Power. Authority. Sovereignty. To the scholar, student and even casual observer of both the practice of international politics and the academic discipline of International Relations (IR) these are familiar terms and concepts. They are central to the discipline of IR, arguably its defining concepts, the prevailing understandings of which in large part constitute the basic images and representations of the international that inform much of the disciplinary scholarship on the practice of international relations.
Yet, as we argue in our recent Politics article, “Lessons from Westeros: Gender and power in Game of Thrones“, these concepts are generally often defined, understood and employed in rather narrow, supposedly ‘neutral’ ways. This is part of a broader issue related to how we learn and teach in the discipline. As students explore the worlds of both IR as a discipline and international relations as a field of political practice through the disciplinary texts that we introduce, the knowledge about the world that they bring to the classroom is challenged.
Because of the ways in which we organise and value knowledge in the discipline, the knowledge about the world that we glean from (among other sources) popular culture is often supplanted, unlearned, through the process of becoming ‘disciplined’ (in the Foucauldian sense of the word) as IR scholars. IR knowledge tends to be presented to disciplinary neophytes in neatly bounded sections, where each section has its own neatly bounded contribution to make to our understanding of the world; we argue that this disciplinary organisation can be unsettled by taking popular culture seriously as a form of IR knowledge.
We illustrate this argument in our article with reference to Game of Thrones, a show that engages with themes and issues of relevance to IR, such as war, conflict, (in)security, authority and weapons of mass destruction (in the form of dragons). We demonstrate how Game of Thrones provides representations of the gendered constitution and reproduction of power and authority, representations that emphasise the connections between realpolitik and sexualised violence, between sovereign power and gendered subordination. These representations are often not captured in large sections of the discipline.
By using popular culture in our teaching and research we can illuminate different representations, produce different forms of knowledge and recognise different claims to knowledge in the academic study of IR. We can stop requiring students to leave what they know about the international from popular culture and other sites of analysis that remain marginalised in the discipline ‘at the door’, and together learn new ways of seeing world politics, across the largely arbitrary disciplinary divides and in the spaces between.