Feminist Ethics in International Relations
Summary and Keywords
The study of feminist ethics in international relations (IR) is the study of three topics. The first is the feminist contributions to key topics in international ethics and the research agenda that continues to further that enterprise. Feminists have made important contributions to IR thought on central ethical concepts. They rethink these concepts from the perspective of their impact on women, deconstruct the dichotomies of the concepts and their constituent parts, and reconsider how the field should be studied. Next, there is the feminist engagement with the epistemological construction of the discipline of IR itself, by which feminists make the construction of the field itself a normative subject. Finally, there is the feminist methodological contribution of a “meta-methodology”—a research ethic applicable in the research of all questions and able to improve the research practice of all methodologists. The contention here is that ethical IR research must be responsive to the injustices of the world, hence feminists have also explored the connections between scholarship and activism. And this in turn has meant exploring methodologies such as participatory action research that engages one with the political impact of research and methods. Furthermore, contemporary challenges related to climate, globalization, shifts in people, and shifts in global governance are encouraging feminists to work from multiple theoretical perspectives and to triangulate across multiple methods and questions, in order to contribute to our understanding of global problems and the politics of addressing them.
Feminist international relations (IR) inquiry has always been concerned with gendered power relations and their ethical implications and consequences. Since their earliest contributions to the field, IR feminists consistently have endeavored to make marginalized people and topics central to academic research, to make the invisible visible, and to make the silenced understood via feminist theories and methodologies (Cohn 1987; Elshtain 1987; Sen and Grown 1987; Brock-Utne 1989; Enloe 1989; Ruddick 1989; see also essays in this compendium by Sylvester and Staudt). In this light, feminist perspectives on international relations are explicitly normative (Ackerly et al. 2006b; True 2008). In addition, feminists have made important contributions to central topics in international ethics, including development (see Chhachhi and Truong in this compendium), human rights (see Parisi in this compendium), peace (see Confortini in this compendium), and war (see Wilcox in this compendium). Further, in feminist IR, ethics is not only a question surrounding the research subject, but also a question of how we do our research. Feminist methodology in the study of IR has the potential not only to clarify “the struggles for social justice in our globalizing age, but also to do better scholarship and, as theorists, to live up to the goal of informing and transforming practice in order to improve human well-being globally” (Ackerly et al. 2006b:14). Throughout the development of feminist IR, the normative and methodological dimensions of research have been interrelated, making ethics a core concern of feminist IR.
Feminist IR scholarship continues to look at the connections between the questions academics ask and the ways in which we research them. Thus, methodology itself is increasingly of interest to feminist IR scholars (Ackerly and True 2008a; Ackerly 2009; see also essays in this compendium by Heeg Maruska, and Agathangelou and Turcotte). As a critical approach with an inherent normative agenda, most feminist scholarship has always worked to reveal the concealed epistemological and ontological biases in the practice and research of ethics in IR and to explore the connections between moral judgment and academic inquiry (Ackerly and True 2008a; Ackerly et al. 2006a; see also Chowdhry and Ling in this compendium). Initially, feminist subjects were those that the field would recognize as appropriate subjects for international ethics – war (Elshtain 1987), militarism (Cohn 1987; Enloe 1989), peace (Brock-Utne 1989; Ruddick 1989), and development (Sen and Grown 1987). However, this and subsequent work revealed “gender bias inherent in rationalist ways of knowing [that are] embedded in the core concepts and concerns of international relations, such as states, sovereignty, power, security, international conflict and global governance” (True 2008:409). Therefore, the feminist contribution, from the beginning, has been to contribute not only to the study of questions relevant to international ethics, but also to the ways in which we understand the field of IR itself. Thus, ethics in IR from the perspective of IR feminists (diverse as they are) is not a piece of the IR discipline but always central to it, substantively and conceptually, pushing the field to think in better ways about how we do our work (Enloe 1989; Tickner 1991, 1992, 1997; Robinson 2006; Hutchings 2007).
In short, the study of feminist ethics in IR is the study of three topics: (1) the feminist contributions to key topics in international ethics and the research agenda that continues to further that enterprise; (2) the feminist engagement with the epistemological construction of the discipline of IR itself, by which feminists make the construction of the field itself a normative subject; and (3) the feminist methodological contribution of a “meta-methodology,” if you will, a research ethic applicable in the research of all questions and able to improve the research practice of all methodologists. This essay discusses these three contributions in turn.
Feminist ethics in IR continues to develop in each of these dimensions, so we do not present the methodological engagements as the teleological end of feminism. Additionally, many people work in these areas without presenting their work as “feminist ethics” (some do). We emphasize these points up front, as the order of our exposition and the language that some feminists use to describe their work might lead one to think that there is some feminism that is “more” ethical than others. Moreover, we cite a range of scholarship by one of us (Brooke) and draw significantly on my collaboration with Jacqui True. As we will see, feminists teach us to attend to the power of exposition (among so many things) to set agendas and boundaries that might not seem, but are in fact, political. Therefore, we wish to destabilize those constructions even as we may be seen to contribute to them (on destabilizing epistemology see Ackerly 2008).
Engaging Key Concepts of International Ethics and IR
Feminists have made important contributions to IR thought on central ethical concepts. They rethink these concepts from the perspective of their impact on women, deconstruct the dichotomies of the concepts – such as just war, security, and international ethics itself – and their constituent parts (such as the warrior and the civilian), and reconsider how the field should be studied.
Just War: A Concept in International Ethics
Wilcox’s essay in this compendium, “Gender, Just War, and the Ethics of War and Peace,” reviews the feminist contribution to the study of war. Key strands in the feminist study of the ethics of war began with reflection on the construction of masculinity and femininity (Elshtain 1987) and the construction of the narrative of just war (Elshtain 1992). Feminists have also looked at the key ideas within just war scholarship such as just cause, proportionality (Hutchings 2000:124), and responsibility (Robinson 2006). These developments built on earlier work on the gendered ethics of war and further explored the ways in which these contribute to other problematic dichotomous constructions. As Hutchings reviews,
[b]y bringing the private sphere into the sphere of ethical significance within international politics, feminist ethics alters the ethical assessment of the consequences of non-violent and violent international intervention. More generally, it calls into question the assumed boundaries between violence and non-violence, peace and war, security and insecurity.
In addition to breaking down dichotomous constructions, feminists rethink how we should study war and its constituent concepts. Helen Kinsella argues that “non-feminist just war theories have focused primarily on the protection of women within law rather than the production of women in the law, and, more importantly, the production of the laws of war themselves” (Kinsella 2005:289). Elshtain attempted to integrate the tradition of just war with the ethics of responsibility in Just War Against Terror, but she failed to answer the question of whether the war against terror was just in a persuasive way (Elshtain 2004).
In Feminist Ethics and Politics Violence, Hutchings defines feminist ethics as “ongoing, contested negotiation of tensions between the ethical feminism and the conditions of possibility of the realization of those goals in the world” (Hutchings 2007:91). She emphasized that ethics must be understood in practical terms, about how to interpret narratives of ethical principles and practices, not merely theoretical justification of certain moral values. Hutchings examined the debates among different feminist approaches – namely, enlightenment feminism, care feminisms, and postcolonial feminism and their understanding of the ethics of violence – and suggested an alternative orientation of feminist ethics. Ethics cannot be separated from the experience of the world. She posits attentiveness to actual experiences because they shape ethics “in both its fundamental values and its effects” (Hutchings 2007:99).
Feminists study issues like the gendered effects of economic sanctions, displacement due to war, rape in war, and military base prostitution (Enloe 1993, 2004; Pettman 1996; Steans 1998; Ashworth 1999; Sjoberg 2006a). In the Curious Feminist, Enloe (2004) studies women in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq to illustrate the particular consequences of war on women’s lives. Kinsella argues that the laws of war rely on structural power in regulating individual behavior, combatants, and targets. Historical discourses of gender produce the constructions of combatant and civilian that are the gendered foundations of the laws of war (Kinsella 2005 and Elshtain 1992). The legal device of the noncombatant immunity principle follows this construction without taking into account historical gender subordination and thus is ineffective for its stated purpose of civilian protection (Sjoberg 2006b). Sjoberg demonstrates that the moral foundation of the noncombatant immunity principle is flawed. She proposes a feminist reformulation of the immunity principle based, following Sylvester (1990, 1994a, 2002), on empathy (Sjoberg 2006b:904).
As with “just war,” feminists have contributed to the rethinking of many key concepts in international ethics including power, human rights, and poverty, showing that each is gendered and experienced in a gendered way.
Security: A Concept in International Relations
Whereas the field of international ethics has long considered just war an appropriate topic, feminists have also taken key concepts of IR and made their consideration one of ethics. Security is one of these (see also the essays by Sjoberg and Martin, and Schemenauer in this compendium).
Realist notions of security equate security with military strength and the protection of the nation state from military threats by other states. Feminists have broadened the concept of security by studying it from multidimensional and multilevel perspectives. Feminists argue that security should include not only war and international violence, but also domestic violence, human trafficking, rape, poverty, gender subordination, and ecological destruction. Feminists need to question the “supposed nonexistence of and irrelevance of women in international security politics” by studying those unconventional issues (Tickner 1997; Blanchard 2003; Sjoberg 2009). Tickner (1997) argues that the realist definition of security as “the protection of the boundaries and integrity of the state and its values” is too narrow, and that understanding security as state security obscures the fact that states often achieve “national security” by sacrificing the security of people, including their own (Tickner 1997:624). For example, Spike Peterson and Ann Runyan have demonstrated that rape in war is a collective security problem, because rape has been institutionalized in war as a weapon (Peterson and Runyan 1999). Katherine Moon has demonstrated the relationship between individual women, state security, and foreign policy, by studying sex work around US military bases in South Korea (Moon 1997). Jennifer Lobasz argues that human trafficking should be a high-priority security issue, not in the traditional sense of border security, migration control, and international law enforcement, but rather in the sense that trafficked persons are gendered victims both of trafficking and of the stereotypes associated with gendered victims of transnational trafficking (Lobasz 2009).
Parenthetically, paying attention to gendered insecurity reveals considerations that are important from the normative standpoint of gender justice. It also reveals important ways in which the study of key security-related questions in IR can be improved by paying attention to gendered insecurity (see essays by Sjoberg and Martin, and Schemenauer in this compendium).
Other key concepts of international relations that feminists have transformed into ethical concepts include the state, political economy, and development, showing again that each is gendered and experienced in a gendered way and is therefore an important domain for ethical reflection.
International Ethics: A Field in International Relations
As they have challenged and reconstructed key concepts in international ethics and made key concepts in IR ethical, feminists have reconceived the international ethics field as well. Traditional normative theories discuss ethics as “pure moral reflection abstracted from time, place and context,” (Ackerly et al. 2006a:222) as if these were gender neutral terms, whereas feminist ethics view international ethics situated in relations of hierarchy that cannot be neutralized with language and concepts that abstract away from the power dynamics of context. Therefore, for feminists normative analyses and critiques can be carried out only in conjunction with social, economic, and political analysis (Ruddick 1989; Peterson 1992; Linklater 1998; Walker 1998; Hutchings 2000; Sylvester 2002; Ackerly et al. 2006a:222; Robinson 2006). For more on this topic see the compendium contribution by Robinson and Pandey.
Traditional normative theories informed by liberalism mainly aim to construct universal, generalizable, and often abstract moral principles to create cosmopolitan citizens who aspire to make progress together toward the ethical ideal of a universal community (Beitz 1979; Held 1995; Rawls 1999). Or, from a communitarian perspective, states form their own unique ethical communities whose standards are not externally knowable (Walzer 1983; Miller 1988; Brown 1992; Walzer 1992 ; Huntington 1996). Feminists question both universal justice based on an abstract concept of rationality and communitarian justice based on the ethical significance of states and their treatment as a single actor when there is injustice within states, injustice that is often the cause of conflict internally and internationally, or injustice (such as gender based violence) that is treated as politically insignificant by domestic and international actors (see Hutchings 2000:123).
Feminist international ethics must attend to the power of universal ideals not only to challenge local abuses of power but also, perniciously, to legitimate local oppression (see the essay by Agathangelou and Turcotte in this compendium). Feminist international ethics must attend to the ethical legitimacy of local contexts while worrying about the bases for legitimate challenges to local claims to ethical authority (Ackerly 2008). Christine Sylvester argues that the Kantian ethics of universal justice and perpetual peace excluded individuals, particularly women, in their social, political, and economic settings (Sylvester 1994b:94). Thus, feminist normative analysis bears a far greater “descriptive and empirical burden” in pursuing details of actual moral arrangements, or normative realism (Nedelsky 1993; Klotz 1995; Linklater 1998; Walker 1998; Hutchings 2000; Sylvester 2002; Robinson 2006:222; Brassett and Bulley 2007). According to Fiona Robinson, what makes feminist ethics distinctive is “its recognition of the intrinsic and inextricable relationship between ethics and politics/power” (Robinson 2006:226). Instead of asking how we know what is ethically necessary, feminists ask how certain values or practices come to be seen as ethically necessary. Fundamentally, feminist ethics “disturb the superficiality, complacency, or parochialism of moral views” (Walker 1998:64). So “[f]eminist normative perspectives are often plural, contingent, and relational, since feminist scholars are highly attuned to and self-reflexive about power and politics” (Ackerly et al. 2006b:6).
Some IR feminists who use an “ethics of care” approach also emphasize the particularity of ethical judgment in international politics (Ruddick 1989; Tronto 1995; Sevenhuijsen 1998, 2000; Robinson 1999; Hutchings 2000). In Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, Sara Ruddick argues that feminist ethics emphasizes particularity, connectedness, and context (Ruddick 1989). There are no universal principles for making ethical judgments in IR. Maternal thinking is sensitive to the specific contexts in which ethical dilemmas are embedded and to the relationship of each party in a specific conflict. Joan Tronto argues that care may be ubiquitous in human life, but it has remained hidden from the conceptual lenses of social and political thought (Tronto 1995:142). For Selma Sevenhuijsen, care can be seen as an issue of citizenship, rather than one pertaining solely to family relations (Sevenhuijsen 1998). Robinson argues that inequality in the global economy should be understood through the lens of gender and care (Robinson 2006:238).
Another approach of IR feminists emphasizes relationality and responsibility without using care as an orienting concept. Margaret Urban Walker argues that in order to understand morality, we must understand how it is seated and reproduced in actual human societies (Walker 1998:221). IR feminists study ethics by linking lived experience on the margins with structural political and economic powers at state and global levels (Tickner 2005:2178). Feminists understand ethics, not as a political or socially modular, but as immersed in social relations – including gendered differential relations of power. Relationality distinguishes feminist ethics from conventional normative approaches in IR. “Power, of course, only exists in relationship,” says Enloe (2004:23). Relationality is defined as the embeddedness of social relations in real contexts. Responsibilities are understood as ongoing practices and actions of responsiveness and care toward particular others. More specifically, responsibility has been defined as “who has been assigned, according to dominant or prevalent norms, responsibility for whom and what” (Robinson 2006:234). Feminists interrogate the “achieved responsibilities” and how to transform the conditions of them (Robinson 2006:239). Robinson argues that by focusing on relationality and responsibility, feminists see more clearly the existence and causes of power differentials in international society and how these can lead to inequality and oppression. Thus, on one view, the most powerful contribution of feminist ethical theories to ethics in IR is that the “moral ontology of relations of recognition and responsibility which is identified within the private sphere is the key to understanding moral substance as such” (Hutchings 2000:123; Walker 1998; Robinson 2006).
For feminists, this same ethical attention to relationships and responsibility is politically important (e.g., Ackerly 2008). Hutchings (2000) argues that moral values and practices are inseparable from the broader social and political context within which they operate, and that ethics is never entirely divorced from power. Feminist international ethical theories are not putting forward specific “ethics for women” or ethics for private spheres, but suggestions for how ethics should be done in contemporary international contexts. Hutchings (2000) argues that international ethics should be done by addressing the phenomenology and genealogy of ethical judgment. Phenomenologically, ethical judgment is inseparable from the forms of moral life within which the issues are embedded. Genealogically, we need to investigate how any particular judgment is understood as embodying ethical necessity and the pattern of benefits and costs associated with that judgment. Feminist theorists of ethics often find gender implicated in the construction and maintenance of particular patterns of benefits and costs. Feminist ethicists should always be skeptical of any kind of moral essentialism or claims to ethical necessity. When they articulate ethical judgment and prescriptions, they always articulate the conditions that they imply (Hutchings 2000:123). Feminists seek to “understand, reflect on, and possibly transform the patterns of moral relations as they exist in a variety of everyday contexts” (Robinson 2006:231). Further, this ethical understanding affects feminist methods, as we show toward the end of this essay (Ackerly and True 2008).
In summary, feminist ethics in international relations is characterized by a commitment to relationality and responsibility, with extra attention to phenomenology and genealogy. For feminists, ethics is intrinsically related to and indeed embedded in asymmetrical power relations (Robinson 2006:223). Feminists who are interested in the ethical dimensions of IR must be prepared first to undertake careful ethnographic, sociological, or economic research, which may involve detailed case studies of, for example, the distribution of paid and unpaid labor within a household, or the changing nature of women’s employment as a result of the globalization of production (Prügl 1999a, 1999b; Rai 2002). And, from there, feminist normative analysis must reflect critically on the consequences of such arrangements, using feminist moral frameworks. By shifting from individual or states’ rights to relations of recognition and responsibility for others, feminists make visible the private sphere as an integral part of the international system, with implications for how both domestic and international relations should be studied (Robinson 2006).
As Hutchings defines the contribution of feminist ethics to IR, “[f]eminist insights transform not only the understanding of social reality but also the nature and scope of normative theorizing itself (Hutchings 2000:112). A feminist approach to ethics is ontological in the sense of providing both a background and a set of conceptual and analytical tools for making sense of ethics in a global context. Hutchings comments that the “[m]oral ontology of relations of recognition and responsibility which is identified within the private sphere is the key to understanding ‘moral substance’ as such” (Hutchings 2000:122–3). Feminist ethics in IR is not leading to the construction and application of generalizable moral principles in international politics, but reaching the revelation of the concealed biases in IR (Robinson 2006:226). Thus, the commitment to revealing and deconstructing power dynamics (between individuals, in communities, among marginalized groups, within and across states, in the global economy, with various experiences of colonialism, Cold War politics, and neo-imperialism), a normative and critical lens rather than a principle, is the organizing device of feminist ethics in IR.
Feminist ethics in IR has focused on individuals and groups on the margin of world politics and studied unconventional issues such as war rape, transnational trafficking, military base prostitution, and migrant domestic service, showing that these are in fact central topics for understanding the distribution of power in the international system (Pettman 1996; Moon 1997; Chin 1998; Prügl 1999a, 1999b; Enloe 2004; Ackerly and True 2008a).
Engaging with the Structure of the IR Discipline
As we have already seen, feminist international ethics engages with the field of IR on its core concepts – even those that are not generally understood as “ethical” concepts. Feminists also engage with the structure of the field as a discipline, with its own epistemologically and normatively fed authority.
Feminists encountered ethics in IR in the “Third debate,” which focused on the epistemology of the social science of IR at the end of the 1980s. Along with various theoretical approaches, including critical theory, social constructivist, historical sociology, poststructural, postmodern, discourse and linguistic analysis, feminists challenged the positivist foundations of the field (Tickner 2005:2176). Feminist IR approaches, like other normative approaches, postulate that ethics or norms should be treated seriously in international relations. However, they proclaim that mainstream normative approaches are still gender blind. Feminist ethics is distinctive not only for making a claim about the way the world is but also for “pointing out that this is a ‘way’ that has been overlooked, or has remained invisible, within most male-centered analysis” (Robinson 2006:225). For more on the contributions of critical theories to feminist IR, see the essays in this compendium by Agathangelou and Turcotte, Heeg Maruska, Phillips, Sylvester, and Chowdhry and Ling; an early draft of the last influenced this section of this essay.
All feminisms are critical in the sense of destabilizing the epistemology of conventional international theories. We have discussed examples of a few of these – just war, security, and international ethics itself. However, there are varieties and diversities within feminist approaches concerning how ethics should be studied in international politics. Ethics in feminist IR epitomized by postcolonial feminism in IR asserts that feminists need to take a moral stand in world politics in order to produce responsible and effective knowledge and practice in world politics (Parpart and Zalewski 2008). Postcolonial feminists require themselves to adopt “the politics of accountability and resistance” (Chowdhry and Ling in this compendium). They aim to turn critical analytical insights into emancipatory problem solving forces to produce a more just and egalitarian world (Gandhi 1998; Urban 2008; Chowdhry and Ling in this compendium). As Leela Gandhi argues, it is important to note that postcolonial feminists “supplied the academic world with an ethical paradigm for a systematic critique of institutional suffering” (Gandhi 1998:176).
Joining postmodernism in decentering the pillars of mainstream IR such as the state, power, and security, postcolonial feminist scholars treat an intersectional view of gender and multiplicity more generically as important analytical categories (Biersteker and Weber 1996; Jones 1996; Krause and Williams 1997; Moon 1997; Campbell 1998; Han and Ling 1998; Weldes et al. 1999; Lewis and Mills 2003; Agathangelou 2004; Eisenstein 2004; Mikanagi 2004; Sylvester 2009). Postcolonial feminists argue that standardizing world politics according to the “international society” of the West effectively erases the multiple worlds that make world politics what it is. Those “worlds” are different because underprivileged groups (“the subaltern”) do not see the same world as each other or as those in positions of privilege. The subaltern groups of principal interest to postcolonial feminists are the colonized, women, children, the illiterate, the poor, the landless, and the voiceless (Jones 1996:34). Postcolonial feminism extends beyond a state-based, nationalistic understanding of security to incorporate intersubjective and transnational dimensions of security. It asks how we have structured the concept and lived experience of security together as a community (Agathangelou and Ling 2005).
Postcolonial feminists study prostitution around military bases and international peacekeeping operations to demonstrate the multiplicity of imperialism and masculinity. PFIR scholars showed how women became incarcerated into “desire industries” by further fueling a cultural discourse of imperialism (Razack 2004; Higate and Henry 2009; cf. Enloe 1989:1062; Moon 1997:400). They study the multiplicity and intersectionality of women migrant workers. They argue that migrant women workers live simultaneously to meet the demand of capitalist economies and to sustain family lives accommodating different languages, religions, lifestyles, and geographies. Both the idea and the practice of multiple modernities and intersectionality between race and gender, rather than an universal Eurocentric template, better account for developments in international politics such as globalization (Chin 1998; Ling 1999; Ong 1999; Eisenstadt 2000; Marchand and Runyan 2000; Rai 2002; Nyberg-Sorensen et al. 2002; D’Costa 2003; Agathangelou 2004; Lee-Koo and D’Costa 2009; see also Chowdhry and Ling in this compendium).
The goal of interrogating the gendered assumptions of international politics is to produce “morally responsible and politically effective knowledge” (Parpart and Zalewski 2008:7). In Rethinking the Man Question, Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski (2008) and other contributors investigate how conventional ways of reading, seeing, and understanding knowledge discipline, reconstitute, and organize power in international politics, and how power becomes persistently coded as masculine. Postcolonial feminists assert that feminists in IR need a complex, fluid, and situated understanding of gendered assumptions to realize the goal to produce responsible and transformative knowledge and practices in world politics (Parpart and Zalewski 2008).
Seemingly Intractable Constructs
Against a reasoned and far reaching criticism, the central tenets of IR have proved remarkably resilient in their consistency. Feminists’ engagement with IR starts with challenging the philosophical foundation of the discipline and the role of the discipline in shaping, defining, and legitimating masculinities at national and international levels (Hooper 2001:3–4). A public/private distinction and its intellectual roots, and their relationship to the study of ethics in IR, are the main themes in this trend of feminist works (Elshtain 1981, 1987, 1992, 1993; Enloe 1989; Grant and Newland 1991; Tickner 1991, 1992, 1997; Peterson 1992; Sylvester 1994b; Jones 1996; Walker 1998; Peterson and Runyan 1999; Hooper 2001). Ethics and international politics have been treated as two distinctive spheres; the dichotomy between normative approaches (what IR ought to be) and positivist approaches (what IR is actually is) is crucial for classical realists. Feminist IR has challenged classical realist pursuits of objective and universal knowledge in international politics and positivist approaches. Positivist approaches are defined by
a belief that the same methodologies can be used to study the natural and social worlds, that the social world has regularities like the natural world, that there is distinction between facts and values, and that the way to determine the truth of statements about the external world is by appeal to neutral facts.
(Tickner 2005:footnote 2)
From the very beginning, IR feminists adopted a postpositivist approach, which they believe “compels [our] attention to context and historical process, to contingency and uncertainty, to how we construct, rather than discover our worlds” (Peterson 1992:57).
First of all, feminists have challenged the epistemological foundations of the field and the gendered assumption of the discipline: “[R]ealism’s bracing promise is to spring politics free from the constraints of moral judgment and limitation, thereby assuring its autonomy as historic force and discursive subject-matter, and to offer a picture of the world of people and states as they really are rather than as we might yearn for them to be” (Elshtain 1992:260). Compared to the boundary of the autonomous sphere of knowledge in IR, feminists emphasize diversity, connection, contingency, and interdependence (Elshtain 1981, 1992; Keller 1985; Harding 1986; Tickner 1991).
For example, in “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation” (1988) and the later version, “A Critique of Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism” (1991), Ann Tickner targets Morgenthau, the “pope” of international relations and founding father of power politics, and his Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1948). Tickner criticized autonomy and objectivity as the goals for the discipline. She argues that though Morgenthau is fully aware of the role of ethics, he proposes that IR scholars and foreign policy decision makers have to subordinate ethics to standards of politics. Realists are bound to develop political science into an autonomous field like economics that is guided by rational and objective theories of politics. For them, ethics and international politics each has an “appropriate” sphere, standards, and questions to ask. In international politics ethics is a “psychological resistance” to overcome instead of a virtue to embrace. Morgenthau was eager to demolish any moralistic dimensions in IR, which he assumes as not only futile but also dangerous. Feminists rejected the idea of pursuing an autonomous sphere with defined boundaries of international relations. They criticized the idea that the social sciences can be studied based on universal and objective laws (Keller 1985; Tickner 1991). Evelyn Fox Keller (1985) argues that knowledge is socially constructed and transmitted by language, thus the objectivity of knowledge is always questionable. Feminists claim that building knowledge is a political enterprise that disguises privileged voices as neutral (Tickner 2001; Sylvester 2002; Sjoberg 2006b).
Feminists also challenge the gendered structure of the discipline. IR has been and continues to be a field defined by men (Elshtain 1981, 1987, 1992; Tickner 1988, 1991; Maliniak et al. 2007; Ackerly and True 2008b). “International relations is a man’s world, a world of power and conflict in which warfare is a privileged activity” (Tickner 1988:429). Tickner (1991) argues that in the West, the dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity, reason and emotion, mind and body, autonomy and relatedness, and public and private has always been associated with difference between men and women, and objectivity has always been associated with masculinity and power and domination, which are central to classical IR.
A recent study of the field enables us to look more closely at IR as a discipline and see that the US centrism of US IR academics has played a role in the marginalization of critical theoretical perspectives and women scholars who often use them (Ackerly and True 2008b) (cf. Crawford and Jarvis 2001).
Ethics in IR Research Practice
As this essay has illustrated, feminists think that ethical IR research must be responsive to the injustices of the world. They have also explored ways of doing research that are respectful of those affected by our research. This has meant exploring the connections between scholarship and activism (see the essay in this compendium by Naples and McGary). And it has meant exploring methodologies such as participatory action research that make us particularly engaged with the political impact of research and methods (Ackerly and True forthcoming: ch. 9). These are two concrete explanations in feminist methodology for IR that are specifically responsive to ethical reflections about how we do our research. More generally, taking these explanations with others, IR feminists have developed what Ackerly and True describe and prescribe as a feminist research ethic (Ackerly and True 2008a).
Methodology has been central to the current engagement between feminists and ethics in IR. It is claimed that the most important contribution of feminists to ethics in international relations is a feminist methodology or a feminist research ethic: “The most important feminist tool for guiding international relations scholarship is the research ethic” (Ackerly and True 2008a:695). Feminists in IR argue that different epistemologies lead to different methodologies, so it makes sense that rich discussions of methodology are occurring after considerable debates about epistemological positions have already taken place (Tickner 2005; Ackerly et al. 2006a; Hutchings 2007; Ackerly and True 2008a, forthcoming).
Feminists have asked questions about the nature and conditions of ethical judgment in IR, ethical significance, and the consequences of taking a feminist turn in international ethics (Hutchings 2000:113). Derived from distinctive epistemological and ontological differences, feminists have not only asked different questions but also employed unorthodox methods to investigate their issues of ethical significance, like discourse analysis (Cohn 1987, 1993; Stern 2005), case study (Sevenhuijsen 1998), content analysis (Hooper 2001), and ethnography (Sylvester 1994b; Moon 1997; Chin 1998).
As IR is an interdisciplinary discipline, feminist methodologists have drawn on sociology and anthropology in particular to expand their methodological toolkit. However, in so doing, they have not created an exclusively feminist method. Rather, feminist methodology is a critical lens (Ackerly et al. 2006a:260). In Feminist Methodologies for International Relations, Brooke Ackerly, Maria Stein, and Jacqui True (2006a) argue that “[t]he distinctiveness of feminist methodologies inside and outside IR lies in their reflexivity, which encourages the researcher to re-interrogate continually her own scholarship” (Ackerly et al. 2006a:4). They define methodology as an “intellectual process guiding self-conscious reflection on epistemological assumptions, ontological perspective, ethical responsibilities, and method choices” (Ackerly et al. 2006a:6). They identified four key theoretical practices for feminists to study international relations, “skeptical scrutiny, inclusionary inquiry, choosing a deliberative moment, and conceptualizing the field a collective” (Ackerly et al. 2006a: 256). In “Reflexivity in Practice: Power and Ethics in Feminist Research on International Relations,” Ackerly and True (2008a) asked the same question but explored deeper. They asked, “[h]ow can we study power and identify ways to mitigate its abuse in the real world when we, as researchers, also participate in the projection of power through knowledge claims?” (Ackerly and True 2008a:693). They argue that feminist methodology does not propose any particular approach, but rather provides a device for scholars to reflect about “our questions, theoretical conceptualization, research design, or methods.” Feminist methodology refers to “attentiveness to the power of epistemology, boundaries, relationships and the situatedness of the researcher” to explore “absence, silence, difference, oppression and the power of epistemology” (Ackerly and True 2008a:694). Feminist methodology compels scholars to become attentive to power exercised through disciplines, to boundaries, marginalization, and interconnections, and to the ways in which human actions’ being embedded in relationships affects our responsibilities as researchers. Further, feminism calls for the research to be attentive to these considerations always and to revisit or reflect on these throughout the research process.
The questions feminist IR scholars ask, and the theoretical perspectives they bring to bear on these, contribute to and expand the scope of international ethics because of the normative weight of the feminist concern with exploitative hierarchies (Ackerly 2000). Contemporary challenges related to climate, globalization, shifts in people, and shifts in global governance are challenging feminists to work from multiple theoretical perspectives and to triangulate across multiple methods and questions, in order to contribute to our understanding of global problems and the politics of addressing them. Feminist analysis will continue to do deconstructive work where the constructs of the field constrain our imaginations about the importance of problems (Enloe 2004) and the tools necessary for studying them. The past learning from the full range of feminisms informing IR scholarship directs us to approach such topics in ways that are attentive to the power of (1) epistemology, (2) the boundaries (geopolitical, social, and conceptual) that are the subjects of and affect our studies in IR, (3) the relationships among actors and also between researchers and those affected by their subject of study, and (4) the ways in which the situatedness of the researcher is implicated in and responsive to these epistemologies, boundaries, and relationships such that these affect our research (Ackerly and Attanasi 2009; Ackerly and True forthcoming).
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Links to Digital Materials
American Political Science Association’s code of ethics, www.apsanet.org/section_513.cfm, accessed Aug. 29, 2009.
Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans, www.nhmrc.gov.au/publications, accessed Aug. 29, 2009.
British Economic and Social Research Council’s code of ethics, www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/opportunities/research_ethics_framework/, accessed Aug. 29, 2009.
Statement of Ethical Commitments of Human Rights Professionals, www.humanrightsprofessionals.org/images/statement%20of%20ethical%20commitments_nov%2028%202007_website.pdf, accessed Aug. 29, 2009.