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3.4: IR as Arena or Process?

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    It is important to highlight that thinking from the point of view of different – and to a degree, separate – levels of analysis as discussed up to this point has been contested by some. Leftwich (2004), for instance, has argued that thinking of international politics as something that takes place in a certain site or location is just one possible way of looking at things. He calls this the ‘arena’ approach given the way in which it focuses on the location, or ‘locus’ of interactions, on different platforms that provide the stage to particular events and instances of international relations. He distinguishes this ‘arena’ approach from what he calls the ‘processual’ approach, which assumes that international relations should not primarily be looked at as something that happens in a particular location or at a particular level of analysis but that it can instead be thought of as a complex web of processes that takes place between people.

    Some theoretical approaches have what is often an implicit preference for a conception of IR as a process rather than an arena with various distinctive levels. This is because they aim to highlight the meaning of interactions as opposed to the meaning of physical structures and locations, such as the state or particular institutions within states. An example of such a perspective can be found in environmentalism or so-called ‘Green Politics’, which traditionally refuses to think of the practice of international relations as something that can be studied at different ‘levels’ of analysis. This is mainly because analysts pertaining to this approach perceive any proposed division of political reality into arenas or any attempts at physically locating a problem in a particular context as arbitrary and misleading. They would also argue that thinking in those divisions conveys a false sense of structure, when all aspects of any societal challenge are fundamentally interconnected and should thus be studied in a ‘holistic’ way – meaning, in conjunction with each other.

    Another example of such a theoretical approach is feminism, which would argue that politics does not exclusively occur in public places such as state institutions and international organisations. Feminists would instead argue that ‘the personal is the political’, meaning that all human interactions carry and reproduce political meaning, and are therefore part of the intricate process of global affairs. Other thinkers would even go as far as to suggest that politics as a process is not even confined to the human species. Frans de Waal (1982) argues that even the interactions between animals, such as chimpanzees, can carry political meaning and should thus not be excluded from any intellectual accounts of politics including its international and global dimensions.

    We will not develop these kinds of perspectives further at this point, but it is nevertheless useful to note how such contentions challenge any assumption of there being any kind of clear cut structure or specific levels of analysis that we can rely on as students and analysts of IR. Regardless of perspective, it is important to be aware of the multiplicity of actors and processes that make up the global system. Reminding ourselves of the complexity of international relations equips us with the ability to recognise any overgeneralisations as they are being presented to us by the media, by political leaders, activists, pressure groups and through our social networks, making us more informed, nuanced and rounded in our thinking.

    This page titled 3.4: IR as Arena or Process? is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephen McGlinchey, Rosie WAters & Christian Scheinpflug.