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Subject Spotlight: The Enigma of International Relations

The aim of subject spotlight is to highlight the various subjects studied at St Andrews, either by outlining the discipline as a whole or highlighting your own favourite topics or research areas. If you would like to contribute an article to Subject Spotlight, please email

International Relations has an enigmatic reputation as a discipline with students and scholars alike. For IR students, much of our time studying it is spent discussing what it actually is and how we should go about defining the subject. Social science? Sub-discipline of politics? There are many ways people wish to categorise IR and there are countless angles to be taken within the discipline, from economics to history to anthropology.

When applying to study the subject though it was this diversity that I found to be the real strength of International Relations, particularly for someone as indecisive as myself for whom choosing just one subject seemed impossible. However, there was no way I could have predicted the interests that would arise out of studying such a subject. I came to St Andrews expecting to study foreign policy and international diplomacy. It is what I said to the countless people who asked me what I was applying for and what on earth International Relations was. Instead, it has led me to question my relationship to academia, governmental politics, and almost all political media. There is not a day that goes by or a political conversation I have that has not been complicated by the things I’ve been taught in the past three years.

It has also opened up avenues of research I could not have predicted when arriving as a first year. Most notably for me, critical peace and conflict studies. It will come as no surprise to anyone that we talk a lot about peace and conflict in IR – how conflict starts, how to achieve peace, and all the processes in between. However, learning about these topics from a critical perspective has altered any previous understanding of what peace really means and the problems with the institutional peace process today. Critical theory essentially involves critiquing traditional approaches to topics, in particular in IR from a feminist, postcolonial, or postmodern perspective. This scholarship is still largely in its infancy which for me makes it even more exciting and interesting in comparison to other well-established and consistent theories.

Most people are familiar with the phrase “no justice, no peace”, originating from the Black community who participated in protests against racial violence in the US in 1986, and it perfectly sums up the difference between positive and negative peace. It may seem odd to ascribe the word “negative” to any form of peace, particularly in IR, in which numerous scholars focus on promoting peace. The traditional origin story of IR itself attributes its birth to the end of World War One and the desire to understand global politics in an attempt to prevent another conflict of that scale. However, peace to some IR scholars should not just be understood as the absence of conflict, but the promotion of social and economic justice. Negative peace, focusing on the absence of conflict, no doubt has its uses when attempting to end immediate violence in a region, but it is positive peace which many truly aspire to. Positive peace focuses on the sustainability of peace, meaning that post-conflict society is changed in order to prevent future violence, rather than simply reintegrating people into environments which caused conflict in the first place.

By looking at the way in which militarised attitudes extend beyond periods of violence, the boundary between conflict and peace is blurred, through the lasting material impacts of conflict on individuals and also the mental impact through post-traumatic stress. Studying the attitudes rather than just the act of violence also helps explain how people are conditioned to perform violent acts, making the study of IR profoundly human rather than just a theoretical exercise. Here, studies of conflict and peace are forced to expand beyond political institutions to individual psychology and group socialisation. Thus, the flexibility of IR becomes truly evident as a discipline that is fundamentally inter-disciplinary.

One of my personal interest areas within the topic of peace studies has been the study of the victim-perpetrator binary. Although for some this sounds like theoretical jargon, it has a real practical impact on the lives of people who have experienced conflict. The notion of victimhood is a powerful political tool which is utilised by many groups in order for them to gain foreign assistance to end conflicts. In spite of this, the reality of many conflicts is that perpetrators of violence are often victims, and victim status is not an objective criterion but rather a label that has to be affirmed externally. In some cases, this involves looking at the impact of perpetrating violence on those who do so – the situations that led them to participate and their mental state and socio-economic position when conflict ends. In other cases, it means adjusting your perspective to see beyond someone’s situation as a victim to understand the ways in which they negotiate agency and empower themselves.

The key appeal of critiquing traditional IR peace theories for me is in the practical consequences it can have on peacebuilding projects. By focusing on positive rather than negative peace and viewing people who experience violence as agents rather than defined as perpetrators or victims, the peace process can actively involve them. Learning about the ways in which ex-combatants and ex-”victims” can be involved in the peace process provided a sense of optimism that is often lacking in conversations about politics. I distinctly remember a first year IR lecture on war detailing its inevitability and pervasiveness throughout our society from ancient times to now and feeling dejected that there is really nothing we can do but accept that we will always live in violence times. In contrast, critical peace studies, whilst obviously focusing on the negative aspects of traditional peace studies, always seems to turn it around and provide an alternative.

Another aspect of IR that was unexpected but enjoyable has been the ability to integrate my existing interests into the new topics to which I have been introduced. When applying to universities I emphasised my interest in gender history, but I did not envisage the number of opportunities I would get to utilise this knowledge and interest within IR. In relation to peacekeeping, I was happily surprised to find discussions of masculinity in the peace process not just hidden at the bottom of an extended reading list but integrated into lectures. Validating perspectives that I had considered to be marginal in my previous discussions of politics, these conversations about gender theory demonstrate their relevance to the study of peace and conflict. For those who may be confused at how masculinity can link to the peace process, the real impact lies in the construction of violent forms of masculinity which integrate male combatants into a culture of violence. Militarised masculine identities are formed and affirmed before and during conflict, extending the experience of violence beyond the practice of violence to the peace process itself. This outlook has been especially influential for me in moving beyond my pre-university preference for the “add women and stir” approach. Here, the notion that including women changes political systems in general, but specifically the peace process, is critiqued because of the ways in which women can participate in and reaffirm masculine structures.

Essentially, International Relations can be tailored to suit a student’s own desires and although all subjects involve specialisation, the variety on offer for IR students is astounding. As a joint honours student in IR and Modern History, my perspective combines that of historians, sociologists, and obviously IR theorists. The idea of incorporating economics, business, and pretty much any of the traditional IR theories terrifies me, making me very grateful that I was able to run away from them in honours years.

The way that IR incorporates and combines so many other disciplines and ideas makes it a great subject to discuss with other people. Although some theoretical conceptions are tricky, it has been fun and interesting to discover the overlaps with other people’s subjects from Geography to Art History. Beyond this, finding connections between various modules taken over the past three years and even drawing on A-Level Sociology knowledge continues to demonstrate to me the relevance of International Relations. An enigma though it may be, it is IR’s greatest strength (though explaining it never gets any easier).

Image: Richard Law, Geograph

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