Can feminism be considered as a meta-theory of the discipline of International Relations? Meta-theories inform theories and their ontological and epistemological assumptions. For those who would answer ‘yes’ to the above question, the most likely justification of a positive answer would be that feminism is the only approach that reveals how knowledge about global politics is gendered. This means that most theoretical knowledge in IR reflects masculinized global politics by marginalizing and silencing what is constructed as feminized. True as it is, I believe that feminism can do more. It can be a meta-theory by serving as a reminder and warning signal for other theories. It can remind that, firstly, global political relations and structures are realized by human practices at a microlevel; secondly, whatever is studied as IR has implications for human beings; finally, if an IR scholar seeks change and transformation of the status quo, s/he should look at and become part of the practices of human beings in their localities, rather than looking for blueprints for change.
In other words, feminism as a meta-theory humanizes the discipline of International Relations. Whichever theoretical approach an IR researcher adopts – s/he does not have to self-define as feminist – the knowledge constructed can be given a human face. Maybe this way IR can be more effectively freed from the current situation which justifies and normalizes global politics that dehumanize global human society by turning its members into faceless numbers and costumers.
How can this happen? The feminist perspective enables IR scholars to delve into the fact that whether it is statism or capitalism, nationalism or socialism, liberal interventionism or neoliberal developmentalism, they all become political realities when they are practiced at the micro-level. The feminist motto ‘the private is political’ can be operationalized. The private, constructed as apolitical through feminization, cannot be considered as a sphere of personal freedom. It is the sphere where mothers are expected to raise citizens, soldiers, and nationalists, and fathers are expected to defend the private, if necessary. When individuals decide to spend their weekend at shopping malls that have become the centers of a neoliberal consumerist culture, especially in the developing world, this is not simply a free private choice. Can we consider an American flag hoisted at a suburban, presumably mortgaged, house during the operation in Afghanistan, when American soldiers were ‘saving’ Afghan women from Taliban, as a free private choice? Probably not. Global political structures and relations are produced and reproduced in what is considered as a private sphere. Human beings through their practices often normalize and justify what is presented as ‘right’.
Furthermore, feminism warns students of IR about the fact that whatever we are studying has implications on ‘real’ human beings. I have recently reread the memoirs of British pacifist Vera Brittain where she narrated her journey to pacifism. It remains an eye-opening work which shows that war does not simply concern a number of people killed, geographies changing hands, or capital accumulating. It touches on the human life. The spilt blood, rotting corpses, the terror of soldiers facing a violent death, the pain and fear of those who were left behind are all ‘real’. Feminism enables and sometimes even forces us to look at what we often choose to neglect because maybe we think that we are performing ‘science’; however, more often because we think that we write about people who are ‘out there’, far away. There is a big lesson for all IR scholars in Carol Cohn’s shock in the face of human fatalities when her male colleagues were discussing the ‘benefits’ of clean nuclear weapons. Although they were talking about human beings, it was almost impossible to remember that as a male ‘defense intellectual’.
Finally, the last reminder of feminism as a meta-theory is for IR researchers who are not happy about the current situation of world politics. The potential for change does not lie in our offices, certainly not in the ‘legitimate’ political spheres of liberal politics. Humans in their everyday practices challenge and resist global oppressive structures and their local extensions. Humans form solidarity networks; they learn about each other’s conditions and empathize with them; they develop their own peace models; and they produce an alternative life that is often considered by IR scholars as ‘utopian’, ‘unrealistic’, and ‘peculiar’. Furthermore, by virtue of its emphasis on humans, feminism does not let passivity and apathy rule our political and academic choices. It warns us about the dangers of fatalism about capitalism, neoliberalism, nationalism, fundamentalism, and militarism. It is a calling that all is not supposed to be this way, look at what people do in their everyday localities. Moreover, join them, if you can.
There is accumulating feminist scholarship on the points examined that can help IR researchers who do not do feminist research or identify themselves as such. The feminist meta-theoretical perspective is simple: when students of IR are performing their analyses, they can just spend some, even little, time on looking at their work from a feminist meta-theoretical prism. They will be surprised at the results. By focusing on humans, the micropolitical analytical agenda of feminism can offer a different picture about macropolitical relations and structures.
Cohn, Carol. “Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals.” Signs (1987): 687-718.
Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth (London: Victor Gollancz, 1933)