Discourse – Post-structuralism With(in) International Relations: A Necessary Position

This discourse argues that post-structuralism as a theoretical and philosophical perspective may be beneficial to the study of international politics within the field of International Relations. If indeed we align this discussion within the framework that International Relations is a field dominated positivist mode of knowledge which allowed for first order questions and issues to be privileged then post-structuralism’s different epistemological and ontological standpoint could prove to be a useful set of tools to allow the questioning of the previously unquestioned and the problematization of the previously taken as a given.In this regard, post-structuralism could serve as the necessary critical voice within International Relations

To begin the discussion, it is may well be bountiful that we clearly put into context the term post-structuralism. To do so, we will first discuss briefly what the post-structuralist are post- from. Fundamentally speaking, structuralism– within the realm of sociology, anthropology and linguistics – is a general intellectual movement which tenets have the fundamentals on the view that human life could only be understood through interrelations of phenomena that constitute it, which in turn could be analyzed as a “structure” (Blackburn, 1996, p. 365). Through the study of this overarching structure within a society, an underlying pattern could be observed which would allow abstract and ahistorical law to be derived from it. Thus, such assertion comes with ontological and epistemological that fundamentally allowed for a reasonably objective study of social objects given that the observer[s] follows a given set of methodological requirements.

As asserted by Ole Wæver, post-structuralism is not equal to “anti-structuralism” (Baylis & Smith, 2014, p. 172; Hansen & Wæver, 2003, p. 23). They rather share more than few basic assumptions such as the previously mentioned relational way of seeing society and the constructedness of individuals; as well as other assumptions such as those within semiotic analysis (Merlingen, 2013). The divergence of the two could fundamentally found within post-structuralism’s rejection of structuralism’s scientific commitment. They see knowledge as something that is inextricably from power as it is a tool in which normalization of certain standard and discourse could manifest in a given period of a given society (Foucault & Rabinow, 1991, p. 13; Merlingen, 2013). In this regard, science is merely a single way in which a certain truth and reality is made valid over others.

I believe that this is a suitable point of entry into our discussion of post-structuralism and IR. Since post-structuralism rejects the rigid and systematic scientific commitment that most IR perspectives generally hold, the difference ontological and epistemological stance could allow them to ask different sets of questions and problematize different sets of issues which may be overlooked by the mainstreams (Smith, Booth, &Zalewski, 1996, p. 245). To put the idea into a more concrete materialization, the best example of a questioning of the previously unquestioned an a different set of problematization – although not the first and certainly not the last – could be seen in the writings of Richard Ashley in considering the achievement of post-structuralism in IR (Smith et al., 1996, Chapter 11). To summarize briefly, in an attempt to answer the question of post-structuralism’s contribution to IR, Ashley used the paradoxical nature of IR’s existence as a starting point: a paradox that rose from IR’s inherently fleeting, borderless and unaligned discourse and its insistence upon “insistence upon the sovereign, territorial positionality of speaking, writing, and acting” (Smith et al., 1996, p. 242). In this regard, he sees the paradoxical nature of IR as similar to that of itinerate condottiere, in which he elegantly put as:

“…the posture and orientation of this uprooted, estranged, nomadic figure, who is never far from engagement in battle but who, in his engagements, is committed to nothing other than an abstract and mobile will to territorialize, to make some sort of sovereign territorialization of life work, wherever he might be.”(Smith et al., 1996, p. 251).

This critical analysis has significant implications within the field of IR. The first point concerns the nature of the discipline of IR which was said to be a field populated by strangers; a field who flies above everything but never really land to see the details of each terrain passed. The second point would concern the subject position of the scholar within IR; which Ashley argued to be in a position of estrangement due to IR’s lack of fixed “territorial positionality”; which allowed for a related third point, which fundamentally concerns the validity of the currently hegemonic critical voices within IR, which Ashley argued as characterized by a heralding of a subject that is repressed and thus estranged from the current order. The validity of such critical view is questioned due to the similarity between the subjectivity of such and the subjective positionality within IR which would consequently be less effective – if at all – to bring a critical break within IR.

Post-structuralism in this regard could provide a theoretical check which allowed for such inadequacy to be exposed. A further critical analysis through different basic ontological and epistemological assumptions could provide a bountiful insight into the nature of a paradigm or a discipline which in a sense would seem as if done from an external position. Such inadequacy that rose from the unchallenged state of a hegemonic “truth” could have a rather significant implication. The empirical and theoretical confusion that emerged as the end of Cold War took the discipline by surprise could be placated as the prime example of the debacle that could emerge from unchallenged paradigmatic dominance. This is not to say that post-structuralism holds the answer to the big questions within IR, on the contrary, it questions the big questions – which usually are characterized by first order enquiries – and ask questions that are previously overlooked by the discipline.

If indeed we take the stance that the contribution of post-structuralism within IR is that of a critical laborer as elaborated by Ashley (Smith et al., 1996, p. 242), then it might not come invited without resistance. I argue that one of the strongest resistances comes from the positivist and first order dominated side of the discipline. Some commentator such as Jarvis has rather resisted in a rather polemical manner in which he accused as being utterly perplexing as well as being ideologically destructive for the discipline (Calkivik, 2017). A rather typical criticism also asserted by Keohane in which he accused the reflexive approaches such as that of post-structuralism to be deficient in terms of developing a coherent research program. Once again the argument that the study of international relations is best analyzed within the first order level is being pushed forward. The same argument has been made by Stephen Walt in which he accused that the works of post-structuralism within IR to be counterproductive for the same reasoning put forward by Keohane(Calkivik, 2017; Walt, 1991, p. 223).

As such, one could argue that IR has been so deeply rooted in its self-proclaimed “connectedness” with the “real world” of international politics that such critical laboring might seem impractical at best and damaging at worst. Such outcome could probably be explained if we examine IR’s rather short history. In brief, IR has been a discipline that was fundamentally built not out of the usual epistemology of infant social sciences, but rather out of somewhat a historical one whose explanation derive from the leader’s decision making in regards to war, which consequently allowed its early aims to have immediate connection to decision making(Smith, 1989, p. 7). Still in the same general direction, the more positivistic growth came in later after the world war two, which could be argued to start with Morgenthau in his push for a more scientific methodology in studying international relations (ibid, p. 9). It is argued that such could be understood based on the U.S. academia climate at that time which was in favor for a more scientific turn proposed by Morgenthau (ibid, p. 10). Thus, it would be safe to say that the vehement resistance could be understood not in terms of individual scholar’s collective disdain for a reflective and theoretical analytics offered by post-structuralism, but through a diffuse and historical configuration of discourse that shaped IR as a discipline that allowed for a rather asymmetrical representation of use-value of different perspectives.

The best and somewhat ironic case study of the case could be seen in Wendt’s formulation of constructivism that is claimed to be well suited to International Relations. The irony here is that although he represents what supposedly is a social theory of International Politics – whose holds that theories will always be contingent (Griffiths, 1999, p. 126) – his fundamental commitment to rationalist and positivist foundation is extremely apparent. He openly argued that he favors positivist epistemology as it is a “epistemically privileged discourse that gives us knowledge, albeit always fallible, about the world out there” (Wendt, 1999, p. 90). He furthered his argument in elaborating that for the objects which IR is focusing on, scientific methodologies brought upon through positivist methodology is best suited to answer the questions that risen from those; a trade off necessary for social scientist in IR, a position that has been criticized by the likes of Kratochwil(Griffiths, 1999, p. 127). This shows the diffuse and firm belief that has nested within IR and its “population” in regards to positivist and first order based knowledge.

In conclusion, this discourse argues that post-structuralism as a theoretical and philosophical perspective may be beneficial to the study of international politics within the field of International Relations. If we align ourselves with the argument that due to the way that the discipline of IR was constructed, it has become a space suitable for and dominated by rationalist, positivist and first order perspectives, then the difference in epistemological and ontological assumptions that post-structuralism adopt could may well be beneficial to the discipline as a critical and reflective voice. Indeed, post-structuralism is in the capacity to question the “big question” and more importantly, to question those that the “mainstream” IR seem to overlook as it may not even be something that they see as necessary to question or let alone answer. Such radical way of looking at international politics may invite criticism mainly from the mainstream rationalist and positivist side of the discipline. As perplexing and paradoxical that their criticisms might be, it is rather explicable – and predictable – if we see the current configuration of the discipline. Such may lead to what Tickner suspects as power difference inherent within the interaction of the “marginal” reflective theories and the mainstream (Tickner, 1997). However, considering the critical quest in which post-structuralism have embarked on as well as their view about theories and theorizing, the position that they found themselves in may rather be practical to do so: sitting at the necessary position at the edge of the discipline, sifting through it, picking up on where the mainstreams have turned its back against.


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Zinedine Muhamad Radifa