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International Relations TheoriesDiscipline and Diversity

International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity (4th edn)

Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith
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p. 19611. Poststructuralismlocked

p. 19611. Poststructuralismlocked

  • David Campbell
  •  and Roland Bleiker


This chapter examines how and why poststructuralism engaged International Relations (IR) from the 1980s to today. It begins by analysing the interdisciplinary context of social and political theory from which poststructuralism emerged, along with the misconceptions evident in the reception of the poststructuralist approach among mainstream theorists. It then considers what the critical attitude of poststructuralism means for social and political inquiry and draws on the work of Michel Foucault to highlight the importance of discourse, identity, subjectivity, and power to the poststructuralist approach. It also discusses the methodological features employed by poststructuralists in their readings of, and interventions in, international politics. The chapter concludes with a case study of images of famines and other kinds of humanitarian crisis that illustrates the poststructural approach.

Reader’s Guide

How the discipline of International Relations (IR) ‘maps’ the world shows the importance of representation, the relationship of power and knowledge, and the politics of identity to the production and understanding of global politics. Poststructuralism directly engages these issues even though it is not a new paradigm or theory of IR. It is, rather, a critical attitude or ethos that explores the assumptions that make certain ways of being, acting, and knowing possible. This chapter details how and why poststructuralism engaged IR from the 1980s to today. It explores the interdisciplinary context of social and political theory from which poststructuralism emerged, and examines the misconceptions evident in the reception this approach received from mainstream theorists. The chapter details what the critical attitude of poststructuralism means for social and political inquiry. Focusing on the work of Michel Foucault, it shows the importance of discourse, identity, subjectivity, and power to this approach, and discusses the methodological features employed by poststructuralists in their readings of, and interventions in, international politics. The chapter concludes with a case study of images of humanitarian crises that illustrates the poststructural approach.


Interpretation, mapping, and meta-theory

Every way of understanding international politics depends upon abstraction, representation, and interpretation. That is because ‘the world’ does not present itself to us in the form of ready-made categories or theories. Whenever we write or speak of ‘the realm of anarchy’, the ‘end of the Cold War’, ‘gendered relations of power’, ‘globalization’, ‘humanitarian intervention’, or ‘finance capital’, we are engaging in representation. Even the most ‘objective’ theory that claims to offer a perfect resemblance of things does not escape the need for interpretation (Bleiker 2001).

p. 197Political leaders, social activists, scholars, and students are all involved in the interpretation of ‘the world’, whether they engage in the practice, theory, or study of international relations. This does not mean, however, that anyone can simply make things up and have their personal opinions count as legitimate knowledge. The dominant understandings of world politics are both arbitrary, in the sense that they are but one possibility among a range of possibilities, and nonarbitrary, in the sense that certain social and historical practices have given rise to dominant ways of making ‘the world’ that have very real effects upon our lives.

The dominant interpretations of ‘the world’ have been established by the discipline of International Relations (IR), which traditionally talks of states and their policy-makers pursuing interests and providing security, of economic relations and their material effects, and of the rights of those who are being badly treated. The ‘we’ who talk in this way do so from a particular vantage point—often white, male, Western, affluent, and comfortable. These representations, then, are related to our identities, and they establish a discourse of identity politics as the frame of reference for world politics.

This highlights the relationship between knowledge and power. While many say ‘knowledge is power’, this assumes they are synonymous rather than related. The production of maps illustrates the significance of this relationship between knowledge and power. Maps are not simply passive reflections of the world of objects. They favour, promote, and influence social relations (Harley 1988).

Consider the commonly used Mercator projection (Figure 11.1). Drafted in 1569 in order to provide the direct lines necessary for navigation, it placed Europe at the centre and put two-thirds of the world’s landmass in the northern hemisphere. This representation supported the British Empire, and later reinforced Cold War perceptions of the Soviet threat (Monmonier 1996). Contrast this with the Peters projection, developed in the 1970s

Figure 11.1 The Mercator projection (Pacific central)

Source: Oxford University Press.

p. 198(Figure 11.2). This was based on equal-area projection that emphasized the South. This projection was significant because it emerged with Third World political assertiveness in the United Nations (UN), and was promoted by UN agencies keen to secure more resources for development. The Peters projection is therefore a manifestation of the power relations that challenged the two superpowers in the 1970s and a form of knowledge that promoted the global South.

IR as a discipline ‘maps’ the world. Critical approaches—and poststructuralism in particular—make these issues of interpretation and representation, power and knowledge, and the politics of identity central. Because of this poststructuralism is not a model or theory of international relations. Rather than setting out a paradigm through which everything is understood, poststructuralism is a critical attitude, approach, or ethos that calls attention to the importance of representation, the relationship of power and knowledge, and the politics of identity in an understanding of global affairs.

This means poststructuralism does not fit easily with the conventional view that IR is a discipline characterized by different paradigms competing in ‘great debates’ (discussed in Chapter 1). Instead of being another school with its own actors and issues to highlight, poststructuralism promotes a new set of questions and concerns. As a critical attitude rather than theory, poststructuralism, instead of seeing a distinction between theory and practice, sees theory as practice. This comes about because poststructuralism poses a series of meta-theoretical questions—questions about the theory of theory—in order to understand how particular ways of knowing, what counts as knowing, and who can know, have been established over time. Poststructuralism is thus an approach that comes from prior and extensive debates in the humanities and social science, in a manner akin to critical theory (Chapter 8), feminism (Chapter 10), and postcolonialism (Chapter 12).

Figure 11.2 The Peters projection (Pacific central)

Source: Oxford University Press.

p. 199Poststructuralism and IR

Poststructuralism’s entrance into IR came in the 1980s through the work of Richard Ashley (1981, 1984), James Der Derian (1987), Michael Shapiro (1988), and R. B. J. Walker (1987, 1993). Two important collections (Der Derian and Shapiro 1989; Ashley and Walker 1990) brought together the early studies. These focused mostly on articulating the meta-theoretical critique of realist and neorealist theories to demonstrate how the theoretical assumptions of the traditional perspectives shaped what could be said about international politics. What drove many of these contributions was an awareness of how other branches of the social sciences and humanities had witnessed significant debates about how knowledge of the world was constructed. Recognizing that the dominant approaches to IR were unaware, uninterested, or hostile to such questions, the above-mentioned authors sought to connect IR to its interdisciplinary context by introducing new sources of theory. The motivation for the turn to poststructuralism was not purely theoretical, however. Critical scholars were dissatisfied with the way realism—and its revivification at that time through neorealism—remained powerful in the face of new global transformations. These scholars felt that realism marginalized the importance of new transnational actors, issues, and relationships, and failed to hear (let alone appreciate) the voices of excluded peoples and perspectives. As such, poststructuralism began with an ethical concern to include those who had been overlooked or excluded by the mainstream of IR.

In focusing on the conceptual and political practices that included some and excluded others, poststructural approaches were concerned with how the relations of inside and outside were mutually constructed. For realism, the state marked the border between inside/outside, sovereign/anarchic, us/them. Accordingly, poststructuralism began by questioning how the state came to be regarded as the most important actor in world politics, and how the state came to be understood as a unitary, rational actor. Poststructuralism was thus concerned at the outset with the practices of statecraft that made the state and its importance seem both natural and necessary. This approach is not antistate, it does not overlook the state, nor does it seek to move beyond the state. In many respects, poststructuralism pays more attention to the state than realism, because—instead of merely asserting that the state is the foundation of its paradigm—poststructuralism is concerned with the state’s historical and conceptual production, and its political formation, economic constitution, and social exclusions.

After the first wave of meta-theoretical critiques, subsequent studies employing a poststructural approach—while continuing to develop the theoretical basis for their alternative interpretations—engaged political events and questions directly. This research includes analyses of state identity and foreign policy (Campbell 1992, 1998b, 2005; Bleiker 2005; Steele 2008; Epstein 2011; Solomon 2014); studies of the gendered character of state identity in the context of US intervention (Weber 1994, 1999); studies of the centrality of representation in North–South relations and immigration policies (Doty 1993, 1996); interpretive readings of diplomacy and European security (Constantinou 1995, 1996); the radical rethinking of international order and security (Dillon 1996); critical analyses of international law and African sovereignties (Grovogui 1996); a recasting of ecopolitics (Kuehls 1996); the re-articulation of the refugee regime and sovereignty (Soguk 1999); a problematization of the UN and peacekeeping (Debrix 1999); a semiotic reading of militarism in Hawaii (Ferguson and Turnbull 1998); methodological reflections on autoethnography and the use of narrative (Dauphinee 2013, Edkins 2013); investigations of contemporary warfare, strategic identities, securityp. 200

Featured article

This is one of the most important articles in the early development of a critical approach to international relations. Ashley did not write of the day-to-day events of international politics. Instead, he drew upon European social theory to question how North American International Relations (IR) theory was beginning to understand global affairs.

Ashley’s concern was with the rise of neorealism, as manifested in the work of Robert Keohane, Stephen Krasner, and Robert Gilpin. However, it was the assumptions of a theory, rather than the personalities of people, that were Ashley’s target. ‘My arguments here, intentionally phrased in provocative terms, are like warning shots, meant to provoke a discussion, not destroy an alleged enemy’ (p. 229).

Ashley drew inspiration from the historian E. P. Thompson’s polemic against the structuralism of Louis Althusser, entitled The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978). This book condemned Althusser’s scientific Marxism for its reliance on positivism. Ashley thereby noted that, just as social theory was calling structuralism into question, prominent scholars in international relations were developing a new approach reliant on structuralism.

Neorealism had emerged as a response to perceived failings in classical realism, Ashley argued. In place of the subjectivism of realism, neorealists wanted to emphasize a ‘scientific’ approach that would identify the ‘objective’ structures of world politics. At the heart of neorealism was a commitment to the state-as-actor. As a result, and especially odd given the neorealist’s concern with power politics, there was no concept of social power behind or constitutive of states and their interests.

The effect of these assumptions, Ashley argued, was for neorealists to treat the given international order (with the USA in a position of hegemony) as the natural order. Neorealism, Ashley said, did not expose the limits of the given order and thereby denied history as process, the significance of practice and the place of politics. Controversially, Ashley called this a ‘totalitarian project of global proportions’ (p. 228), although he emphasized this referred to the logic of the theoretical assumptions rather than the politics of individuals (p. 257).

Ashley’s 1984 article was not just a critique; it also proposed that a ‘silenced realism’ (p. 264) be recovered and a theory of international political practice be developed, drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault. Although critics like Robert Gilpin were scathing in their responses to Ashley’s article, it helped shape the future of critical theory in IR.

Richard K. Ashley (1984), ‘The Poverty of Neo-Realism’, International Organization, 38/2: 225–86.

landscapes, and representations of sovereignty (Der Derian 1992, 2001; Klein 1994; Dillon and Reid 2001; Coward 2002; Dillon 2003; Lisle and Pepper 2005); a reinterpretation of area studies (Philpott 2001); engagements with the politics of popular culture (Shapiro 2008; Shepherd 2013); explorations of the performative and aesthetic dimensions of political events (Bleiker 2012; Edkins and Kear 2013; Rai and Reinelt, 2014); and a rethinking of finance and the field of international political economy (de Goede 2005, 2006; Brassett and Clarke, 2012).

These are only a few examples meanwhile of countless innovative and important poststructuralism-inspired inquires. While not all of these authors would necessarily label themselves as ‘poststructural’, their work intersects with, and would not have been possible without, an interdisciplinary debate that called into question the authority of the positivist meta-theoretical assumptions that secured realist and other traditional perspectives in IR. Before detailing what a poststructuralist perspective involves, it is necessary, therefore, to outline the key elements of this interdisciplinary debate.

p. 201The interdisciplinary context of poststructuralism

Positivism and science in question

IR has been shaped by the influence of science and technology in the development of the modern world. The potential for control and predictive capacity that the natural sciences seemed to offer provided a model that social scientists sought to emulate. This model, positivism, was founded on the empiricist theory of knowledge, which argued that sensory experience provides the only legitimate source of knowledge (for more detail on positivism, see Chapter 1). ‘Experience’ refers to direct sensory access to an external reality comprising material things. As an epistemology (a meta-theory concerning how we know), the empiricist conception of knowledge understands knowledge as deriving from a relationship between a given subject (the person that knows) and a given object (that which is known).

These theoretical developments were central to a major historical transformation—the intellectual clash in the Renaissance period between the church and science, which challenged the dominance of theology for social order. These intellectual developments, which culminated during the Enlightenment, included making ‘man’ and ‘reason’, rather than ‘god’ and ‘belief’, the centre of philosophical discourse, and the construction and legitimation of the state, rather than the church, as the basis for political order. It was a moment in which knowledge intersected with power to lasting effect. Although the Enlightenment conception of knowledge was intended to free humanity from religious dogma, it was eventually transformed into a dogma itself. By the end of the nineteenth century, its dominance meant that knowledge was equated with science and reason limited to scientific reason. This dogmatization of science meant that social life is centred on technical control over nature and administrative control over humans, so that political issues became questions of order and efficiency.

The positivist account of science at the base of Enlightenment thought is founded upon three empiricist assumptions: first, epistemic realism: the view that there is an external world, the existence and meaning of which is independent of anything the observer does; second, the assumption of a universal scientific language: the belief that this external world can be described in a language that does not presuppose anything, thereby allowing the observer to remain detached and dispassionate; third, the correspondence theory of truth: that the observer can capture the facts of the world in statements that are true if they correspond to the facts and false if they do not. We can see these assumptions in Hans Morgenthau’s classic text when he writes that a theory must ‘approach political reality with a kind of rational outline’ and distinguish ‘between what is true objectively and rationally, supported by evidence and illuminated by reason, and what is only a subjective judgement, divorced from the facts as they are and informed by prejudice and wishful thinking’ (Morgenthau 1978: 3–4).

Postempiricism in science

A number of intellectual developments have demonstrated that the positivist understanding of scientific procedure that the social sciences have tried to model does not actually represent the conduct of scientific inquiry. The ‘linguistic turn’ in Anglo-American philosophy was a move away from the idea that language is a transparent medium through which the world can be comprehended—a view that suggested it was possible to get ‘behind’ language and ‘ground’ p. 202knowledge in the world itself—towards an account of language that understood it as embedded in social practice and inseparable from the world (Rorty 1967). Allied with the development of hermeneutic thought in continental philosophy—a tradition originally concerned with the reading of biblical, classical, and legal texts which developed into an account of the importance of interpretation to being human—these shifts contributed to a new understanding of the relationship between language and reality (see George 1994). Developments in the philosophy of science itself—especially what are called the postpositivist and postempiricist debates (see Hesse 1980)—have also challenged the validity of the positivist account. These developments have contributed to a reappraisal of science through social studies that question the value of ‘facts’ and the meaning of ‘objectivity’ for social inquiry (Megill 1994; Poovey 1998). Finally, the development of complexity science (including chaos theory and other new approaches to regularity) extends even further the challenge to ‘common-sense’ assumptions of what counts as science and how it is conducted, and links contemporary understandings of science with poststructuralism (Dillon 2000). Given this, poststructuralism is in no sense antiscience.

In the philosophy of science, the postempiricist debates focused on the core of the contention between positivists and antipositivists: the Enlightenment conception of knowledge. For the Enlightenment the search for truth meant the search for foundations, facts that could ‘ground’ knowledge. The postempiricist perspective is thus concerned with the rejection of such foundational thought (such as the claim that the state is the organizing principle of international relations, or that ethical theory requires established rules of justice as grounds for judging right from wrong), which it achieves through a new understanding of the subject/object relationship in theories of knowledge. Postempiricists conceive of this relationship as one in which the two terms construct each other rather than the fundamental opposition of two pregiven entities. This undermining of the separation of subjects and objects means any claim to knowledge that relies on dichotomies analogous to the subject/object dualism (e.g. facts against values, objective knowledge vs subjective prejudice, or empirical observation in contrast to normative concerns) ‘is … epistemologically unwarranted’ (Bernstein 1979: 230, 1983).

The end result is that in place of the basic assumptions of epistemic realism, a universal scientific language and the correspondence theory of truth that lay behind positivist understandings of science and the Enlightenment conception of knowledge, all inquiry—in both the human sciences and the natural sciences—has to be concerned with the social constitution of meaning, the linguistic construction of reality, and the historicity of knowledge. This reaffirms the indispensability of interpretation, and suggests that all knowledge involves a relationship with power in its mapping of the world.

The reaction of IR to poststructuralism

Critical anxiety

As we shall see, these dimensions are present in and help make possible the poststructuralist accounts of politics and international relations introduced above, even as those accounts go beyond the priority given to language in the constitution of reality that marks constructivist approaches to international politics. We need to be clear, then, about the similarities and p. 203differences in the critical approaches to IR. An awareness of these distinctions, however, is something that has been absent from the responses the critical approaches have provoked in the field.

Those who have objected to the meta-theoretical critiques of realism, neorealism, and the like, particularly the way those critiques have called into question the reliance on external reality, foundations, objectivity, and the transparency of language, have often called those critiques ‘postmodern’, even though there are few, if any, scholars who use that label, and many who explicitly reject it (see Campbell 1992: 246–7).

In one of the first assessments of the meta-theoretical critiques, Robert Keohane (1988) dichotomized the field into ‘rationalists’ versus ‘reflectivists’ and castigated the critical approaches of the latter position for lacking social scientific rigour. Keohane faulted the critical approaches for failing to embrace the empiricist standards concerning research agendas, hypothesis construction, and testing that would (in his eyes) lend them credibility. However, in making his claims, Keohane failed to demonstrate an awareness or understanding of the challenge posed by postempiricist developments in the philosophy of science for his supposedly objective criteria (see Bleiker 1997). Subsequently accused of ‘self-righteousness’ (Wallace 1996), lambasted as ‘evil’ and ‘dangerous’ (Krasner 1996), castigated for ‘bad IR’ and ‘meta-babble’ (Halliday 1996), misread as ‘philosophical idealism’ (Mearsheimer 1994–5), and considered congenitally irrational (Østerud 1996), those named as ‘postmodernists’ have been anything but welcomed by the mainstream of IR (see Devetak 2014 for the best review using this term). Aside from their unwillingness to engage ways of thinking they regarded as ‘foreign’, these critics reacted as if the questioning of critical approaches meant that the traditional containers of politics (especially the state) and the capacity to judge right from wrong were being rejected. In so doing, they mistook arguments about the historical production of foundations for the claim that all foundations had to be rejected.

When theoretical contests provoke such vehemence, it indicates that there is something larger at stake than different epistemologies. As Connolly (2004) has argued, different methodologies express in one way or another deep attachments—understood as metaphysical commitments or existential faith—on behalf of those who advocate them. For those who take such intense objection to the critical perspectives they herd together and brand as ‘postmodern’, their faith is a particular understanding of science. Their attachment to that faith in science—despite the debates in the philosophy of science that demonstrate how their understanding of science cannot be supported through reason—in turn derives from an anxiety about what the absence of secure foundations means for ethics and politics. Bernstein (1983) has named this the ‘Cartesian Anxiety’, because in the philosophy of Descartes the quest was to find a secure ground for knowledge. The Cartesian Anxiety is the fear that, given the demise of objectivity, we are unable to make judgements that have been central to the understanding of modern life, namely distinguishing between true and false, good and bad. The challenge, however, is to escape from the straightjacket in which intellectual understanding and political life has to be organized by recourse to either one option or the other. The post-empiricist debates in the philosophy of science have demonstrated that dualistic or dichotomous frameworks are unstable. We need, in Bernstein’s (1983) words, to move beyond objectivism and relativism. We need to develop modes of interpretation that allow judgements about social and political issues at home and abroad while accepting, first, that such judgements cannot be secured by claims about a pre-existing, external reality and, p. 204second, such arguments cannot be limited by invoking dichotomies such as fact/value or objective/subjective.

Poststructuralism misunderstood as postmodernism

By labelling the critical perspectives that deal with interpretation and representation in international politics as ‘postmodern’, the critics are suggesting that it is modernity that they believe to be under threat. If we are to understand what is meant by ‘postmodernism’, we also have to be concerned with modernism. What is meant by this term?

‘Modernism’ refers to the predominant cultural style of the period from the 1890s to the outbreak of the Second World War, encompassing the ideas and values in the painting, sculpture, music, architecture, design, and literature of that period. Modernism was part of the great upheavals in political, sociological, scientific, sexual, and familial orders in Europe and the USA. It was also part of colonialism and imperialism, in which these aesthetic and technological transformations radically affected the political, sociological, scientific, sexual, and familial orders of non-Western societies. Modernism had much to do with large technological and scientific transformations which made the early twentieth century a time of both infectious optimism and unsettled fear. It was an era that saw the industrial revolution produce mass railways, the first aircraft, automobiles, light bulbs, photography, films, and a host of other mechanical inventions. These machines offered the hope of improved social conditions, increased wealth, and the possibility of overcoming human limitations. But their impact on premechanized ways of life made people fear for the existing social order, at the same time as they compressed time and space in the global order. Modernism was the cultural response to this change, evident in the abstract art of the Cubists (like Picasso and Braque), whose work distorted perspectives and favoured manufactured objects over natural environments (see Kern 1983; Huges 1991). Its aim was to represent, interpret, and provide critical commentary on modern life.

The faith in technology of the early modernists was soon extinguished in the First World War. The great machines of promise turned into technologies of mass slaughter. The future lost its allure, and art became full of irony, disgust, and protest. In the imperial domain of Europe the questioning of modernism fuelled anticolonial nationalism. In this context, ‘modernism’ was a political intervention in a specific cultural context that had global affects. But, after fascism in Europe, another world war, the Holocaust, and the process of decolonization, the critical edge of modernism was spent. Modernist cultural forms lost any sense of newness and possibility.

It is against this background that ‘postmodernism’ emerged during the period after the Second World War, representing and interpreting the indeterminate, pluralistic, and ever more globalized culture of the Cold War world. In literature, art, architecture, and music the term ‘postmodern’ designated a particular, often eclectic, approach to this cultural context. (Examples here include the painting of Andy Warhol, the intermingling of styles in the architecture of Charles Jencks, and the music of Madonna.) In this context, ‘postmodernism’ refers to cultural forms inspired by the conditions of accelerated time and space and hyper-consumerism that we experience in the globalized era some call ‘postmodernity’.

Many of the problems associated with the concept of ‘postmodernism’ come from the misleading periodization associated with the prefix ‘post’. Many critics of postmodernism p. 205attack it by arguing that it assumes a temporal break with modernity. They argue that the term ‘postmodernity’ assumes that we live in a historical epoch that is quite distinct from, and in some way replaces, ‘modernity’. However, as Jameson (1991) has argued, the structure of postmodernity that critical, interpretive approaches seek to engage historically is not a new order that has displaced modernity. It is, rather, a cultural, economic, social, and political problematic marked by the rearticulation of time and space in the modern world (see also Harvey 1989). It is evident in developments such as financial speculation and flexible accumulation that depart from the modern, industrial forms of capitalism rooted in the exploitation of labour in the production process.

Much of the confusion and hostility surrounding the concept of ‘postmodernism’ in IR stems from the mistaken idea that those deploying an interpretative analytic to critically understand the transformations in modernity are celebrating the apparently shallow and accelerated cultural context that has challenged many of modernity’s certainties. While ‘postmodernity’ is the cultural, economic, social, and political formation within modernity that results from changes in time–space relations, poststructuralism is one of the interpretative analytics that critically engages with the production and implication of these transformations.

The critical attitude of poststructuralism

Political context

In philosophical terms a number of the scholars who resist the mistaken label of ‘postmodernism’ are more comfortable with the term ‘poststructuralism’. ‘Poststructuralism’ is a distinct philosophical domain which has a critical relation to structuralism, modernity, and postmodernity. The ‘structuralist’ philosophical movement is associated with ‘modernist’ cultural forces. Structuralism was a largely French philosophical perspective associated with linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and cultural critic Roland Barthes. Structuralists aimed to study the social and cultural construction of the various structures that give meaning to our everyday lives. Poststructuralism is equally concerned with analysing such meaning-producing structures but in a manner consistent with transformations in the social order of the late twentieth century.

The events that influenced poststructuralism were associated with the resistance struggles against established and imperial power blocs, such as the Algerian and Vietnam wars, the Prague Spring of 1968, the May 1968 movement in France, cultural expression in Yugoslavia, demands for Third World economic justice, and the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements in the USA and elsewhere. According to the French philosopher Giles Deleuze (1988: 150) these events were part of an international movement that ‘linked the emergence of new forms of struggle to the production of a new subjectivity’. In other words, these struggles, unlike the revolutionary movements of the early twentieth century, were not concerned with freeing a universal ‘mankind’ from the chains imposed upon it by society, but with reworking political subjectivity given the globalizing forms of late capitalism. This context means poststructuralism has important things to say about the concept of identity in political life.

p. 206Michel Foucault: limits, ethos, and critique

The critical attitude of poststructuralism can be found in the writing of numerous thinkers. Key contributors include Jean Baudrillard, Helene Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard and Paul Virilio.2 For the purposes of simplicity, we focus on only one of them: Michel Foucault. Thinking the present historically involves an ethos of what Foucault has called ‘the limit attitude’. It involves considering the limits that give meaning to our thought and practice—for example, reason and rationality is given meaning by the establishing of limits at which unreason and irrationality are said to begin. Moreover, a ‘limit attitude’ involves interrogating those limits, not by getting rid of, escaping, or transcending them, but by contesting and negotiating them through argumentation.

This critical attitude is consistent with the Enlightenment project to critically interrogate the conditions of human existence and is animated by an emancipatory ideal. The critical attitude is emancipatory insofar as it draws out the limits that shape existence and in so doing gives the conditions under which such limits—and the exclusions they entail—can be challenged. Although those dismissive of ‘postmodernism’ claim that it is an antimodern and anti-Enlightenment position, to talk in those terms (anti- vs pro-Enlightenment) is to replicate the either/or exclusionary logic that Foucault terms the ‘blackmail of the Enlightenment’. Rather than succumbing to such gestures of rejection, Foucault argues that the attitude of modernity has had from its beginnings an ongoing relationship with attitudes of ‘counter-modernity’. This agonism is itself characteristic of and inherent in the Enlightenment, for, in Foucault’s terms, what connects us with the Enlightenment ‘is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements but rather the permanent reactivation of an attitude—that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our era’ (Foucault 1984: 42). Poststructuralism, then, is first and foremost an approach rather than a theory. As Foucault argues:

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.

As an approach, attitude, or ethos, poststructuralism is inherently critical. Critique, however, is a positive rather than negative attitude. It is about disclosing the assumptions and limits that have made things as they are, so that what appears natural and without alternative can be rethought and reworked. Critique is thus also inescapably ethical, because it is concerned with change. As Foucault writes:

A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest …. Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.

Foucault 1988: 154–5; see Campbell 1992: Ch. 9

p. 207Taking these arguments into account, we can see that poststructuralism has a lot in common with the attitude of Frankfurt school critical theory, particularly its early contributors, such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin (see Chapter 8). Indeed, poststructuralism also has much in common with the postempiricist debates outlined earlier. It has a similar disdain for foundationalism (ideas of grounding thought on universal rules that exist independently of the observer), shares the view that language is central to the constitution of social life, and agrees that the historicity of knowledge (the historical production of knowledge in sociocultural structures and, hence, the refutation of the idea of universal/timeless knowledge) is a major concern.

Subjectivity, identity, and power

However, poststructuralism differs from Frankfurt school thought in ways that are important to the analysis of international relations. Most importantly, poststructuralism takes a different conception of the human subject. Much of Frankfurt school critical theory, and in particular the work of Jürgen Habermas, takes critique to involve the uncovering or emancipation of a ‘humanity’ whose autonomy and freedom is bound by ideology. Foucault’s work, by contrast, involves creating ‘a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects’ (Foucault 1982: 208). For Foucault, the modern individual is an historical achievement. This is to say that there is no ‘universal person’—a human being that has been the unchanging basis for all history—on whom power has operated throughout all time (see Edkins 2015). Rather, the individual human is an effect of the operations of power. Similarly, there is no ‘human nature’ shared by all members of the species—the nature of individuals, their humanity, is produced by certain power structures. Foucault’s poststructuralism is thus offering the most thoroughgoing questioning of foundations around. That is because it is a questioning of foundations that includes the category of ‘man’, as well as the bases upon which social and political order is constructed. Foucault is thus concerned with forms of subjectivity. What are the subjects of politics? If they are ‘humans’, in what way is the ‘human’ subject constituted historically? How have the identities of women/men, Western/Eastern, North/South, civilized/uncivilized, developed/underdeveloped, mad/sane, domestic/foreign, rational/irrational, and so on, been constituted over time and in different places? All of which means that identity, subjectivism, and power are key concepts for poststructuralism.

Foucault’s focus on the constitution of the subject is in accord with poststructuralism’s concern with the dualisms that structure human experience. In particular, it is concerned with the interior/exterior binary according to which that which is inside is deemed to be the self, good, primary, and original, while the outside is the other, dangerous, secondary, and derivative. Derrida has approached this issue through his strategy of deconstruction—reversing the original order of the binary pair of terms to demonstrate how the exclusion of the second term is central to the first (Culler 1982). In this argument, the outside is always central to the constitution of the inside; the insane is central to the constitution of what it is to be sane or rational; the criminal is central to the constitution of the law-abiding citizen; and the foreign is pivotal in understanding the domestic. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1979) demonstrates how what the prison confines is as much the identity of society outside the walls as it is the prisoners on the inside. The good, civilized society is constituted by the bad, p. 208barbaric prisoners it confines. When drug abuse and prostitution are made pathological by being criminalized, the effect is to normalize a moral order in which certain behaviours are excluded.

The critique of inside/outside dualisms leads poststructuralist thinkers to emphasize the importance of studying cultural practices. Instead of claiming that reality is understood by isolating the internal nature of the object studied (e.g. states and their desire to maximize power), poststructuralism studies the cultural practices through which the inclusions and exclusions that give meaning to binary pairs are established. This shift to cultural practices means that poststructuralist thinkers refuse to take any identity—individual or collective—as given and unproblematic. Rather, they see identity as culturally constructed through a series of exclusions. The particular events, problems, and actors that are recognized in history are thereby understood as constituted by an order always dependent upon the marginalization and exclusion of other identities and histories. This means there are considerable affinities between poststructuralism and postcolonialism.

The emphasis on practices of exclusion in poststructural accounts involves a different understanding of power. For Foucault, power is not simply repressive (i.e. imposing limits and constraints on the infinite possibilities of the world), but is productive because of the imposition of limits and constraints. Relations of power establish the limitations of self/other, and the relationship between inside and outside, but without those limitations those notions of self/inside, other/outside would not exist. The limitations are, therefore, productive: we know what that thing is by knowing what it is not. Foucault calls this productive power ‘disciplinary power’, power that disciplines in order to produce a certain political subject. The aim of poststructural analysis is therefore not to eliminate exclusion (since that is what makes meaning possible) but to understand the various forms of exclusion that constitute the world as we find it, understand how they come to be and how they continue to operate, and make possible interventions that can articulate alternatives.

Understanding discourse

Language, reality, and performance

The operations of disciplinary power, and the conceptions of subjectivity and identity to which it gives rise, take place within discourse. Discourse refers to a specific series of representations and practices through which meanings are produced, identities constituted, social relations established, and political and ethical outcomes made more or less possible. Those employing the concept are often said to be claiming that ‘everything is language’, that ‘there is no reality’, and, because of their linguistic idealism, they are unable to take a political position and defend an ethical stance.

These objections demonstrate how understandings of discourse are bedevilled by the view that interpretation involves only language in contrast to the external, the real, and the material. These dichotomies of idealism/materialism and realism/idealism remain powerful conceptions of understanding the world. In practice, however, a concern with discourse does not involve a denial of the world’s existence or the significance of materiality. This is well articulated by Laclau and Mouffe (1985: 108): ‘the fact that every object is constituted as an object of discourse has nothing to do with whether there is a world external to thought, or p. 209with the realism/idealism opposition … What is denied is not that … objects exist externally to thought, but the rather different assertion that they could constitute themselves as objects outside of any discursive condition of emergence.’ This means that while nothing exists outside of discourse, there are important distinctions between linguistic and nonlinguistic phenomena. There are also modes of representation that are ideational although strictly nonlinguistic, such as the aesthetic and pictorial. It is just that there is no way of comprehending nonlinguistic and extradiscursive phenomena except through discursive practices.

Understanding discourse as involving the ideal and the material, the linguistic and the nonlinguistic, means that discourses are performative. Performative means that discourses constitute the objects of which they speak. For example, states are made possible by a wide range of discursive practices that include immigration policies, military deployments and strategies, cultural debates about normal social behaviour, political speeches, and economic investments. The meanings, identities, social relations, and political assemblages that are enacted in these performances combine the ideal and the material. As a consequence, appreciating that discourses are performative moves us away from a reliance on the idea of (social) construction towards materialization, whereby discourse ‘stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity and surface’ (Butler 1993: 9, 12). Discourse is thus not something that subjects use in order to describe objects; it is that which constitutes both subjects and objects.

Discourse, materialism, and meaning

Within IR, there has been much misunderstanding of discourse in these terms. Even some constructivists (Wendt 1999) maintain a strict sense of the material world external to language as a determinant of social and political truth. When faced with poststructural arguments, they will maintain that no discursive understanding can help you when faced with something as material as a bullet in the head (Krasner 1999: 51; Wendt 1999: 113; cf. Zehfuss 2002). At first glance, this appears irrefutable. So how would a poststructuralist respond? First, they would say that the issue is not one of the materiality of the bullet or the reality of death for the individual when struck by the bullet in a particular way. The undeniable existence of that world external to thought is not the issue. Second, they would say that such a world—the body lying on the ground, the bullet in the head, and the shell casing lying not far away—tells us nothing itself about the meaning and significance of those elements. They would say that the constitution of the event and its elements is a product of its discursive condition of emergence, something that occurs via the contestation of competing narratives. Did the body and the bullet get to be as they are because of suicide, manslaughter, murder, ethnic cleansing, tribal war, genocide, a war of interstate rivalry, or …? Each of those terms signifies a larger discursive formation through which a whole set of identities, social relations, political possibilities, and ethical outcomes are made more or less possible. Whichever figuration emerges as the accepted or dominant one has little to do with the materiality of specific elements and much to do with power of particular discourses materializing elements into comprehensible forms with political effects. Therefore, focusing specifically on the bullets that riddled their bodies tells us very little about those circumstances beyond the fact people died; something that occurs in many other dissimilar circumstances. Not least it fails to tell us how people, knowing full well the likely futility of their actions in the face of overwhelming force, nonetheless sacrifice themselves. That is an explanation that is going to require, among other things, p. 210that attention be paid to discourses of loyalty, pride, and the nation. If in IR we limit ourselves to the immediate cause and context of material events we will be unable to understand the larger ethical and political issues.

Discourses of world politics

Theory as the object of analysis

Understanding discourse as performative materialization, rather than linguistic construction, takes us beyond the idea that it is just a practice employed by the subjects of international relations (be they states, institutions, or transnational actors). We need to consider not only the international relations discourse various actors are involved in, but also the discourse of IR—the modes of representation that give rise to the subjects of international relations and constitute the domain to which IR theory is purportedly only responding.

This means poststructural accounts—in addition to the concern with the representations invoked by the actors of world politics—investigate the practices that constitute entities called ‘actors’ capable of representation. This includes the cultural, economic, social, and political practices that produce particular actors (e.g. states, nongovernment organizations, and the like). It also includes investigating the role of theorists and theory in representing some actors as more significant than others. In this latter sense, this means that instead of theory being understood as simply a tool for analysis, poststructuralism treats theory as an object of analysis. This reorientation, which derives from poststructuralism’s status as an approach to criticism rather than a critical theory per se, is no less practical in its implications. It asks, for both theorists and practitioners of international relations, how do analytic approaches privilege certain understandings of global politics and marginalize or exclude others?

This approach is evident in arguments that offer historical, theoretical, and political re-readings of the traditional concerns of IR. For example, Walker (1993) has investigated how many realist questions and answers have been produced via a particular reading of Machiavelli. His conclusion is that the dominant tradition in IR has endorsed a narrow ahistorical reading of the paradigmatic realist which has given us the slogans of power over ethics, ends justifying means, and the necessity of violence. Similarly, in identifying anarchy as integral to realist thought, Ashley (1984, 1988) demonstrated that its status as a ‘given’ is a matter not of factual observation but part of a particular discursive strategy that disciplines our understanding of the multiple and ambiguous events of world politics through hierarchies such as sovereign/anarchic, domestic/international, objective/subjective, real/ideal, is/ought, and masculine/feminine. This means that the problematization of ‘reality’ offers two possible solutions of which only one can be chosen: for example, sovereignty or anarchy. The operation of this ‘anarchy problematique’ results in the mapping of world politics into zones of sovereignty and zones of anarchy, with sovereignty being normatively superior to anarchy.

From subjects to subjectivity

One of the most important functions of these historical and theoretical critiques has been to demonstrate that what we take to be real, timeless, and universal in both the domain of p. 211international relations and the field of IR is produced through the imposition of a form of order. A poststructural approach seeks, therefore, to make strange and denaturalize taken-for-granted perspectives. Important here are the discourses of danger we consume as citizens of a modern state. In an argument examining US foreign policy towards Central America, Shapiro (1988: Ch. 3) shows that foreign policy can be understood as the process of making ‘strange’ the object under consideration in order to differentiate it from ‘us’. In the case of the construction of the ‘Central American Other’, the moral and geopolitical codes of US foreign policy discourse make US intervention in the region seem necessary, both in terms of US interests and the subject state’s own good. Campbell (1992) developed this account to show that US foreign policy generally should be seen as a series of political practices which locate danger in the external realm—threats to ‘individuality’, ‘freedom’, and ‘civilization’—thereby constructing the boundary between the domestic and the international, which brings the identity of the USA into existence. Together these arguments examine the practices of statecraft that produce ‘the state’ as an actor in international relations and the practices of statecraft that produce the identity of particular states. As such, these arguments are directly concerned with the state so they cannot be understood as being against the state or its importance. They

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This book is representative of recent scholarly works that have embraced poststructural critique but want to ground it in concrete and at times even global foundations. These scholars, which also include Antony Burke (2013) and Sergei Prozorov (2014), attempt to do so without relapsing into the positivist tendencies that implicitly underpin much of constructivist research (see Zehfuss 2002; Epstein, 2013: 501).

The key challenge in International Relations (IR) scholarship, for Levine, is what he calls ‘unchecked reification’: the widespread and dangerous process of forgetting the distinction between concepts and the real-world phenomena they seek to depict. The dangers are real, Levine stresses, for IR deals with some of the most difficult issues, from genocides to war. Upholding one subjective position without critical scrutiny can thus have far-reaching consequences.

Levine takes on a poststructural position and assumes that the world cannot be known outside of our human perceptions and the values that are inevitably intertwined with them. His ultimate goal is to overcome reification, or, to be more precise, to recognize it as an inevitable aspect of thought so that its dangerous consequences can be mitigated. Reification, then, is not a flaw that is meant to be expunged, but a priority condition for scholarship. The challenge is not to let it go unchecked.

Methodological pluralism lies at the heart of Levine’s poststructural approach. He attempts to juxtapose, rather than integrate, different perspectives. He writes of the need to validate ‘multiple and mutually incompatible ways of seeing’ (pp. 101–2). In this model, a scholar oscillates back and forth between different methods and paradigms, trying to understand political events from multiple perspectives. No single method can ever adequately represent the event or should gain the upper hand. But each should, in a way, recognize and capture details or perspectives that the others cannot (p. 102).

The benefits of such a poststructural method are not just the opportunity to bring out nuances and new perspectives. Once the false hope of a smooth synthesis has been abandoned, the very incompatibility of the respective perspectives can then be used to identify the reifying tendencies in each of them. This is, for Levine, how reification is being ‘checked at the source’ and this is how a ‘critically reflexive moment might thus be rendered sustainable’ (p. 103).

Daniel J. Levine (2012), Recovering International Relations: The Promise of Sustainable Critique (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

p. 212focus on the production and meaning of the state rather than simply assuming or asserting that states exist naturally as particular identities.

These examples build upon poststructuralism’s concern with subjectivity, identity, and power. In general, they shift analysis from assumptions about pregiven subjects to the problematic of subjectivity and its political enactment. This is achieved through three methodological precepts, which can be understood by contrasting them to the basic assumptions of the traditional approaches to IR.

Methodological precepts: interpretation, representation, politics

The most common meta-theoretical discourse among mainstream theories is committed to an epistemic realism, whereby the world comprises objects the existence of which is independent of ideas or beliefs about them. This commitment sanctions two other analytic forms common to the field: a narrativizing historiography in which things have a self-evident quality that allows them to speak for themselves; and a logic of explanation in which the purpose of analysis is to identify those self-evident things and material causes so that actors can accommodate themselves to the realm of necessity they create.

Contrary to the claims of epistemic realism, a poststructural approach maintains that because understanding involves rendering the unfamiliar in the terms of the familiar, interpretation is unavoidable and such that there is nothing outside discourse, even though there is a material world external to thought. Contrary to a narrativizing historiography, a poststructural approach employs a mode of historical representation which self-consciously adopts a perspective, a perspective grounded in the view that identity is always constituted in relationship to difference. Because of this, poststructural approaches need to be understood as interventions in conventional understandings or established practices. And, contrary to the logic of causal explanation, a poststructural approach works with a logic of interpretation that acknowledges the improbability of cataloguing, calculating, and specifying the ‘real causes’, and concerns itself instead with considering the manifest political consequences of adopting one mode of representation over another. As such, poststructural approaches identify and explain how actors, events, or issues have been problematized. This means poststructuralism examines the ‘problematizations’ that make it possible to think of contemporary problems, and then examines how that discourse has emerged historically to frame an understanding of problems and solutions (Campbell 1998a: Preface).

Case study:

Images of humanitarian crises

As an approach that adopts a critical stance in relation to its objects of concern, poststructuralism differs from other theoretical perspectives in international relations. Because it does not seek to formulate a theory of international relations, it does not outline a detailed scheme of international politics in which some actors, issues, and relations are privileged at the expense of others. As such, poststructuralism can, therefore, concern itself with an almost boundless array of actors, issues, and events.

The case study chosen to illustrate poststructuralism here concerns visual images of humanitarian disaster, especially famine. Visual imagery can be approached from a range of theoretical positions, but in the way it calls attention to questions of interpretation, perspective, and their political effects it is well suited to demonstrate aspects of a poststructural account. It also reminds us that discourse should not be confined to the linguistic (Rose 2001: Chs 6, 7).

p. 213Visual imagery is of particular importance for international politics because it is one of the principal ways in which news from distant places is brought home. Indeed, ever since early explorers made a habit of taking cameras on their travels, photographs have provided much basic information about the people and places encountered on those travels. Much like cartography, these images contributed to the development of an ‘imagined geography’ in which the dichotomies of West/East, civilized/barbaric, North/South, and developed/underdeveloped have been prominent (Said 1979; Gregory 1995). Since the advent of technology for moving images (i.e. film, television, and video), much of the news from abroad centred on disaster, with stories about disease, famine, war, and death prominent (Moeller 1999). In the post-Cold War era, news about humanitarian emergencies has become increasingly prominent.

Humanitarian emergencies are matters of life and death. But they do not exist for the majority of the people in the world unless they are constructed as an event. This construction, which materializes these issues of life and death in particular ways, is achieved, in large part, through media coverage. These media materializations create a range of identities—us/them, victim/saviour—and are necessary for a response to be organized. This argument is consistent with poststructuralism’s reorientation of analysis from the assumption of pregiven subjects to the problematic of subjectivity because it maintains that the event (the emergency or disaster) and the identities of those involved are the effects of discursive practices through which they are brought into being. As the development consultant Jonathan Benthall argues:

the coverage of disasters by the press and the media is so selective and arbitrary that … they ‘create’ a disaster when they decide to recognise it. To be more precise, they give institutional endorsement or attestation to bad events which otherwise have a reality restricted to a local circle of victims. Such endorsement is a prerequisite for the marshalling of external relief and reconstructive effort.

Pictures, such as those imprinted as photographs or frames of film, are especially apt for a poststructural analysis because they foreground questions of representation. Such pictures have been culturally produced as authoritative documents that witness atrocity and injustice, in large part because they are accepted as transparent windows on an already existing world. Through the photograph we are said to be able to view things as they are. However, technologically generated images are anything but objective records of an external reality. They are necessarily constructions in which the location of the photographer, the choice of the subject, the framing of the content, the exclusion of context, and limitations on publication and circulation unavoidably create a particular sense of place populated by a particular kind of people.

Famine images remain powerful and salient in modernity because they recall a precarious premodern existence industrialized society has allegedly overcome. Understood as a natural disaster in which there is a crisis of food supply, famine is seen as a symptom of the lack of progress that results in the death of the innocent (Edkins 2000). It is for this reason that famine images are more often than not of women and children, barely clothed, staring passively into the lens, flies flitting across their faces (Figure 11.3). Content analyses of newspaper photos during the Ethiopian famine of 1984 (which gave rise to the Live Aid phenomenon) found that mothers and children featured more than any other subject (Figure 11.4). As one study noted:

All these pictures overwhelmingly showed people as needing our pity—as passive victims. This was through a de-contextualised concentration on mid- and close-up shots emphasising body language and facial expressions. The photos seemed mainly to be taken from a high angle with no eye-contact, thus reinforcing the viewer’s sense of power compared with their apathy and hopelessness. The ‘Madonna and Child’ image was particularly emotively used, echoing the biblical imagery. Women were at the same time patronised and exalted.

p. 214

Figure 11.3 Famine victims with aid workers, Idaga Hamus, Northern Ethiopia,1984

Source: Camerapix.

Figure 11.4 Mohamed Amin and Michael Buerk filming in Ethiopia, 1984

Source: Camerapix.

p. 215

Figure 11.5 Daily Mirror cover image, 21 May 2002, ‘Africa’s Dying Again’

Source: Mirrorpix.

Content analyses of news images through time reveals that regardless of the context, time, or place in which famine has been observed, the same images recur (Moeller 1999: Ch. 3). They recur because they are the icons of a disaster narrative in which complex political circumstances are interpreted through an established journalistic frame of reference. In this discursive formation, outsiders come from afar to dispense charity to victims of a natural disaster who are too weak to help themselves (Benthall 1993: Ch. 5). Instead of this discursive formation having to be explained in full each time, the recurrence of the iconic image of the starving child triggers this general and established understanding of famine, thereby disciplining any ambiguity about what is occurring in famine zones.

This discursive formation has effects on ‘us’ at the same time as it gives meaning to ‘them’. Indeed, it establishes a series of identity relations that reproduce and confirm notions of self/other, developed/underdeveloped, North/South, masculine/feminine, sovereignty/anarchy, and the like. Given that most contemporary famine imagery comes from one continent, it reproduces the imagined geography of ‘Africa’, so that a continent of a billion people in fifty-seven countries is homogenized into a single entity represented by a starving child (Figure 11.5). In doing this, a stereotypical famine image is not creating something from nothing. It is drawing upon established modes of representation, bringing into the present something that has been historically significant for European identity—that since the first colonial encounters ‘Africa’ has been understood as a site of cultural, moral, and spatial difference populated by ‘barbarians’, ‘heathens’, ‘primitives’, and ‘savages’. This attention to the historical emergence of particular modes of representation is a feature of poststructural analysis. Understood as genealogy, this concern with history dispenses with the search for origins and deals with how dominant understandings have come to work in the present (see Foucault 1977; Ashley 1987).

p. 216As has been detailed here, the logic of interpretation that marks a poststructural analysis is concerned with the manifest political consequences of adopting one mode of representation over another. In terms of this case study, this focus would note two impacts. First, that the discursive production of ‘Africa’ means the majority of outsiders view the continent in wholly negative terms as a place of disease, distress, and instability. Second, such representations establish the conditions of possibility for state and nonstate action with regard to humanitarian crises, especially as they depoliticize the issues and render them best dealt with by humanitarian aid. Significantly, this logic of interpretation encompasses a notion of causality. But, rather than claiming a direct cause–effect relationship between pictures and policy (as in some arguments about the ‘CNN effect’ in international politics), this focus on the conditions of possibility posits an ‘emergent causality’ in which elements infuse and resonate across cultural and social domains, creating real effects without being able to specify a direct, causal link (see Connolly 2004).

The overall purpose of a poststructural analysis is ethical and political. Its emphasis on how things have been produced over time seeks to denaturalize conventional representations so as to argue that they could have been different. By repoliticizing dominant representations, poststructural analyses call attention to the inclusions and exclusions involved in producing that which appears to be natural, fixed, and timeless, and argue that the political action which follows from naturalized understandings could be pursued differently. In the context of humanitarian crises, especially famines, this would establish the following: the modern understanding of famine as starvation has been secured by visual representations of women and children as innocent victims, marginalizing in the process indigenous notions of famine as social catastrophe (Edkins 2000). Understanding famine as starvation leads to international action as humanitarian aid, directed towards the condition of individuals, whereas understanding famine as social catastrophe could lead to international action as conflict resolution, directed towards the state of the community. If followed, the consequence of this would be a complete overhaul of humanitarian action in the post-Cold War world.

Case study questions


Why do images play an important role in global politics?


How have images of famines shaped prevailing Western views of Africa and what kind of power relations are implicated in these perspectives?


From a poststructural perspective, interpretation and representation are indispensable and unavoidable when it comes to engaging both the domain of international politics and the field of IR. This claim is supported by the developments in philosophy and science which have undermined empiricist and positivist accounts of knowledge and theory. With its emphasis on the importance of language, culture, and history, the interdisciplinary context that has made critical perspectives like poststructuralism possible has challenged the ‘common sense’ and ‘taken for granted’ assumptions about reality which many traditional theories of IR have relied upon.

In assessing poststructuralism, it is important to be clear about the purpose of this body of thought. Poststructuralism is different from most other approaches to international politics because it does not see itself as a theory, school, or paradigm which produces a single account of its subject matter. Instead, it is an approach, attitude, or ethos that pursues critique in particular ways. Because it understands critique as an operation that flushes out the assumptions through which conventional and dominant understandings have come to be (suppressing or marginalizing alternative accounts in the process), poststructuralism sees critique as an inherently positive p. 217exercise that establishes the conditions of possibility for pursuing alternatives. It is in this context that poststructuralism makes other theories of IR one of its objects of analysis, and approaches those paradigms with meta-theoretical questions designed to expose how they are structured.

Although it does not outline a specific theory of international relations, this approach nonetheless offers a number of general and constructive arguments that can be used to approach the study of international politics in a different manner. Poststructuralism reorients analysis away from the prior assumption of pregiven subjects to the problematic of subjectivity. This involves rethinking the question of power and identity, such that all identities are understood as effects of the operation of power and materialized through discourse. While poststructuralism rejects empiricist understandings of knowledge, its critical approach is often empirical, using archives, images, survey data, content analysis, and the like as evidence in understanding the relationship between power and knowledge. The result of a poststructuralist analysis is itself an interpretation of international politics, and as such can (and should) be subject to the same ethos of critique that gave rise to it.

Chapter questions


What does it mean to say that abstraction, interpretation, and representation are indispensable and unavoidable?


How are power and knowledge related? What does it mean to say they are related rather than synonymous with each other?


What are the key features of the positivist meta-theoretical discourse that have underpinned traditional approaches to international politics, and how have developments in the philosophy of science challenged these features?


What are some examples of foundational thought in IR, and what critiques have been directed at foundational thought generally?


What is the critical attitude of poststructuralism as expressed in the work of Michel Foucault, and how does it differ from traditional conceptions of social scientific theory?


If there is ‘nothing outside discourse’, does this mean that language is all there is and reality is only a product of the imagination?

Further reading

Bleiker, R. (2000), Popular Dissent, Human Agency and Global Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Theoretical and empirical demonstration of how exploring questions of identity, agency, and subjectivity widens the understanding of politics and permits a conception of resistance.

Campbell, D. (1998), Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, revised edn (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

One of the first book-length studies that works with a poststructural attitude to rethink international politics, with an epilogue in the revised edition reviewing the discipline’s debates around identity.

p. 218Der Derian, J. and Shapiro, M. J. (eds) (1989), International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics (Lexington, KY: Lexington Books).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

The first collection of poststructural work, for which the publisher insisted on having ‘postmodern’ in the title.

Der Derian, J. (2009), Critical Practices in International Theory: Selected Essays (New York: Routledge).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

This collection of essays fuses critical and poststructuralist theories in order to analyse issues as diverse as diplomacy, terrorism, intelligence, national security, new forms of warfare and the role of information technology in international relations.

Edkins, J. (1999), Poststructuralism and International Relations: Bringing the Political Back In (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Provides a good introduction to the work of Derrida and Foucault, among others, emphasizing questions of subjectivity and politics.

Edkins, J. (2015), Face Politics (London: Routledge).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Places the face and questions of identity at the centre of global politics. By presenting people as interconnected, the book resists both universal notion of being and the idea of singular and autonomous individuals.

Hansen, L. (2006), Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War (New York: Routledge).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Informative introductory discussion on poststructuralism, as well as how poststructuralist accounts and methodology help to understand the constitution of identity and security in the context of foreign policy.

Walker, R. B. J. (1993), Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Seminal discussion that critically examines IR as political theory, thereby establishing the possibility for poststructural analyses.

Important websites

Although neither of these sites is self-consciously poststructuralist, the critical approaches to their objects of concern embodies the ethos of critique described.

The Imaging Famine project examines media coverage of famine from the nineteenth century to the present day. Focusing on photographic images, it contains background documents, reports as well as historic and contemporary photo essays.

The Information Technology, War and Peace project. At Brown University’s Watson Institute, it covers the impact of information technology on statecraft and new forms of networked global politics.

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book for lots of interesting additional material.


  • 1. In addition to the editors, we are grateful to Martin Coward, Marieke de Goede, Debbie Lisle, and Simon Philpott for critical commentaries on drafts of this chapter. For help with updating new editions we could like to thank Constance Duncombe and Emma Hutchison. All responsibility for the final version nonetheless remains ours.

  • 2. While sharing common poststructural traits there are also key differences between these philosophers. For good introductions to the issues at stake see Descombes (1981), Culler (1982), White (1991), Edkins (1999), and Hoy (2004).