Why I’ll Miss Jean Bethke Elshtain

A short version of a tribute to Jean Bethke Elshtain, who died last Sunday, from Christine Sylvester, Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.


Jean Bethke Elshtain

She was embraced by feminists for her books on Women and War and Public Man/Private Woman, and then ostracised by the sisterhood for her disapproval of gay marriage and approval of “just” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She would become anathema to peace researchers and sandpaper to scholars of critical IR. Those who liked her early writings in a secular vein would be disappointed when she began to argue from a base in religious philosophies. Jean Bethke Elshtain encapsulated the best hopes of feminists to effect change in core topics of “men’s studies” –International Relations and Religious Studies –and ended up instead on the wrong side of several issues. That’s clear. So let’s ignore her recent death, shall we? Possibly celebrate her end?

Not me. I met Jean at a series of feminist IR conferences held between 1989 and 1993 in the USA, and then shared many a panel with her at the International Studies Association for a few years. Without equivocation, had I not met Jean and found favour in her eyes, I wouldn’t have produced publishable work in my own voice. Jean pulled me aside at one conference, sat me down, and told me to maintain and further develop what she called my “maverick tendencies.” The good Coloradan that she was warned against following the herd as it raced along toward…possibly nothing. My graduate school mentors had been excellent and very encouraging, especially Karen Mingst. I learned much from them, but also resisted some of their good advice once I was out on my own, stubbornly insisting on writing about Zimbabwe and feminist IR –two very different specialisations, both approached in slightly off-centre ways. To Jean, that was the way to go. Permission granted. Years later, in 2001, when she was on an ISA panel discussing my work, along with Cynthia Enloe, Steve Smith, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, she gave me a hard time over what she called my “postmodern avoidances;” by then, Jean was a solid believer in truth. She gave an audience member an even harder time, though, for wilfully misrepresenting my arguments.

Jean the scholar I admired very much. Jean the person behind the scholar astounded me. Her story, of course, appears in an early chapter in Women and War (1987), a book that came out decades before IR recent “new” interest in auto-ethnography. Jean depicts herself as a smart-ass tomboy, a shoot-em-up leader of the cavalry of kids, clearly smarter than everyone around her. But she was decidedly in the pack of youngsters who contracted polio before the vaccine, and who had to suffer the neanderthal treatments available at the time (my cousin was similarly afflicted and spent months in a hideous Iron Lung.) Thereafter, Jean walked with a noticeable limp. I remember the two of us racing like maniacs down the streets of the University of Southern California to get to where we were to speak. That pronounced limp on a shortened leg could not be ignored: I suggested we go slower. She wouldn’t have it. “I can do this,” she said, “not happily or easily, but I can do it.”

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Transdisciplinarity: The Politics and Practices of Knowledge Production

UPDATE (8 September 2014): Before she joined the expanded blog roster, Laura wrote this as a (very popular) guest post.


I am interested in disciplines, and intrigued by disciplinary transgressions. Recently, I was part of a discussion about these issues and it inspired some musings on the question of transdisciplinarity. I have a background in Social Anthropology at undergraduate level. Anthropology as a discipline is highly reflexive, resistant to abstraction, aware of the politics of representation and positionality. Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Annette B. Weiner was undertaking field research in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea (now Kiriwina Islands), with a view to unsettling disciplinary notions of common sense regarding gender neutrality of ethnographers and challenging the disciplinary canon in profound and influential ways. My postgraduate training in the discipline of International Relations (IR) was, therefore, a curious through-the-looking glass adventure in double-think. The State, the Balance of Power, a Security Dilemma: it frequently felt that I was being asked to believe at least ‘six impossible things before breakfast’.

Even having received my disciplinary training and being settled in my new ‘home’ discipline (so richly textured and evocative, the metaphor of ‘home’ allows for all sorts of interesting variants such as Christine Sylvester’s idea of camps and homesteading), I have historically not been terribly well-disciplined. As a feminist IR scholar, the work I do was once pronounced marginal; with my philosophical sympathies lying with poststructuralism my work has been aligned with ‘prolix and self-indulgent discourse … divorced from the real world.’ My encounters with my discipline have not been uncomplicated and it has provided me with plenty of material with which to think through the question of transdisciplinarity. Continue reading