international dimension–including foreign exchange and the impact on what has been the world’s reserve currency.

5) All his promises miss the political dimension altogether. Are we really to believe that those who have been personally helped by recent policies–bailed out banks, investment houses, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, etc.–are going to sit by and watch the Fed crank up the pain? The relation of Congress and State governments to the stimulus package is similar to that of an addict to cocaine. The American people will want their freebies, and they won’t want to pay for them.

I’m supposed to feel more confident after reading this?

Bernanke Op-ed in WSJ: The Fed’s Exit Strategy – WSJ.com


YouTube and Politics Part 3

A brilliant aspect of the conference I just attended was the the fact that presenters were required to create YouTube versions of their research. Some of the videos I liked best are here.

A radical idea: what if conference presenters at venues like ISA prepared 3-5 minute videos instead of giving 15-minute presentations. Panelists would appear but not speak until time to field questions. Each video would run, a discussant would present concise remarks for another 7 minutes, and questions would begin. Panel slots could perhaps be shortened somewhat. Imagine how much time this would leave for discussion and networking, perhaps even (!) for lunch.


Happy Boxing Day!

Yeh, I just can’t stop celebrating all the awesome holidays at this time of year. Boxing Day, celebrated throughout the Commonwealth, has in many places become a version of Black Friday, but the true point of the holiday, of course, is to reverse roles with those higher or lower on the power chain than oneself. (Though, in our house we’ve never quite figured out how to let the kids take over our roles and still maintain a semblance of functionality around here… thoughts ye parent-readers of this blog?)

Anyway, I like Justin Callaway’s recipe for incorporating Boxing Day into America’s hoiday reportoire:

“Legislative members of both houses of Congress must find a family in the “final throes” of foreclosure within their electoral base and switch places with them for the remainder of their luxuriously long winter vacations. During this time, these families will not only have access to their elected representative’s federal health benefits, but they will also be given the identical weekly personal budget that each of these Senate and Congressional members has at their regular disposal, including any housing and vacation rentals. Conversely, each Legislator and his/her family must try and figure out how they are going to survive for the next couple of weeks, while avoiding being evicted from their foreclosed housing situation and trying to find food within the other family’s limited economic means.”

Read the rest here, and, cheerio.


Still Going Nucular

A couple of weeks back I visited Arlington for the National Science Foundation‘s Human and Social Dynamics PI conference. The HSD Initiative is one of NSF’s “cross-cutting” programs, which means the same pool of money funds political scientists, neurologists, roboticists, physicists, anything under the sun if the proposal is smart enough and vaguely related to the RFP. The point of their annual gatherings is in part to create interdisciplinary “synergy”: to provoke conversations among scientists from diverse fields who would otherwise likely never meet.

In practice, these gatherings are a bit socially awkward. Try walking up to a biochemist and striking up a meaningful conversation about her research when you study advocacy networks. That weekend, I found myself tuning out of the conference from time to time and tuning into the blogosphere, where in my comfort zone of IR geeks I passed the time with a very engaging discussion about the pronunciation of “nuclear” in US foreign policy discourse. (It is the very fact that I was traveling away from my kids that explains the copious amount of time I had the time to dither over this so extensively.)

But then a funny thing happened. On the very last day of the conference I had that one interdisciplinary conversation that made the awkwardness of the weekend worthwhile: I met a linguist who specializes in the study of how children learn to pronounce words. The argument on this blog about Palin’s pronunciation of nuclear became the basis for a fascinating, one might even say “synergistic” conversation between political scientist and linguist. Apparently, the NSF’s model can have important payoffs.

The most important outcome of my recent foray into the phonological sciences is that I’ve been forced to rethink / dig deeper into many of my and others’ initial assumptions from that earlier exchange. In particular, my new acquaintance was not at all surprised by the results of my crude YouTube coding: from a linguist’s perspective, for example, it makes little sense to explain variation in pronunciation by region, as there is far more variation within regions than between (also variations by gender, class and context, to give a few examples he rattled off). His initial hypothesis – one not actually mentioned in our discussion on this forum – was that the best indicator of the “nuclear/nucular” divide overall was likely to be political orientation.

In fact, this very relationship has been found in a new study of the pronunciation of “Iraq.” While Lauren Hall-Lew and her collaborators do not find any variation on the pronunciation of the first vowel, their carefully coded analysis of Congressional statements and media coverage shows that “Iraq’s second vowel indexes conservativism when produced as /ae/ and political liberalism when produced as /a:/” – even controlling for regional accent.

Might the same be true of “nuclear”? Maybe maybe not. After all, Jimmy Carter got it wrong just like George Bush, and Bill Clinton said it right only about half the time. No linguist I have now met knows of a systematic study of “nucular.” But various linguists have hypothesized about it in more sophisticated ways than I did in my initial post. Take Geoffrey Nunberg, author of the book Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times, who weighs in to support several of the arguments made in comments on my earlier post.

‘Nuclear’ isn’t a hard word to pronounce. Phonetically, nuclear is pretty much the same as ‘likelier,’ and nobody every says, ‘The first outcome was likular than the second.’ And [even if it were] that doesn’t explain why you hear ‘nucular’ from people like politicians, military people and weapons specialists, most of whom obviously know better and have ben reminded repeatedly what the correct pronunciation is… In the mouths of those people, ‘nucular’ is a choice, not an inadvertent mistake. Maybe it appeals to them to refer to the weapons in what seems like a folksy and familiar way, or maybe it’s a question of asserting their authority: ‘We’re the ones with our fingers on the button, and we’ll pronounce the word however we damn well please.’

Which of these stories explains why Bush says ‘nucular’? He must have beard it said correctly thousands of time when he was growing up- not just at Andover, Yale and Harvard, but from his own father. If Bush’s ‘nucular’ is a deliberate choice, its it something he picked up from the Pentagon wise guys? Or is it a faux-bubba pronunciation, the ort of thing he might have stareted doing at Andover or Yale, by way of playing the Texan to all those earnest Eastern dweebs?”

Steven Pinker, after also commenting on Palin’s accent in the NYTimes, disputes Nunberg’s claims (and my idea that Palin was doing this on purpose) in a recent post on Language Log:

I doubt that nucular represents conscious linguistic slumming by Bush or Palin. People generally end up with the accents of their late childhood and early adolescent peers, so Midland and Houston were the formative influences on Bush’s accent, rather than Kennebunkport and Andover. And I wonder whether nucular is enough of a bubba shibboleth to grant a politician more points than he or she loses among the mainstream pundits.

Though linguists are agnostic about the “correctness” of pronunciation, Pinker makes my point, I think in helpfully citing the Merriam Webster dictionary in support of his claim that you don’t have to be dumb to say “nucular”:

“Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in [kyələr] have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president. While most common in the United States, these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.”

From an IR constructivist perspective, the key is not how often the word is pronounced “nucular,” but whether in fact this pronunciation is “disapproved of by many.”

Whether you agree or not, it’s hard to dispute Pinker’s concluding paragraph:

I think we can all agree that there’s a master’s thesis in here for someone: we lack good data on the regional, class, and age distribution of the two pronunciations, and the linguistic and psychological factors that they correlate with.

Personally, I’d love to see some some experimental research into the question not of why people pronounce it “nucular” but how that pronuciation is perceived, and by whom. Maybe I should team up with some linguists for my next NSF project!

Then again, maybe not. All this thinking about “nucular,” my brain is already starting to forget how to say it “properly.” Curses!


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