In comparison to other scholarly fields such as anthropology or cultural studies, International Relations as a discipline has been slow to acknowledge what postcolonial theorists refer to as subaltern groups, notably in its understanding of agency. Why do you think this is and how do you see your PhD research contributing theoretically to a deeper conversation between IR theory and postcolonial theory?
The most obvious answer is probably that International Relations was originally a state-centeric discipline. To put it in rather simplified terms: In realist theory, agency is understood as the exercise of rational interest within inter-state relations. In contrast, more Marxian scholarship mainly analyzed the determining structures of capital. Constructivism opened up these dichotomies by understanding reality as co-constructed – not only by states but also by civil society, business entities, and international organizations. However, many constructivist studies on the role of non-state actors in norm creation and diffusion tended to undertheorize power relations.
In contrast, postcolonial studies pay particular attention to these relations between individuals and broader social structures, such as the state, capitalist relations, and racialized discourses. Although having their disciplinary roots more in the humanities than in the social sciences, I think that postcolonial theories already have and still can fruitfully contribute to IR scholarship. One obvious way is by helping to reverse its tendency to black-box states, institutions, and social movements. Of course, this coincides with poststructuralist, feminist, and practice-theoretical research on international politics, which has directed attention to the micro-practices of creating discursive subjects and the everyday exercise of power. Such understandings allow us to consider “international” relations as not only between states but also within the lives of the “governed,” that is those individuals that live and act within broader power structures.
Postcolonial studies have impressively shown what these colonial structures do to people and how people interact with, appropriate, or resist them. If we are to understand how our contemporary political reality is shaped by the legacy of colonialism, I think it is necessary to take a postcolonial perspective on how “subaltern” or “governed” subjects interact, shape, and co-construct the international. Of course, such studies also reveal that colonial legacies are enmeshed with capitalist and patriarchal structures. By looking at the working children, I aim to contribute to such a broadened perspective and understand how these actors’ everyday lives are related to their direct involvement in international politics.
In September, you will be heading off to Senegal for fieldwork. Why have you chosen to do fieldwork there and what exactly do you plan to do during your research visit?
Since I want to understand the transnationality of the network of working children, I want to study how the “everyday” of the local groups of working children unfold in different spaces. My field research in Bolivia gave me a glimpse of how the groups function there and relate to the Bolivian national network (UNATsBo) and the regional Latin American network (MOLACNATS).
In Africa, the regional organization of the groups of working children called MAEJT (Mouvement Africain des Enfants et Jeunes Travailleurs) is located in Dakar. The MAEJT has been accredited as observer organization by the African Union and is involved in the attempts to create a dialogue with the ILO on current normative regulations. To understand the broader functioning of the network and its relations with adult supporters, NGOs and international organizations, I plan to study the MAEJTs functioning and political practices in Dakar. I also want to understand what the local subgroups of the movement are doing and how they relate to the broader network. I plan to conduct very open research and I aim to involve the children as much as possible. For instance, I will try to use visual tools such as videos or art through which they can express themselves and account for their daily lives, self-understandings, and political positionality.
Why is the GGC an interesting place for you to be?
During my time here at the Geneva Graduate Institute, I have gained countless new insights into my research project and I am so happy that I can stay for another three months! Researchers at the GGC work on various questions related to my project, such as knowledge production in international organizations, the contestation of global governance, and the organization of international development in practice. I am really enjoying the critical spirit shared amongst so many researchers here. The research done here impressively questions power hierarchies in IR by using new and innovative methods and concepts to research the production and effects of power hierarchies.
Moreover, the Centre also regularly invites external scholars whose research ties in with those discussions and even enlarges the broad horizon of topics already discussed at the Graduate Institute. In addition, Geneva is generally an exciting place for me.
The Graduate Institute is located only 1.5 kilometers from ILO headquarters! Being close to the place where decisions are made makes it much easier to understand the diversity of actors and roles.
Captivated by Nadine Benedix’s research? Join us in September for a more in-depth presentation on her ongoing work.
Nadine Benedix is a PhD candidate at the Chair of Transnational Governance at the Technical University of Darmstadt. In her PhD project, she investigates practices of transnationally organized working children contesting international child labor regulations. Her broader research interests include norm contestation and postcolonial and practice theoretical perspectives on agency in global governance. She holds a master’s degree in International Studies/Peace and Conflict Research from Goethe University Frankfurt and Technical University of Darmstadt.