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.

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Reality Mining for Population-Centric Computational Counterinsurgency; Or, Feedback Loops Meet Hermeneutic Circles

Drizzled between the gun battles were occasional accounts of villages stabilized and town elders met. But, written as random notes, the accounts were hard to insert into a database. There was nothing consistent, nothing you could plot as a trend over time.

‘These were intelligence reports, not measurable data,’ the source says. ‘The population-centric information wasn’t to be found there.’

So the team widened their search, without much luck. The most reliable data they could find was weekly fruit prices from Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan. At least those could be measured over time.

“One assumed there was some secret mound of data to be exploited. But it’s just not true,” the source adds.

Noah Shachtman, ‘Inside Darpa’s Secret Afghan Spy Machine’

Albright has noted that Iran has material to build only 12,000-15,000 centrifuges, and if 1,000 to 2,000 were destroyed, this would hasten the demise of its stockpile. But his and other organizations have also noted that after the centrifuges were replaced, Iran stepped up its enrichment program and its overall production of uranium had actually increased in 2010, despite any effects Stuxnet may have had.

Stuxnet required an enormous amount of resources to produce, but its cost-benefit ratio is still in question. While it may have helped set Iran’s program back to a degree, it also altered the landscape of cyberattacks…In the end, Stuxnet’s creators invested years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attack that was derailed by a single rebooting PC, a trio of naive researchers who knew nothing about centrifuges, and a brash-talking German who didn’t even have an internet connection at home.

Kim Zetter, ‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’

These domestic images must be more than simply one more form of distancing, one more way to remove oneself from the grisly reality behind the words; ordinary abstraction is adequate to that task. Something else, something very peculiar, is going on here. Calling the pattern in which bombs fall a ‘footprint’ almost seems a wilful distorting process, a playful, perverse refusal of accountability – because to be accountable is to be unable to do this work.

These words also serve to domesticate, to tame the wild and uncontrollable forces…The metaphors minimize; they are a way to make phenomena that are beyond what the mind can encompass smaller and safer, and thus they are a way of gaining mastery over the unmasterable. The fire-breathing dragon under the bed, the one who threatens to incinerate your family, your town, your planet, becomes a bet you can pat.

Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ (1987)

The ways of thinking embodied in institutions govern the way the members of the societies studied by the social scientist behave. The idea of war, for instance, was not simply invented by people who wanted to explain what happens when societies come into armed conflict. It is an idea that provides the criteria of what is appropriate in the behaviour of members of the conflicting societies. Because my country is at war there are certain things which I must do and certain things which I must not do. My behaviour is governed, one could say, by my concept of myself as a member of a belligerent country. The concept of war belongs essentially to my behaviour. But the concept of gravity does not belong essentially to the behaviour of a falling apple in the same way: it belongs rather to the physicist’s explanation of the apple’s behaviour. To recognise this has nothing to do with a belief in ghosts behind the phenomena.

Peter Winch, The Idea Of A Social Science And Its Relation to Philosophy (1958)