Tag: identity

Why Americans Never Forget to Remember 9/11

As you know, the footage appeared live, as bodies began falling from the flaming and smoke-filled North Tower, as US Airlines Flight 175 was flown into the frame and South Tower at 0903, and as the South and North Towers collapsed at 0959 and 1028 respectively. You know this, because you were watching. You can remember it. Indeed, with Jean Baudrillard referring to ‘the unforgettable incandescence of the images,’ they would be forever burned into the retina of America’s public eye. However, as a visual spectacle consumed in common by the population of bodies comprising the American body politic, 9/11 was also extremely traumatising and it is due to this that 9/11’s memory is particularly vital.

To be traumatised is to be disrupted or damaged, and in disrupting  and damaging American bodies and things, 9/11 not only shocked markets and led to the declaration of a state of emergency, it turned 2,996 people into dust and profoundly affected those comprising the body politic (the American viewing public) who consumed the disturbing news, images, and footage together, in real time. As such, the common experience of trauma produced a ‘felt community’ and began working on 9/11, to move, stick, and bind the population of bodies comprising the American body politic together (hence Sara Ahmed’s comment that ‘the images are repeated, and the repetition seems binding’). However, the communal consumption of 9/11  was not limited to the day itself. Quite the opposite, the American consumption – of the traumatic footage of the flaming and smoking Towers, suicidal jumpers, and buildings’ collapse became habitual and ritual, as the footage and story were repeated again and again, and again. In this way, Americans were (re)traumatised every few minutes for the first few days, every few hours for months afterwards, then every six months and annually. 

Monday was 9/11’s 16th anniversary, meaning no-one under the age of 18 will really be able to remember their experience of the day itself. But they don’t have to. As I was flitting between tasks, by just being on Twitter I was reminded to re-view, re-count, re-read – re-member (the opposite of dis-member) – September 11th 2001, minute by minute. I was reminded by @Sept11Memorial to remember the moments Flight 11 struck the North Tower, Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville,  Flight 175 struck the South Tower, Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, the moment the South Tower fell, and then the moment the North Tower fell. In addition, @DHSGov (Homeland Security) reminded me to remember the first responders who perished in the Towers and, as the day drew to a close, @NYPDNews reminded me that silence was required for the remembrance of their fallen heroes, not to mention the civilian victims so highly valorized and commemorated throughout the day.

To return to the title of this post, Americans never forget to remember 9/11 because, in the declaration that ‘none of us will ever forget,’ President Bush not only willed Americans to perpetually ‘encircle the trauma’ but engendered a politics wherein  American being in itself became dependant upon remembering 9/11. The ones who will never forget 9/11 will be American and the ones who forget will not. Remembering or forgetting 9/11 therefore becomes not only a mechanism for setting bodies apart from and/or against one another but an ontological security issue for the American body politic to which the periodic (re)traumatisation of the parts comprising it is so vital.

Christianity and the Sino-American Relationship

Last week, the Economist reported on the expanding sway of Christianity in China. While the numbers are difficult to pin down, The Economist reports that some argue that the number of Christians in China exceeds the number of official members of the Chinese Communist Party (87 million). What we are witnessing in China then is a dramatic shift in the constitution of domestic social systems in China as religion in general and Christianity in particular increasingly inform conceptions of what it means to be ‘Chinese’ and the accompanying systems of meaning.

 

From the vantage point of many in the US, the rise of Christianity in China is welcome news. Discourses about China, particularly those propagated by Republicans, occasionally highlight the ‘atheist’ nature of the Chinese regime. More broadly, the prevalence of discourses of Christian identity in the United States suggests the possibility of an emerging identity dynamic. As Chinese come to understand themselves as ‘Christian’, a harmonization in the identity dynamics between the US and China might occur as both come to see themselves as past of the same societal ingroup. This harmonization may be accelerated if tensions within China between the dominant Han ethnic group (where Christianity is growing fastest according to the Economist) and Tibetian and Uighur minorities (many of whom are Buddhist and Muslim respectively) increase. These tensions may then serve to activate the Christian/non-Christian identity duality in China, which could strengthen relations between China and at least some elements of American society. This in turn might provide some resilience to what has been and seems an increasingly fraught Sino-American relationship.

 

These hopes might be very premature and in fact misplaced. The function of identity in shaping socio-political relations is a product of activation and content, and on both counts Christian identity might not bind the US and China together as much as the case above suggests.

 

At least in the United States, and probably into the indefinite future for China, Christianity identity is not an identity that functions in the political realm (as compared to democracy in the US case or Maoism in China). That is, identity may inform the identities of some actors in both places, but a broader Christian identity does not function as a basis for understanding political behavior. For example, American politicians do not regularly invoke Christian identity to justify elements of foreign policy. Where such an invocation arises (e.g. George Bush’s use of the term crusade and religious laden language after September 11, 2001) controversy follows. Thus in the US, Christian identity is contested as a basis for understanding appropriate behavior and for establishing expectations of the self and others. That is, Christian identity does not provide a set of guidelines that govern political interaction because it does not provide a basis for political behavior expectations or political meaning-making. This in turn means that Christian identity would provide little basis for resolving political conflicts between the US and China—which predominate the relationship today and for the foreseeable future.

 

It may be that shared religious identity operates in the political background, generating a basic level of societal ease. Even if this is the case, the evangelical nature (as reported by the Economist) of Chinese Christian identity may prevent shared identity from operating in that way. If Chinese Christians see American Christians as wayward or even apostate members of the ingroup, that could further fuel, rather than ease, tensions between the states (see for example relations between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia–both Islamic states, but both at odds in part due to differences in the content of their religious identities). Thus the content of the identity has implications for the activation of the identity as well as how the identity functions, including corporate elements (who is part of the ingroup and who is not). Thus, scholars will have to be very careful in assessing what role the important changes in China’s social fabric will have on its relations with the rest of the world.

Political Homophobia in Uganda and a (Very) Belated Apology

In what I suspect is the least auspicious debut ever made by a Duck guest blogger, six months after being welcomed by the Duck team, I’m finally posting. It turns out that starting a new job, prepping a new course, learning how to shovel snow, and attempting to finish a book manuscript all at once is not particularly conducive to being a good guest blogger. I’d like to thank the Duck team for their patience, and for their completely unwarranted confidence in still welcoming me to blog here. And I promise to do better from here on out. 

As Charli noted, my area of interest is in questions at the intersection of conflict and development in Africa. I’m particularly fascinated these days by African states, how they (and their international relations) contrast with traditional understandings of what states are and what they do, and how people in conflict situations organize themselves to provide for community needs, with or without outside help. So it’s likely that most of my posts at the Duck will focus on these questions one way or another, as well as on general debates in the study of politics in Africa.

The biggest African story right now is the increasing criminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior in places like Uganda and Nigeria. Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law has drawn the greatest amount of attention due to its extremely harsh penalties. Though the worst excesses of the bill’s original language (including the death penalty for those caught committing multiple homosexual  acts) were  amended out, the bill still provides for jail time for persons who engage in any form of physical content with “intent” to engage in homosexual acts as well as imprisonment for those who help or counsel GLBTQ Ugandans. Continue reading

Constructing the Democratic Peace

Democratic peace theory is featured prominently in the latest issues of two different major IR journals. First, in International Studies Perspectives, Jameson Lee Ungerer tells us that the democratic peace exemplifies in three respects the Lakatosian ideal of a progressive research program, and provides an overview of the research agenda from 1970s to the present. He describes many (though not all) of the key causal arguments claiming to explain the democratic peace, concluding that:

Of all the theories examines, two [are] the most progressive: the economic norms explanation, which proposed contract-intensive markets as a confounding variable that leads to both peace and democracy… and the reverse causality explanation based on the resolultion of territorial disputes… with limited resources available, scholars would be advised to address these areas.

He’s right that the new work by Mousseau on the “capitalist peace” and Gilber and Tir on settled borders and regime type is pretty interesting. But Ungerer’s implication that there’s not much left unexplored among earlier explanations rests on the fact that he declines to discuss constructivist work at all under his review of the “normative explanation.” In fact, it’s still unsettled precisely how this explanation (what Ungerer calls “T2”) works – whether through elite preference construction and international socialization or public restraint. And Ungerer discusses only the portion of the normative explanation that focuses on norm externalization. He omits constructivist scholarship that focuses on shared identity and perception. In fact, too few constructivist accounts exist that take seriously how precisely democratic “states” come to view others as part of a security community, and the jury is certainly out on precisely how this process works to constrain belligerency among democracies.

To examine this further, Jarrod Hayes‘ new article in International Organization explores a single “hard case” in depth. Hayes examines why Nixon and Kissinger were unable to persuasively cast India as a national security threat in the 1971 crisis despite the fact that they very much saw India as a threat. Nonetheless Hayes shows Nixon and Kissinger were limited in their ability to “securitize” the dispute. Hayes argues therefore that it is not elites’ own perceptions of democracies that lead to dyadic peace: it is the way in which they are constrained by the perceptions of their constituents and the cognitive dissonance that arises from appearing to pick fights with members of a putative “in-group.” Hayes’ article is based on a discourse analysis of the contrast between Nixon’s/Kissinger’s private meetings and their public statements about the crisis.

I think Hayes’ piece is a great example of where the DP literature needs to go. We know a lot about the quantitative correlation between regime type and dyadic peace, but to the extent that the “normative explanation provides a causal process for the empirical observation” as Ungerer claims, we need process-tracing of specific militarized disputes to build a qualitative understanding of how this works and why. In emphasizing that this “us-ness” is reproduced through the public imaginary rather than by elites, Hayes’ argument represents a helpful advance.

Yet I think Hayes analysis would also be stronger if he drew more directly on the constructivist emphasis on perceptions (Risse 1995, 30). Arguably, it’s not how democratic countries actually are, but rather how democratic they are perceived to be (apparently by the public in other democracies rather than elites themselves) that constraints elites in those democracies. Hayes’ mentions the constructivist literature on dyadic identities only briefly and almost as an aside on p. 71, but surely his work has a bearing on precisely the dynamic authors like Risse and Williams are describing: the maintenance of a shared sense of “in-group-ness” between democratic dyads. And constructivists would argue this is about perceptions not facts.

How are these perceptions created and sustained? Hayes’ case doesn’t answer this question. In fact Hayes himself skirts it: he writes about “democracies” rather than “perceptions of democracy” as if a certain package of attributes constitutes “shared democratic identity” – rule of law, human rights, a capitalist economy, etc. But if it’s not the attributes themselves but others’ perception of them that matters in social identity analysis, then we need more careful research on how such attributes are conceptualized, measured and communicated and how they take root in the public imaginary to really foreground the analysis he provides.

Indeed, Hayes’ data suggests an interesting way to reconcile the “normative” and “economic norms” explanations: political leaders (Nixon and Kissinger) saw India as a threat primarily because they saw India as possessing different economic norms (a tendency toward socialism and affinity for the USSR) and thus their preference construction, while inconsistent with the “democratic peace” is consistent with the “capitalist peace.” However the “capitalist peace” research agenda hasn’t (yet) been about perceptions or shared identities, but rather domestic-level social processes. Future work in Hayes’ tradition focusing on social identity analysis could clarify whose perceptions matter, and how different perceptions of different pieces of the “liberal identity” manifest and play out in different historical cases. In fact, Hayes is calling for just such a research agenda in his new review essay in EJIR.

I also think we need to give consideration to how much room elites have to maneuver in terms of reconstructing these perceptions in given crises. Clearly, Nixon and Kissinger were not effective at doing so, but based on the data Hayes’ presents, they also didn’t really try. The diplomatic record suggests they were constrained by the understanding of the public’s understanding of Pakistan and of India despite their own perceptions and preferences. But Hayes’ analysis doesn’t suggest that they gave much thought to how they might re-frame these understandings to pursue their own interess. This might mean that elites don’t really have the ability to do so; but it might also simply mean that these two particular actors simply weren’t as clever at wielding soft power as they were at blustering around angrily behind the scenes. To examine this further, we need a different kind of “hard case” – a case where public figures are actually good at this and made an effort at it, and failed anyway.

The Hurt Locker, again

Duck of Minerva bloggers have already written quite a bit about “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Best Picture prize at this week’s Academy Awards ceremony. I saw the movie on DVD a few weeks ago and have been digesting some of the reactions to the film.

Like many critics of this film, Michael Kamber of the NY Times offers a list of serious errors in “The Hurt Locker.” Viewers see the bomb disposal team leave on missions without much other military support. The team members clear buildings by themselves, become skilled snipers and spotters when they stumble upon some British mercenaries, and operate alone in the desert for no apparent reason. He concludes that these are much more than minor technical mistakes:

The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect…it’s not just minor details that are wrong.

Perhaps most inexplicably and implausibly, Staff Sgt. William James, the lead character portrayed as a reckless showboat, has supposedly managed to disarm hundreds of bombs without killing himself! In one key scene, he runs around Baghdad alone at night without suffering injury. His unbelievable exploits are emphasized and reemphasized throughout the film.

So, why did I like “The Hurt Locker” and find it a viable candidate for the canon of IR-related films?

As I read the film, the story of Sgt. James is a metaphor for the story of post-cold war U.S. military intervention — primarily in Iraq, but elsewhere as well.

For James, the war in Iraq is a narcotic. He thrives on the adrenaline-inducing experience, even though he cannot talk to his wife on the telephone, nor really endure his ordinary post-war experience at home with wife and child. His bomb disposal techniques are so disturbing that his fellow team members talk of killing him. He returns to Iraq because his participation in that war has become an integral part of his identity. Sure, he’s been incredibly lucky in the past, but his personal image is embedded in his wartime experience.

As some critics point out, this film has been lauded because domestic audiences appreciate its apparent wartime “realism,” even though the storyline and characters seem completely unrealistic to experts who give them serious thought.

The U.S. too has a long and mostly successful military record — and it too has been incredibly lucky. Like James, the U.S. returned to Iraq after a successful first effort in 1990-91, though many of its friends decided to sit this war out — and some worked actively to try to stop it. Most IR experts found the rationale for U.S. participation in Iraq fairly implausible back in 2003, though I suppose the mass public supported a certain rationale at the time it was originally offered.

To its critics, the U.S. too is a reckless showboat, willing to take incredible risks with other peoples’ lives, even as it claims to be “saving” them. As Vikash has argued at the Duck, the film makes very little effort to explore the perspective of the Iraqis in the film. “The Hurt Locker” is a narrow portrayal of one small unit’s experiences with death and destruction.

This too could be read as an important element of the film. In political debates, Americans focus on U.S. forces, casualties, and experiences. Foreign policy experts debate the meaning of the Iraq war for preventive war doctrines, counterinsurgency tactics, present and future budgeting, etc. Few consider the implications for Iraqis and the wider Middle East.

At times, their technology and ability make the bomb disposal team members seem like Supermen, saviors of the world. However, the film makes no effort to argue that these super-human efforts are actually doing any greater good — or even improving the security of the United States. The film was set in 2004, which means that the U.S. had not yet officially given up on the search for WMDs, the Downing Street Memos had not been disclosed, the Samarra mosque had not been bombed, etc. “Shock and awe” had not prevailed, however, proving that America’s technological prowess didn’t lead to the type of victory many war proponents predicted in advance of the conflict.

In other words, the bad news was bad…but it got worse.

In sum, while the storyline of “The Hurt Locker” often seems detached from realistic war-time experience, that FUBAR narrative works pretty well to explain the actual U.S. experience in Iraq. The lead character’s addiction to war, recklessness, luck, inexplicable behavior, and need to “save the day” reflect an unsavory, but nonetheless viable, portrayal of American identity.

Facebook Back in the Hot Seat

A few weeks ago Facebook unleashed its new Terms of Use on the unsuspecting user community. As anyone with a FB site knows, though the changes were touted as enabling greater user control over personal information, FB’s new default settings enabled “Everyone” to view users’ information unless users were savvy enough to update their settings – a change that caused the Electronic Privacy Information Center to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Even worse, FB initially included profile pictures and friend lists as “public” information that could not be made private even by savvy users – a move so blatantly in violation of privacy rights that it quickly resulted in an outcry on web-pages like “Facebook Restore My Privacy Rights.” (Facebook quickly “tweaked” the options to make it possible to hide one’s friend lists, though it is unclear to me whether this would protect people whose friends have their lists visible to the world.)

Not all agree that these changes are worth the uproar. A joke going around on Facebook belittles the concern: “If you don’t know, as of today, Facebook will automatically start plunging the Earth into the Sun. To change this option, go to Settings –> Planetary Settings –> Trajectory then UN-CLICK the box that says ‘Apocalypse.’ Facebook kept this one quiet. Copy and paste onto your status for all to see, if we survive.”

I’m with those who see the civil liberties implications of these changes as troubling and significant. My concern is not so much with the changes themselves but the inability of users to opt out of them. I fear the genuine real-world conflicts between online expression and physical security – the young student stalked by an angry ex-lover, the dissident persecuted by her government.

But the row over Facebook’s privacy rules is not just about civil liberties. It’s also about the very constitutive rules governing the construction and presentation online social identities. People really do see their pages as online versions of themselves – avatars if you will – not necessarily reflections of their whole real-space being, but an online representation constructed in relation to a particular community of friends that simply becomes socially dysfunctional when forcibly shared with everyone.

And the evidence of this is emerging in online practice. Consider the growing popularity of Facebook “Suicide” websites like Seppukoo.com, which offer Facebook users a ritual means by which to exercise “exit” under the rubric of “reclaiming your offline identity.” According to Kaliya of Identity Woman.net:

The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine offers “suicide” for Facebook, Myspace and Linkedin. It highlights its time saving nature taking just under one hour vs. over nine hours to go through the process manually with 1,000 Facebook friends. Their FAQs are great:

“If I start killing my 2.0-self, can I stop the process? No!

If I start killing my 2.0-self, can YOU stop the process? No!

What shall I do after I’ve killed myself with the Web 2.0 suicide machine? Try calling some friends, talk a walk in a park or buy a bottle of wine and start enjoying your real life again. Some Social Suiciders reported that their life has improved by an approximate average of 25%. Don’t worry, if you feel empty right after you committed suicide. This is a normal reaction which will slowly fade away within the first 24-72 hours.

Why do we think the Web 2.0 suicide machine is not unethical? Everyone should have the right to disconnect. Seamless connectivity and rich social experience offered by web2.0 companies are the very antithesis of human freedom. Users are entraped in a high resolution panoptic prison without walls, accessible from anywhere in the world.”

Whatever you think about the bleak humor of a Facebook “suicide, those who’ve left – or are thinking about leaving – are talking about their decision in terms of freedom.

Facebook has responded to Seppuko.com with a cease and desist message – interestingly, in the name of the privacy rights of its users. Seppukoo.com issued a reply shortly before Christmas.

The suicide metaphor suggests this is not simply the civil liberties of users at stake, but people’s entire sense of whether an online “life” separate from their physical lives remains “worth living.” I don’t know about this narrative of inherent dysfunction between one’s online and offline representations. I like both. We all have different masks we wear in different contexts; a networked expression of ourselves online is no different and is a uniquely functional means of remaining connected in a world where social distance has shrunk while geographic and physical barriers remain wide.

Without user choice over what can be shared with whom, however, and without clear-cut rules intelligible to a reasonably literate user community, those identities will become as bland as people’s professional websites. Who will post interesting personal pictures, or even their faces at all, on their profiles if anyone in the world can view them? Who will say anything funny, if everyone in the world must be counted on not to get offended at the joke? Friend lists take on a completely different meaning if in order to avoid awkward conversations with visibly excluded peers they get constructed not based on a user’s preference, but based on one’s estimate of people’s perception of those preferences as a visible part of their public profile. This not only constrains choice but the very social structure in which online identity construction occurs. It demands, indeed, the death and remaking of existing identities to conform with new rules.

No wonder users are up in arms. I hope users keep the heat turned up on the architects of Facebook and other social networking utilities, rather than pointing the gun at their online selves. EPIC is continuing to press the FTC not only to restore user choice but to make the default settings err on the side of privacy rather than openness.

And as of they this week they can do so by keeping close tabs on Facebook’s job search for an “Advertising and Privacy Counsel,” the job description for which is to “ensure compliance with advertising and privacy laws.” Readers interested in applying can read the job requirements here, which include not only a JD, state bar experience, and experience in privacy issues, but also “a sense of humor.”

Territoriality and Beyond

Stacie Goddard has a guest post at the IR Blog promoting her new book, Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy:

In international relations, territory often appears indivisible: actors are unable to divide territory through negotiation, shared sovereignty, compensation, or other mechanisms of division… As the site of competing national and religious claims, it may seem little wonder that Jerusalem, Northern Ireland, Kashmir and Taiwan are indivisible; how could it be any other way?… It’s exactly this conventional wisdom that this book attempts to challenge.My central argument is that indivisible territory is a social construct: far from being inevitable or inherent to territory, indivisibility is a contingent outcome, one that is very much the product of human action. When bargaining over territory, politicians engage in a contentious legitimation process: in making their claims to territory, actors use rationales that explain why their territorial demands are legitimate.

As elites attempt to outbid each they are likely to turn to rhetoric—what I call “legitimation strategies”—that will give them an advantage over their opponent. Politicians use rhetoric that will build support at home. They turn to language designed to coerce their opponent into accepting their demands. In most cases, these politicians are not trying to instigate violent, intractable conflict—they are simply using whatever legitimation strategies help them further their own political interests. But once used, legitimation strategies can have unintended consequences. Most notably, a politicians’ choice of rhetoric can lead to lock-in effects: by resonating with some actors and not others, legitimation strategies can trap actors into bargaining positions where they are unable to recognize the legitimacy of their opponent’s demands. When this happens, actors come to negotiations with incompatible claims, constructing the territory as indivisible.

Viewed in this way indivisibility is tragic, but hardly inevitable: how actors choose to legitimate their interests can either create or destroy the possibility of dividing territory. The book traces this process through two significant cases of indivisible conflict: Ulster (and then Northern Ireland), and Jerusalem.

I haven’t read the book yet, but reading the short description made me think of another paradox of territoriality and conflict: the myth that love of indivisible territory must lead to conflict obscures not only the menu of valid political choices for resolving political claims by dividing territory, as Goddard argues, but also the ways that the indivisibility of territory can be used to dampen conflict and promote nonviolent conflict resolution. It is often common love of place-ness that binds people together in civic nationalist communities. The Bosnian city of Tuzla, for example, managed to avoid major ethnic clashes during the war in ex-Yugoslavia because its mayor promulgated, and its citizens espoused, a view that its people are citizens of the same city rather than members of distinct ethnic or nationalist groups. So I think the relationship of territorial myth and identity to conflict outcomes is quite complex. I look forward to reading Goddard’s contribution.

Identification and clientelism

Patrick Porter writes about two contending visions of the Afghan insurgency:

Burke is playing down the economic angle. But there is a certain tension, or tradeoff, between ‘power’/’politics’ and ‘tribal vendettas’/’ethnicity.’

Identity can define allegiance, but not exhaustively. Calculations about power balances can wreck the whole day of cultural ties.

In Afghanistan, it is more prudent, given the impermanence with which different power brokers rule, to hedge, and at the right time, to flip, to change sides and align with the winning side. As Fontini Christie and Michael Semple argue:

After continuing uninterrupted for more than 30 years, war in Afghanistan has developed its own peculiar rules, style, and logic. One of these rules is side with the winner. Afghan commanders are not cogs in a military machine but the guardians of specific interests — the interests of the fighters pledged to them and of the tribal, religious, or political groups from which these men are recruited…Thus in Afghanistan, battles have often been decided less by fighting than by defections. Changing sides, realigning, flipping — whatever one wants to call it — is the Afghan way of war.

Not sure I’d particularise it as the Afghan way of war. But the point emerges clearly. As Fouad Ajami once said, nations cheat. They juggle their identities. They uphold blood ties and kinship when it suits them. They avert their eyes when it suits them. Historical struggles and ancient hatreds can be powerful ideas…until the wind changes.

Two comments:

1) The apparent paradox that identities often matter a great deal–people routinely explain what they do or exhort one another to action via identity claims–but also seem quite flexible has long plagued scholars of international relations. This becomes a good deal less of a problem, though, once we take seriously the fact that people operate with multiple identities that range from the very broad (e.g., religious) to the rather specific (e.g., a warlord’s “man”).

All things being equal, we shouldn’t expect any one of those identities to provide an efficient explanation for anyone’s behavior. Moreover, we should certainly not assume that under “normal” conditions relatively broad, abstract identities are the most salient for individuals at any given moment.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the politics of identity, moreover, concern struggles over which of those identities should take priority at any given moment and, relatedly, which of those identities should be homologous with socio-political boundaries.

2) What Christie and Semple describe is actually pretty typical of communities in which clientelistic relations predominate, let alone when patron-client networks involve violence-wielding capacity.

I actually discuss this in The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, both as a way of illustrating relational approaches and because such networks proved extremely important in the European “wars of religion.” Indeed, many nobles joined the Reformed Church in France precisely because their patrons did, and while they fought and died in a struggle over whether Calvinism or Catholicism would predominate in France, a good number might easily have found themselves on the other side if their patrons had chosen to remain Catholics. And much of the potency of the “religious” struggle stemmed from how it mapped onto factional conflicts for control over the French court.

But none of this should be taken to mean that identity is irrelevant in the face of “material interests.” Instead it suggests that we delude ourselves if we think the only identities that matter are religious, national, or ethnic, and that we tend to place too much emphasis on the subjective dimensions of identity and not enough on the politics of identity claims and counterclaims.

Image from The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, published by Princeton University Press, 2009. All relevant copyrights apply.

Introduction to constructivist IR theory: a video lecture

Having uploaded my quick-and-dirty video APSA presentation, I thought I might also upload some other movies I’ve made over the years relating to international-relations theory and topics. The four-part series showcased below is an extended video supplement I did for “Introduction to International Politics.” I’ve used the same lecture, more or less, ever since. If anyone cares, the content comes after one I posted a long time ago on typifications and social facts.


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


Part 4

FYI, the images are all credited at the end.

Reconstructing nationalism

Nicole Itano of the Christian Science Monitor reports on a fascinating project that seeks to change the parameters of national identity in the Balkans:

In this still-fragile region, history is often served up as a nationalistic tale that highlights the wrongs perpetrated by others. Now a group of historians from across the region is trying to change the way the past is taught in southeast Europe – from Croatia to Turkey – in an effort to encourage reconciliation rather than division.

“History plays an important role in shaping national identity,” said Christina Koulouri, the editor of a series of new history textbooks and a professor of history at the University of the Peloponnese in Greece. “We want to change history teaching because we are concerned about the joint future of the Balkans and we think mutual understanding can be promoted through better history teaching.”

More than 60 scholars and teachers from around the Balkans have joined to create a new series of history books that tackle some of the most controversial periods in the region. The books, which are being translated into 10 regional languages, present history from various perspectives and excerpt historical documents to challenge interpretations of key events like the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Most students, Ms. Koulouri says, know little about their neighbors, despite the region’s intertwined past and the relative youth of most of the countries that exist today. Schools typically use government-issued texts in which wars – and there have been many in the region over the centuries – are portrayed in “us versus them” terms with ancient wrongs visited again and again.

The Joint History Project, run by the Greek-based Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE), has translated the books into Greek, Serbian, and Albanian, and has begun training teachers how to use them.

Dubravka Stojanovic, a professor of history at the University of Belgrade, has witnessed first hand how history is used for political means. Under
Slobodan Milosevic, the country’s textbooks were changed in 1993, during the Bosnian war.

“The aim of that change was to show that the peoples in ex-Yugoslavia lived in constant conflict since the 12th century or so,” she says. “The intention was to show that the war was something normal; that it was the normal state of things for Serbians and Croats to hate each other.”

Now, says Dr. Stojanovic, who is editor of the Serbian editions of the series and who helped organize some of the first teacher-training efforts in Serbia, the texts are being changed again, this time to vilify communists.

The project has run into some problems, particularly in Serbia.

I’m reminded, of course, of struggles over history textbooks in Japan and the United States (the fact that groups tried to get the “Out of India” theory into US textbooks is kind of disturbing, but no less so then attempts to exclude mentions of Japanese internment or cast the Civil War as a struggle over “States’ Rights”).

So, dear readers, any thoughts about the Balkan history project? Or what about your own favorite examples of identity construction through textbooks?

Assume A Rational Actor….

This was just too good to pass up.

With immigration a growing political issues, The New York Times looks back and asks— remember NAFTA, like 14 years ago? Wasn’t that supposed to stop illegal immigration by building up the Mexican economy through free trade?

Why didn’t Nafta curb this immigration? The answer is complicated, of course. But a major factor lies in the assumptions made in drafting the trade agreement, assumptions about the way governments would behave (that is, rationally) and the way markets would respond (rationally, as well).

Neither happened…

Ahh, the dreaded rationality assumption, rearing its ugly head again.

First, it was assumed that the government would respond rationally to the new incentives provided by NAFTA:

When Nafta finally became a reality, on Jan. 1, 1994, American investment flooded into Mexico, mostly to finance factories that manufacture automobiles, appliances, TV sets, apparel and the like. The expectation was that the Mexican government would do its part by investing billions of dollars in roads, schooling, sanitation, housing and other needs to accommodate the new factories as they spread through the country.

It was more than an expectation. Many Mexican officials in the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari assured the Clinton administration that the investment would take place, and believed it themselves, said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington who campaigned for Nafta in the early 1990s.

“It just did not happen,” he said.

Next, it was assumed markets (ie farmers in the agricultural market) would rationally respond to the new incentives offered by NAFTA:

The assumption was that tens of thousands of farmers who cultivated corn would act “rationally” and continue farming, even as less expensive corn imported from the United States flooded the market. The farmers, it was assumed, would switch to growing strawberries and vegetables — with some help from foreign investment — and then export these crops to the United States. Instead, the farmers exported themselves, partly because the Mexican government decided to reduce tariffs on corn even faster than Nafta required, according to Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis.

“We understood that the transition from corn to strawberries would not be smooth,” Professor Martin said. “But we did not think there would be almost no transition.”

Two key assumptions, both based on a particular model of a rational, homo economicus, model of actorhood. The State pours investment into areas that lead to the greatest benefit in terms of national product growth. Farmers shift crops to farm what provides them the greatest return at the market. Any rational actor facing these market pressures and incentives would choose this course.

Except that they didn’t. The Mexican government–and here’s the key: despite individuals within that government individually believing that they would–never was able to reform its domestic spending priorities. Farmers, rather than shift to farming a new crop, simply followed other relatives into the United States, creating an immigration network.

Finally, the steady flow of Mexicans to the United States has produced a momentum of its own — what Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Institute, calls a “network effect,” in which young Mexicans travel to the United States in growing numbers to join the growing number of family members already here.

This brief NY Times article reveals the core difficulty and flaw of rationality assumptions and the real consequences of building policy on social science theory based on rationalist models of human behavior. Quite simply, as the scholarship of most of the contributors of this blog (and a large number of our friends and colleagues) has shown, identity and therefore rationality are social constructs that depend on rules of legitimacy. Government leaders and farmers ask not what offers the greatest return, but rather, “Who am I?” and what do I do now? Absent a domestic political climate that could reform the rules and legitimacy of government spending practices, the investment envisioned by NAFTA couldn’t take place. Governments don’t just “rationally” decide to reallocate funds. Anyone who has ever looked at a defense spending bill can tell you that. Its a political process, and winners and losers in politics are not determined by the same rules as rational returns on investment in economics.

Questions of livelihood are approached with the same process. Farmers suddenly unable to farm corn don’t just say well, what crop would sell. No, they say I’ve lost my livelihood, what do I do now. The look to others who define their identity–family–for opportunity, and see it in America. Hence, the network patterns of immigration. Its not a “rational” response to incentives, rather, its a network push and pull bringing certain people to the US and not others.

Unfortunately,

“We have indeed had one disappointment after another on this score,” Mr. Rodrik said, noting that the same assumption about government spending is part and parcel of the agreements, now before Congress, with Columbia, Peru and Panama.

Perhaps Congress and the USTR should not build in such assumptions to these deals–rather, appreciate that other logics might inform government spending, migration, investment, and trade patterns, and allow for enough flexibility in the deal to address this.

And, perhaps some of the social scientists out there who continually trumpet theories and policies based on those theories that assume a Rational Actor should take a time out and really think about the consequences of what they’re doing.

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