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Security as a Concept: Issues for IR and Feminist IPE

by Stefanie Wöhl on November 22, 2017

At the European International Studies Conference (EISA) in Barcelona in September 2017, a roundtable discussed the interconnections between economy and society in International Political Economy, taking up questions of Security Studies. Remarkably, questions of security discussed in this context were mainly associated with international security issues such as war and terrorism in the narrow sense of the term. While this seems quite obvious if we look at what “security” means to a broad range of scholars in the field of IPE or IR, it is intriguing that all but the feminist presenters on the panel, like Juanita Elias or Marieke de Goede, did not look at the wider sense the term security entails. As Juanita Elias and Amanda Chisholm highlight in their blog post for this series, the household, for example, plays a major role when it comes to supporting a husband in military or private security service, and doing the “background” work of emotional labor and household accounting in supporting him and the family. The structural dimensions of private households in the global political economy concerning “security” issues, in military and private security services and the social reproductive work that women take on, make the public and private divide visible and show how the everyday is important for upholding power structures and gendered inequality globally. It shows how global security plays into households, or how security has always been an issue within them, considering domestic violence taking place within the household. It demonstrates, as Sara Meger pointed out, that class relations are intertwined with other categories and that a focus on intersectionality is helpful in uncovering the power structures within these social relations.

But it also illustrates the many ways the term “security” is performatively used, when we try to define what security could actually mean from a feminist perspective: do we think of the everyday practices of “securing” the home, the “family in distress”, whether this means that family members are affected by everyday rape and violence in refugee camps, as Jenny Hedström describes in her blog for this series, or living with a violent partner; or of security from expulsion of one’s home if foreclosure is near? What does “security” entail in these very different contexts and how should we think about it looking at the very different situations where we as researchers encounter “security issues”? All these examples show that security is a topic of the International Political Economy and International Relations, where questions of the market and (market) violence intersect. Especially in International Relations these questions converge, when we consider that war crimes are committed and devastate the livelihoods of heterosexual women, men, LGQTBI and children.

In Austria,  – and many other countries – at the time of writing, a right wing discourse against refugees has succeeded in linking everyday personal security issues of “feeling safe” to the discourse on “dangerous refugees and asylum seekers”, exploiting the social security system, and posing a threat to Austrian lifestyle (whatever that may be) and to women “feeling secure” in public spaces. Who imagines security to mean being safe from violence, unharmed by battering, having shelter, food, access to health care or hospitals and enough income to make a living? Or who imagines security as being free from “Others” who were originally not part of a country or the community, who might not share a belief system or have different ways of acting and expressing themselves? What does security actually entail?

When security concerns the market economy in the more narrow sense, then it must be analyzed in the many ways “security markets” function in their neoliberal forms as Saskia Stachowitsch and Amanda Chisholm have revealed in their research. IPE research should uncover where the state and supranational institutions come in, or retreat, in various contexts and how global markets and nation states are in transition and have defined our understanding of security. I want to highlight the state and state actors in this context, because the state apparatus defines security, extrapolates laws concerning security and executes “security” not only in war contexts.

Of course, it makes sense to be analytically distinctive in defining security as having different dimensions: concerning the absence of violence against the body in peace and war, as an issue of social security concerning the everyday, social reproduction, the household and the role of the state in this context. This is where security and market issues intersect. This is also what Jutta Weldes and Elisa Wynne-Hughes highlighted in their contribution to this blog: “to analyze a complex world means breaking it up into its component parts, investigating interrelationships, and putting them back together again.” As they show, feminists like V. Spike Peterson and Cynthia Enloe have long resisted the division of boundaries in IR or IPE, taking questions of power and inequality to the forefront of their research and thereby transgressing the boundaries of disciplines. This is what research in IR and IPE, if we want to stick to the disciplinary division for a moment, is all about: bringing to view how our lives are not distinctive from one another from the outset, that we live in institutionalized global divisions of labor, care chains, states, a world of wars, structural and personal violence as well as power relations and societal structures which make “us” believe that separations are necessary. They are not. Not in this way. They are part of ideological constructions, discursive practices and material experiences of everyday lives that have been separated historically in colonial settings, by powerful institutions, some of them being the very universities some of us find ourselves in. Let’s not continue this disciplinary divide as scholars materially and discursively, if it only reifies the power structures of knowledge and access to it. We should continue our explorations of the global political economy and international politics, its global exclusions, divides, violence, peaceful possibilities and our responsibility for change. This research is not only for researchers to make a living from, or why do we explore a certain topic? It is because, as Carrie Reiling pointed out, we as researchers have an institutional need to be an expert in our field, this field already being part of divisions of labor, knowledge and access to institutional power. But isn’t feminist research all about asking critical questions, transgressing (disciplinary) boundaries and striving for more equality? Or, as Caron Gentry explores, how the construction of a certain discourse, on terrorism in Caron’s example, structures our assumed knowledge about the topic and thereby supports a whole industry of weapon supply and war through the terrorism discourse?

As researchers and practitioners in various fields, in different regions of the world, we have more or less chances of striving for change in our institutions, organizations or as individuals. In IPE and IR, we have the possibilities to bring our research together like on this blog, to continue discussions and be informed by one another. From my feminist IPE perspective, violence and security are issues I find intersecting in my own research when women commit suicide on the day of their eviction, or when they are burdened with indebtedness. This is why we should think of security broadly and show that it is connected to various issues that intersect like financialization and social reproduction, states and privatization, migration, alienation and citizenship, to name but a few. These issues are pressing and we are well advised to consider them more distinctively in future research on security.

Stefanie Wöhl

Stefanie Wöhl is a Professor at the University of Applied Sciences BFI Vienna and heads the team on European and International Studies. Her research explores state transformations and European integration from a feminist perspective with a focus on social reproduction and the global political economy.

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