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Introducing Poststructuralism in International Relations Theory

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This is an excerpt from International Relations Theory – An E-IR Foundations beginner’s textbook. Available now on Amazon (USA, UK, Ca, Fra, Ger), in all good book stores, and via a free PDF download. Kindle and other e-reader versions are available via the relevant stores/apps.

Find out more about E-IR’s range of open access books here.

Poststructuralism encourages a way of looking at the world that challenges what comes to be accepted as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’. Poststructuralists always call into question how certain accepted ‘facts’ and ‘beliefs’ actually work to reinforce the dominance and power of particular actors within international relations. Poststructuralism doubts the possibility of attaining universal laws or truths as there is no world that exists independently of our own interpretations. This viewpoint is underscored by Foucault’s (1984, 127) assertion that ‘we must not imagine the world turns towards us a legible face which we would only have to decipher’. For this reason, poststructuralists encourage researchers to be sceptical of universal narratives that attempt to offer an objective worldview, as these assumptions are heavily influenced by pre-existing assumptions of what is true – and usually underlined by the views of those in power. This renders poststructuralism openly critical of any theory that claims to be able to identify objective fact – as truth and knowledge are subjective entities that are produced rather than discovered. Therefore, by design, poststructuralism conflicts with the bulk of other IR theories as it finds them unable (or unwilling) to fully account for the true diversity of international relations.

The basics of poststructuralism

Poststructuralists argue that ‘knowledge’ comes to be accepted as such due to the power and prominence of certain actors in society known as ‘elites’, who then impose it upon others. Elites take on a range of forms and occupy many different roles in contemporary society. For instance, they include government ministers who decide policy focus and direction for a state, business leaders who leverage vast financial resources to shape market direction, and media outlets that decide how a person is portrayed while reporting a story. Additionally, elites are often also categorised as ‘experts’ within society, giving them the authority to further reinforce the viewpoints that serve their best interests to a wide audience. Jenny Edkins (2006) uses the example of famines to show that when elite actors refer to famine as a natural disaster, they are removing the event from its political context. Therefore, the ways that famines occur as a result of elites taking particular forms of political action, through processes of exploitation or inaction due to profits on increased food prices, are lost when they are presented as unavoidable natural disasters.

Although great emphasis and focus is placed upon the authority of the elite actors to decide what we count as valid knowledge and assumptions within society, poststructuralism asserts that the way in which this power is achieved is through the manipulation of discourse. Discourses facilitate the process by which certain information comes to be accepted as unquestionable truth. Discourses which augment the power of elites are called dominant or official discourses by poststructuralists. The strength of dominant discourses lies in their ability to shut out other options or opinions to the extent that thinking outside the realms set by the discourse is seen as irrational.

An example of this can be found in the security versus liberty debate. The wish to increase security levels across society – in response to crime, irregular migration and terrorist threats – has been presented as a sliding scale whereby if a state wishes to be secure then the public must endure a reduction in personal freedoms. Personal freedoms – such as the freedom of expression and freedom of........

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