The Cabinet of Curiosity and the Levels of Analysis Problem in International Relations (IR)

Last October during the Millennium conference, Materialism and World Politics, STS and IR theorists met on the last day to discuss potential collaborations and resonances between the two discourses.  “Materialism” as a theory and as a methodology made a helpful facilitator for this conversation. One of the main points the discussion centered on during the conference was what “subjects” could be “objects” of study in each discourse.

It came down to this: STS likened choosing its subjects and objects of interest to looking into a “cabinet of curiosities.”  IR is decidedly wedded to its levels of analysis. The sovereign state and the international system of states, and–to a lesser degree–the sovereign individual. These are the legitimate subjects/objects of study in IR.  Of course, these levels are being pushed and questioned, as is evidenced by the conversation we had in London, but they figure large in the epistemology of IR.

To return to the subject of “bodies,” there is something puzzling about how IR, as a discourse and a practice, speaks of the body, or, more specifically how IR theorizes and and understands the human body in this tripartite schema of system, state, and individual.

In other disciplines, there has been an increased interest in the study of the body as a social and material phenomenon beyond a scientific or medical perspective, but, until recently, IR has never much about the human body. Conversations and analysis have focused on the state, and on the individual as connected to states.

But, how is this “individual” understood beyond the civil and legal terms that dominate our field?  Not just as a voter or a rational actor, but as an actual, material body that can be fragile, leaky, diseased, sold, colonized, male, female, multiple?

This body is a powerful body, one that cannot be fully securitized or regulated, but its seductive power to IR theorists is unmistakable.  Folllowing in the footsteps of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, and other precursors that IR has adopted as its own, IR theorists have understood or likened the state to a person (Wendt and constructivism), or used body metaphors to describe it (organs of government, for example).

This “state as a person” debate and bodily metaphors show that the body never really disappeared (as sociologists and social theorists already said in the 1980s and on), it was just less visible. A variety of recent literature in IR, and the conference in London, can attest to a new (renewed?) interest in concerns of the flesh, so to speak.  This may be due, in part, to a concomitant questioning the sovereign state as the legitimate subject of study, and most relevant actor in IR in a complex, interconnected, and globalized world with diverse actors and multiple relations of power and accountability.

This is certainly where STS has the most to offer IR–some promiscuity, as Deleuze would insist upon, in methods and subjects/objects of study. Cabinets of curiosities rather than hierarchies and levels.

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8 thoughts on “The Cabinet of Curiosity and the Levels of Analysis Problem in International Relations (IR)

  1. First off, definitely right about this: ” ”Materialism” as a theory and as a methodology made a helpful facilitator for this conversation.” Of the few things, at least early on, that we agreed on, was the centrality of materialism as a new direction for IR; and, as you say, I too think that materialism is what kept us all there, pursuing helpful bridges between areas. Now, exactly how much of IR the STS folks will utilize seems, at least to me, to be somewhat less than what IR folks will adopt from the STS are; however, I am so profoundly biased, I might as well be ignored on that account.

    You also write: “It came down to this: STS likened choosing its subjects and objects of interest to looking into a “cabinet of curiosities.” ” This cabinet of curiosities idea has, I have often claimed, been my contribution to the discussion; however, Jan said it (as we were stunned to be the first speakers after struggling to find the building), and, upon considerable reflection, I realized that my mentor Fabio Rojas, writing over at orgtheory.net during a rousing discussion about STS. As it happens, I was a guest blogger at orgtheory for a month or so a few summers ago … and, as a devout STSer, I took a ton of heat for my commitments to theory (see here: http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2010/07/05/you-probably-shouldnt-mention-bruno-latour-to-ezra-definitely-not/). The comments are pretty interesting, but the second-to-the-bottom paragraph contains the kernel of truth that I thought I thought of myself (this cabinet of curiosities idea). Either I am an unethical cur, or Fabio’s teaching was just that good.

    The turn toward an interest in bodies (among IR types) is fascinating because the meeting was all about materialism, which is sometimes seen (much like the sociologists from the 1980s on) as an alternative to theorizing bodies (or, better, only individuals).

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    • My understanding, and subsequent research in IR, is very much influenced by my IR thesis and dissertation supervisors. The first told me that IR is the last place for the political, as all politics are immanent to the globe. The second defines as “your relationship with the wider world.” I suppose it is apparent in my work that the level of analysis problem is a problem only in that it constricts those two understandings of global politics too much. And, I imagine, is why my brand of IR theory (along with many junior scholars) has to fight to be “real IR.” Practically, this means that all subjects and objects are fair game for IR. This causes existential epistemological and methodological panic for IR scholars. What then makes IR its own discipline? We study states and war. Anything else isn’t IR, it’s sociology or anthropology or political science.

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      • “And, I imagine, is why my brand of IR theory (along with many junior scholars) has to fight to be “real IR.” ”
        That sort of sounds like a type of war, right?

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