Women, Peace, and Security agenda: Interview with Professor Laura Shepherd

Professor Laura J. Shepherd is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. Laura is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security in London, UK. Her primary research focuses on the United Nations Security Council’s ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda, and she has written extensively on the formulation of UNSCR 1325 and subsequent Women, Peace and Security resolutions. Laura is particularly interested in gender, security, and violence, and she has strong interests in pedagogy and popular culture. She tweets from @drljshepherd and blogs semi-regularly for The Disorder of Things.

Interviewed by Maxime Seguin. Conducted on 18 May 2020. The lateness in publication is solely attributable to delays from the Transatlantic Puzzle.

  1. In your co-authored piece with Professor Kinsella, you critically appraise that we must carefully understand that “ the posing of questions is in itself political, productive and consequential”. In other words, we need to be wary that scholarship does not “reproduce and reify, rather than redress, the very injustices and oversights which motivate research”. This is particularly powerful and useful when thinking about intersectionality and avoiding further epistemological violence. What would be your advice in putting this into practice when researching, for example on gender and/or sexuality? 

This is a really tricky question, and one that I have been grappling with since I was a graduate student. There are two elements here, I think. One of these elements relates to the generative function of questioning, or – as Cynthia Enloe has put it – of nurturing a feminist curiosity in our encounters with the world. I feel like a feminist curiosity, attentive to the operations of gendered power – and, critically, how gendered power intersects with other forms of power in different combinations and with differing effects – and consequent gendered harms and exclusions, is itself productive. I mean, paying attention to how (gendered) power operates (and intersects with other structures and vectors of domination/oppression) creates endless possibilities for research because the circulation of power is endless. In a way this is inspiring, because there will always be more to learn about the world and how we encounter it (and are encountered within it). It is also – especially perhaps at the moment – a bit exhausting, because even creative, exhilarating, joyous work is still work. I find it quite difficult to draw boundaries between work and not-work, which means the ‘posing of questions’ spills over into not-work spaces, and I know I am not alone in this. But, being part of a feminist community means that it is not always your turn to ask the tricky questions and do the hard thinking, so it is important to remember the ‘feminist’ part of feminist curiosity. 

The other element of this question relates to the categories we use to think (and write) with and how (whether?) we can avoid reifying those categories even as we seek to put them ‘under erasure’ or problematise them1, and this is less easy to resolve for me. We cannot not use concepts and other structures of language in our communicative practices. But what does it mean to write against, for example, binary expressions of gender identity and still have to use concepts that relate to and thus reinforce that binary? I considered this question in my 2008 book (which was based on my PhD thesis), finding eventually in Judith Butler’s work a measure of reassurance, where she argues, in relation to the language of gender/sex and sexuality, ‘we must use this language to assert an entitlement to conditions of life in ways that affirm the constitutive role of gender and sexuality in political life, and we must also subject our very categories to critical scrutiny’ (37–8). Actually, I extend this insight to all knowledge production – to the ways in which our claims to know are always already potentially working against affirming conditions and therefore how I consider humility about those same knowledge claims to be an intrinsic part of my feminist research ethic.

  1. We have had early access to your latest monograph which explores the different narratives constructed and employed surrounding the Women, Peace and Security agenda. One of your focuses is on the politics of story-telling. Why do stories matter in the WPS agenda?   

Stories matter everywhere! I guess that is the broad theoretical claim of the new book, or perhaps it is the other way around: having engaged with a lot of wonderful, rich literature on narrative and storytelling (much of which informs the theoretical work in the book2), I began to ‘see’ (comprehend? apprehend?) how the way in which WPS knowledge travels can be rendered visible as a series of narratives. I feel like we underestimate the role of storytelling in our intellectual and professional lives, though many of us enjoy – and learn from – stories in our more intimate spaces. We learn from telling and listening to stories from a young age, and this is why I have always been so interested in (popular) culture more broadly as a site of political contestation.  

I was actually working with narrative on a different project when the work I had been doing on WPS began to coalesce around the framework that eventually supported the new book. I was enjoying thinking about how narrative structures – devices and logics – carry meaning and despite my best efforts to interpret the WPS practices I had documented through the lens of norm theory, I kept returning to narratives. Once I gave in to this line of thinking and began to pursue it, it thrilled me: I was immediately able to see how much of my own WPS work was story-based (in conversation, in advocacy) and, I supposed, how much WPS learning was done in the telling of stories. If you think about training, or picking up institutional knowledge in a new job, a lot of what we learn is based on the stories we are told about the issue or area, both formally –in ‘onboarding’ or whatever – and informally, over coffee or in corridors between meetings. It excited me a lot to put this understanding to use in relation to the WPS ecosystem at UN Headquarters in New York.

  1. You start the book with a personal anecdote. Would you recommend scholars to embed themselves more within their work, acknowledge their positionality, and use the first personal pronoun more freely? 

I have always been fierce about making myself visible in my work. This is more of a political position than a preference, I suppose. I want to be visible in the text because I am the author, the author-itative voice behind the analysis and argument, and I don’t want to hide my self because I am interwoven in every decision that produced the words on the page in the configuration that they are in. I suppose I am always writing against what Donna Haraway calls ‘the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere’ (581). Haraway posits that ‘[f]eminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see’ (583). I sit with this emphasis on accountability often, and it guides me in the placement and revelation of my self in my research. For inspiration in this endeavour I come back again and again to Naeem Inayatullah’s work: ‘Academic writing supposes a precarious fiction. It assumes the simultaneous absence and presence of the writer within the writing. The writer presents herself/himself as absent, as distant, and as indifferent to the writing and ideas. … The fictive distance, as we all know, dominates academic prose. And yet the reader always uncovers the presence of a particular person in the writing’ (5). Narrative analysis brings to the foreground those communicative modes that centre the writer(/speaker) and thus undoes that precarious fiction at which Inayatullah takes aim.

One way to do this, one simple strategy, is to write in the first person, of course. But from that point flow other possible pathways and all reflect – and actually constitute – our researcher-selves. When I began experimenting with writing in narrative form, perhaps ‘auto-ethnographic form’ (though that feels like a very grand description and I am not sure that my writing in this form is so grand), I came quickly to the understanding that the politics is only partly in the writing of my I-self, the revelation of my-self: the politics is engaged in and through what we do in that writing. Again, I return to Inayatullah for company on this path, where he posits that ‘exposure and disclosure of the self/selves, rather than locating some idiosyncratic “n of 1” or some sui generis entity, instead uncovers events, histories, cultures, and worlds’ (8). This is the effortful generation of understanding (empathetic connection or horror) through narrative and it is a politically worthwhile venture because accounts of the self, which are expounded through the narration of an ‘I-being’, always implicate and are implicated in broader, and necessarily political, dynamics.

  1. What are policy decisions you are hoping to see from governments following the Covid-19 crisis?   

Let me respond to this question by coming at it widdershins and elaborate on what I am not seeing, from government or indeed institutional leaders of other kinds. From the beginning of this crisis there has been, to my mind, a distinct lack of recognition that these are not normal times3. At whatever rate we all experienced the various institutional and policy responses to the spread of the pandemic (and this was an asynchronous experience, which compounded the dissonance, I feel), there was a widespread tendency at the institutional and policy level to imagine that the norms and regulatory frameworks that were conjured over decades to govern behaviour were somehow still applicable, which stunned me. I listened to people on Zoom calls talking about how this or that adjustment for students was unthinkable because the deadline for making such adjustments had passed three weeks prior, and read about governments forcing newly unemployed people to continue to prove that they were ‘actively seeking employment’ in order to be eligible for benefits and I couldn’t get past the idea that these were requirements, standards, rules borne of another time. It seemed to me to be almost an immediate nostalgia, for certainty and regulations and the idea that ‘normal life’ can somehow continue as before. It gave me pause, and also a mild case of existential rage, which I had to learn to live with. I would like to have seen quicker, more thorough-going acknowledgement that – for a moment, in this moment – society is uncharted. 

I would also like to have seen care. Care and compassion. I have been meditating a lot on compassion in recent weeks, including compassion for the self, because I think the emotional quality of life for a lot of people during this period has been defined by a feeling of failure. I have seen on social media endless admissions of failure: failures in ‘productivity’, failures in parenting, even failures to ‘pandemic well’ (start a new hobby, learn a new language, bake sourdough or banana bread – Flic Everett’s ‘middle class lockdown bingo’ lampooned this beautifully). 

‘Productivity’ was the first thing to fall out for a lot of people; people were apparently surprised that it’s hard to focus on producing, hard to create new words or things, when you’re also processing what it means to exist in a pandemic, wondering when you’ll be able to see family and friends again, railing against the inadequacy of healthcare and welfare systems that have been systematically defunded over decades of neoliberal austerity, trying to support those who are most precariously positioned, on whom the burdens of inequalities most frequently fall. The pandemic illuminated existing inequalities, of course, and created new ones, as tends to be the way. And there was a lack of care, in most cases, along with a lack of compassion – or even basic empathy, the recognition that how I live my life may not be how you live your life: my needs and fears may not be your needs and fears but we both have needs and fears and they can co-exist. 

At the very personal level, one of the earliest and most dispiriting squabbles I saw emerged between people with dependent children at home, who were trying to supervise remote learning when schools asked that we do so, and people without. It brought to mind equally fruitless (and not altogether well-meaning) discussions of ‘who is more oppressed?’ when considering vectors of discrimination and domination; Kimberlé Crenshaw of course laid out with beautiful clarity that oppression is not measured in hierarchies, but rather at its intersections. Parenting in a pandemic is hard but then parenting is always hard. This need not lead us to feel like failures, though. We can refuse that valence and acknowledge that we are all flawed and human and hopefully doing our best. This is the compassion that I have been seeking, care and compassion with an eye to the interlocking and intersecting power relations that hold and constitute us all. This is the ethos, and the learning, which I hope to take from the present uncertain and tumultuous period, forward to better days.

Notes

1.  From Heidegger, for me via Derrida, the idea of putting words ‘under erasure’ draws attention to the inevitable inadequacy of existing linguistic constructions that exists in parallel with the need to use these same constructions to communicate. 

2.  E.g. writing by Naeem Inayatullah, Elizabeth Dauphinee, Paulo Ravecca, Annick Wibben and Roxani Krystalli.

3. Let us not gloss over the politics of labelling the pandemic a ‘crisis’, it brings to mind the brilliant feminist political economists who’ve worked on financial ‘crisis’ and other lies and alibis of global capitalism, so I am quite cautious in my usage of this language even as it is so seductive.

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