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Visiting professor: Christine Sylvester

Christine Sylvester, professor of International Relations and development at the Lancaster University, holds the Kerstin Hesselgren guest professorship at the School of Global Studies. She is one of the most quoted international researchers on gender and development studies.

You have said that there are two ways into feminist International Relations (IR). On the one hand through the formulation of feminist questions as they relate to IR. On the other by asking questions typically raised by the field of IR in ways that engage feminist/gender theory and research. Could you explain what you mean by that?

-One of the core subjects in international relations is war. Traditionally, feminism does not study war per se but ways of attaining peace. This is understandable as a preference for the world, but it also has the effect of putting feminism outside war, and the women who war outside feminism. In a global time, no one is outside war. We are all touched by conflict through the media if not via personal experiences. I have found it important to raise war questions in feminism along with peace questions. That concern about women involved in conflict politics in the world reflects my background in the field of International Relations, which does study war.
- Putting feminist questions into IR challenges IR studies to broaden its view from the study of abstractions like the nation state, or heads of states, corporations, and international organizations to investigations as well of individuals, small groups, cultures, women, households and others excluded from IR’s top down view on the world. All of us are affected by some aspect of international relations, be it war, trade issues, travel and security restrictions, global recessions, peace efforts, tourism, asylum seeking, terrorism, anti-terrorism, or charitable donations to developing countries. Even people who make products for sale in other countries or buy such products here are part of global trade.

"Bringing feminism to IR means in a sense bringing to that field a social understanding of the international system"- So bringing feminism to IR means in a sense bringing to that field a social understanding of the international system and its various levels of community, from the bottom up –a woman’s cooperative in Zimbabwe, say - as well as from the usual top down view that considers Zimbabwe in terms of regional politics, if it considers it at all. Importantly, bringing feminism to IR means thinking about and looking at an international system that is global now –as the School of Global Studies rightly emphasizes –and no longer confined to Great Powers and their foreign policies, and the (mostly) men who lead such states and their armies. What feminists are saying is that there are many social relationships shaping and being shaped by international activities of the global media, overseas development, green politics, women’s movements, language trends, and cultural debates around the world. Of particular interest to me at this moment are the various ways that women participate in wars –as combatants, victims, suicide bombers, enlisted soldiers, arms manufacturers or traders, and as conflict managers.

Empathetic cooperation is a concept you have developed as a feminist way to study international relations. What would you say is empathetic cooperation?
- What I mean by that is a kind of “living on the border”-skill to deal with difference. Americans think of ourselves as hyphenated in our identities. We might be African-Americans, Italian-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native-Americans, and so on. The US is an immigrant society and has lived with wave after wave of newcomers, first from Europe and South American and then from all over.
- What that basically means is that many of us are likely to operate across more than one culture in our daily lives: at home we might eat ethnic foods and speak to our grandmother in Vietnamese; and then we go to class at the university or to work in a typical office and operate in different kind of cultural environment –negotiating both situations successfully.

"That kind of skill in going back and forth between daily experiences of being in different parts of one’s identity repertory in different situations, is what I think we need to cultivate more broadly as empathetic cooperation"

- That kind of skill in going back and forth between daily experiences of being in different parts of one’s identity repertory in different situations, is what I think we need to cultivate more broadly as empathetic cooperation. It would help all of us think about and converse with people who seem very different from us in culture, race, religion or gender practices. It is a way of being comfortable in a world that does not allow any of us to live as isolated ethnic or national groupings any longer.

In development studies you want to “do away with "stick figures" and replace these with more humanitarian imaginaries. Can you elaborate?
- I think that development as a field of studies has suffered the same problem that international relations did for a long time; there weren’t any real people imagined as the subjects of the field. In IR there were states. In development, there were economies; and if you worked to improve an economy, national development would occur. It was really only with the Basic Needs Approach that the World Bank adopted in the 1970s that we started to get a hint that there is something else we need to focus development attention on.
- Even so, there still wasn’t very much focus on real people until development feminism came into the picture, also in the 1970s, and identified women’s labor and needs as not exactly the same as industrial needs, capital needs or men’s needs and work. Development studies and practices began paying attention to women as farmers, informal market producers, mothers, wives, learners, and workers. Even then, however, the women were often depicted as people with deficits --illiteracy, poor health, too many children, lack of education and skills and so on. Women became stick figures with problems, not real people with complex psychologies, talents and potential contributions. When I did extensive research in Zimbabwe with women working across four economic sectors, I soon learned that women hoeing the fields might be composing poetry or solving mathematical equations in their heads as they worked. They had ideas on how they would run the country if they were the President. They were not stick figures with problems but people who were as intricate as we like to think we are in the West.

Another main area of interest for you is art in relation to international politics. In what way?
- What interests me is the power, the finances and the cultural clout of major museums in the world. One reason why it is interesting to be here at the School of Global Studies is that this is the only university in the world, possibly, that has brought museum studies into a global context of politics, economics and anthropology.

"Art issues can open up political discussions and lead to peaceful solutions outside formal diplomatic channels"
- Art issues can open up political discussions and lead to peaceful solutions outside formal diplomatic channels. The Basque city of Bilbao, for instance, takes pride in the fact that it rebranded itself as major cultural city in Europe around the Guggenheim Bilbao art museum Bilbao was known for industrial decline and for ETA terrorism. Now tourists flock there to see the magnificent Frank Gehry museum –its titanium-clad architecture and its exhibitions of local and international art. One wonders if other types of development or regeneration schemes could have produced such dramatic urban change there.
- Another Guggenheim is currently being built in Abu Dhabi, where it will show some human figures in art in a Muslim emirate that, strictly speaking, could discourage such representations. If you tried to negotiate cultural expectations through usual political channels, the results might not be as interesting –defensiveness and self-protection can be stronger in formal political talks. What is also fascinating about the Abu Dhabi case is that it presents a different angle on the Middle East –not conflict, but art!

Says Christine Sylvester, who during her guest professorship for a year at the School of global studies expects to assist in linking people from different subjects within the school with each other on topics connected to gender, art, and development studies. In the pipeline are also some possible larger projects together with the School’s Gender and Development Network. And already the universities of Malmö, Lund and Uppsala are signing her up for lectures and workshops.

Page Manager: Deputy Head of Department Isabell Schierenbeck|Last update: 11/4/2010

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