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date: 19 January 2018

Late Modernity/Postmodernity

Summary and Keywords

Postmodernity is commonly perceived as a stage of late modernity or late capitalism that follows modernity, whereas postmodernism is understood as a theoretical trend that attempts to unsettle a number of key concepts associated with the Enlightenment, such as grand narratives of progress, a linear unfolding of history, and traditional notions of reason and rationality. Within the discipline of International Relations (IR), however, late modernity is used interchangeably with postmodernity/postmodernism. Postmodernist/poststructuralist accounts in IR emerged in the 1980s, drawing their inspiration from authors identified with poststructuralism, such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Julia Kristeva. Three important themes can be identified in the development of a set of concerns that shaped International Political Sociology (IPS) as a subfield of IR: the self-understanding of IR and its relation to broader sociopolitical structures and institutions; limits, borders, and frontiers; and the emergence of a concern with practices of power perceived as acting in various sites, such as security and citizenship. The concretization of a different set of research preoccupations that are associated with IPS has resulted in some of the more significant developments in postmodern IR theory. Nevertheless, there are a few issues that deserve further consideration in social research that would help decenter the Western frame of IR, including the need for postcolonial discussions concerning the project of Enlightenment.

Keywords: postmodernity, late modernity, postmodernism, Enlightenment, International Relations, poststructuralism, International Political Sociology, frontiers, security, citizenship


Although the term “postmodern” tends to be somewhat resistant to precise definition and conceptual delineation, there is a distinction between “postmodernism” and “postmodernity.” The latter is usually understood as a stage of late modernity or late capitalism (Jameson 1991) that follows modernity. The concept of postmodernity implies a break with modernity, but more specifically with the project of Enlightenment. Thus “postmodernism” is perceived as a theoretical trend that attempts to unsettle a number of key concepts associated with the Enlightenment, such as grand narratives of progress (Lyotard 1984), a linear unfolding of history, and traditional conceptions of reason and rationality (see Macey 2001). Postmodernism is mainly characterized by a rejection of foundationalism, entailing a deep suspicion of all intrinsic truths and assumptions upon which modern knowledge is built and from which it draws its legitimacy. Generally conceived, postmodernist accounts attempt to expose the contingency of all knowledge, the power relations that underpin modern narratives of progress, reason, and history, and the social, political and economic structures that are implicated in the perpetuation and legitimizing of such relations.

It is important to distinguish here between late modernity and postmodernity. Some authors argue that there is an important distinction between the two concepts. Anthony Giddens (1991), for example, claims that postmodernity implies a superseding of modernity, a process of transcending the structures, frameworks of thought, and institutions of modernity. He explains that, although the idea that we are living in a postmodern era is widely circulated, the reality is that what we are witnessing is rather a “radicalization” and “universalization” of modernity (1991:45–53; see also Lash 1990; Beck 1992; Bauman 2000). Modernity, Giddens argues, has reached the phase of global expansion in which its institutional dimensions stretch across the globe. This statement implies that institutional dimensions of modernity, such as capitalism, industrialism, the capacity to monitor economic, social and political activities, the centralized control of military capabilities, have now acquired global dimensions. This process of globalizing modernity possesses its own dimensions: the creation of networks of production–consumption relations within a world capitalist economy, the global expansion of modern military technologies, the system of nation-states, and the specialization of labor at the international level through the spread of industrial technologies (1991:55–79).

However, this distinction is not a predominant one in International Relations (IR). Late modernity seems to be used interchangeably with postmodernity/postmodernism (see Campbell and Schoolman 2008). Moreover, Campbell and Schoolman implicitly suggest that the treatment of the late modernity/postmodernity problématique in IR takes place mainly within a framework of postmodern/poststructuralist perspectives. Thus this essay, while acknowledging the contributions of non-postmodernist authors to a better understanding of late modernity/postmodernity, chooses to focus on the particular postmodernist/poststructuralist authors whose research has made possible the emergence of International Political Sociology (IPS). Postmodernist/poststructuralist accounts in IR emerged in the 1980s, and they drew their inspiration from authors identified as poststructuralist, such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Julia Kristeva. Although Michel Foucault’s work has been loosely associated with poststructuralism, his influence on postmodern strands in IR has been immense. While within the North American context the two terms, postmodernism and poststructuralism, tend to be conflated, the two concepts are not synonymous. The former is usually applied to a variety of cultural practices and theoretical/philosophical discourses that seek to oppose the main premises of modernity, as explained earlier. The latter emerged in the 1960s in France as an intellectual movement against the conceptual rigidities of structuralism, and is overwhelmingly associated with deconstruction, as the attempt to expose the power hierarchies entailed by commonly employed binaries, such as Enlightenment/Romanticism, male/female, speech/writing, reason/emotion, and others.

Drawing their analytical insights from the works of the poststructuralist and postmodern authors mentioned above, scholars in IR focus on the links between knowledge production, representation, theorizing, and the power relations performed through sociopolitical practices and institutions (Burke 2008:359). This essay will concentrate on postmodernism as a body of thought and analytical insights, albeit loosely conceived, which attempt to impart a different understanding of world politics. Postmodernist accounts purport to depart ontologically, epistemologically, and methodologically from the established canon of IR. More specifically, the essay will examine the turning points in the debates within the discipline that made possible the emergence of IPS as a subfield of IR. Arguably, the appearance of postmodern voices on the stage of the discipline in the 1980s created the space within which to think about an International Political Sociology. The essay will begin by exploring those authors and texts who not only challenged the discipline’s narrow and rigid treatment of world politics, but who also helped mark a moment of significant disciplinary crisis. The edited volume by James Der Derian and Michael J. Shapiro, International/Intertextual Relations. Postmodern Readings of World Politics (1989), and the special issue of International Studies Quarterly, edited by Richard Ashley and R.B.J. Walker (1990), effected an unprecedented break with IR’s stubborn adherence to a positivistic methodology, and mapped out the critiques and concerns of poststructuralist IR scholars in lucid and provocative analyses. These critical accounts would serve as inspiration and as crucial points of reference for dissident IR scholars for decades to come.

Postmodernist/poststructuralist IR focused, in the first two decades, on rereading the canon of the discipline in a manner that exposed the deeply contingent character lying beneath the gloss of universality of IR’s dearly guarded categories such as “state,” “sovereignty,” “war,” “anarchy,” and “competition.” In undertaking such readings, dissident thought in IR aimed at deconstructing the self-understanding of the discipline, and its location in a Western-centric (and, more specifically, an Anglo-American centric) framework that entailed the policing and marginalizing of those voices that did not subscribe to the narrowly defined agenda of the discipline. Although a preoccupation with the deconstruction of IR’s self-images continues, there has been a multiplication of critical projects over the last decade that have attempted to go beyond a rereading of the canon, and have focused on the manner in which practices of marginalization, policing, and exclusion are effected through foreign policy practices, and through specific sociopolitical structures and institutions. These changes in focus and the subsequent reorientations of postmodernist IR are reflected in the broader themes that structure this essay. Thus the essay distinguishes three important themes in the development of a set of concerns that shaped IPS: the self-understanding of the discipline and its relation to broader sociopolitical structures and institutions; limits, borders, and frontiers; and the emergence of a concern with practices of power perceived as acting in various sites, such as security and citizenship. The latter marks the shift from an almost exclusive focus on textuality to a desire to explore the manner in which power hierarchies translate into social practices and structures.

Self-Understanding of the Discipline and Its Relation to Broader Social Structures and Institutions

Simulating Sovereignty

In the editorial article that prefaced the first issue of the journal International Political Sociology, Didier Bigo and R.B.J. Walker (2007:4) suggest that it is crucial “to think sociologically about politics and international relations,” which would involve a “study of practices, including the study of discourses as practices.” Bigo and Walker muse on what it might mean to think sociologically about world politics, but they also implicitly indicate a concern that had arguably been central to postmodernist investigations of IR, namely the question of what the discourses of IR tell us about IR as a set of practices. Here the concept of sovereignty emerges as perhaps one of the most targeted concepts within the discipline by both postmodern and non-postmodern voices (see Bartelson 1995; 2001). Undoubtedly lying at the very core of IR’s self-understanding both as a discipline and as a set of political practices, sovereignty had been unchallenged as one of the major tenets of the discipline, upon which rested its sense of legitimacy and accuracy about the dynamics of inter-national relations.

Several texts championing postmodern perspectives successfully effected this challenge in a rigorous and path-breaking manner, triggering one of the most significant crises in thinking about world politics. Der Derian and Shapiro’s edited volume International/Intertextual Relations and the special issue of International Studies Quarterly edited by Ashley and Walker expose IR as a territorial and sovereign-centered discipline. Furthermore they attempt to perturb the taken-for-granted legitimacy of sovereignty as a core principle of IR – a discipline whose sovereign self-fashioning reflects its paradigm of world politics as stripped down to a parsimonious system of sovereign entities vying for survival in a ruthless and self-interested competition. Thus Ashley and Walker’s “insistence on regarding sovereignty as a question” (1990:368) implies not only an interrogation of sovereignty as one of the core tenets of the discipline, but also an exploration of its self-proclaimed sovereign character, and of its practices of sovereignty within the field.

IR’s discourses about itself and about challenges made to the status quo of the field presuppose a geography of the discipline that situates its concerns (sovereignty, state, anarchy, war) as legitimate and central foci of analysis. This geography indicates also the presence of uncontested boundaries, which demarcate an “inside” from an “outside.” Postmodern voices which see themselves as working on the margins of the discipline gesture toward the problematic constitution of an exclusionary “we,” “a ‘community,’ a disciplinary centre, a modern culture” (Ashley and Walker 1990:371) that stubbornly guards the boundaries of the discipline. As Ashley and Walker illustrate through their analysis, critics (and critiques) of postmodern voices adopt a sovereign posture which enables them to speak on behalf of a secured and self-assured discipline. It is thus perhaps with Ashley and Walker’s extended critique of the question of sovereignty in IR that a moment of crisis of the discipline is brought into acute focus.

This disciplinary crisis is understood as resonating with other marginal and dissident movements that operate in different locales: feminist, peace, labor and environmental movements, among others. From the authors’ perspective, effecting a transgression of institutional boundaries unsettles, among others, the “stable oppositions” (such as “inside” vs. “outside,” “self” vs. “other,” and “foreign” vs. “domestic”) upon which entrenched social structures and discourses thrive, and through which power relations are rendered possible and legitimate.

Ashley and Walker echo, in their critique of sovereignty, James Der Derian’s exploration of the boundaries of knowledge and power in IR (1989). He theorizes the postmodern/poststructuralist approach in IR by pointing out that the method of deconstruction intends both to make strange those notions and practices that had been held as normal and legitimate, and to blur the boundaries between “the margins and the body of international relations, between textual politics and world politics, and […] between indigenes and aliens.” Such a deconstructive undertaking can be construed as an attempt “to deconstruct or denaturalize through detailed interpretation the inherited language, concepts, and texts that have constituted privileged discourses in international relations” (1989:4). More specifically, the targets of deconstruction have been fixed oppositions and hierarchies (fact/fiction, male/female, self/other, rational/irrational, scientific = legitimate vs. unscientific = illegitimate, core/margins, nature/culture, and others), and positivist practices (implying a questioning of the role of “legitimate,” understood as scientific, methodologies in social sciences). Both Der Derian and Shapiro’s International/Intertextual Relations and Ashley and Walker’s critiques of the discipline in the special issue of International Studies Quarterly aim at destabilizing the set meanings of war, anarchy, state, and sovereignty in IR, and at opening spaces for dialogue with and inclusion of alternative possibilities for thinking about world politics.

In the same volume edited by Der Derian and Shapiro, Richard Ashley’s essay “Living on Border Lines” maps out the concerns of poststructuralist/postmodern IR while signaling the manner in which poststructuralism expands the agenda of social theory through a meaningful engagement with “historicity.” At the core of “historicity,” which Ashley sees as the historical imposition of the boundary between the domestic and international politics, lies the “paradigm of sovereign man as a central figure in modern narratives of politics.” Ashley adopts a Derridean suspicion of logocentric discourses, namely of discourses that gesture in their idealism toward an origin, an identity which is deemed to be “the sovereign source of truth and meaning” (1989:260–1). Logocentric discourses effect an erasure of difference itself. This statement implies that the sovereign voice’s historically constructed character needs to be masked as universal and atemporal, so that it can lay claim to power and undisputed legitimacy. In addition, any other voices that might make its historical roots transparent – and thus endanger its transhistorical truth claims – will be silenced and marginalized.

Ashley posits that a paradigm of sovereignty is made to function as an immutable principle in international relations, by legitimizing state violence and the political organization of the world into states, thus effectively implementing a separation between the domestic and the outer (international) realms (1989:270). The author, however, insightfully notes that the success of the project of sovereignty stems from its self-posturing as fait accompli, which implies that “[a] paradigm of sovereignty must be produced through practices that rely on an understanding that it is always already in place” (1989:271, emphasis added). It is through this discussion on the production of sovereignty through a set of practices that Ashley prefigures with remarkable insight a number of later developments in the theorizing of world politics from postmodern and non-postmodern perspectives, such as practices of statecraft (Bartelson 1995; Soguk 1999; Doty 1999; 2003), a preoccupation with “transversal struggles” (Soguk 2008), and the shift from textuality to social practices (Bigo 2002; Huysmans 2006; Bigo and Tsoukala 2008a).

Ashley’s preoccupation with the inscription of the paradigm of sovereign man in global politics stems from a poststructuralist commitment to expose those “knowledgeable practices by which limits are imposed” (1989:284). Moreover, such a commitment implies the desire to reconsider the canon of IR, those founding texts which are taken to spell out the “truth” and validate the need for scientific rigor in the discipline. This commitment has entailed, among other things, a systematic effort to revisit and reread those canonical texts of disciplinary IR (such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Kant, Weber) in a different register, one which exposes the rigid conventions of interpretation operating in IR with regard to its own “origins” and foundations. What Ashley and Walker identify as dissident thought in IR juxtaposes two distinctive manners of interpreting those texts which are deemed to have founded the field: a memorializing reading and a countermemorializing one (1990:399–402). The memorializing reading, adopted by the disciplinary mainstream, imposes an interpretation of various texts that aims to settle “paradoxes of space and time,” “to constitute a discipline’s ‘referent reality’ as an objectively given external domain that is not only independent of ‘our’ knowing but also capable of authorizing and limiting what ‘we’ can validly think and say about ‘our’ world” (1990:399). According to critical analyses, a memorializing reading of, for example, Thucydides and Hobbes strives to preserve intact the boundaries of the discipline, to limit what can be known and what can be investigated in world politics, and to decide upon who counts as legitimate actors in global politics. Through a memorializing reading of these “founding” texts, the sovereignty of the discipline as a coherent and unchallenged field is reaffirmed and imposed.

It is this pretension to disciplinary integrity that constitutes the target of the countermemorializing reading. The assumption that “there is a discipline that is bounded” indicates the self-enclosed character of a discipline, which in its current shape, as Naeem Inayatullah and David Blaney indicate, is “itself partly a legacy of colonialism” (2004:2). A countermemorializing reading thus celebrates paradox (see Connolly 1989; 2002a) and freedom, and perceives these texts not as autonomous spaces of definitive meaning, but as “part of the openly contested cultural terrain” (Ashley and Walker 1990:384). When read in context, as socially constructed narratives embedded in a particular historical framework, such texts illustrate how reading is not a natural and neutral activity. Rather to respect a text implies to read it “on its own terms” (George 1994:192, emphasis in the original). Thucydides’ famous “Melian Dialogue” from his History of the Peloponnesian War is appropriated by (neo)realists in ways that gloss over the author’s acute awareness of historical context. Memorializing readings conveniently omit that political categories such as power and hegemony were seen by Thucydides as deeply dependent on “intersubjective conventions,” and not as eternal and immutable laws of nature (Daniel Garst quoted in George 1994:193). A memorializing reading interprets Machiavelli’s The Prince as merely the justification for the removal of ethical issues from political affairs, without making a proper correlation between Machiavelli’s preoccupations with violence and virtú. Additionally, it completely obliterates the way in which Machiavelli’s political time and space exist under the sign of fortuna, the epitome of transitoriness and of the ephemeral (see George 1994; 1995; Walker 1993). Another notable countermemorializing reading of IR’s “canon,” coming from a historical-materialist perspective, is Justin Rosenberg’s Empire of Civil Society (1994), in which the author undertakes an insightful critique of the mainstream’s assumption of anarchy in world politics by reappropriating Marx’s social theory of value.

More recently, Costas Constantinou (2004) undertakes an innovative reading of Machiavelli’s understanding of power through an analysis of Mandragola, Machiavelli’s play. Constantinou employs the multiple meanings of the term “state” and explores the manner in which it refers not only to a “territorial entity” or to a “power regime,” but also, and more interestingly, to a “peculiar kind of standing, personal, deeply psychological and socially constructed” (2004:1). Drawing on the ambivalent meaning of stasis (Greek for “state”), which can mean both a state of rest and repose, and (political) unrest, revolt, and civil war, Constantinou examines the political possibilities of thinking about the state as a “seditious state” that fails to encapsulate and arrest one narrative and one identity, but rather cuts across and brings “together historical rationalities and specificities that currently appear incommensurable” (2004:5). Constantinou’s core argument in his States of Political Discourse revolves around the various modalities through which the state becomes perceived as a global actor through an ambivalent array of practices that conceal its complexities and tensions (2004:11; see also Ferguson and Manbach 2004).

Constantinou’s reading of the state in a register of paradox underlines a postmodernist agenda that strives to cut across the arbitrary boundaries imposed between domestic and international politics, and, as Walker (1993:20) points out, to reveal what it might signify to think and theorize about world politics instead of interstate or international relations. Going even further, one can make the argument that postmodernity understood as the acceleration and increasing interconnectedness of economic, cultural, social, and political exchanges, simply eschews the notion that “all spatiotemporal options expressed by the principle of state sovereignty are the only ground from which critical thought and emancipatory practice can be generated” (Walker 1993:21; see also Hindess 1996).

If authors such as R.B.J. Walker, James Der Derian, William Connolly, and Richard Ashley, among others, focus in their work mainly on destabilizing IR’s disciplinary sovereignty, other critical voices emerged which have not only interrogated the sovereign pretensions of the discipline, but also engaged in analyzing the paradoxes, tensions, and instability of sovereignty as a foreign policy practice. In Simulating Sovereignty (1995), Cynthia Weber reflects on the paradox of sovereignty as performed in the practices of the US foreign policy. Weber’s emphasis on the truth effect of sovereignty pushes us to reconsider sovereignty beyond its value as representation of reality, and instead to start seeing it as a simulation that produces a regime of truth. Consequently, what is important in Weber’s view is not whether sovereignty is “really out there,” but rather how sovereignty as a regime of truth functions in such a way as to conceal power effectively. This insightful incursion into practices of sovereignty indicates that, according to Weber, in postmodernity a productive reading and interpretation of political processes is no longer a question of the representation of the real or the social, but of simulating the signs of the real.


The discussion of the self-professed sovereignty of disciplinary IR takes us into another significant direction opened by postmodern readings of world politics: the question of the self, otherness, and difference. As Der Derian implies in his essay “The Boundaries of Knowledge and Power in International Relations,” the deconstructive method seeks to disturb and unsettle “habitual ways of thinking and acting in international relations” (1989:4). More generally, this method relentlessly advocates in favor of “between-ness” and “Otherness” in international/intertextual relations, meaning that it celebrates difference, ambivalence, and paradox. In his highly influential essay “Living on Border Lines,” Richard Ashley stated that poststructuralist/postmodern social theory in IR is “drawn to the uncertain ‘frontiers,’ the ‘border lines,’ or the ‘margins’ of modernity’s most central and certain voices” (1989:272) – a project which translates into a desire to illuminate the other spaces of knowledge, the other forms of being, which have been pushed to the margins of modernity. In short, his is a desire to welcome and celebrate difference. Here it is worth noting that Ashley’s vision of difference is perhaps an undifferentiated one, which implies that “all other grounds are equally arbitrary, equally the effects of attempts to decide the undecidable, and […] equally subject to political dispute” (1989:279). It is precisely this undistinguished postmodern vision of difference, which, some argue, flattens all difference and diffuses its radical potential, that has become a target of critique. It is worth noting here the concerns of postcolonial voices in IR who attempt to address the politics of the ethics of otherness adopted by postmodern IR, and more particularly to critically examine the role and space assigned to non-Western voices and issues in a discipline that remains very much Western-centric (see, for example, Krishna 1993).

Poststructuralist/postmodernist authors such as R.B.J. Walker (1991; 1993), Jim George (1994), Richard Ashley (1989; 2002), Hugh Gusterson (1999), David Campbell (1998), James Der Derian (1989), and William Connolly (1989; 1995; 2002a) are inspired by a Derridean approach to ethics that revolves around constructions of selfhood and otherness. Within the context of Derridean ethics, self/other, subject/object, body/soul are dichotomies that reveal more than anything else their location as “universal” concepts: the Western system of thought. Within the context of disciplinary IR, selfhood serves to signify other connotations such as sovereignty, masculinity, rationality, independence, civilization, whereas otherness is inscribed with the following meanings: femininity, nature, dependence, emotion/irrationality. Poststructuralist authors expose how the “field” of IR is founded upon and feeds off these dichotomies, relegating as irrelevant issues such as gender, race, culture, religion, etc. These dissident readings perceive the “field” of IR as the “field” of Western, white, conservative males (Smith 1997:17), who devise theories with pretensions of universality, naturalness, and neutrality (see Ashley 1989; George 1994).

Postmodernist authors decry the injunction of egoism and self-help that pervades mainstream IR, by affirming that the neutral and impartially investigated reality of international relations is a “reality established almost exclusively in Anglo-American social-scientific terms” (George 1994:199). Jim George opposes to the “realist ethics of (non)responsibility” a postmodernist ethics of social responsibility, which imposes on scholars a “regime of self-reflection and critical awareness” (1994:209). The ethos of responsibility promoted by George is that inspired by Emmanuel Lévinas, who posits that we are permanently connected to “otherness,” we cannot be detached from “otherness,” as “we are all Others somewhere to someone” (George 1994:210). This claim gestures toward an entrenched ethical commitment adopted by postmodern voices to a practice of identity that strives to destabilize assumptions about the autonomy of the self, about the self-sufficiency of selfhood, and about the strange and alien nature of otherness. Such voices indicate that self and other, identity and difference are rarely contained and neatly delineated entities, but rather that they are always in the process of being constructed, affirmed, and legitimized. In other words, practices of demarcating the boundaries of identity and difference are incomplete and overlapping.

It is precisely their ambiguous and tense nature and the ensuing need for uncontested boundaries that arouse practices of (in)security. Notable here is the double move constantly performed by postmodern/poststructuralist voices in IR between a deconstruction of the practices of identity and difference performed within the discipline itself, and of the same practices performed by various agents in world politics. The two practices are very much related: the slide from disciplinary practices of identity to political processes is purposefully pursued by the postmodern agenda in IR. At the core of this self-conscious double move lies the assumption that the manner in which IR constructs itself as a discipline reflects and perpetuates the types of political processes which are normalized and legitimized by the discipline.

William Connolly’s Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (2002a) questions the practices that oppose identity to difference both in political theory and IR. Connolly’s premise that all identity is relational, which implies that identity and difference depend upon each other for their perpetuation and legitimation, allows him to adopt an ethical stance according to which “to act ethically is to call some comforts of identity into question” (2002a:xix). His understanding of identity reflects the larger postmodernist commitment to an ironic stance toward itself while affirming its identity (Connolly 1989:331). Such an ironic stance is meant to change the experience of identity and its relation to other identities by destabilizing the self’s identity (or subjectivity), and thus implying that subjectivity is now seen as the result/effect of the relationship with the Other. This questioning of a rigid subjectivity translates into a “struggle for – or on behalf of – alterity, and not a struggle to efface, erase, or eradicate alterity” (Campbell and Dillon 1993b:175).

It is this preoccupation with alterity’s relation to identity, and with the manner in which such a relation plays out in world politics, that informs postmodernist agendas. Indeed, according to Connolly (2002a:49), disciplinary IR “dissolves questions of identity and difference into its categories of theory, evidence, rationality, sovereignty and utility.” Inspired by Connolly’s concern with the ethics of encountering and understanding difference, David Campbell (1998) pushes the boundaries of the discipline through a bold engagement with US foreign policy’s discourses. Campbell deftly applies the concept of textuality to American foreign policy texts as well as to American foreign policy practices. The aim of his project is to deconstruct the modes of representation which have been historically summoned in the articulation of danger, and to designate the manifest political consequences involved by such processes of othering. Writing Security investigates the construction of American identity through the demonization of particular categories such as the “Indians” (Native Americans), women, working classes, blacks and Hispanics, communists, etc., who are designated by US foreign policy texts as those internal others who constitute the limits of Americanness. These categories emerge as subjects cum objects of security, and exemplify how otherness is demonized so that an endangered hegemonic identity is reaffirmed and normalized. Relying on a Foucauldian vision of power, Campbell posits that practices of disciplining and control are vital to the process of inscribing the boundaries of hegemonic identities. His articulation of alterity’s role in nation-building processes and in foreign policy practices has opened the space for rethinking the linkages between identity and foreign policy in a manner that effectively undercuts the assumed boundary between domestic and international politics (see also Burgess 2008; 2009).

David Campbell and Michael Dillon’s edited volume The Political Subject of Violence continues the investigation of the role of difference and alterity in contemporary practices of world politics, this time by focusing specifically on discourses of security. At the core of this project lies the relation between subject and violence, and more particularly, the constitution of the modern subject as a subject of violence. Reflecting on contemporary processes of globalization, and on how these processes blur the assumed boundaries between the domestic and the international, the editors indicate the increasing relevance of theorizing on the links between political subjectivity, technology, and violence in a world in which security is the politics which “mediates technology and violence” (Campbell and Dillon 1993a:28). This understanding of political subjectivity (the property of being a political subject) as determined by violence serves to structure in a consequential way various encounters with otherness, with other forms of being. In an era obsessed with security, the enemy of the politics of security is perceived to be “the very heterogeneity, difference and otherness […] that threatens” the certainty and uncontested character of the sovereign subject (1993a:30). In its specific focus on the interactions between technology, security, and the constitution of political subjectivity through violence, this volume anticipates the later shift within international social theory in IR toward an investigation of those particular social structures, institutions, and apparatuses that embody such interactions. It is arguably through the theorization of these links that the subfield of IPS emerges later in IR. It is perhaps worth remarking here that Campbell’s Writing Security and Campbell and Dillon’s edited volume can be situated within a larger context of critical engagements with security in IR which attempted to revisit the concept of security and the manner in which it functioned in the discipline’s mainstream discourses. Thus the earlier critical analyses of security in IR focused mainly on the discursive practices emerging from IR theory and foreign policy through which threats are being defined, constituted, and then mobilized, and through which violence against difference and otherness is justified and rendered acceptable.

It should be noted that the initial incursions of postmodern analyses into world politics had an almost exclusive preoccupation with textuality, translated more specifically into deconstructions of the various practices of both IR as a disciplinary field and of international relations as a set of practices in world politics. The earlier analyses of some of the works of Richard Ashley, R.B.J. Walker, James Der Derian, William Connolly, and David Campbell exemplify the concerns of a postmodern agenda in IR with discursive practices in world politics, that is with the ways in which language functions to secure a particular vision of international relations, and with the exclusions and marginalizations effected by such a hegemonic vision. As already mentioned earlier, the deconstructive intention behind postmodernist readings of IR has been to unsettle the binaries that had been normalized by the discipline (such as domestic/foreign, inside/outside, self/other, reason/emotion, science/fiction, fiction/nonfiction, and others), and render visible the violence and the power relations that underpin them. It is perhaps this intention to disrupt oppositions that lies behind Richard Ashley’s affirmation in “Living on Border Lines” that the location of poststructuralist/postmodernist projects in IR is on the frontiers, on the borders, on the margins of the discipline. Ashley perceives such a limit-location, simultaneously within and outside of modernity, to be crucial to the expansion of an agenda of social research and theory in IR, insofar as the aim of postmodern projects is to bring to light and make audible those voices that modernity had relegated to obscurity.

Limits, Borders, Frontiers

Disciplinary Borders: The Fragmented Nature of IR

The discussion above on the self-understanding of the field of IR as perceived by postmodernist social theory leads us to a related theme, that of limits, borders, and frontiers. Indeed, throughout the first part of this essay the theme of limits and borders constituted the undertone of the analysis, since critical analyses in IR reiterate a politics of difference whose object is the exposure and interrogation of the symbolic and less symbolic limits of IR.

R.B.J. Walker, in Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, contends that theories of international relations are relevant not necessarily for what they tell us about contemporary international relations but as articulations of the limits or borders of the contemporary political imagination (1993:5). What is interesting about them, claims Walker, are the very categories they enjoin us to take for granted and legitimize, such as sovereignty, state, anarchy, competitive behavior, war. Such categories constitute both the limits of the discipline, and the limits of our political imagination in need of rethinking and questioning. State sovereignty, for example, is not an eternal political principle, but rather a truth effect, to use Jean Baudrillard’s expression, an effect of the complex practices that work to enforce an “appearance of permanence,” and to separate a homogeneous and continuous inside from a dangerous and anarchic outside (1993:163). Put differently, the principle of state sovereignty functions in IR discourses as the margin, the border that separates and distinguishes between anarchy and order, foreign and domestic, self and other (1993:174). In addition, what is notable about the concept of sovereignty in IR is the manner in which it directs our focus toward an almost internalized necessity to defend borders, and to think about borders in a peculiar way, as separating two different and almost incompatible spheres. The argument advanced both by Walker (1993) and by other postmodernist scholars in IR (see, for example, Der Derian 1993; Shapiro and Alker 1995; Dillon 1996) is that this specific modality of imagining and practicing borders normalizes political acts of exclusion, marginalization, and violence, and even renders them moral and desirable.

It is thus not accidental that authors such as Richard Ashley, R.B.J. Walker, William Connolly, Michael Dillon, and David Campbell have repeatedly dwelled on the inside/outside paradigm performed by discourses of disciplinary IR, a discursive move which overarches very entrenched practices of segregation and marginalization. This paradigm presupposes the existence of an inside which is continuous, self-identical, and secure, “the privileged space of the Self,” and of an outside that is irrational, discontinuous, and different, “the residual space of the Other” (Ashley 1989:290). Postmodernist/poststructuralist approaches pose a significant ontological challenge to the geopolitics of power in IR by embracing a Foucauldian-inspired view of power as capillary and diffuse. They no longer conceive of power in terms of center/periphery, rather they see the diffuseness of power operating in various locations. A postmodern reading of the geography of power thus no longer maps over rigidly conceived centers and peripheries, but rather it is made up of mobile centers and peripheries that are constantly shifting. At times, one’s center of power can constitute someone else’s periphery, and vice versa. Margins are not frozen borders; rather they are constituted by complex social and political practices.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that postcolonial, Marxist, and feminist scholars in IR have engaged over the last decade in critiques that aim to highlight the gap between postmodernism’s goals and its political consequences. In an influential article published in Alternatives, postcolonial scholar Sankaran Krishna thoughtfully reflects on the politics of postmodern subjectivity in IR. Krishna remarks that “many postmodernist writings commence from a remarkably self-contained and self-referential view of the West” (1993:388). Postmodernists’ self-referential analyses are, in Krishna’s words, “more alienating and not particularly illuminating” (1993:412), since their self-imposed exile on the margins of the discipline prevents other voices and other alternatives from making any meaningful claims to marginality (see also Ashley 2002).

Acts of Governmentality through Border Controls

While postmodern explorations of world politics have initially emphasized the “nonplace” they inhabit on the margins of the discipline and “on the border lines of global life” (Ashley 1989:285), more recent politico-sociological analyses have focused primarily on practices of mobility and their sites in a globalizing world. Such practices and sites include the border, airports and transit areas, passport controls, and surveillance technologies, briefly those social practices that constitute movements across borders and subjects/objects in movement (such as migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, security professionals, border officers, etc.). One could make the argument that postmodernists’ preoccupation with disciplinary borders undergoes a concretization through the emergence of studies that examine the site of the border not only as a symbolic site of violence and politics, but also as a set of social practices that constitutes differentiated political subjectivities.

This recent focus on border practices reflects the development of a Foucauldian political sociology in IR that attempts to provide a theorization of the links between power and governance in contemporary global politics. For this purpose, William Walters detects a necessity to forge “productive connections between political and social theory, political economy, criminology and sociology” (2006:188). Walters notes that some of the significant features of a Foucauldian political sociology are

a concern with the place of expertise within strategies of governance; the pivotal place of self-governance and subjectivity within modes of power; and an eschewal of grand theories of modernity in favor of a more empirical, and in a sense more situated, perspective on governance understood at the level of various strategies, technologies, programmes, and techniques.

Crucial to an understanding of a Foucauldian political sociology are the concepts of governmentality and biopower, which have become core concerns of international political sociology in IR. Biopower was theorized by Foucault (1991; 1997; 2003) as the form of power whose central concern and object is the population, understood as man-as-species, man-as-living-being. In a 1976 lecture delivered at the Collège de France, Foucault (2003:239–64) argued that beginning with the seventeenth century we have been witnessing the emergence of the biopolitics of the human race, which concerns itself with the collection and management of information regarding biological aspects of populations, such as birth rate, mortality rate, health, and longevity. Foucault also perceived a link between the deployment of various biopolitical techniques, whose aim is to alter and enhance life, and the emergence of governmentality – a form of governance whereby citizens are ruled through less authoritarian and coercive means, such as habits of self-management and self-disciplinary strategies, reinforced both by socially prescriptive behavior and by the work of a variety of state and nonstate agencies (see also Bell 2006). Therefore, in the context of border controls, authors such as William Walters (2002a; 2002b; 2006), Mark B. Salter (2004), Jef Huysmans (2000; 2006), Nevzat Soguk (1999; 2007), Didier Bigo (2002), and Claudia Aradau (2003; Aradau et al. 2008) perceive the need to go beyond the frame of sovereignty, and to situate discussions on border controls, deportations, and the global policing of migrants and refugees within the field of a global governmentality. The research questions that guide such projects revolve not only around the manner in which practices of governmentality in the policing of borders and of border subjects (migrants, refugees, travelers) advance the sovereign power of the state, but they also highlight a “transformation in the dominant mechanisms and images of social order” (Walters 2006:191) through the constitution of new spaces of border control and of new subjects of border control.

Scholars such as William Walters, Mark B. Salter, Jef Huysmans, Didier Bigo, and Colleen Bell, among others, emphasize the “delocalization” of the border or the deterritorialization of the border. What these concepts entail is the dismantling of the border function away from the border (Salter 2004:80; Walters 2006:193) and its subsequent diffusion throughout the territory of a particular society. Thus the border ceases to operate solely in the space traditionally assigned for it, and it ramifies instead throughout society through a set of apparatuses that encompass surveillance techniques (visa requirements, passport controls, various technologies that manage and survey movement), expert knowledge, and particular institutional arrangements (governmental and nongovernmental agencies). Such a shift in border practices can also be understood through the notion of biopolitical border, whose deployment not only targets the links between borders, immigration, and “global flows,” but also situates it as a “site of biopolitical management” (Walters 2002a:562).

As mentioned earlier, biopower’s object is the population understood as a biological multiple body defined by its characteristics of longevity, health, birth rate, and mortality. From this perspective, border controls become privileged instruments in managing the health, security, and movement of the population (Walters 2002a:571). Since biopower’s main concern is the enhancement and alteration of life-processes, racialized categories such as migrants, refugees, asylum seekers are constituted as categories that serve to fragment the field of the biological that power controls. In a normalizing society, racialized border controls and disciplinary techniques are seen as indispensable for the securing and the maintaining of the health and well-being of the population of that particular society. Here the distinction between citizen and noncitizen becomes an inevitable terrain for social research, one that has been taken on assiduously in the last decade, and which will be elaborated upon in the following section.

Others, such as Nevzat Soguk (2007; 2008), draw attention to the transversality of the border, that is to the manner in which borders simultaneously and paradoxically both separate, divide, and isolate, and connect and relate. Soguk (2007:297) thus reclaims borders as “sites of relationality” that exceed the confines of a state-centric geography, and that bring into being new political subjectivities. From his perspective, the refugee, the migrant, and the asylum seeker should be perceived as “insurrectional” political subjectivities or “border concepts,” which both question “the ontological and epistemological borders of the state” and expose “the limits of the state” (2007:305). Soguk’s conceptualization of borders should be situated within a growing social research agenda that contests the manner in which the discipline of IR “has worked to incarcerate its subjects in a location of analysis – spatially Cartesian and politically state-oriented – conditioned to ignore the transnational and transversal formations that have become central to politics” (Soguk 2008:173, emphasis added; see also Colás 2003; Chandler 2006). Such transversal and transnational political practices speak about a “rich and complex texture of the political” which does not attempt to reduce such complexity to “states, nations, and borders alone” (Soguk 2008:192).

Beyond Textuality and Surplus Meaning: Practices of (In)Security and (De)Securitization

Practices of (In)Security

As noted earlier, an increasing concern over the last decade with the development of a Foucauldian political sociology in IR has translated, among other things, into a social research agenda that attempts to identify and make sense of those practices which crystallize in broader social structures and institutions. Notable here is that such an agenda encourages transdisciplinary analyses of contemporary world processes, with a special focus on mobility, globalization, and the types of technologies that such processes engender. While Foucault’s legacy is both undeniable and almost unparalleled for the field of IPS, there are other social theorists whose works have had enormous currency in the development of research projects focused on migration and securitization, on globalization, and on global technologies of risk, such as Pierre Bourdieu (Bigo 2002; Leander 2005; Bigo and Tsoukala 2008b), Giorgio Agamben (Nyers 2006b; Constantinou 2008; Huysmans 2008), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Doty 1999; 2003; Walters 2006), Paul Virilio (Connolly 2002b; Nyers 2006a), and Ulrich Beck (Aradau et al. 2008).

This expanding agenda relies on the notion that a significant concern such as security cannot be apprehended through the lenses of one discipline, namely IR, but needs rather an examination of the various approaches embraced by different disciplines, such as law, sociology, criminology, anthropology, and others. While building on the strengths and insights of initial interrogations of the security discourse in IR (such as Der Derian 1993; Dillon 1996; Walker 1997), these recent developments purposefully strive to exceed the deconstructive frame with its almost exclusive focus on textuality and discursive practices. They probe the wide spectrum of practices and social apparatuses that ground such discursive iterations, through which security and insecurity become part of the everyday. Bigo and Tsoukala remark that critical analyses in IR dealing with the politics of terror and the politics of exception have “focus[ed] too much on the spectacular and [have] ignor[ed] the routine, the everyday practices of late modernity, the heterogeneity and multiple lines of flight of these practices” (2008a:3). Furthermore, an international political sociology of security aims to contextualize and submerge such practices “into a ‘societal logic’ and into a political sociology that insists on a different way of conceptualizing the (in)securitization process, far from freedom from fear and terror, but concerned with insecurity as risk and unease” (Bigo and Tsoukala 2008a:3–4).

These recent shifts in conceptualizing (in)security investigate the transnational and transdisciplinary aspects of security, and the networks of actors and agents that are involved in the constitution and propagation of the field of security. It is worth remembering then that such an approach does not conceive of security and securitization as either positive or negative, but instead it perceives it as “a field effect and not the result of a specific strategy of a dominant actor” (Bigo and Tsoukala 2008a:5, emphasis added). While discursive constructions of threats, dangers, and terror are certainly still very much relevant to this emergent research agenda, the main target becomes the deployment of the various technologies that function under the logic of surveillance and control, and the manner through which such technologies are employed politically.

Scholars such as Didier Bigo (2002; 2008) and Jef Huysmans (2006) concern themselves with the expert knowledge that is imbricated in the production of security, and with how such expert knowledge has acquired a transnational character. Bigo, for example, focuses in his research on “the field of professionals of the management of unease” whereby he discerns transversal networks that involve police organizations, corporate actors, governmental agencies that deal with welfare, health, and social security, intelligence services, and military organizations, among others. The proliferation of unease, according to Bigo, stems not only from the propagandistic discourses of right-wing politicians and state agencies. The proliferation of unease has structural roots in the emergence of a global “risk society” that is conditioned by a neoliberal logic “in which freedom is always associated at its limits with danger and (in)security” (Bigo 2002:65). Similarly, Huysmans examines security practices “as techniques of government,” which are constituted by a vast array of technological and technocratic processes that compete with each other over the legitimacy and primacy of various threats and risks. The author notes here that ultimately what is at stake in such a struggle exceeds the solidity and authority of a specific security policy. Instead, “[v]isions of insecurity and their institutionalization in technologies and everyday practice reiterate imaginations of the nature of politics itself […] and invest them in social relations” (Huysmans 2006:10).

Such current shifts in critical security studies refocus the social research agenda in critical IR theory from conceptualizing security in terms of “threat definition” (Dillon 1996; Campbell 1998; Connolly 2002a) to perceiving insecurity in terms of a “domain of practice” (Huysmans 2006:11). In this sense, categories such as sovereignty and security need to be reconceived as more than mere analytical tools for the investigation of social reality. Instead, they lend themselves to a Foucauldian examination, which considers how they are “linked to a particular way of governing” (Bigo 2002:68). However, it needs to be considered that these current developments aim as much to subvert disciplinary boundaries as the initial deconstructive readings of IR. In fact, Bigo states that the efforts of deconstructing disciplinary boundaries have produced a new field of research “having its own rules and its own coherence – the field of professionals of the management of unease” (2008:16). Thus the subversion of disciplinary boundaries by paying attention to the transversal and transnational trait of various actors, events, and movements accounts for the emergence of “new fields of intelligibility” that allow the researcher to “cross the habitual line traced by the social sciences between internal and external, between problems couched in terms of defence and problems of the police, and between problems of national security and the problem of public order” (2008:16).

Practices of Political Subjectivity: Citizens, Migrants, and Refugees

Campbell and Dillon suggested that in a postmodern age, the “ethic of technology is founded upon a violence against difference” (1993a:19). Such a difference can be understood as the various global flows of refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, indigenous movements, transnational networks of advocacy and activism, global civil society, and others. Campbell and Dillon’s edited volume, The Political Subject of Violence, signaled a preoccupation in postmodern IR with the effects of the advent of “global technology” on the constitution of political subjectivity and on the policing of alterity. Their analysis anticipated the significant turn which allowed for the crystallization of a set of concerns associated with IPS: the preoccupation with practices of mobility, the policing of mobility (through carceral strategies), and the political subjectivities enabled by a technology of violence and by the globalization of mobility practices. The previous section examined some of the research projects focusing on practices of (in)security and securitization. This section outlines some of the various research endeavors whose targets have been the practices involved in the creation and production of political subjectivities, namely those of citizens, refugees, and migrants.

The securitization of migration has been a substantive research focus for more than a decade. Scholars such as Jef Huysmans (2000; 2006), Ayse Ceyhan, Anastassia Tsoukala (Ceyhan and Tsoukala 2002), Nevzat Soguk (1999; 2008), Peter Nyers (2006a), Anne McNevin (2006), and Roxanne Doty (1999; 2003) point in their analyses to processes of securitization of migration in Western societies in the context of globalization. From these perspectives, subjects of mobility such as immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers pose a significant challenge to the myth of national unity and homogeneity, by disrupting, through their very presence, the pretensions of linear and uniform national history. The figure of the migrant, refugee, asylum seeker becomes, with its aura of mobility, ambiguity, and instability, the scapegoat for many of the disruptions and crises prompted by the intensification of global flows.

Roxanne Doty, for example, remarks on the double movement between paranoia and schizophrenia of state policies regarding migration: “the schizophrenic pole of desire” is constituted by the state’s aspiration toward “infinite freedom, defying boundaries, promoting perpetual flow of goods, capital, and human bodies,” while the centripetal desire pulls it back toward order, unquestioned identity and security (2003:58). In Anti-immigrantism in Western Democracies, Doty explores the paranoid desire of the state to reconfigure its identity to the standard of homogeneity, while excluding from participation those on whose labor and presence it depends for the satisfaction of its schizophrenic desire for deregulation and unimpeded commercial flows. Indeed, this double move between inclusion and exclusion of migrants and refugees frames much of current conceptualizations of citizenship. As mentioned earlier, mainstream analyses and official rhetoric about the migrant as an outsider or as a “guest” inevitably juxtaposes the citizen against the noncitizen.

Central to this discussion on citizenship is the manner in which citizenship has been theorized as a linear development from the polis to the cosmopolis, which amounts to an uninterrogated assumption of political inclusion and a clearly defined identity. Researchers such as Engin Isin (2002; 2005), Peter Nyers (2006a), and Anne McNevin (2006) contend that the dynamic of exclusion in the constitution of citizenship, and the subjectivities it engenders are crucial to an adequate understanding of citizenship as a practice of policing alterity and of generating the alien others of any modern polity. More to the point, Anne McNevin affirms that “the alien other, the immanent outsider and the citizen are mutually constitutive” (2006:137). This statement implies that those practices of exclusion, incarceration, and deportation of those considered alien are particularly relevant to understanding practices of political community, and the sort of political horizons for imagining and acting belonging. It is thus not by chance that the above-mentioned scholars undertake studies on citizenship practices through the examination of those subjectivities constructed as alien and outsiders to the legitimate political community of the nation-state. What is particularly relevant and intriguing about such analyses is the manner in which they indicate that the political stakes of the various contemporary movements for migrants’ and refugees’ rights go beyond a claim for inclusion. The claims advanced by immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees to political inclusion amount to a reconfiguration of citizenship, undermining the neat overlap between territory, nation, and political community. Thus strategies of border controls, detention, incarceration, deportation, and of criminalization of mobility are directly related to and can be understood as “strategies and technologies of citizenship” (McNevin 2006:140; see also Isin 2002).

Another major theme in studies of citizenship and mobility which can be circumscribed to IPS critically reflects on the struggles for political subjectivity of migrants and refugees. Nevzat Soguk remarks on a contemporary fallacy in the conceptualization of citizenship and of the refugee: while the citizen is presumed to enjoy a stable and fixed identity, the noncitizen (refugee, migrant) is always assigned an ever contingent and mobile identity, which conjures connotations of instability and even disloyalty (1999:7). The author states, however, that the identity of the citizen is just as contingent as that of the refugee, and thus subject to negotiation and alteration. In his view, the refugee, as a political actor, has the potential to “implode the cartographic logic” that engenders a rigid state-centric geography constructed of bordered spaces, each with its self-enclosed identity (1999:54). Indeed, scholars such as Soguk (1999; 2007) and Nyers (2006b) perceive an insurrectional potential in the politicization of migrants’ and refugees’ struggles. Nyers compellingly argues that the figure of the refugee gestures toward the inherent instability of the modern political equation between sovereign territoriality, political sovereignty, and citizenship practices. Although incessantly assigned, by various governmental and nongovernmental actors and by conventional academic analyses, a space of depoliticized humanity, the refugee stands, in Nyers’ account, for an uncomfortable “political excess” that simultaneously evades and exposes the limits imposed upon its subjectivity (2006b:xiii). Ultimately, the contemporary figures of the refugee and of the migrant disrupt the arbitrary delineation between inside and outside, between belonging and rejection, and between the citizen and the alien.

This essay has outlined some of the more significant developments in postmodern IR theory, which can account for the concretization of a different set of research preoccupations that are associated with IPS. While reconceptualizing and redefining alternative political horizons and decentering a Western-centric vision of world politics remain very much crucial stakes in the pursuance of a research agenda related to IPS, there are a few unfulfilled promises that can be seen as possible future avenues of social inquiry. One of the running themes proposed for the journal International Political Sociology has been the need for postcolonial discussions concerning the project of Enlightenment. Although the development of such a theme is indeed much needed if the promise of decentering the Western-centric hold of the discipline is to be taken seriously, a meaningful engagement with postcoloniality in IPS remains an unheeded and underexplored potential. IR scholars such as Sankaran Krishna (1999), Mark Duffield (2001), Mark Laffey (Barkawi and Laffey 2001), Tarak Barkawi (2005), J. Marshall Beier (2005), Anna Agathangelou and Lily Ling (Aganthangelou and Ling 2009), among others, engage in significant projects that link current global practices of war, development, social movements, and international theory to issues of race, security, gender, and culture. Their analyses contribute considerably to an articulation of world politics from a postcolonial perspective that focuses on non-Western issues, practices, and identities, and that aims at destabilizing the Enlightenment’s categories of progress and rationality. IPS would thus benefit greatly from a meaningful engagement with the recent postcolonial perspectives cited above, if it wishes to fulfill its promise of decentering the Western frame of IR.


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I would like to thank Peter Nyers for his kind and prompt support in the writing of this essay.