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Poststructural/postmodern IR is a mode of critical thinking and analysis that joined disciplinary conversations during the 1980s and, despite the dismissive reception it has initially faced, it is a vibrant and expanding area of research within the field today. Providing a radical critique of politics in modernity, it is less a new paradigm or theory. Instead, it is better described as “a critical attitude” that focuses on the question of representation and explores the ways in which dominant framings of world politics produce and reproduce relations of power: how they legitimate certain forms of action while marginalizing other ways of being, thinking, and acting. To elaborate the insights of poststructuralism/postmodernism, the article starts off by situating the emergence of these critical perspectives within the disciplinary context and visits the debates and controversies it has elicited. This discussion is followed by an elaboration of the major themes and concepts of poststructural/postmodern thought such as subjectivity, language, text, and power. The convergences and divergences between poststructuralism and its precursor—structuralism—is an underlying theme that is noted in this article. The third and fourth sections make central the epistemological and ontological challenges that poststructuralism/postmodernism poses to disciplinary knowledge production on world politics. While the former focuses on how central categories of IR such as state and sovereignty, violence, and war were problematized and reconceptualized, the latter attends to the poststructuralist/postmodern attempts to articulate a different political imaginary and develop an alternative conceptual language to think the international beyond the confines of the paradigm of sovereignty and the modern subject. The article concludes with a brief look at the future directions for poststructural/postmodern investigations.
Poststructuralism is an International Relations (IR) theory that entered the domain of Security Studies during the Second Cold War. During this period, poststructuralists engaged with power, security, the militarization of the superpower relationship, and the dangers that the nuclear condition was believed to entail. Poststructuralism’s concern with power, structures, and the disciplining effects of knowledge seemed to resonate well with the main themes of classical realist Security Studies. At the same time, the discursive ontology and epistemology of poststructuralism set it apart not only from Strategic Studies, but from traditional peace researchers who insisted on “real world” material referents and objective conceptions of security. The unexpected end of the Cold War brought challenges as well as opportunities for poststructuralism. The most important challenge that arose was whether states needed enemies. The terrorist attacks of September 11 and “The War on Terror” also had a profound impact on poststructuralist discourse. First, poststructuralists held that “terrorism” and “terrorists” had no objective, material referent, but were signs that constituted a radical Other. They viewed the actions on September 11 as “terror,” “acts of war,” and “orchestrated,” rather than “accidents” committed by a few individuals. The construction of “terrorists” as “irrational” intersected with poststructuralist deconstructions of rational–irrational dichotomies that had also been central to Cold War discourse. These responses to “the War on Terror” demonstrated that poststructuralist theory still informs important work in Security Studies and that there are also crucial intersections between poststructuralism and other approaches in IR.
Ethical considerations in International Relations (IR) usually follow from the sovereignty and anarchy distinction. The ethical implications arising from these classic twin IR banners shift the focus toward relations of inside and outside, while morality remains restricted to the national level, where reciprocal moral obligation is legally secured through citizenship, while the international continues to be branded by a constant struggle for power and the elusiveness of any moral rules. In contrast, the poststructuralist notion of difference engenders a democratic ethos of immanent critique, which regards itself as a necessary corrective in contexts where liberal discourses are prevalent, but exposes a tendency of discounting the inherently political nature of the social. A poststructuralist ethics accentuates the radical political institution of society, the aporia of justice, and the contingency of a particular morality.
W. Travis Selmier
War, trade, and money synergistically developed over three millennia, each proving important to the emergence of nation-states. By the 19th century, fiduciary money—forms of money based on trust, such as paper money—catalyzed the development of national monetary and banking systems. As nexus of international finance and metropole of the world’s largest empire, the United Kingdom garnered political and economic power. But over the course of two world wars, power shifted to the United States. Small successes and great failures of the interwar period influenced creation of Bretton Woods institutions, completing a transformation from an international monetary system into an international financial system [IFS], which included not only monetary flows but also a formal, institutionalized system of governance. The dollar’s flows became the IFS’ lifeblood, engendering structural power for the United States, which has been held in place through reserve currency status, institutional stickiness through banking and currency trading, and ideational influence. Introduction of the Euro and attempts in Asia to dismantle the “Asian Bloc” have shaken, but not removed, American structural power. Money’s foundations have always rested on trust, trading, and risk taking; emergence of extensive credit and virtual money, and related security concerns, bring forth new topics resting on these old foundations.
Philip E. Steinberg and Darren Purcell
Electronic communications refer to forms of communication where ideas and information are embedded in spatially mobile electronic signals. These include the internet, telephony, television, and radio. Electronic communications are linked to state power in a complex and, at times, contradictory manner. More specifically, a tension exists between divergent pressures toward constructing electronic communication spaces as spaces of state power, as spaces of escape, and as spaces for contesting state power. On the one hand, states often invest in infrastructure and empower regulatory institutions as they seek to intensify their presence within national territory, for example, or project their influence beyond territorial borders. The widespread use of electronic communication technologies to facilitate governmental power is especially evident in the realm of cyberwarfare. E-government platforms have also been created to foster interaction with the state through electronic means. On the other hand, communication systems thrive through the idealization (and, ideally, the regulatory construction) of a space without borders, whereby individuals might bypass, or even actively work to subvert, state authority. Just as the internet has been seen as a means for state power to monitor the everyday lives and subjectivities of the citizenry, it has also been employed as a tool for democratization. Various institutions have emerged to govern specific electronic communication networks, including those that are focused on reproducing the power of individual states, those that operate in the realm of intergovernmental organizations, those that devolve power to actors in local government, and those that empower corporations or civil society.
The “practice turn” in international relations (IR) refers to those scholars that explicitly take practices as a category of analysis in one way or another. This notion implies three things: that a significant number of scholars turn to practices, that they have enough similarities to be considered part of the same broad movement, and that they bring something novel to the discipline. Taken together, the concepts and logics developed in association with this shift in emphasis to practices form what has come to be labelled as “practice theory” (PT). The basic concepts and logics that provide the conceptual and theoretical foundation for PT’s use in IR include practices as shared, patterned, and embodied; the logic of habits/habitus; and field, capital, and symbolic domination. The epistemological foundation of PT is an interpretive and reflexive approach that builds on a pragmatic epistemology that considers knowledge as socially constructed. PT challenges rationalism and constructivism, but without denying that individuals make rational calculations, or that social norms constrain their behaviour. Practice theorists use different metaphors in locating PT within IR, such as the “gluon” or the “trading zone.” Another approach is to treat practices as an analytical tool. In addition, there are three different methods for studying practices: participant observation, interviews, and discourse analysis.
Berenike Prem and Elke Krahmann
While early private military and security companies (PMSCs) were likened to mercenaries, today most scholars agree that PMSCs constitute a new phenomenon. They are organized as legitimate corporate entities, have a distinct legal status, and provide a wide range of military and security services. This definition reflects the evolution of the PMSC industry, which has moved beyond combat services to supply everything from transport, logistics, and maintenance to military and police training, demining, intelligence, risk analysis, armed and unarmed protective services, anti-piracy measures, border protection, and drone operations. Not only have PMSC services diversified, but so has their client base. In addition to industrialized and failed states, transnational corporations, international organizations, and even NGOs increasingly make use of PMSCs. There are several explanations for the growing recourse to these companies. Functional explanations see the employment of PMSCs as a rational response to the glaring gap between demand and supply in the market for force. Ideational and constructivist approaches, by contrast, impute national differences in the outsourcing of military and security services to dominant beliefs and norms about the appropriate relationship between the state and the market. The consequences of using PMSCs, including the accountability, effectiveness, and state control of PMSCs, issues of gender and racial equality, and theoretical implications for the location of political authority and the public good character of security are key issues. So is the question of suitable forms of regulation for the industry, including national and international laws, informal industry self-regulations, and hybrid regulatory approaches such as multi-stakeholder initiatives and standard setting schemes.
According to the democratic peace theory, democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other identified democracies. Contrary to theories explaining war engagement, it is a “theory of peace” outlining motives that dissuade state-sponsored violence. The proposition that democracies are more peaceful than autocracies has spawned a huge literature. Much of the relevant quantitative research has shown that democracies indeed rarely, if ever, fight each other, although they are not necessarily less aggressive than autocracies in general. Although, statistically, the probability of war between any two states is considerably low, the absence of war among liberal democracies across a wide range of different historical, economic, and political factors suggests that there is a strong predisposition against the use of military violence between democratic states. According to scholars, the democratic peace theory can elaborate on the empirical phenomena previously explained by the earlier dominant research program, realism in international relations; in addition, the initial statement that democracies do not, or rarely, wage war on one another, has been followed by a rapidly growing literature on novel empirical regularities. This democratic peace proposition not only challenges the validity of other political systems, but also the prevailing realist account of international relations, which emphasizes balance-of-power calculations and common strategic interests.
Jeffrey W. Taliaferro
Prospect theory is one of the most influential behavioral theories in the international relations (IR) field, particularly among scholars of security studies, political psychology, and foreign policy analysis. Developed by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, prospect theory provides key insights into decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty. For example, most individuals are risk averse to secure gains, but risk acceptant to avoid losses (loss aversion). In addition, most people value items they already posses more than they value items they want to acquire (endowment effect), and tend to be risk averse if they perceive themselves to be facing gains relative to their reference point (risk propensity). Prospect theory has generated an enormous volume of scholarship in IR, which can be divided into two “generations”. The first generation (1990–1999) sought to establish prospect theory’s plausibility in the “real world” by testing hypotheses derived from it against subjective expected-utility theory or rational choice models of foreign policy decision making. The second generation (2000–present) began to incorporate concepts associated with prospect theory and related experimental literature on group risk taking into existing mid-level theories of IR and foreign policy behavior. Two substantive areas covered by scholars during this period are coercive diplomacy and great power intervention in the periphery as they relate to loss aversion. Both generations of prospect theory literature suffer from conceptual and methodological difficulties, mainly around the issues of reference point selection, framing, and preference reversal outside laboratory settings.
Psychology plays a key role in the success of strategy and is therefore important to the study of international security. There are four general approaches to the psychology of strategy. The first focuses on personality, and more specifically on individual differences, cognition, and the use of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to investigate human nature. The second approach draws on deterrence theory, which considers how an actor can keep a target from doing something it would otherwise do. A political psychological perspective on deterrence consists of three elements. First, psychological approaches to deterrence reject stimulus–response models and instead lay emphasis on understanding cognition and emotion. Second, deterrence is a policy rather than a philosophy. Third, whereas normative theories explain how one ought to behave (and thus cannot be disconfirmed by evidence), psychological theories change in response to new evidence, such as with the development of prospect theory. The third aspect of strategic interaction involves learning and intelligence assessments. Based on this approach, how people learn, what they are likely to learn, and the problems of assessing the intentions and capabilities of others are central to strategy. The fourth and final approach is concerned with the strategy of group conflict, which has generated two waves of research: the first analyzed how material inequality or competition for resources gives rise to psychological forces that result in group cooperation and between-group competition, and the second added nonmaterial causes to explain group relations.
Public goods represent a particular challenge in international politics that has been linked to problems as diverse as alliance politics, environmental governance, and global currency systems. In many situations, some form of coordinated collective action is needed to produce public goods. Consequently, provision of public good often serves as a stand-in for theoretical questions related to cooperation in an anarchic system.
Public goods, which have elements of non-rivalness and non-excludability, are often desired by states but can be difficult to produce in the absence of a powerful state willing to provide public goods unilaterally. Non-rivalness refers to the ability of many actors to consume a good. Closely related to the concept of non-rivalness in public goods is the concept of jointness of supply. Jointness of supply means that all parties can enjoy the benefits of consumption with no additional cost required to provide the good to additional individuals.
By contrast, non-excludability implies that once a good has been produced, there are no efficient means of preventing consumption of a good. If both of these conditions are true, then a public good, such as asteroid defense or the elimination of smallpox, could be a benefit to all of humanity once produced. On the other hand, pure public goods are relatively rare. There are variations in which non-rivalness or non-excludability is imperfectly met. Club goods, such as security in alliances, offer viable mechanisms for excluding states from the benefits of a good but may produce goods that are non-rival within the club. Common-pool resources, such as ocean fish populations, are non-excludable but are rival, in that overfishing can reduce fish populations.
Ethnicity, nationalism, and migration are popular topics in many academic disciplines, but research on public opinion in these areas has suffered from a lack of good data, disciplinary fragmentation, and a dearth of studies that engage one another. This is evident in the case of public opinion survey research undertaken in the world’s hotspots of ethnic conflict. As a result, ethnic conflict scholars have had to rely on proxy measures or indirect studies to test “opinion” towards ethnicity and nationalism in the developing world. In the developed world, however, there is more to work with in terms of opinion measurements. A prominent example is the European Union’s “Eurobarometer” surveys, which gauge attachment to and identification with “Europe” and the individual nation. Research on national identity and ethnic conflict has often been the starting point for theories of public opinion regarding immigration. A common finding is that there is a weak connection (if any) between opinion and policy on the immigration issue. Several areas need to be addressed as far as research is concerned. For example, the picture of xenophobic hostility in rich countries must be understood in a context of general changes in word migration patterns, with some emerging economies also experiencing high levels of immigration, and concurrent anti-immigrant public opinion. Two shortcomings of the literature also deserve closer attention: a focus on developing-to-developed country migration; and a lack of analyses that combine push and pull factors, to measure their relative causal weight in terms of bilateral immigration flows.
Benjamin Herborth and Oliver Kessler
The term “public” is predominantly used in International Relations (IR), often appearing as an attribute in collocations such as “public goods” or “public opinion.” The study of public spheres can be meaningfully situated within the scope of the emerging field of International Political Sociology (IPS). At the heart of the study of public spheres as an integral part of IPS is the challenge of theorizing the relations between public spheres and an emerging postnational political order. One perennial concern of IPS that can be addressed through the study of public spheres is the relation between empirical and normative inquiry. In addition, the study of public spheres constitutes an interdisciplinary arena that contributes to the process of opening up IR to the theoretical and methodological toolkit of adjacent intellectual fields. In this context, the study of social movements comes to mind, especially when it directly tackles processes of “contentious politics.” An analysis of the way in which the term “public” is used in IR can offer important insights into the social-theoretical presuppositions and implicit concepts of social and international order that go along with it. The study of public spheres is not confined to the study of a set of firmly delineated empirical phenomena, which may or may not be observed. It can also be used to elucidate the oft-neglected problem of how political authority is constituted in terms of both theoretical and empirical inquiry.
Brett Ashley Leeds and T. Clifton Morgan
Security issues have long been linked to the study of international relations. The crucial issue which scholars and decision makers have sought to understand is how states can avoid being victimized by war while also being prepared for any eventuality of war. Particular attention has been devoted to alliances and armaments as the policy instruments that should have the greatest effect on state war experiences. Scholars have attempted to use balance of power theories to explain the interrelationships between arms, alliances, and international conflict, but the overwhelming lack of empirical support for such theories led the field to look for alternatives. This gave rise to new theorizing that recognized variance in national goals and an enhanced role for domestic politics, which in turn encouraged empirical tests at the nation state or dyadic level of analysis. Drawing from existing theoretical perspectives, more specific formal models and empirical tests were invoked to tackle particular questions about alliances and arms acquisitions. Despite significant advances in individual “islands of theory,” however, integrated explanations of the pursuit and effects of security policies have remained elusive. An important consideration for the future is to develop of theories of security policy that take into account the substitutability and complementarity of varying components. There have been two promising attempts at such integrated theorizing: the first explains the steps to war and the second is based on the assumption that states pursue two composite goods through foreign policy.
Polly Rizova and John Stone
The term “race” refers to groups of people who have differences and similarities in biological traits deemed by society to be socially significant, meaning that people treat other people differently because of them. Meanwhile, ethnicity refers to shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another. Ethnic differences are not inherited; they are learned. When racial or ethnic groups merge in a political movement as a form of establishing a distinct political unit, then such groups can be termed nations that may be seen as representing beliefs in nationalism. Race and ethnicity are linked with nationality particularly in cases involving transnational migration or colonial expansion. Anthropologists and historians, following the modernist understanding of ethnicity, see nations and nationalism as developing with the rise of the modern state system. They culminated in the rise of “nation-states,” in which the presumptive boundaries of the nation coincided with state boundaries. Thus, the notion of ethnicity, like race and nation, developed in the context of European colonial expansion, when mercantilism and capitalism were promoting global movements of populations at the same time that state boundaries were being more clearly and rigidly defined. Theories about the relation between race, ethnicity, and nationality are also linked to more general ideas about the impact of genomics on social life—ideas that often refer to the growing “geneticization” of social life.
Race(ing) International Relations: A Critical Overview of Postcolonial Feminism in International Relations
Geeta Chowdhry and L.H.M. Ling
Postcolonial feminism in international relations (PFIR) is a disciplinary field devoted to the study of world politics as a site of power relations shaped by colonization. PFIR combines postcolonial and feminist insights to explore questions such as how the stratum of elite power intersects with subterranean layers of colonization to produce our contemporary world politics; how these interrelationships between race, gender, sex, and class inform matrices of power in world politics; and how we account for elite and subaltern agency and resistance to the hegemonic sphere of world politics. PFIR is similar to Marxism, constructivism, and postmodernism in that they all posit that the masses underwrite hegemonic rule and, in so doing, ultimately have the means to do away with it. One difference is that PFIR emanates from the position of the subaltern; more specifically, the colonized’s colonized such as women, children, the illiterate, the poor, the landless, and the voiceless. Three major components are involved in PFIR in its analysis of world politics: culture, politics, and material structures. Also, eight common foci emerge in PFIR: intersectionality, representation, and power; materiality; relationality; multiplicity; intersubjectivity; contrapuntality; complicity; and resistance and accountability. PFIR gives rise to two interrelated projects: an empirical inquiry into the construction and exercise of power in daily life, and theory building that reflects this empirical base. A future challenge for PFIR is to elucidate how we can transform, not just alleviate, the hegemonies that persist around the world.
R. Harrison Wagner
In 1969, the game theorist John Harsanyi wrote an article criticizing the two main postulates of the general theory of social behavior prevalent at the time: the functionalist approach to the explanation of social institutions and the conformist approach to the explanation of individual behavior. According to Harsanyi, functionalist and conformist theories overstated the degree of consensus in societies, could not account for change, and described observed behavior without explaining it. Harsanyi proposed an alternative approach provided by theories based on the concept of rational choice (rational behavior, or rational decision-making). His goal was to develop a hypothetico-deductive theory explaining (and possibly predicting) a large number of empirical facts from a few relatively simple theoretical assumptions or axioms. Among students of international politics, Harsanyi’s approach sparked a controversy about rationalism. However, some critics of rationalism do not distinguish clearly between the interest-based theories Harsanyi criticized and the rational choice methods he advocated, and some even confuse both with neoclassical economics. In order to understand the issues raised in the controversy about rationalism, it is helpful to look at interest-based theories of politics and their relation to neoclassical economics. Game theory has provided a useful framework for the intellectual agenda outlined by Harsanyi, especially in the area of international security.
Stephen M. Walt
Political Realism has been described as the “oldest theory” of international politics, as well as the “dominant” one. Central to the realist tradition is the concept of “security.” Realism sees the insecurity of states as the main problem in international relations. It depicts the international system as a realm where “self-help” is the primary motivation; states must provide security for themselves because no other agency or actor can be counted on to do so. However, realists offer different explanations for why security is scarce, emphasizing a range of underlying mechanisms and causal factors such as man’s innate desire for power; conflicts of interest that arise between states possessing different resource endowments, economic systems, and political orders; and the “ordering principle” of international anarchy. They also propose numerous factors that can intensify or ameliorate the basic security problem, such as polarity, shifts in the overall balance of power, the “offense–defense balance,” and domestic politics. Several alternative approaches to international relations have challenged the basic realist account of the security problem, three of which are democratic peace theory, economic liberalism, and social constructivism. Furthermore, realism outlines various strategies that states can pursue in order to make themselves more secure, such as maximizing power, international alliances, arms racing, socialization and innovation, and institutions and diplomacy. Scholars continue to debate the historical roots, conceptual foundations, and predictive accuracy of realism. New avenues of research cover issues such as civil war, ethnic conflict, mass violence, September 11, and the Iraq War.
Truth commissions are temporary institutions that are tasked with investigating patterns of political violence under a prior regime as part of a process of political change. In the past, truth commissions were generally seen as a “second best” alternative in contexts where prosecuting past abuses was deemed unrealistic. Today, they are regarded as important tools for pursuing a wide array of goals, from democratization and reconciliation to human rights protection and individual healing. Early scholarship on the development of truth commissions focused on comparative democratization and on typologies that could be used to predict various transitional justice outcomes. More recently, scholars in the field of international relations have undertaken qualitative and quantitative studies in hopes of understanding what is driving the development of truth commissions. However, opinions differ as to the causes, consequences, and moral implications of truth commissions. Some attribute the proliferation of truth commissions to the growing strength of human rights norms and advocacy, whereas others argue that they merely function to manage the balance of power in transitional contexts, or serve as a basis for advancing values such as justice, democracy, and peace. These debates seem to have only intensified as truth commission scholarship continues to grow. One interesting pattern is that a number of scholars, have questioned the effectiveness of truth commissions in satisfying their own claims to investigate the “truth” about past abuses.
Mark J. C. Crescenzi, Rebecca H. Best, and Bo Ram Kwon
Reciprocity refers to the character of the actions and reactions between two or more actors. This character is commonly one of responding in kind to the actions of another. As such, reciprocity is considered one of the fundamental processes observed by scholars in the study of international relations (IR). In the realm of international politics, the study of reciprocity typically encompasses formal/experimental and empirical research. Some scholars look at ethical dimensions and the propagation of norms such as the Golden Rule, while others undertake empirical analysis of patterns of reciprocity in search of answers to questions about the existence, predictability, and diffusion of reciprocity. As a concept, reciprocity has applications in a range of IR topics such as the basic ingredients of cooperation, the escalation and return of conflict, and the adherence to international law. Within the realm of conflict processes, the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) and formal frameworks are often used to represent arms races and similar security concerns. Related to the iterated PD is the work of Robert Axelrod, who demonstrated the robustness of the reciprocal strategy known as tit-for-tat (TFT). One puzzle on reciprocity that deserves consideration in future research is that the expectation of a long time horizon for interaction should stimulate the incentive to cooperate, but long time horizons may also be associated with long pasts. One way to find the answer to this puzzle is to incorporate reciprocity into more general models of international interaction.