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7.1: The Basics of Poststructuralism

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  • Poststructuralists argue that ‘knowledge’ comes to be accepted as such due to the power and prominence of certain actors in society known as ‘elites’, who then impose it upon others. Elites take on a range of forms and occupy many different roles in contemporary society. For instance, they include government ministers who decide policy focus and direction for a state, business leaders who leverage vast financial resources to shape market direction, and media outlets that decide how a person is portrayed while reporting a story. Additionally, elites are often also categorised as ‘experts’ within society, giving them the authority to further reinforce the viewpoints that serve their best interests to a wide audience. Jenny Edkins (2006) uses the example of famines to show that when elite actors refer to famine as a natural disaster, they are removing the event from its political context. Therefore, the ways that famines occur as a result of elites taking particular forms of political action, through processes of exploitation or inaction due to profits on increased food prices, are lost when they are presented as unavoidable natural disasters.

    Although great emphasis and focus is placed upon the authority of the elite actors to decide what we count as valid knowledge and assumptions within society, poststructuralism asserts that the way in which this power is achieved is through the manipulation of discourse. Discourses facilitate the process by which certain information comes to be accepted as unquestionable truth. Discourses which augment the power of elites are called dominant or official discourses by poststructuralists. The strength of dominant discourses lies in their ability to shut out other options or opinions to the extent that thinking outside the realms set by the discourse is seen as irrational.

    An example of this can be found in the security versus liberty debate. The wish to increase security levels across society – in response to crime, irregular migration and terrorist threats – has been presented as a sliding scale whereby if a state wishes to be secure then the public must endure a reduction in personal freedoms. Personal freedoms – such as the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly – have been placed as the limit against which security exists. In this discursive construct, then, people are presented with the choice between a state that respects civil liberties but is left potentially insecure or a state that must curb personal freedoms in order to be secure and protected. In practice, the dominant discourse of securing the state often works to silence any concerns about enhanced state power. An elite programme to restrict civil liberties can be justified to a society conditioned by the ‘expert’ repetition of this discourse by appealing to the objective logic it asserts and discounting all other interpretations. Therefore, the move to achieve increased levels of security without the infringement upon personal or civil liberties is excluded from the argument, as the two are constantly being positioned in direct opposition to each other.

    For poststructuralists, language is one of the most crucial elements for the creation and perpetuation of a dominant discourse. Through language, certain actors, concepts and events are placed in hierarchical pairs, named binary oppositions, whereby one element of the set is favoured over the other in order to create or perpetuate meaning. The power relation that is embedded within this relationship (for example, good versus evil or developed versus undeveloped) serves to reinforce the preferred meaning within the discursive construct. International Relations as a discipline is full of these oppositions and they are used by elites to both create favourable meaning out of certain events and to allow for this meaning to be easily absorbed and accepted by the wider public. One of the most common binary oppositions is to establish different groups or countries in terms of ‘them’ versus ‘us’.

    If we look to the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001 (commonly known as 9/11) we can see these categories of differentiation and their influence begin to manifest themselves. President George W. Bush described Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’ – making these countries the ‘them’ that were rhetorically and politically positioned as international pariahs in contrast to the innocent ‘us’ of the United States and its allies. Hence, this binary opposition enabled Bush to claim that the United States was opposite to all that this trio represented and would be justified in taking various actions during a global campaign against states that were judged to sponsor, or harbour, terrorists.

    If we look to the work of one of the leading scholars of poststructuralism, Michel Foucault, then the concepts of elites, discourses and the power of language and binary oppositions all tie together to create what he labels a ‘regime of truth’. This model applies to the ruling discourse that operates unquestioned within society, masquerading as the truth or fact. A regime of truth, then, is constituted by the dominant discourse, elite actors and the language that is used to create and sustain meaning and truth that serves the interest of the favoured actors.

    The importance of poststructuralism is to highlight existing regimes of truth and show that conventional ways of thinking and analysis in international relations are unable to point out how certain other possibilities are excluded by these discourses from the very start. Butler (2003) builds upon this idea of discourses excluding other possibilities by proposing that certain lives, in certain conflicts or terrorist atrocities, are deemed as more ‘grievable’ than others. Butler argues that thousands of people are lost to conflict in countries such as Palestine and Afghanistan, often at the hands of Western powers, and yet these people are not mourned or memorialised or even heard of within Western reports of war.

    This hierarchy of grief can also be seen in the outpouring of sympathy for victims of terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Nice in July 2016. Yet, similar attacks in Beirut and Nigeria in November 2015 and Baghdad in July 2016 (to name but a few) went largely unnoticed and were silenced within regimes of truth that mourned for, or favoured, the ‘innocent’ Western victim.