Subjective traumas and healings of the “I” in IR. (Or, burying The Question)

Tiina Vaitinnen

calabi yau

I started to write a reply to Juanita’s wonderful blog post, and its equally wonderful comment thread, but this turned into a long rant – and hence a blog post of its own. I might divert the original points made – apologies – but here we go…

Inspired by Angus’s comment in particular, and the discussion that followed, I started to reflect on my own traumatic and problematic relationship with my disciplinary training in IR. For critical feminist IR/IPE scholars there tends to be, after all, always a disciplinary trauma. A cut, some might say. My trauma dates back to the very beginning of  my thesis process (which I should now be finishing, instead of writing this). The healing process, in turn, is rather fresh still.

So the story, the rant:

Due to being left wandering alone by the domestic/local IR community here in the Nordic periphery of Tampere, for the most part of my thesis, I’ve “had” to work in rather interdisciplinary ways over the past years. (The thesis is actually no longer for IR but for Peace Research (PR). That’s a long story, certainly feminist, certainly political story of the “I” in a nationally defined IR, though also at times of the “I” in PR …)

Well, not sure I was exactly “left alone”, there’s always two sides of the story. I could have done more myself, but then – should seeking a way to scholarly community (usually from international conferences rather than at home) be the first thing to accomplish by a first year PhD student? Not sure. But that’s a different story and now I’m rambling.


Over the past five years, I have “had” to work mostly with people who always write the ‘international’ without CAPs. Can you imagine, always as a mere adjective attribute?! In fact, I’ve quite literally often studies simply Relations, or indeed simply (varieties of) Political Economy. And this has been a great, great journey – not only away from the “I” but also back to the values and potential of the “I”.

Though pretty awful in the beginning, my “being left alone” by the local IR department was perhaps the best thing that could have happened, in the long run.

I was, at the time, actually looking down at our discipline a bit. Well, a lot. Comparing my skills to colleagues in sociology and other social sciences, I felt we’re not really taught research methods (in terms of techniques) at all in IR; we’re just being taught to read stuff, and theorise the world. Preferably from a distance. Even if feminist IR/IPE literature shows how research is about intimate encounters, too, the skills of getting intimate are not really taught to us in IR. (Well, to be fair, it’s hard to fit teaching those skills into the one quota lecture on feminist research included in modules like Contending Approaches in IR, and the first year course on Research Skills really must teach us the very basics.)

As a consequence, in IR one might simply describe one’s methods by saying “I did interviews”, without reflecting on the type of interviews, or their purpose in the wider methodological setting any further. It may even happen that you write an entire section on methods and your particular research methodology in an article aimed at IR or IPE – and then people will tell you that this is the irrelevant part, that the argument works on its own. Really? How can the actual road and journey to your results be irrelevant, when making an empirically based argument? Oh, yeah, I forgot, in IR/IPE it is simply enough to read the world as it appears to us (as if we always already knew where and how and in which language or register the world is written). Who cares about how you came to look at the world from exactly that position where you happened to stand, when building your theories? Who cares about the particular apparatus (in a Baradian sense) in which the research and its argumentation are positioned?

Sorry, given the likely readers of this blog, I’m provoking and trolling a bit now. Of course, this is not how many of us fetishists of the “I” actually work. For sure, we do have methods, and we follow them, adventurously and creatively – often more so that those with a solid training in qualitative methods. (Well, without solid training in methods, we kind of need to make things up, creatively…) But really, hands up if you have had to learn your methods on your own, when already doing your research, for you haven’t been concretely introduced to the “techniques” and wider methodologies as part of your bachelors or master’s degree. Well, I’m holding my hand up here, with IR degrees from the UK and Finland – hoping that someone else is as well, and I haven’t simply slept through the important bits of both my degrees…

So, that’s my trauma, my cut with the discipline. But then there’s healing, there’s a process of making up, forgiving the wrongs of the past, return to the roots, to the academic home where you grew up. One’s always gotta have the chance to return home. If for nothing else but to realise that, perhaps, it wasn’t such bad upbringing after all. Not perfect, but there are no perfect homes, no perfect spaces of domestication.

I say that being left alone by my discipline (yes, it’s still mine too) at early stages of the thesis process was one of the best things that could have happened. Namely, it not only forced me to build a community of my own (so cool, I tell you: just pick the people you like, and whose work you like, and who find your stuff interesting too!), with colleagues from a whole range of disciplines from Sociology, Social Anthropology, Social Policy, Geography, Gender Studies, Peace Research etc., but it also helped me to see the values of our training in IR from another angle.

Yes, I still think our methods skills in IR suck, when compared to many other disciplines. However, I’ve come to realise we might have something else to offer. Namely, the capacity to theorise the “I” in its entire complexity, even when we seem not to be explicitly doing it, even when we do not mention the international.

Absolutely, the question of methodological nationalism remains extremely central for IR/IPE scholars to bear in mind – in some research settings more than others. Yet, once we grasp the dangers of methodological nationalism, us fetishists of the “I” may actually have tools to go way beyond. For instance, always already troubled by what the state actually is, us fetishists of the “I” might be able to explore the state itself as transnational, rather than a bounded entity which some other transnationally operating actors challenge at its material boundaries and (seemingly) nonmaterial practices.

We may need better methods skills to convincingly study all this, we may need help from colleagues from other disciplines, and from other others still. Indeed, there certainly remains a need to decolonise the discipline (which I think this is an ethical process and as such endless). We also need to continue to better recognise the “I” as involving not only states or institutions but also human beings, as well as an entire world of the non-human.

Taking critical feminist approaches more seriously still is of course a precondition for such attempts to more inclusive discipine of the “I”, as they help to recognise the contingent ways in which each moment in the space-time of the International is made in unique and constantly changing intersectional hierarchies between bodies, human and non-human alike.

But really, in spite of all these needs of doing things better, I would not say that we have forgotten the “I” in IR/IPE – even if we (finally!) fail to constantly reconseptualise the concept of the “I” itself. Remembering the “I”, I think, becomes embodied in our very minds, during the completion of those lacking yet so precious studies in our own little discipline.

But then of course, if forgetting the “I” in IR means that we have (finally!) learned not to ask, in the end of every single article, dissertation or research paper, the question: “…but what does all this mean to the discipline and/or theories of IR…” – this is good news! For that question of the “I” in IR the world never needed anyway.

So, let’s just bury The Question of IR – while continuing to cherish the ever-changing complexity of the “I”.

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