The first of three critical commentaries on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series, including an introduction and posts from chapter authors Christine Agius, David Duriesmith and Katherine Brown, is here). This intervention comes from Megan MacKenzie, who is Professor of Gender and War at the University of Sydney. Megan’s research spans feminist theory, international security and transitional justice, and her latest publications explore (myths about) women in combat roles and masculinity nostalgia.
We talk about the state a lot within the field of International Relations. In fact, as a student of international relations I was taught that the state was the most important actor; everything below the state level was to be studied in other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, or development studies. But what are we really talking about when we talk about the state? It’s probably useful to state upfront- in a sort of full-feminist-disclosure-style- that I’m an unusual person to review a book focused on the state. I’ve always been suspicious and apprehensive about studying the state. I can trace the root of this apprehension back to my PhD training. I can still vividly remember taking an International Political Economy course from the formidable and amazing Professor Suzanne Soederberg. At some point during the first week I made an intervention into the class discussion, and used the word ‘state.’ Professor Soederberg stopped me and said, ‘what do you mean by the state?’ I was flummoxed. ‘Well, the state…you know…um, the institution…’ I’m sure I trailed off in embarrassment. Professor Soederberg then asked the rest of the class for a definition and got equally vague, yet more confident responses that included terms like ‘sovereignty,’ ‘borders,’ and ‘power.’ I can still remember her total exasperation as she drew a black box on the white board and explained that the state is not some singular “thing” that we can just lazily refer to and hope no one asks us what we mean. We were all busted.
Actually, most of IR as a discipline is busted when it comes to lazily using the term ‘state.’ From that moment on, there have been dozens of times I wished I had Professor Soederberg’s words recorded so I could play them at conferences, in other classes, and when reading articles. The state is consistently referred to as a given, or defined with such minimal attention or effort that it offers not much more than my answer back in my International Political Economy unit: ‘well, the state…you know.’ Years later, I still don’t know how most people are using the term ‘the state’ and often I don’t think they do either.
Rather than wade through the many, many definitions of the state, it is more useful to ask, ‘what do we talk about when we talk about the state?’