It was with a distinct feeling of déjà vu that I read Dan Reiter’s blog on the Duck of Minerva (actually it was more a feeling of my head colliding repeatedly with a brick wall) in which the author claimed that gender analysis in International Relations (IR) was now ‘at the cutting edge’ because, amongst other reasons, ‘gender lends itself quite nicely to positivist methods’. Well, here we were, back again in the realm of Robert Keohane’s 1989 essay on gender and IR – an essay that elicited significant critical response from feminist IR. Indeed, Reiter’s blog can be read as the latest manifestation of the ‘you just don’t understand’ complaint. Thankfully, there were brilliant responses below the line to this piece from Laura Shepherd and Cai Wilkinson. But I was still left wondering – what does it mean to be working at the ‘cutting edge’? Is the ‘cutting edge’ any different from that potentially less desirable place to be: ‘the margins’? Or, should we celebrate the margins and/or the edges as a source of critical theorizing and emancipatory social struggle? As many of the responses to the Duck blog suggested, feminist theory and gender studies probably are at the cutting edge of IR, but just not in the way that Reiter understands it.
My encounter with the latest ‘you just don’t understand’ saga coincided with the final preparations for a conference that I was involved in organizing: New Directions in International Political Economy (IPE). The conference had been planned as an event that would seek to identify where the field of IPE was going – with a particular emphasis on getting PhD students and early career researchers to present their work (see this blog from my colleague and super conference organizer André Broome). From the start, ‘gender in International Political Economy’ was identified as a key conference stream. This was not going to be an event in which feminist scholarship was to be viewed as an interesting anomaly/slight annoyance – but as something very much central to the development of contemporary IPE scholarship. The relatively small size of the conference (at least compared to massive events such as the International Studies Convention) also meant that panels on gender would be attended by non-gender specialists and, moreover, three plenary sessions would all include feminist panelists (Adrienne Roberts, Kate Bedford and Shirin Rai) – none of whom were employing positivist methods of the type Reiter has praised. Rather, this was about feminist scholars discussing their work on their own terms and, in doing so, forging new directions for the study of IPE as a whole.
One of the most interesting conference plenaries came on the second day of the conference. The idea had been to find speakers for this session who identified in various ways as political economists (but not with the field of IPE) to provide a perspective ‘from the outside, looking in’. It was at this session that sociologist Lynne Pettinger raised a concern that while she had observed a great deal of ‘political economy’ at the conference, she was left wondering about what had happened to the ‘I’. For many IPE scholars there is an ambivalence about the ‘I’ – something that reflects, in part, a concern about the methodological nationalism implied in the very term ‘inter-national’, as well as concerns over whether or not IPE should be seen as a mere subfield of IR (although the tendency here is to characterise the field of IR as unchanged since the 1980s). But, does it also reflect a tendency to not want to study the political economy of places deemed to be too far away, too difficult to understand and not ‘core’ to the global economy? Does it reflect a desire to reify a certain cannon of (largely dead, white, and male dominated) classical political economy? Thus when Pettinger asked us to reflect on the absence of the ‘I’ in IPE, she followed up this comment by stating that this was one of the most white and most male dominated conferences she had been to in a long time. For me, this was certainly a wake-up call because as organisers we had thought long and hard about questions of diversity, but we had clearly done so within the confines of our own academic discipline area (politics and international studies) in which inequalities of race and gender are pervasive and yet frequently unquestioned.
In recent years I have noticed a preference amongst my colleagues to describe themselves as doing ‘political economy’ rather than IPE. But should that ‘I’ be ditched? Can we reclaim the ‘I’ – and, in doing so, think about an ‘I’ that is not just international, but is also inclusive – one that recognizes the centrality of non-Western intellectual traditions and one that is also inclusive in its commitment to break down gendered binaries and inequalities both inside and outside of the academy. Indeed, an important question about the political economy of gender inequality within academia, and specifically within IPE, was raised at the conference’s opening plenary. But reclaiming the ‘I’ is also about recognizing the critical and genuinely cutting edge work that has taken place within IR on questions of violence, borders and everyday insecurities – much of which has come out of engagements with feminist IR. Moreover, let’s fully recognise the critical potential of feminist work to challenge and stretch the boundaries of what IPE is all about, to push the field into new and innovative directions and engagements with oftentimes unfamiliar theories and methods.