global politics, relationally

“I know there’s stuff I don’t talk about” and other annoying responses to feminist analysis


Ok, maybe not other annoying responses, for this post. Just this one.

Recently, I was asked to write a response to Mike Desch’s argument that high-tech methodology hurts the policy relevance of Security Studies for Perspectives on Politics. The policy relevance that Desch is interested in is relevance to the Washington establishment in the US.

There’s nothing ground-breaking about my response – it repeats things feminists have been saying for decades. It suggests that seeing the US government as the location of relevance may be not only wrong but morally insidious, then makes the argument that the notion of objective knowledge and scientific process that Desch shares with the quantitative work he criticizes might be the root of a differently understood ‘relevance problem’ for Security Studies – hierarchy and exclusion.

Even though this response is, in my view, strikingly unoriginal – it seems to be getting the same reaction it got 20 years ago. Desch was able to write a response to the response – well, a response to other people’s responses anyway. All of the other pieces (including the other two in the sentence below) are addressed substantively. My piece is mentioned in one sentence. Brace yourself.

“Finally, Tutton, Voeten, and Laura Sjoberg all make an important point about policy-relevance involving much more than government policy-makers.”

Yep. That’s it. I say: gender analysis shows your conception of Security Studies is normatively harmful and intellectually counterproductive. He says: oh, nice of you to tell me that we need to pay attention to policy-making outside of government. I meant that, I just didn’t say it. But my catch-all point applies to that.

In other words, I know there’s stuff I didn’t talk about, and that’s enough to dispense with the gender critique.

My colleagues from outside of the United States often wonder why I engage with the American mainstream of IR, and, when I first read Desch’s response to the response, I’ll admit, I got on the skeptical bandwagon.

But then I thought – that response is exactly why it has to keep getting said. There, and then here, and then anyplace else that it can be. Gender analysis is not just something you mean but don’t say, and then can get away with saying “I know there’s stuff I didn’t talk about.” It affects how you think about a project, ontologically, epistemology, and methodologically. It affects it whether or not you think so – your work is as impacted by implicit masculinized gender assumptions as mine is by explicit feminist assumptions. And I’m talking about it even if you won’t.

  • John

    While I sympathise with your response in this specific case, there is certainly a need for feminist scholars to take more seriously the issue of how to engage with other perspectives on world politics than simply offering an opposing counter-narrative. If “gender analysis” effects how “you think about a project, ontologically, epistemology [sic], and methodologically” in its entirety then feminist analyses become totalising (in the vein here of Boltanski’s critique of such approaches). The point that all work is implicated by certain gendered assumptions is an important one, but if acknowledging this point requires a complete shift in ontology, epistemology and methodology then it is very hard for people concerned with studying say- practices in their gestalt contexture- without presuming (deductively) certain things about social reality. Thus, while there is a place for such ‘totalizing’ feminist approaches, I would be especially interested to see feminist scholars engaging with methodological approaches that are ‘pragmatist’ (i.e. abductive) to draw out gendered analyses in ways that allow a more nuanced assessment of the gradated effects of gender on different aspects of world politics. To presume that gender is effecting everything equally and everywhere is not the best way, in my opinion, to effect socio-political change. It is thus that I worry most about what your saying that gender analysis effectively dictates certain methodologies and, indeed, I think this is why many people are (very wrongly) dismissive of its importance: there has been little effort among feminist scholarship to be adaptive in their methodological grounding such that their approaches appear non-totalizing to others.

    • LauraSjoberg

      I think there’s a difference between ‘totalising’ and ‘transformative, and would argue for the latter. To be transformative, I don’t think that feminism has to make the argument that ‘gender affects everything equally’ – but instead that recognizing gender dynamics should impact how we think about global politics. I’ve always said that you can’t be _just_ a feminist, positionally, in scholarship of IR – for lack of better classifications, you can be a feminist realist, a feminist liberal, a feminist constructivist, etc. But thinking about gender dynamics does change the way you think and what you see (and not only gender). And that matters, I think.