Feminist Fangirl: A talk by IR legend J Ann Tickner

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by Sarah Payne

taken from: http://www.american.edu/uploads/profiles/large/SIS%2520Tickner.jpg
taken from: http://www.american.edu/uploads/profiles/large/SIS%2520Tickner.jpg

High on many reading lists on issues of security and feminism, J Ann Tickner is a familiar name for any International Relations student. For this reason, I was really excited to see her deliver a guest lecture at the Graduate Institute Geneva on 14th April 2014, entitled “Dealing with Difference: Problems and Possibilities for Dialogue in International Relations”, and tackling concepts like discrimination and epistemology of discourse  -as problematic and diverse as feminism – all within the hour.

At once commanding and humorous, J Ann Tickner gave a short but incisive account of traditional IR theory, in which she criticised the conventionally accepted narratives of IR as the stories of white, straight, male protagonists exercising their privilege on the world stage. She cited the work of Stanley Hoffman, when he spoke about the “failure of IR in becoming a truly international discipline”. She went on to debunk the myths of the “Great Debates” – the series of methodological disputes forming the basis of traditional IR theoretical development – as serving US realist interests, and as (her words) “ a barrier to constructive dialogue across paradigms”. Above all, she stressed the need for dialogue among different geographical and methodological perspectives, especially from post-colonial and feminist scholars, who can tell the stories of the marginalised and dispossessed.

Professor Tickner then went on to highlight some of these issues in the relation to imperialism and colonialism. She described how the narratives of modern social science disciplines chart the expansion of Western ‘enlightened’ ideas of democracy and modernisation being diffused to the rest of the “uncivilised”, “uncultured” and “barbaric” world – a narrative in which the colonial project is seen as an unfortunate but inevitable blemish on the record of the noble, pioneering Western European super-race. Indeed, this white-supremacist view of IR, anthropology, sociology, geography and political science has been dominant until well into the 20th century – even one of IR’s most prestigious journals, Foreign Affairs, started off life as the Journal of Race Development. The problems of this approach are widespread. To downplay the effects of imperialism is disastrous. European colonialism has shaped the past, present and futures of two-thirds of the world’s population, and its legacies include global poverty, extreme cruelty and even genocide. The European tendency to delineate white/ black, Western/ other, Christian/ heathen and, yes, male/female is known as a process of “othering” – hierarchising, distancing and dehumanising people perceived as inherently different.

The Western tendency to construct these binaries has implications for what Professor Tickner calles ‘knowledge production’ – in this dichotomised system of superior/inferior the dominant voices heard are those of the privileged. And this is Tickner’s argument: we must question terms still used in modern theory such as “civilisation” and “race development”. We must introduce a concept of hybridity into the discipline – we must think in terms of multiple perspectives rather than unhelpful, discriminatory binary system, especially in our increasingly globalised world. And most importantly, we must allow the dispossessed to tell their own stories.

Professors Tickner’s short speech was fantastic, at once overviewing nearly 100 years of IR and critiquing many of its main tenets. Her call for dialogue amongst perspectives is long overdue and very convincing, and I, for one, was very glad to be able to hear her speak.

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