16 November 2020

Advocating Counterdisciplinary Research in International Relations

In an article for Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences, Anna Leander, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute, introduces the composing of collaborationist collages as an analytical strategy for studying IR questions, and sets the example by basing her argument on material from feminist new materialism, practice theories, an exhibition by Hito Steyerl and Martha Rosler, and her own research on the politics of commercial security. This strategy, she claims in this interview, invites researchers to mobilise resources beyond their own disciplinary world and thus sheds light on the politics of their research.

What led to you to argue that it is worthwhile to use feminist and new materialist approaches when studying IR questions?

This specific combination of approaches opens important avenues for research that focuses on questions that do not have a central place in established academia. It allows “counterdisciplinary” work that goes beyond “applying” pre-existing theoretical frameworks. Instead, it encourages work with concepts and theories. As I explain in this article, for me this has been crucial for probing the politics of commercial security. Since my experience of needing to escape the disciplining effects of disciplines is far from unique, I thought it worthwhile to clarify and share the analytical strategy that helped me do so.

Can you tell us more about the three building blocks of your research strategy, composing, collaging, and collaborating?

These “building blocks” are the basic components of the analytical strategy I introduce here. They reference specific, theoretically anchored terminologies that provide tools for doing counterdisciplinary research. For example, collaborating is a strategy advocated by many feminists for putting their own research in perspective by generating synergies but also frictions that draw attention to its politics and biases. This is a radically different way of proceeding than the obvious alternatives including, e.g., striving for general objectivity by assessing the Validity, Reliability and Generalisability (VAREG) of data used in research or working with “reflexivity” to assess the standing of one’s own research process. Collaborating gets the researchers away from the delusion that knowledge can become apolitical and secure if it just follows given methodological recipes; it mobilises resources beyond their own ones to shed light on the politics of their research.

You also talk about the pitfalls of your analytical strategy. How can your approach tackle such disadvantages?

All analytical strategies have blind spots in their foci, controversies regarding assessment and ethical issues to grapple with that we might term “pitfalls”. The analytical strategy I discuss in this article is no exception. In the article, however, I have chosen to focus on the practical uncertainties of working with this approach, highlighting in particular the difficulty of working counterdisciplinarily in environments where disciplinary authorities dominate and that of “teaching” anti-authoritarian knowledge in universities, which of course define authoritative knowledge. These are not really pitfalls or disadvantages but conundrums we have to learn to live with. Doing so is important to preserve innovation, creativity, and relevance, and hence a space for the university in society.

What would be some of the future avenues of research that would profit from the composing of collaborationist collages?

One of the main advantages of working with this analytical strategy is that it allows the researchers to define questions, foci, and hence also the “avenues” for their research. The avenue my research is taking is one that leads to an exploration of the politics of technological design, and of digital designs specifically.

*  *  *

Full citation of the article:
Leander, Anna. “Composing Collaborationist Collages about Commercial Security.” Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences 1, no. 2 (2020): 61–97.
Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download the article via this page of the Institute’s repository.

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt from Hito Steyerl’s Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (Installation View at Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart). Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York. Photo: Marc Asekhame. This was one of the installations displayed in the exhibition War Games that Anna Leander draws on in her article.