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Whose knowledge for what politics?

  • Karena Shaw

We find ourselves amidst an explosion of literature about how our worlds are being fundamentally changed (or not) through processes that have come to be clumped under the vague title of ‘globalisation’. As we wander our way through this literature, we might find ourselves – with others – feeling perplexed and anxious about the loss of a clear sense of what politics is, where it happens, what it is about, and what we need to know to understand and engage in it. This in turn leads many of us to contribute to a slightly smaller literature, such as this Special Issue, seeking to theorise how the space and character of politics might be changing, and how we might adapt our research strategies to accommodate these changes and maintain the confidence that we, and the disciplines we contribute to, still have relevant things to say about international politics. While this is not a difficult thing to claim, and it is not difficult to find others to reassure us that it is true, I want to suggest here that it is worth lingering a little longer in our anxiety than might be comfortable. I suggest this because it seems to me that there is, or at least should be, more on the table than we're yet grappling with. In particular, I argue here that any attempt to theorise the political today needs to take into account not only that the character and space of politics are changing, but that the way we study or theorise it – not only the subjects of our study but the very kind of knowledge we produce, and for whom – may need to change as well. As many others have argued, the project of progressive politics these days is not especially clear. It no longer seems safe to assume, for example, that the capture of the state or the establishment of benign forms of global governance should be our primary object. However, just as the project of progressive politics is in question, so is the role of knowledge, and knowledge production, under contemporary circumstances. I think there are possibilities embedded in explicitly engaging these questions together that are far from realisation. There are also serious dangers in trying to separate them, or assume the one while engaging the other, however ‘obvious’ the answers to one or the other may appear to be. Simultaneous with theorising the political ‘out there’ in the international must be an engagement with the politics of theorising ‘in here,’ in academic contexts. My project here is to explore how this challenge might be taken up in the contemporary study of politics, particularly in relation to emerging forms of political practice, such as those developed by activists in a variety of contexts. My argument is for an approach to theorising the political that shifts the disciplinary assumptions about for what purpose and for whom we should we produce knowledge in contemporary times, through an emphasis on the strategic knowledges produced through political practice. Such an approach would potentially provide us with understandings of contemporary political institutions and practices that are both more incisive and more enabling than can be produced through more familiarly disciplined approaches.

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
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