global politics, relationally

Knowledge Cultures in IR?

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I have the privilege this week of being at the Millennium Conference in London, where the conference theme is method, methodology, and innovation in IR. I’m learning a lot, especially since these issues are core to the book project that I am currently working on – and there are some very smart people talking about very diverse issues in very interesting ways.

Even in this conversation, though, there is a lot of talking past each other – which, though maybe it should not have been, has been a surprise to me. As a group, we are people loosely based in similar literatures, loosely with a common understanding of a critical mission for IR, and loosely in agreement on the need to create space for diverse work in IR/international studies/global studies. At the same time, I tend to forget that we all work in fairly insular environments – and I have seen that here a bit. For example, Can Mutlu made the argument that IR does not talk about failure – and made a very compelling case for the inclusion of the failed, the disastrous, and the messes in the theoretical analyses of what we do as well as in published work. The latter part was fascinating to me, but the foundational claim actually seemed on-face ridiculous, given that I have spent most of the last year working in queer global studies and queer IR literatures – where discussions of failure are a central feature. And Cynthia Weber’s discussion of queer methodology in IR was on the same panel. While it did not explicitly address those issues, it was based broadly in the products of those discussions.

My point is not that there is a literature of which Can Mutlu was unaware, and that was relevant to his work. That’s true constantly, for all of us, all the time – and he may even find it less useful to his work than I do. My point is that our cultures of knowledge production in the IR/international studies/global studies are just that – cultures- where norms set up the ways that we view even critical concepts, and where knowledge production is grouped and group-able, by both literatures and people. What do I mean by that?

I mean that it is not just that the personal and the known are intimately interconnected, but that the personal that is intimately interconnected with the known is a relational personal, related to the sensory knowledge that we possess as well as the social knowledge that we produce and consume. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson suggests that there are four forms of science for IR: neopositivist, analyticist, reflexivist, and critical realist; last night, he suggested that there are other extra-scientific ways of knowing – including technical, aesthetic, and ethical – in the discipline. While I have some quibbles with those categories, generally, I wonder if they are ways of knowing or themselves cultures of knowing. 

What’s the difference? Ways of knowing seem to me to be a laid out matrix of how people can understand, while cultures of knowing seem to me to have social boundaries, normative restrictions, and structures of signification. Not only is knowledge social in the discipline, but so are the indicators of the success of knowledge production, signifiers about what should be read and incorporated, and opinions/senses about the state of the field. These constitute what I think can usefully be thought of as knowledge cultures – groups of scholars and scholarship in which we can be situated in epistemological and methodological terms.

These knowledge cultures are not mutually exclusive – instead, in crude geometric terms, they are both concentric (cultures within cultures) and Venn diagrams (with some overlap, but some non-overlap). I mean this not to do a network analysis of disciplinary citation trends – see such a project here – but instead to think about how it is we come to know, or to think that we know. That seems to me to be social and significatory, and not only in a community sense, but in a cross-cutting sense that allows individuals to make competing claims (such as the one about failure that made me think about writing this post) which are internally consistent and ‘true’ in their view but counterintuitive and ‘false’ in the view of the person making the opposite claim. While I am not necessarily (or even at all) looking to promote coherence – I do think the ability to communicate is important. Recognizing knowledge cultures, I think, is one way to realize that many of us are speaking slightly different languages which are often mistaken for speaking the same language in a way which obscures cultural differences in knowledge and knowledge production among kindred spirits in IR.

So what’s your knowledge culture? Maybe that’s the question I will be asking for the rest of the conference.