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On Geographies, Borders, and Seams of Expertise

by Carrie Reiling on October 30, 2017

Those who position themselves as feminist International Relations (IR) scholars usually realise early on that they need to be experts in international relations AND feminist theory—both the mainstream and critical perspectives of their particular subfield. But as one of the key takeaways from feminist theory reminds us, the boundaries of disciplines and of knowledge aren’t so clear the closer you get to them. When we work near the boundaries, at the intersection of feminist security studies and feminist global political economy, for example, we push ourselves to be familiar with, if not experts of, these fields, as well as, again, being committed to feminism and allied critical theories.[1] The question comes to whether this is worth it for feminist scholars and whether it furthers marginalisation, because this burden is not usually shared by more mainstream scholars.

The truth of the matter is that producing knowledge in cross-boundary fields such as feminist secureconomy (which crosses several boundaries, in fact) does place a disproportionate burden on those pushing their way through these boundaries and those who we engage in our knowledge production process. For ourselves as researchers and those involved in the research process, the often-invisible labour of pushing against and crossing disciplinary boundaries creates a pressure to be an Expert of All Things – yet we are not credited (or compensated, as the case may be) for the necessary extra efforts in an academic economy based upon our “contribution” to a clearly defined field. This post explores how the research practices of feminist IR scholars are both burdensome and liberating, allowing us to both contribute to subfields as well as understand the linkages between them.

In the first paragraph of their “Beyond Binaries” post in this series, Jutta Weldes and Elisa Wynne-Hughes ask: “How can we study an undifferentiated social world in which everything is in fact connected to everything else?” This is the wail of the social science researcher, particularly those working with interpretive and feminist methodologies and who are particularly attuned to the social world’s interconnectivity. All of the posts in this Secureconomy series are asking us to push against the dichotomies and disciplining in the study of International Relations. But for those of us who do the research in this broad, multidisciplinary “discipline,” we ask, what do I need to know? How much knowledge do I have to have to do this work? And if we have to know almost everything, how can we possibly do good research?

I certainly don’t have the answer to any of these questions, nor do I believe that any of them have a single answer. What finally helped me overcome my insufficient prior disciplined knowledge was looking beyond the usual IR theories, even feminist IR theories. I had to listen to the silences in my research and ask how and why they were silenced. As researchers, we can’t just ask ourselves what we know and don’t know but also why we know something or why we don’t.

The metaphor I used kept changing: a silence from a semi-colon, a seam in the pottery, a scar on the back of a hand, a rift in the earth. It wasn’t enough for me to see that something was there or was missing; I had to ask why. What prevented the clay from being smoothed, the skin from healing with no trace of the injury? What was separated yet simultaneously brought together by the punctuation or the geology? What is the in-between here? In this place, in this space, is newness, where most questions, good questions are raised.

Similar to Jenny Hedström, I had to develop a feminist ethic to ask what was happening at the seam of security and political economy, as well as at the joining of political actors. In studying “the international,” feminists generally understand that various levels of analysis are inextricable, as are politics and economics. Feminism at the intersection of security studies and political economy means an attention to power and inequalities and to the silences that have occurred and might begin within a new research agenda. Geography matters, as does time: attention to thinking about how policies, projects, programs, literatures work in the short term and the long term, right here or over there.

So for me, researching the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace, and Security agenda as it is implemented in West Africa by local women’s NGOs, the seam brought together gendered aspects of human security and political economy. To my questions about women’s security, I received answers about economic empowerment. When I probed local economic development, responses were put in terms of individual and community security. When women gained security rights, those rights required material conditions for their realisation. When women attempted to work with international actors and their communities, they required financial assistance to do so. The women I worked with had synthesised security and political economy through significant intellectual, physical, and emotional labour; therefore, it was necessary that I also bring together the two concepts.

Furthermore, the work that the women’s NGOs did brought together international and transnational actors (the UN and INGOs), national actors (primarily the government), and local actors (activists and community members). Like at the top of a knit hat, I saw a bump where these actors were all drawn together, where they were not seamlessly integrated, which made me ask how they were working together and why there was such an obvious seam.

For the majority of the West African women that I interviewed, the language of political economy and development is at the forefront of their conceptions of security. National governments, such as Côte dʼIvoire’s, are still grappling with the effects of IMF structural adjustment policies, upon which the ethnic conflict was based. The continuation of neoliberal policies and large-scale economic development is not trickling down to poor and rural populations, which continues the insecurity in the country, even after the general resolution of the conflict. Additionally, beyond the national government, women in their communities are also discussing how long-term economic insecurity makes them insecure in their households and in their communities. Yet, despite the obvious connections between security and political economy, the highest-priority projects are the security ones. For women, that means the Women, Peace, and Security agenda dictates the attention given to women.

Seams, scars, rifts, even semicolons are physical. Embodiment is central to much of feminist theory, and for my research process, even my metaphors are tactile. I struggled with writing this post because I have no answers, just questions. Bringing feminist security studies and feminist global political economy into conversation is vital for deepening feminist coherence; however, the material implications of synthesising research agendas are heavy on the researcher. Already, feminist researchers from either security studies or political economy must be well versed in feminism as well as their sub-discipline. At the intersection of the two, feminist researchers must then become experts in one more area, thus increasing the burden of expertise.

But I think that that is the beauty and the utility of feminist secureconomy—to ask more and deeper questions. To use another analogy, feminist secureconomy is like intersectionality; the purchase is not the individual strands coming together, but how the concepts and identities work with or against each other, building another identity, another discipline that more fully explains experience.

And there is where I can begin to answer my question. It’s not that I must be an Expert of All Things but that I know how to explain that exact spot I have a question about. In that bump that is the seam where concepts join we can find our answers. We can hold our object of study up to the light so we can see the seams and ask why those seams are there and why they weren’t or couldn’t be smoothed out.

[1] The “we” I use throughout refers to feminist and feminist-adjacent IR scholars. I do not intend to make assumptions about these scholars, except a stance of self-reflection and openness to inter-/multi-/non-disciplinarity.

Carrie Reiling

Carrie Reiling is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pomona College. Her research examines the implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda in West Africa and the intersections of global governance, peacebuilding, and development.

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