The Gentrification of International Theory

Writing ‘on the prospects of international theory in a post-positivist era’, Yosef Lapid suggested that ‘enhanced reflectivity’ was ‘the notable contribution’ of what he called the Third Debate between positivist and post-positivist IR scholars (1989: 235). Twenty-five years later, some IR scholars claim the discipline’s theoretical and methodological pluralism as both the legacy of the Third Debate and as evidence of IR on-going ‘enhanced reflectivity’. I disagree with this contemporary assessment. For rather than evidencing ‘an intellectual environment in which debate, criticism, and novelty can freely circulate’ (Lapid, 1989: 250) – which is Lapid’s definition of ‘enhanced reflectivity’ – international theorizing since the Third Debate has undergone a kind of ‘gentrification’ that curtails ‘enhanced reflectivity’.

‘Gentrification’ – which describes ‘the influx of middle-class people to cities and neighborhoods, displacing lower-class worker residents’  – seems to have nothing to do with IR. Yet Sarah Schulman’s analysis of her NYC East Village neighborhood shows how the gentrification of neighborhoods also gentrifies ideas, leading to ‘the gentrification of the mind’.

Schulman describes gentrification as the replacement of mix with homogeneity while pretending difference and privilege do not exist. The ‘regeneration’ of ‘failing’ neighborhoods displaces poor, multi-ethnic residents in favor of wealthy, white ones. A ‘reculturalization’ of neighborhoods and the ideas that circulate in them follows gentrifiers, who protect themselves from the ‘difference’ in which they now live by clustering in gated communities and adapting ‘excessive differences’ to their milder tastes. Blandness overtakes boldness, and privilege becomes omnipresent but invisible (Schulman, 2012: 27, 34).

My claim (elaborated in Weber, ‘Why is there no queer international theory?’ forthcoming shortly in the European Journal of International Relations) is that the gentrification of critical IR theories – including post-positivist theories – allows so-called mainstream IR theorists to claim they practice ‘enhanced reflectivity’ only because  gentrification changes the meaning of ‘enhanced reflectivity’ into something that bears little resemblance to what Lapid described twenty-five years ago. This is because what Schulman observed in her NYC neighborhood parallels the theoretical gentrification of IR over the past twenty-five years, where the ‘wrong’ kinds of theoretical, epistemological, and methodological mix were replaced with what became new forms of mainstream/dominant homogeneity while pretending that difference and privilege did not exist or while pretending that the blander brands of difference supported by the discipline evidenced IR’s critical theoretical edge.

To make sense of this argument, think of the discipline of IR Lapid was writing about twenty-five years ago as a city in which various IR theories inhabited different neighborhoods. IR’s upscale neighborhoods were populated by mainstream theories like (Neo)Realism and (Neo)Idealism, while downscale neighborhoods were populated by intellectual immigrants into IR (Marxisms, feminisms, queer theories, critical race theories, postcolonialisms, and poststructuralisms) who lived together in a kind of pre-gentrified NYC East Village, where they wielded far less disciplinary capital (e.g., in  publishing and employment) than did their upscale colleagues.

Just after Lapid’s publication of ‘The Third Debate’, the discipline was caught off guard by the end of the Cold War. This had the unlikely effect of transforming the East Village of IRs into a go-to location for upscale IR theorists seeking out new theoretical and methodological insights that might rescue the discipline. Their visits put downscale/critical IR on upscale IR’s map as an up-and-coming area, thus raising the disciplinary capital of some critical IR scholars and generating ‘enhanced reflectivity’ within the discipline. Yet over the years, upscale IR scholars increasingly viewed their engagements with downscale/critical IR as incommensurable, non-productive, hostile and dangerous (eg., Holsti, 1985; Keohane, 1989 and in reply Weber, 1994). This lead them to brand downscale/critical IR as failing the discipline because it detracted from IR’s disciplinary goals (Keohane, 1988).

Once downscale/critical IR was dubbed a failure, it was ‘regenerated’ by upscale IR.  Employing the gentrification toolkit, upscale IR sought to replaced downscale/critical IR’s mix with mainstream/dominant homogeneity. Some upscale IR scholars moved into this edgy neighborhood. As their numbers reached a (non)critical mass, institutional authorities took notice and amended publishing and hiring strategies that effectively re-zoned this outlying turf as central to disciplinary regeneration. 

Some saw this as a boost for downscale/critical IR. Yet it came with costs. For example, the hard, troubling, political edges of critical IR were substituted with softer, more soothing critiques of upscale IR that left critical politics behind. A generalized international political economy was offered as a gentrified IR replacement for Marxism (Strange, 1988), ‘the gender variable’ for feminism (Jones, 1996; in reply see Carver, Cochran, and Squires, 1998), constructivism for poststructuralism (Wendt, 1992), ‘the clash of civilizations’ for critical race and postcolonial studies (Huntington, 1993), and ‘soft power’ in the service of state power for cultural critique (Nye, 2004). 

Critical IR traditions did not disappear. Rather, they were pushed off what was becoming some of the discipline’s prime real estate and beyond the barricades of upscale IR’s newly-erected gated communities (e.g., top journals, upscale ISA panels). This made critical IR’s status in the discipline all the more precarious, making toned-down gentrified versions of critical IR ideas that promised to transform the discipline on mainstream IR’s terms (e.g., Wendt’s Realist, statist constructivism) but not on critical IR’s terms all the more seductive to gentrifiers and gentrified alike. This solidified the ‘hypnotic identification with authority’ (Schulman, 2012: 34) gentrifiers and their gentrified followers experienced, as they became the new authorities within a mainstream IR that saw itself as just critical enough.

Over these past twenty-five years, there has been little critical self-reflection by gentrifiers and their gentrified followers about how disciplinary privilege and power enable and sustain IR’s theoretical living arrangements, pass off the by-products of gentrification like intellectual gated communities as evidence of a pluralism that promotes ‘enhanced reflectivity’, insulate the discipline from internal critique, and take meaningful change off political, social, and disciplinary agendas. Investigating how IR protected itself against the extensive transformations the Third Debate made possible goes some way toward remedying this. It also might yield valuable lessons for future generations of critical international theorists whose forthcoming theoretical innovations might interest and threaten upscale IR enough for the discipline to designate their downscale theories as future areas for gentrification.

Discuss this Article
Annick T. R. Wibben
Wednesday, April 2, 2014 11:09 PM
Cindy -
What a wonderful post! I think you hit the nail on the head when you say "Over these past twenty-five years, there has been little critical self-reflection by gentrifiers and their gentrified followers about how disciplinary privilege and power enable and sustain IR’s theoretical living arrangements, pass off the by-products of gentrification like intellectual gated communities as evidence of a pluralism that promotes ‘enhanced reflectivity’, insulate the discipline from internal critique, and take meaningful change off political, social, and disciplinary agendas." My own points in "Look Who's Talking" are quite similar (if maybe less elegantly framed) - I hope this forum can become the beginning of a conversation about what might happen if the opening(s) created by the Third Debate were more seriously followed up...
Lucian Mark Ashworth
Saturday, April 5, 2014 12:25 PM
A fascinating (and very timely) piece. Gentrification is a very good metaphor for the theoretical development of IR over the last few decades... and also how privilege continues despite an outward show of tolerance and equality. I am in full agreement with Annick's point above.
I also wonder if there is another process going on that has also led to our current orthodoxy. This time, though, the metaphor comes from the Medieval, rather than the modern, city. Medieval cities were often divided into quarters that were inhabited by different recognized and sharply defined religious or cultural groups. Thus, a city might have an Armenian, Jewish, or Flemish quarter. In the process of paradigmization that the field went through after the early 1980s (a less than positive product of the 'third debate'?) the sharp divisions between (accepted and recognized) 'paradigms' have created a form of disciplinary apartheid where hard-shelled paradigms occupy different theoretical spaces. So, as well as the gentrification of formerly critical neighbourhoods, we also have the problem of separate paradigmatic ghettos. Both of these, then, get reinforced in the overwhelming majority of textbooks. They become 'facts' to learn, rather than practices to be interrogated.
What is great about your work here is that you interrogate these practices. What is sad is how few of us in IR even bother to do this. Is the study of power, institutions, and identities not meant to be central to what we do in the field?
- Luke.
Laura J. Shepherd
Saturday, April 5, 2014 6:28 PM
I too find the metaphor of gentrification particularly useful. I was prompted to comment here by the disgraceful comments over at the other place where this debate is happening. First, I was thinking about gentrification in a very literal sense and about how primarily what the process serves to overcome is fear. I grew up in south London in the early 1980s and Brixton was not somewhere that middle-class white people felt 'safe' in that era. Fast forward thirty years and Brixton is rendered entirely des-res, entirely 'safe'. Gentrification is political, yes, it softens and rounds off the hard critical edges, and in doing so it renders safe and unthreatening that which as you point out, Cindy, was previously seen as dangerous, that which inspired fear. It's the fear that I find so interesting, that I think is what prompts the reflex to gentrify, in and through increasing disciplinary real estate, as you put it: if fear is preventing 'us' from walking where we please then we should 'make safe' our pathways. So I think there is fear, and also a sort of 'eminent domain' logic that refuses to accept fear as a state of being - a colonial logic, if you will. I need to think more about these issues and about how to work with these concepts, so thank you for prompting those thoughts.

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