New Directions and Cutting-Edges in IPE, IR and elsewhere

Juanita Elias


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.

13 thoughts on “New Directions and Cutting-Edges in IPE, IR and elsewhere

  1. As someone who myself is inclined to drop the ‘i’, this is an interesting post. I like inclusive, but also interpersonal, interdisciplinary, impudent, irrational, irreverent and no doubt many others. Over the years I’ve ended up either replacing it with something closer to what I was actually doing in a particular context – e.g. libidinal political economy – or, increasingly simply dropping it altogether. The latter arises from trying to avoid disciplinary/methodological location because of the baggage that inevitably carries with it. Admittedly this is a lot easier to do if one moves away from IR/IPE, because there is no longer the same pressure to validate ones argument in disciplinary terms (even if it does confuse referees, the poor things). More positively, it arises from a desire to put the ‘problem’ at the centre of what we’re doing rather than impose artificial academy-inspired limits from the outset. And this seems to me all the more important if we are fully to embrace the possibilities offered by feminist, queer and other approaches which are all too often still systematically excluded from ‘proper’ disciplinary endeavour. (Proper, here, as defined by institutional or departmental committees playing it safe for REF panels and equivalents). Indeed, I’d go as far as to suggest that feminist, queer, etc approaches are fundamentally incompatible with disciplinarity in any form. This is not to imagine that the disciplines are about to disappear, but that these alternative approaches need to demonstrate their superior powers of explanation, analysis and interpretation and then feed that back into the disciplines to better educate them.

    Beyond that, the idea that feminist theory can still be considered a ‘new direction’ for IR/IPE is utterly depressing. If it (present company excepted of course) hasn’t managed to lurch in that direction in the (at least) 20 years that it has been available, it’s probably time to ditch IR/IPE……

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  2. I absolutely love this post, Juanita! You’ve really made me reflect on how I use the ‘I’ or indeed don’t use it any more because I tell myself I’ve ‘gone global’ but in practical terms I worry that really I’ve just gone back to the national in terms of my own research. (It’s one of the things I’m really struggling with in my book!) Thanks so much for this fab post – I’m going to get my students to read it too!)

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  3. So I’m thinking through some of the comments that Angus made in the above post. I think the first thing that I want to say is that neither I nor my other conference organisers want to suggest that a focus on gender was in any way a ‘new direction’ in IPE. Rather, conference streams were selected as already well established areas in which new directions in IPE might emerge. So the aim was to do the exact opposite of what was suggested in the Duck of Minerva blog – to not see any old gender scholarship as ‘the cutting edge’ and forcing it ‘fit’ into existing disciplinary conventions but to recognise how gender scholarship can serve to stretch and bend the boundaries of what we understand IPE to be. I should probably summarise some of the papers here but that’s quite a task – lets just say that we talked about Coca-Cola, empowering commodities, bingo, financial crisis, life courses/temporalities, institutions and Berlusconi amongst other things (i.e. both the usual and unusual stuff of IPE and, in the main, via a clearly feminist lens).

    The other point that I want to make is to just make a clarification about IR. Because I think maybe there is a slight point of confusion in this blog – given that I’m both criticising IR scholars of a certain (positivist) type and praising IR as a source of innovative scholarship. I suppose that this slippage is somewhat inevitable – IR is not in any sense a homogenous body of work. But why am I so attached to the ‘I’ – well I think that this is because as a feminist scholar I feel that I have found something of a home within the Feminist IR community. So I’m very keen on work that seeks to integrate a focus on (gendered) political economy issues such as inequality, development, social reproduction and migration with work that looks at violence, militarisation, bordering practices and the experience of insecurity. Work that was obviously pioneered by Cynthia Enloe – but continues in the writings of scholars such as Jacqui True, Amanda Chisholm and many many others.

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  4. also to add to the above comment with a bit of self promotion – do take a look at this critical perspectives section in the journal Politics and Gender – ‘Feminist Security Studies and Feminist Political Economy: Crossing divides & rebuilding bridges’ out now with contributions from Laura Sjoberg, Heidi Hudson, Jacqui True, me, Shirin Rai, Katherine Allison and Cynthia Enloe (link here – http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=PAG ). In which the authors talk about the problematic ways in which feminist political economy and feminist securities have gone down different paths in recent years. Maybe the final word that I’ll say on this is that you might not like IR all that much but Feminist IR can be an inclusive, inspiring and exciting place where we can have these kinds of conversations.

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  5. There’s also an issue of disciplinary policing with dropping the I. I recently got a rejection from RIPE on the basis that my work didn’t have an international element (and that I didn’t share the same ontology as the reviewer).

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    1. Hi Terry, thanks for the comment – I had the exact same experience a few years back! What I’m trying to do, particularly as a referee, is to politicise this kind of issue too. Glad to have you on here – fancy joining us on ‘About’?

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