Critical Methodological and Narrative Developments in IR: A Forum

Elizabeth Dauphinee 2Some months ago, Elizabeth Dauphinee (York) asked if we would be interested in hosting a series of posts resulting from a workshop on recent critical methodological and narrative developments in International Relations. We said yes. Said workshop was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and happened in October of last year at the York Centre for International and Security Studies. It considered how narrative writing, including storytelling, autoethnography, and other forms of creative expression are currently altering the provenance of IR knowledge. Over the next week and a bit we will feature posts from many of the contributors. In this introductory post Elizabeth (who previously guest-posted on racism and the self) sets out the trajectory and stakes of the forum.

The ways in which academics and practitioners think about international politics are shaped invariably by the ways in which they produce and access information. In IR, as in all social science disciplines, there exists an established professional language that privileges the initiated, reproduces adherents through highly specialized training practices, and ignores or rebuffs intellectual ‘outsiders’. These languages sanitize academic writing and they strategically deploy their interlocutors in a style of adversarial debate that is often stagnant and exclusionary. In addition, virtually all theories of IR seek replicable truths and are deeply ill-at-ease with results that are unclear or open-ended or with projects that reveal ambiguity and ambivalence. Scholars deploying various critical methodologies have been arguing for decades that knowledge can only be partial and situated. However, this has not led to a change in the way mainstream scholarship is developed and disseminated, and even scholars who consider themselves to be critical typically operate with specialized theoretical languages and narrow intellectual coda that are often impenetrable even for the most diligent and invested student.

In recent years, these dilemmas have led to a new line of academic inquiry that may be fundamentally altering the landscape of IR. These approaches are based in autoethnography and narrative writing, and involve storytelling, explicit use of the ‘I’ as a narrating subject, and deep exploration of the interface between writers and their subject matter. Scholars who work with these approaches are showing that the form writing takes shapes its content, plots its own boundaries, and pre-determines who can comprise its audience. They are showing that researchers are always personally present in their writing, that narratives – both written and oral – are knowledge-producing activities, and that the claim to scientific objectivity is not only impossible but also, critically, undesirable. They are also showing that critical theory written in scholarly language alienates and excludes the very communities that many IR scholars are trying to reach: students, policymakers and practitioners, institutions of governance, international organizations, the reading public, to name just a few.

As this form of writing is growing exponentially in volume and scope, the workshop organizers and participants determined that the time was ripe for a sustained discussion to identify the successes and challenges facing narrative and autoethnographic approaches. Without a careful and systematic exploration of these novel methods by those who are already working with them – and also by those who are unsure of their value – narrative IR may emerge in ways that are misguided and destructive. They may emerge as an exercise in self-indulgence, or as disconnected forays into the personal and confessional without a sustained political motif. Additionally, ethical questions surrounding the disclosure of both self and other are uniquely important for narrative IR scholars, who do not purport to ‘interview’ their subjects in a formal way. And, concerns about epistemic privilege emerge in the context of approaches that do not claim to situate knowledge in any established theory or philosophical tradition.

In 1987, the groundbreaking feminist theorist Carol Cohn wrote of her experience with the technostrategic language of nuclear defense intellectuals. Using a storytelling approach, she showed how specific professional languages delimited the discourse and the imaginations of those who used them. In time, Cohn observed, these languages precluded other ways of thinking and knowing, and ultimately led to stagnation in the way that defense intellectuals were trained to think and in their subsequent research output. Cohn’s narrative approach was widely celebrated and cited, but it stood quite alone for another two decades and was recognized mainly as a commentary on the limits of scholarship rather than as a legitimate scholarly contribution in its own right. And while many critical theorists recognized that the manner in which IR and related scholarship was written mattered for what could be said, virtually none of these scholars actually attempted to write differently or to systematically consider how the ways we are trained to write alienate us from one another, from our research, and from our students, and how they insulate our scholarly output from all but the narrowest intellectual communities. And while researchers engage non-academic communities in the course of their fieldwork, these communities are seldom seen as true partners in knowledge creation and are almost never the audiences for which academic researchers write.

In addition to their insulating character, scholarly professional languages are also deployed in a philosophical context that is deeply adversarial. Scholars become entrenched in theoretical and methodological positions in ways that are not conducive to the encouragement of creative thinking or problem solving and which stultify intellectual innovation within the academy. The late feminist scholar Grace Jantzen has observed that:

[O]nce the model of a battle is taken as central to philosophical thinking, then the likelihood increases that instead of engaging in creative exploration of the issues, a student who is trying to learn to think philosophically will think not of what gives her insight or how that insight could be extended, but of how her position could be attacked and what she needs to do about it.

In 2004, IR scholar Roxanne Lynn Doty accepted a lecture invitation from the Centre for International and Security Studies at York University. Her lecture, entitled ‘Maladies of Our Souls: Voice and the Writing of Academic International Relations’ marked the narrative turn of her celebrated career. She explored the profound disconnect between the sanitized writing characteristic of IR and the subjects of research that this writing attempted to apprehend and understand. Doty argued that:

In graduate school and throughout our careers we learn to adopt a certain style of writing, a certain way of being on the page, a certain voice…We, in turn, pass this along to our own students. This acquisition process is far from innocent…Our ideas, curiosities, intellectual wanderings, and ethical concerns are twisted and contorted to fit our professional voices and all the while the soul of our writing becomes eviscerated, our passions sucked into a sanitized vortex that squeezes the life out of the things we write about. A certain writing voice is imposed on scholars and students from the amorphous and rather ill-defined, but powerful dictates of ‘the profession’ and for this reason it is extraordinarily political with political consequences.

This lecture, later published by Cambridge Review of International Affairs, heralded what is now being called a new narrative turn in IR. In the years following Doty’s essay, narrative approaches have enjoyed a slow but steady growth in IR. In a prize-winning 2010 essay, Roland Bleiker and Morgan Brigg presented the case for an engaged form of autoethnographic scholarship. They rejected the standard view of the IR scholar as a messenger whose role is to identify information in a discrete and unaffected way. Bleiker and Brigg regard this as the starting point for a deep analysis of the relationship between academic authors and the worlds they both create and encounter. In this way, the excavation of the political subject is made possible by awareness of the self. Naeem Inayatullah also builds the case for autoethnography in the introduction to his Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR. For Inayatullah, narrative approaches are a purpose (though not the only one) in and of themselves. They allow us to engage a ‘process of discovery’ rather than ‘steer [readers] toward a conclusion’. For Inayatullah, this process of discovery is a critical part of the knowledge journey. He shows that there is always something that surprises us in our writing, and that too often this surprise is subsumed under the imperative to account for each element of the scholarly enterprise. In addition, there is a pressing need to cease rewarding intellectual aggression in IR, which only serves to mimic the established rubrics of conflict, and instead to seek out a true plurality of voices.

Since the movement toward narrative IR began, the field has witnessed significant growth in the number of scholars engaged in narrative projects, and a slow but steady growth in the acceptance of these approaches in mainstream venues. However, none of this work is clearly connected, nor has it established connections to other fields in which narrative methodologies are already firmly established and carefully critiqued, such as in Anthropology, Indigenous studies, Women’s studies, and Postcolonial studies. The workshop brought together IR scholars and those from related fields and disciplines who are involved with autoethnography, narrative approaches, and other critical methodologies in an effort to consider the successes, challenges, impacts, and potentialities of critical forms of writing in IR and elsewhere. As this community of scholars is global in scope, yet often isolated in its output, we saw a unique opportunity to create a space that can serve as an intellectual touchstone for sustained methodological inquiry over the longer term. The goals of the workshop involved the establishment of a sustained discussion on writing as praxis in IR. The workshop participants queried this praxis as it relates to the writing self, to the academy as a set of established professional practices, to undergraduate and graduate students, and to the individuals, communities, and environments that form the crux of most field research endeavors in IR scholarship. While many outlets are now beginning to publish this work in IR, the discipline lacks a systematic and widely accepted or recognized evaluative process to assess narrative method. This workshop attempted to address these issues insofar as it began a discussion pertaining to evaluation and critique.

The workshop participants hailed from security studies, Canadian politics, Indigenous studies, Women’s studies, human rights studies, Islamic studies, refugee and migration studies, postcolonial studies, critical terrorism studies, and LGBT studies, and together they enjoyed a tremendous wealth of global and local regional expertise. The diversity of the participants was designed to ensure input from a variety of complementary yet distinct disciplinary research backgrounds. Each participant reflected on the following questions from her or his own areas of expertise:

  • What does narrative writing allow us to access beyond conventional academic writing and how might this impact our research?
  • Are narrative approaches inherently political? Do they promote genuine dialogue, or do they simply re-confer epistemic privilege by rendering the ‘personal’ unassailable?
  • Can particularly contentious and fraught areas of research (e.g., conflict environments and other areas that tend to experience bitter academic impasses) benefit from narrative approaches that allow quieter voices to be heard? Can these approaches help us to move beyond entrenched positions and debates?
  • Can narrative approaches change the nature of scholarly debate from narrowly focused combat to supportive environments for creativity at all points in the development of ideas?
  • How can narrative approaches allow us to hear and validate the knowledges of ‘the researched’? Can narrative approaches provide ways for communities to play a more dignified and empowered role in the creation of knowledge? What are the challenges and ethical dilemmas associated with this writing?
  • Can we mobilize narrative approaches in order to re-engage increasingly alienated students in the social and political sciences? How can we assess this writing approach in the classroom and other professional venues?

The workshop consisted of brief presentations dealing with some aspect of these questions reflecting the specific interests of the participants, and was followed by open discussion and consideration of how to bring narrative approaches to bear on various aspects of academic IR as researchers and teachers, and to consider how academics can mobilize narrative approaches over the short, medium, and long term to engage community leaders, social justice organizations, and advocacy networks, and to re-engage undergraduate students. Although the focus of the workshop was not on Education as such, since all scholars are also teachers and mentors (even if only as writers), the implications for pedagogy are significant.

We have asked the participants to reflect on their workshop experiences here on The Disorder Of Things – to talk informally about what the workshop meant to them for their work, and how they see narrative scholars moving forward – or not – with agendas that re-invest in students and in our communities where so very much is at stake.


5 thoughts on “Critical Methodological and Narrative Developments in IR: A Forum

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