Figurations, Roles and the Possibilities of Weber’s Queer Method

There are several ironies embedded in my reaction to Weber's ISQ article. One is that I was undoubtedly chosen to represent the mainstream reader of this work—a disciplinary figuration of the normal scholar, and apropos to this particular project, a homosexual. Yet, my inclusion in this discussion may also betray my struggle with normality to those whose disciplinary orientation I am asked to represent. Thus, I am not either/or, but and/or: normal and/or perverse in Weber’s reformulation of a plural logoi.  I find comfort in this queer sensibility to my placement in our disciplinary networks of power/knowledge/pleasure, even as others may be troubled by it.

The second irony is that I wish to explore Weber's queer method, derived in part from Richard Ashley's work, as it disrupts my own work on role theory developed to a great extent by my mentor, Stephen Walker. As a graduate student at Arizona State University in the late 1990s, both men had tremendous influence on my thinking. It is a good thing that I was not clever enough at the time to realize that post-structuralism and mainstream “positivism” were not supposed to be compatible.  I am not claiming a privileged position as an interlocutor between the two philosophical positions, but I am able to appreciate both for what they offer to the study of international relations.

I want to use that appreciation for Weber’s queer method to explore briefly its implications for one of my own recent projects that examines rising powers through the lens of role theory.  I wrote a dissertation using role theory that was eventually published as a book (Thies 2013).  My own work on role theory has sometimes been viewed as too structural, considering roles as somewhat pre-defined positions within the international social system.  Yet, role theory also has roots in symbolic interactionism that considers roles as “the kinds of actors it is possible to be,” lending more agency to actors to co-create roles with others.

Many of the figurations described by Weber are akin to roles, such as Thai ladyboys, the terrorist, the torturer, the slave, the human rights holder, etc.  According to Weber  “policymakers…employ these figurations to construct and legitimate how they order international politics and tame anarchy…” (2015: 2). Thus, these figurations may be used to justify imperialism, neo-imperialism and other forms of ordering world politics.  Similarly, role theory uses roles as ways of understanding how states (or typically elites acting on behalf of states) see themselves in relation to significant others.  Knowing who Ego is in relation to Other then helps us to understand the social order and its behavioral manifestations. What Weber’s queer method brings to role theory is a greater sense of contingency.  I fear that foreign policy roles as often portrayed in the current literature recall her worry about reification of figurations that could lead to “flat, unproductive, stifling…” worlds (Weber 2015:5, citing Grau 2004:12).

In a recent paper exploring the socialization of rising powers through the use of a role theoretic model, I focused on the roles conceived by China during the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1995-96.  China was observed to offer roles such as victim, anti-imperialist agent, opponent of hegemonism, rising power, great power, bastion of world revolution and socialism, sovereign state, and unifier of the Sinic world.  My original reaction while conducting this research was: how can China think of itself as a victim, and why would it need to reinforce its role as a sovereign state?  These roles portray China as weak as opposed to the other more active and aggressive roles that emphasize strength. What Weber’s queer method tells us is that roles that might initially seem incompatible may in fact be incompatible, yet simultaneously performed—victim and/or anti-imperialist agent, rather than either/or.  China can be observed conceiving and enacting these kinds of and/or roles relatively frequently.  For example, China often claims to be a developing state and/or rising/great power, especially during discussions about controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps rising powers are likely candidates for and/or roles as they change internally and in their external orientation to the world.

Role theory may benefit from a queer sense of contingency and instability through and/or performances of roles.  The symbolic interactionist approach to role theory is already much closer to this than structural forms of role theory.  Recent work on domestic role contestation also helps shed light on the internal debates about what roles states should be enacting in the international system (Cantir and Kaarbo 2012).  Much of this work still assumes that in the end a single role is selected to represent the state in a given relationship.  Even work on intra- and inter-role conflict is premised on mechanisms designed to resolve the conflict (Brummer and Thies 2015).  While figurations may not exactly match what we mean by roles, it seems like they are analogous enough for us to consider that and/or is possible and not to ignore it in favor of either/or because that fits better with existing theory and empirical work.

This short exploration of Weber’s queer method as applied to my own work on role theory demonstrates the potential fruitfulness of her work.  It should not be seen just as a contribution to queer theory or to work that grounds international order in gender, but as a method that can inform a variety of theoretical and empirical research traditions.  I look forward to seeing how Cynthia Weber’s “Queer Intellectual Curiosity” spreads across the discipline.



Brummer, Klaus and Cameron G. Thies. 2015. The Contested Selection of National Role Conceptions. Foreign Policy Analysis 11(3): 273-293.

Cantir, Cristian, and Juliet Kaarbo. 2012. Contested Roles and Domestic Politics: Reflections on Role Theory in Foreign Policy Analysis and IR Theory. Foreign Policy Analysis 8(1): 5-24.

Thies, Cameron G. 2013. The United States, Israel, and the Search for International Order: Socializing States. New York, NY: Routledge.

Thies, Cameron G. 2015. China’s Rise and the Socialisation of Rising Powers. Chinese Journal of International Politics 8(3): 281-300.

Walker, Stephen G., Ed. 1987. Role Theory and Foreign Policy Analysis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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