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Home arrow Political science arrow Global Governance from Regional Perspectives: A Critical View
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The Power of Ideas: Explaining Identity, Discourses, and Narratives

Looking to multilateralism and global governance from a reflectivist and/or constructivist epistemology means opting for a non-materialist and non- objectivist rationalism, putting ideas instead of material factors at the centre of the analysis. Hence, it claims a methodology focused in how language, discourse, and rhetoric are used to construct and reflect the intersubjective meanings of social reality in the international system. The relevance of discourse in politics, power, and social relations has been highlighted by semiotics, revealing its role in reasoning processes and how it is often used as a tool for political mobilization and/or for group cohesion. A particular discourse or narrative that makes sense of past events in light of political goals, a sense of purpose, or even a historical 'destiny' could create or transform a social actor's identity and circumstances. Rewriting history for nationalist mobilization is a classic example. Storytelling, often used as a marketing or electoral propaganda tool, also illustrates how narratives and metaphors, as a particular form of discourse, are more effective for political mobilization than abstract reasoning or statistical data.

This is because narratives have a key role in the social construction of reality, giving it some rationality and consistency. Narratives lie at the foundations of cognitive procedures because human beings make sense of random or complex and multicausal experiences by the imposition of story structures. Therefore, social sciences can rest in the epistemological assumption that narratives are frameworks used for making sense of the facts, and therefore social actors have a strong incentive to create, adopt, or challenge them for power purposes. Narratives could be also teleologies, with a strong performative role shaping social practices: they could provide a sense of purpose in society and politics; legitimize arguments of social mobilization; define social expectations; assign roles and functions; and prescribe social norms, establishing legitimate or illegitimate conducts, means, and ends, setting incentives and penalties around them. They also have an important constitutive role over each actor's interests, values, and identities. As pointed out by Lakoff (2004, p. 39), these narratives arise from 'frames' that filter and reorder facts and time in the context of social and power relations, ideology, and politics. Eventually, narratives could be explained as sources of a 'cognitive' or 'discursive' sort of power.

The relevance of discourse and narrative is also recognized by the ontologies and epistemologies of power of critical theory and/or constructivism, in that, beyond direct coercion, power also refers to the ability to shape preferences and values, collective identities, and other intersubjective meanings. They eventually shape 'imagined political communities and geographies' based on the cleavage between identity and otherness, particularly when others are defined as foes or threats.

The foregoing should not be seen as an underestimation of the material forces as an explanation of power relations and underlying interests in world politics. According to Cox (1996), material forces, institutions, and ideas are the constitutive elements and main analytical categories of power in the structures of the international system. Ideas are 'collective images of social order' and, therefore, point to the nature and legitimacy of prevailing relations of domination, the concept of justice and the common good, as well as 'hegemony'—as the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci defined this term. These images, often articulated as discourses or narratives, would be a source and manifestation of intangible power, but no less relevant than others, such as the ability to exert coercion to mobilize material forces or to define formal institutions and perform through them.

Barnett and Duvall (2005, pp. 3-12) suggested a fourfold taxonomy of power: the 'binding power', which is the direct control on the interactions of international actors; the 'institutional power' indirectly exerted through the design of international rules and institutions; the 'structural power', which forms structures that distribute capabilities and predetermine choices via opportunity costs, and thus shape the conflicting interests of international actors; and 'productive power', which controls the socially diffuse production of subjectivity and identity in systems of meaning, putting some players in a position of advantage over others, and giving meaning to social practices and relations. It is in this realm that the social construction of legitimacy could be placed, as could the systems of obligations and rights embedded in the international system. Categories such as rich vs poor countries, advanced vs underdeveloped, North vs South, Western vs Eastern or non-Western, Latin American vs European or North American, or other images and metaphors such as 'civilized', 'rogue state', 'fragile state', and 'emerging country', all perform as value judgements and teleological narratives that give meaning to the practices of those who define, and are defined by them.

With lesser theoretical scope, foreign policy decision-making analysis has been aware of cognitive factors in the study of actor's agency and 'actorness' (Carlsnaes 2008). Some traditional models stressed behavioural variables such as the psychology of decision-makers, individual and collective perceptions, ideology, culture, bureaucratic beliefs, and group-thinking (Allison 1971; Jervis 1976). Other studies on decision-making were grounded in a constructivist perspective, highlighting how intersubjective meanings play an important role through the 'framing' of reality through various forms of discourse, images, symbols, stories or sociopolitical metaphors (Flanik 2011, p. 436) setting up expectations for behaviour (Hill 2003, pp. 43-7); constituting actors by shaping their identity and values (Suganami 1999; Houghton 2007), their political culture, or/and the corporate culture of state bureaucracies (Weldes 1998).

In a comprehensive review, Hudson (2007, pp. 111-20) discusses political culture and national identity as cognitive variables relevant to foreign policy analysis, through three major analytical frameworks linking political culture, identity, and foreign policy: a) shared systems of meaning about political culture, whether regional, national, or regarding state bureaucracies or subnational actors; b) differences in values and preferences regarding what Holsti (1970) calls a 'conception of national role' emerging in the historical past, postcolonial identities or the socio-economic model that each state promotes internationally through its foreign policy (Lumsdaine 1993; Brysk, Parsons and Sandholtz 2002); and c) 'prefabricated templates' of action, goals, beliefs, and codes of conduct that can be used analytically as inference patterns of foreign policy.

 
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