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Beyond Binaries with Feminist Secureconomy

by Jutta Weldes and Elisa Wynne-Hughes on September 11, 2017

Addressing the question of the divide – or the proper relationship – between Feminist Security Studies and Feminist Global Political Economy immediately raises an age-old dilemma: how can we study an undifferentiated social world in which everything is in fact connected to everything else? To analyse a complex world means breaking it up into its components parts, investigating interrelationships, and putting them back together again. To do this, we need to slice it up into manageable chunks that we can conceptualise precisely and examine empirically. Academic disciplines and their sub-disciplines – like Feminist Security Studies (FSS) and Feminist Global Political Economy (FGPE) – are in part the result of this analytical need (and of course in part also the result of the politics of academia, of teaching institutions, of funding bodies, and so on). The outcome of this perfectly explicable need to break things apart, from which we can gain analytical precision, is that we simultaneously tend to reify distinctions that were initially only analytically constructed. This means that we treat as natural divisions that are not real. This reification, in turn, obscures crucial interconnections. We thus face an inevitable dilemma. We could recognise the interconnectedness of everything, which makes it difficult to study. Alternatively we could make studying easier by dividing things up, which falsely separates interconnected dimensions of the social world, leading to problematic analyses. This blog’s discussion of the reintegration of FSS and FGPE in part reflects a natural and potentially fruitful pendulum swing back towards recognising the interconnectedness of everything.

At the same time, any project of reintegrating FSS and FGPE raises a slew of potentially interesting issues for discussion. We want to highlight three of these issues here, not to argue against reintegrating, but to suggest issues to consider in doing so.

1) The distinction between Feminist Security Studies and Feminist Global Political Economy maps onto mainstream/malestream International Relations (IR). Why begin with mainstream IR’s masculinist distinction between security and political economy?

The defining question posed by this blog series is very closely determined by, and maps quite directly onto, the structure of IR as a discipline. IR is traditionally divided into sub-areas, which prominently include Security Studies and International (or latterly Global) Political Economy. The ‘Secureconomy’ workshop (from which this blog series emerges) asked, ‘how the incorporation of Feminist IPE with Feminist Security Studies can advance the theoretical, epistemological, methodological, ethical, and empirical levels of feminist analysis of “the international”’. This question assumes the prior separation of these two IR sub-areas. Given feminist suspicions of IR as a discipline, we might query starting from this traditional IR dichotomy and ask some critical questions, including:

  1. Why reinscribe problematical IR distinctions that grow out of and bring with them theoretical baggage from masculinist realist (security) and liberal (political economy) approaches that have long been successfully challenged, especially by feminisms?
  2. Is ‘security’ versus ‘political economy’ the right dichotomy to begin from? Why accept these as the two most important dimensions of the social world, be it international or otherwise? Where’s the environment? Or migration? Or the everyday? Or power? Or inequalities?
  3. Ought we to be discussing a dichotomy at all? Why limit ourselves to two arenas, whether integrated or not? Why not the more complex world that most people actually encounter, that includes the domestic and the international; the local national, regional and global; the political, economic, social, historical, familial, cultural, environmental (etc)?

If we begin with the social as an undifferentiated totality, we need to ask ourselves on what grounds we divide it up. What criteria do we use? Do we, as feminists, want to privilege and re-entrench the empirical and theoretical criteria for defining and studying IR that have long been dominant in mainstream/malestream IR? This is a particularly pertinent question regarding the integration, or not, of SS and GPE given the masculinist underpinnings of the traditional IR theory on which these distinctions rest. A way forward might be to focus on political categories like power or inequality, which cut across policy areas.

2. Feminist IR has a long history of, and indeed in some ways has pioneered, non-reified, integrated IR. Why ignore traditional feminism’s failure to reify these same distinctions?

It is certainly true that some Feminist IR work can be identified as more narrowly ‘FSS’ and other work as specifically ‘FGPE’, as highlighted in the introduction. But does this really mean that we have a Feminist IR characterised by mutually exclusive camps that require reintegrating to begin with? It seems to us worth considering that the best feminist work concerned with issues of security is always already attentive to political economic context, structures, practices, actors, etc., and vice versa. Much Feminist IR is in fact difficult to locate as either FSS or FGPE to begin with, as pointed out in the introduction. There are exceptions of course – not least due to the disciplinary structure of IR and its journals, institutional academic pressures, and the UK REF, which sometimes force self-identification in sub-disciplinary terms for publication and promotion purposes. Nonetheless, this FSS/FGPE dichotomy potentially leaves out important work that does not deal strictly with security or political economy.

Crucially, significant Feminist IR work has managed (against and in contrast to much of IR) not to begin from this artificial separation, or at least not to reify it. Along with those identified in the introduction, some excellent examples are offered by classic feminist IR work by Cynthia Enloe (2014), Katharine Moon (1997) and many others. These authors study the fundamental mutual constitution of the global, regional, national and local sex industries, sex tourisms, and labour. They highlight the productive connections between employment practices, the forward deployment and home basing of US and other military forces, the military, diplomatic and alliance practices of states, and racist and ethnic identity structures and practices. This work does not begin from a separation of security and political economy. It comes much closer to recognising the interconnectedness of everything, beginning from unreified understandings of local and global, domestic and international, political and economic, and so on. In fact, they start from concerns about exclusions, power and inequalities, rather than from (policy- and discipline-defined) sub-disciplines.

3. Perhaps Feminist IR ought to continue the problematisation of ‘the international’ as its overarching analytical category?

Beginning from IR categories necessarily privileges ‘the international’. However, feminists already know that this is an awkward category and it has been thoroughly dissected by feminist and other critical literatures (e.g., Enloe, 1989; Walker, 1993). Our own work on both the anti-street harassment movement, and on popular culture, tourism and world politics, has lead us to become less convinced that ‘the international’ is useful as an, or at least ‘the’, anchoring category for research, even for research into issues traditionally addressed in ‘Feminist Security Studies’ or ‘Feminist Global Political Economy’. As feminism tells us, foundational binaries like the domestic/international are themselves power moves, with significant power effects, that feminists have long been deconstructing. So, challenging the FSS/FGPE binary – as this blog series does – is a good place to continue to question the closely related international/domestic binary. Simultaneously unpicking these two binaries perhaps provides a good place for the resolution of both into wider categories of ‘politics’ or of ‘power’.

We suggest that, instead of starting from an integration of IR subfields, we could begin with questions about power. We could explore how it functions and what it makes possible in terms of relations, identities and practices, in any specific context. Starting from power does not presuppose or reify any particular level of analysis, issue, or sub-area, but keeps concerns about politics (broadly defined) at the forefront.

Jutta Weldes and Elisa Wynne-Hughes
Jutta Weldes is Professor of International Relations at the University of Bristol (UK). Her research focuses on International Relations theory, US foreign policy, the nexus of popular culture and world politics, and gender and IR/world politics. Elisa Wynne-Hughes is a Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics. Her research focuses on the intersections between popular culture and international relations, focusing on tourism and the anti-street harassment movement, through postcolonial, poststructural and feminist approaches.

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