Knowledge Production in International Relations: A Poststructural Feminist Critique of Liberal Feminism

By Dana K.J. Al-Thani
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02 | pg. 1/1


In popular international relations (IR) theory, knowledge production is often dismissed as an objective process between the researcher and the empirical world. This article rejects this notion and contends that the process of knowledge production is always inherently political in the conduct and study of IR. In order to achieve this argument, a poststructural lens is adopted in order to critique the liberal understanding of knowledge production within IR as a scientific process capable of revealing ‘universal truths.’ Additionally, in discussing ‘the political’ this article incorporates feminist theory by focusing on the politics of gender, specifically the way that the process of and product of knowledge production within the study and conduct of IR is gendered. Therefore, by adopting the poststructural feminist stance, this essay analyses the foundations of liberalism and poststructuralism, the role of feminism within each theory respectively, and then uses the poststructural feminist lens to problematise the knowledge that liberal feminism has produced and legitimised on objectivity within IR and the consequences that knowledge has on the knowledge produced around concepts of the individual and the state.


Knowledge is often spoken of as an object separate from its possessor, a truth that humans work to obtain. This myth that the relationship between knowledge and individuals can have scientific objectivity is prevalent in the conduct and study of international relations (IR). The Enlightenment serves as the catalysis for the popularity of this falsehood, as it naturalised the notion that "knowledge gained through reason represents universal truths that exist independently from reasoning beings" (Staats, 2012). However, this tenet of liberal thought has come to be challenged by a multitude of critical theories, especially poststructuralism and its understanding of discourse as a frame that shapes how knowledge is understood and discussed. Thus, with a focus on liberalism and the poststructuralist critique surrounding the nature of knowledge production, this essay contends that the process of knowledge production is always inherently political in the conduct and study of IR. Furthermore, in discussing the 'political', this essay will bring in feminist theory by focusing on the politics of gender, specifically the way that the process of and product of knowledge production within the study and conduct of IR is gendered. Therefore, by adopting the poststructural feminist stance in order to critique liberal feminist notions of knowledge production, this essay will analyse the foundations of liberalism and poststructuralism, the role of feminism with each theory respectively and then use the poststructural feminist lens to problematise the knowledge that liberal feminism has produced and legitimised on objectivity within IR and the consequences that knowledge has on the knowledge produced around concepts of the individual and the state.

Liberalism and Knowledge Production

As a school of thought, liberalism is rich with different branches, however, for argument’s sake, the branch of liberalism that this essay will focus on is that of classical liberalism. As previously stated, the rise of liberalist thought within IR can be looked to for an understanding of the empirical manner by which the study and conduct of knowledge production are treated within IR.

Liberalism has maintained the more positivist assumption that the empirical world can be separated from the methods used to study it (Geller and Vasquez, 2004:1). Liberalist thought believes that through the use of science "knowledge is not only possible but can accumulate in ways anticipated and promised by the Enlightenment", a logic that many critical theorists have come to reject (Ibid:2). The positivist model was brought about by the empiricist theory of knowledge that argued that only sensory experiences can produce legitimate knowledge (Dunne, Kurki and Smith, 2013:227). This positivist account of science exists at the centre of the enlightenment and follows three empiricist assumptions: (1) epistemic realism: the external world exists separate from the observer, (2) universal scientific language: the external world can be described in an objective manner that does not influence its meaning, and (3) the correspondence theory of truth: the observer can describe the facts of the world that are true and/or false in correspondence to reality (Ibid:227). These assumptions are what fuels the Enlightenment and thus the classical liberal way of engaging with knowledge production. The scientific approach of liberal conceptions of knowledge was intended to remove humanity from religious dogma, however, the dominance of empiricism created a dogma in and of itself as knowledge became "equated with science and reason limited to scientific reason" (Ibid:227). This dogmatisation made it so that social life became "centred on technical control over nature and administrative control over humans, so that political issues became questions of order and efficiency" (Ibid:227).

This empiricism heavily influenced key liberal thinkers such as John Locke, Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant (Ibid:95). This can be seen in key liberal assumptions such as the belief in the rationality of humans in Kant's framework (Ibid:95). The Kantian notion that humans are rational creatures is one that pushes the scientific agenda of the Enlightenment as it takes the positivist assumption that humans not only exist separate from the objective truth but that humans are rational enough to both comprehend and describe the world in an objective manner. This reasoning ultimately leads to the liberal conclusion that there is an objective truth that can be understood, a conclusion that will be challenged further on in this essay.

In all, it becomes clear from this account of the empirical history of liberalism, that the Enlightenment's pursuit of eliminating religious dogma in favour of scientific reasoning has lead to the liberalist relationship to knowledge to be one of science that attributes a level of objectivity and lack of politics to human reasoning.

Poststructuralism and Knowledge Production

Poststructuralism differs from liberalism in its relationship to theory. Poststructuralism does not propose a paradigm through which IR can be understood, but rather offers up a post-positivist critical attitude that can be used to approach the study of almost anything (Ibid:225). Poststructuralism is thus not a theory and with this comes poststructuralism's greatest ability and insight to view theory as practice (Ibid:225).

Due to the poststructuralist lack of distinction between theory and practice, poststructuralism rejects the objective notion of separating the observer from the observed, noting that the observer will always influence the observed. Thus, poststructuralism seeks to investigate the meta-theoretical in order to understand how ways of knowing emerge and how they influence what is known (Ibid:225). This pursuit of understanding the power dynamics of knowledge production manifests into three distinct arguments within the poststructuralist methodology.

The first argument is that language is not transparent. Rejecting the empirical notion of a "universal scientific language", poststructuralists would argue that language is "embedded in social practice and inseparable from the world" (Ibid:228). This stance on language supports the poststructural belief that knowledge production is inherently political. Rather than rejecting the notion that there might be an objective truth, poststructuralism argues that it is the means of investigation that is inherently problematic. Whether or not an objective truth exists is irrelevant because language, the only means by which humans can communicate knowledge is biased and political.

The second argument is that discourse is made up of binaries. According to poststructuralism, everything is defined by an other. Conceptual and political practices are constantly including some and excluding others, thus "poststructural approaches were concerned with how the relations of inside and outside were mutually constructed" (Ibid:226). Examples of such binaries within the study and conduct of IR would include, sovereign/anarchic, West/East, masculine/feminine, etc. The poststructuralist focus on how binaries make up discourses also points to the inherently political nature of knowledge production, as nothing can exist in and of itself. All the things that make up knowledge are defined in opposition to something else, which indicates a complex power dynamic at the centre of discourse.

Lastly, poststructuralism argues that power is productive. Power, according to poststructuralism, has rationality, objective goals and the means of attaining them, however, this rationality of power does not imply the rationality of humans (Gutting and Oksala, 2019). Thus, poststructuralism maintains that despite the existence of rationality, humans can not consciously make sense of it (Ibid). In his book, The History of Sexuality, Volume I, Michel Foucault described the productivity of power arguing that power should not be understood in the reductive manner of being a constraint (Ibid). Rather, power is productive because without the relations of power (i.e. the aforementioned binaries) their limitations would not exist (Dunne, Kurki and Smith, 2013:234). Thus, the limitations become productive as we know what something is by knowing what it is not (Ibid:234).

In all, this investigation of poststructuralism's relationship to knowledge production highlights the post-positivist argument that knowledge production is inherently political and how that manifests in the poststructuralist methodology.

The Role of Feminism Within Theorisation

Having outlined the relationship between knowledge production, liberalism and poststructuralism the foundational knowledge required for this essay has been established and the argumentation can commence. This essay argues that, unlike liberalism which co-opts and moulds feminism, poststructuralism offers a methodology that feminism can use to its advantage through the marginalization of the theory.

In his article, "International Relations Theory: Contributions of a Feminist Standpoint" Robert Keohane analyses and categorises various feminist standpoints within IR, ultimately arguing in favour of what he terms "feminist standpoint theories" (1989:245). Keohane identifies three strands of feminism in his article: (1) feminist empiricism: argues that structures within IR are "fundamentally gendered structures of domination and interaction", (2) feminist standpoint: argues that the marginalisation of women has given them helpful insight into the political realm that should be utilised (3) and feminist postmodernism (i.e. poststructural feminism): a theory Keohane never truly defines but describes as rejecting any and all 'universalities' within the study of IR (Ibid:245). Keohane concludes that 'feminist standpoint' is useful to the study of IR, 'feminist empiricism' could be useful if it evolved beyond the notion that the structures within IR themselves are gendered and lastly that 'feminist postmodernism' is hopeless due to its complete rejection of positivism within IR (Weber, 1994:341). Similarly, in his article "Women and the Evolution of World Politics" Francis Fukuyama takes feminism as a means to supplement his own theoretical understanding of IR rather than challenge it (1998). In the article, Fukuyama offers an idealised version of what the world might be like if women ran it, arguing that "men’s aggressive animal instincts have been tamed and channelled into productive activities associated with liberal democracy and capitalism" (Tickner, 1999:4).

Poststructural feminism highlights that Keohane and Fukuyama's articles are symptoms of a larger problem within liberalism and liberal feminism. Both Keohane and Fukuyama regard feminism, not as a critical theory but as a tool that is only useful when it supplements their liberal understandings of IR. Keohane only attends to 'feminist standpoint' because he can project the liberal understanding of knowledge production as existing within a positivist framework onto it. Furthermore, Keohane's very belief that he is entitled to categorise feminism into different branches exemplifies the domination of 'hegemonic masculinity' within IR as Keohane not only assumes an authorial gaze towards feminist theory but wrongfully assumes that he is objective, indicating the naturalisation of the idea that masculinity is neutral (Weber, 1994:338). Fukuyama on the other hand plays into the very 'feminine/masculine' binaries that poststructural feminism rejects by ignoring the actual oppressions that women face in favour of devaluing notions of peace and cooperation that disempower women by contrasting the 'ideal feminised world' to the 'real world', which should stay run by men (Tickner, 1999:8).

However, in the co-opting of feminism into liberal theory the freedom of poststructural feminism via its marginalisation is highlighted. The poststructural rejection of positivism and objectivity make it an undesirable if not useless theory to liberalism and in this 'uselessness', poststructural feminism is given the place to grow. Without the constraints of liberalism, poststructural feminism not only addresses its own political biases but is able to use a poststructural methodology to expand upon its ideas rather than mould itself to an overarching theory. Thus, it becomes clear that, unlike poststructural feminism, from its inception liberal feminism is posited to wrongfully assume that knowledge production is not inherently political in the study and conduct of IR. The relationship between feminism and liberalism diminishes the role of feminism to be a critical theory of IR, making liberal feminism more accurately described as 'liberalism with women'.

Objective Truth V. Discourse

As previously stated, liberal feminism is bound to the positivist framework and thus applies liberal knowledge of objective truth to the study of the subordination of women within IR. This notion that the investigation of the subordination of women can be studied in tandem with the positivist framework will be challenged by the poststructural feminist understanding of discourse.

The task of liberal feminism is largely "limited to opposing laws that treat women differently from men, a task which they hold has been largely accomplished in societies like the United States" (Baehr, 2013). Thus, the liberal feminist study of gender subordination ultimately boils down to one question: do all the freedoms extended by the judicial system apply to both men and women? It is important to note that within the study of liberal feminism injustice under 'just' laws does not constitute oppression of women (Ibid.). Laws that 'favour' women by existing specifically for the benefit of women or to specifically limit oppressive actions against women, such as laws that protect women in the workplace are seen as oppressive (Ibid.). This is because according to liberal feminism laws that are specifically for women are unjust as they then limit the capacity for humans to exercise their personal freedom. Despite the attractiveness of the simple science and logic of the liberal feminist methodology, it completely falls apart when the poststructural feminist lens is applied. Through the application of the poststructural feminist lens, it becomes clear that the 'scientific' approach of liberal feminism is actually full of political meaning that greatly influences the knowledge produced in the study of IR.

The first 'non-political' claim made by liberal feminism is its definition of oppression. In restricting the definition of oppression to the judicial system, liberal feminism does two things. First, it rejects any intersectional understanding of the oppression of women. Using the poststructural understanding of discourse as being made up of many binaries that dictate how different concepts are defined, it becomes clear that liberal feminism utilises a highly political understanding of oppression. By ignoring the different discourses within the larger discourse surrounding sexism, liberal feminism does not attend to the fact that oppression manifests differently between individuals due to factors such as race and class (McAfee and Howard, 2018). The liberal feminist assumption that vague all-encompassing laws are indicative enough of the level of equality between men and women, highlights the politicised nature of such a claim and the fact that this understanding of oppression only pertains to economically stable, non-POC women in its essence (Ibid.).

Secondly, liberal feminism naturalises political institutions such as the state, government, international organisations, etc. by using them in tandem with the study of gender relations rather than as the subject. Poststructural feminism argues that "relations of power are constructed and maintained by granting normality, rationality and naturalness to the dominant term in any binary, and in contrast, how the subordinated term is marked as other, as lacking, as not rational" (Somekh, 2005:312). This poststructural feminist critique highlights that assuming that the judicial system and governments extend freedoms, rather than analyse the way those very institutions are gendered, normalises those dominant terms over notions of horizontal or cooperative politics. Thus, the poststructural feminist critique underlines the fact that the liberal feminist normalisation of certain institutions is a political act that has consequences for knowledge production within IR as it limits investigation to the paradigm of the state.

Thus, this investigation of the 'objective truth' versus 'discourse' debate between liberal feminism and poststructural feminism highlights that the liberal feminist assumption that the study of gender oppression produces objective knowledge is incorrect. Rather, that the very terms and understandings at the core of the liberal feminist methodology are not only themselves gendered, but breed more gendered knowledge within the study of IR.

The Individual and the Myth of Agency

Having argued that the core focus and methodology of the liberal feminist study of IR are gendered through a critique from the poststructural feminist lens, this section argues that the means by which liberal feminism studies IR also has consequences for the practice of IR. Thus, in highlighting the consequences of the liberal feminist study of IR on the practice of IR, this essay contends that the practice of IR is also inherently political.

Drawing back on the liberal feminist claims analysed in the previous section, it is clear that liberal feminism wrongfully assumes that in utilising a positivist framework to study the subordination of women objective knowledge is produced. However, the knowledge that is produced by the popular liberal feminist analysis of IR does have a significant influence on the practice of IR specifically for the way that equality is defined and achieved. If the liberal feminist methodology of studying gender oppression is by examining their rights under the law then liberal feminism is actively producing individualist knowledge (Baehr, 2013). The liberal understanding of individualism is best described by John Stuart Mill who stated that "over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (Mill, 1859:13). When this definition is applied to feminism it becomes clear that the goals of liberal feminism are that which emphasise the right of the individual such as, equality under the law, personal autonomy, freedom from discrimination from the state on the basis of gender and/or sex, etc. Thus, liberal feminism makes the assumption that the individual exists freely from its social condition.

This liberal feminist understanding of the individual is rejected by poststructural feminism, as the poststructural feminist standpoint would argue that there is no such thing as the "fundamental or essential self, but instead, 'we speak ourselves into existence within the terms of available discourses' (Davies, 2000a, p. 55)" (Barrett, 2005:83). Thus, the poststructural feminist understanding of the relationship between the individual and discourse breaks down the liberal feminist notion of agency and autonomy, contending that the individual is a socially constructed phenomenon and every 'self' comes from and is defined by various discourses (Ibid:83). However, poststructural feminism does recognise some level of autonomy in recognising that the individual can control the discourses they are defined by and take up discourses that "disrupt hegemonic cultural narratives" in order to turn against the structures that produced them (Ibid:87).

The opposing understanding of the significance of the individual between poststructural and liberal feminism highlights the political nature of knowledge produced by liberal feminism. Liberal feminism attempts to apply the Enlightenment concept of the "autonomous rational individual as a universal model of selfhood and starting point for political action" (Hooper, 2001). However, this concept disregards the fact that the female subject has been defined and constructed in an opposing manner to the male subject, thus the Enlightenment model is one that was constructed for a specific subject. Ultimately it is this disregard that not only defines the liberal feminist practice of achieving equality but the crux of the poststructural feminist critique on liberal feminism, as the liberal feminist commitment to the Enlightenment, manifests in a way that makes the practice blind to the politics of the very institutions it supposes will extend autonomy to deserving individuals.

Therefore, in applying the poststructural feminist lens to the liberal feminist understanding of the individual, it becomes clear that liberal feminism has limited its practice to a constructed reality that overlooks the actual political needs of the female subject by wrongfully equating it to the male subject.

The State

Having investigated the effect of liberal feminist knowledge on the practice of liberal feminism within IR, via its political goals and conception of the individual, this essay now turns to the liberal feminist understanding of the state. Thus, this section argues that by applying the poststructural feminist lens it becomes clear that the liberal feminist understanding of the state is one that is riddled with political and gendered knowledge specifically through the role of the state as a 'protector'.

As has been previously shown, the liberal feminist understanding of the state is that its role is to protect its citizens from coercive interference by protecting their rights both domestically and internationally from other states (Baehr, 2013). However, the liberal feminist understanding of the state as a 'protector' is a masculine understanding of international relations that applies gender binaries to the international stage in order to excuse non-cooperative behaviour. In her book, Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security, Judith Tickner analyses the feminist perspective on security arguing that the "security-seeking behaviour of states is described in gendered terms'' that ultimately impacts the practice of IR (1992:49). According to Tickner, states legitimise their security-seeking behaviour by appealing to "masculine hegemony", by which the state takes on the paternal role of 'protector' in order to justify violence (Ibid:49). Furthermore, Tickner highlights that in order to further legitimise security-seeking behaviour states utilise the ideology of the family in order to invoke a sense of community within the state so that there is a perception of national identity and community that needs protecting (Ibid:54).

While Tickner takes on the broader feminist critique of popular understandings of security and the role of the state on the international stage, her critique is full of poststructural insights that highlight the cracks in the liberal feminist logic and the politics of its knowledge. Firstly, focusing on Tickner's claim that the state is described as a 'protector', many different things come to light. While liberal feminism is a feminist theory it differs from the majority of other feminist theories by critiquing who is involved in what processes rather than criticising the knowledge produced by popular IR theories. Therefore, liberal feminism follows the same popular logic that the state is a protector. The poststructural feminist understanding of binaries highlights that the protector/protected binary utilised when describing the state is a part of the larger masculine/feminine binary that plagues IR. This description of the state as a 'protector' not only feminises the domestic by describing it as incapable of self-preservation but delegitimises notions of peace by favouring the idea of 'protection' as it insinuates that peace is a naive ideal. Secondly, the process of a national identity drawing upon the ideology of family is one riddled with gender binaries that further delegitimises domestic politics. The state is both feminine and masculine. The home base for a state is the family/the feminine, whereas the state in IR is the action/the masculine. The separation of the state's public and private spheres into masculine and feminine descriptors highlights the power of language within discourses of IR as the liberal feminist description of the state, which it supposes to be neutral, is in fact not only gendered but actively devalues the feminine in order to maintain the current status quo of state behaviour.

In all, by applying the poststructural feminist lens to the liberal feminist understanding of the state's role as a 'protector' the argument that knowledge production is always inherently political in the study and conduct of IR is further supported by uncovering the gendered nature of the liberal conception of the state.


In conclusion, while this essay recognises that poststructural feminism itself has no stance on the politics of knowledge production in the study and conduct of IR, poststructuralism still offers a valuable methodology by which political meaning can be uncovered. Thus, by utilising poststructuralism alongside feminism it becomes clear that the liberal feminist way of producing knowledge in the study and conduct within IR is inherently political as it is both based in and perpetuates a larger gender discourse within IR that has consequences. By adopting the poststructural feminist stance in order to critique liberal feminist notions of knowledge production, this essay analysed the foundations of liberalism and poststructuralism, the role of feminism with each theory respectively and then used the poststructural feminist lens in order to problematise the knowledge that liberal feminism has produced and legitimised on objectivity within IR and the consequences that knowledge has on the knowledge produced around concepts of the individual and the state. This investigation, in turn, revealed the underlying power dynamics within said structures and the way that gender within IR functions as a tool of not only oppression but legitimisation. Therefore, with this in mind, it remains the claim of this essay that the process of knowledge production is always inherently political in the conduct and study of IR.


Baehr, A. R. (2013). Liberal Feminism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Barrett, M. J. (2005). Making (Some) Sense of Feminist Poststructuralism in Environmental Education Research and Practice. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 10. Research Gate.

Dunne, T., Kurki, M., & Smith, S. (2013). International Relations Theories : Discipline and Diversity. Oxford University Press, Cop.

Fukuyama, F. (1998). Women and the Evolution of World Politics. Foreign Affairs, 77(5), 24–40.

Geller, D. S., & Vasquez, J. A. (2004). The Construction and Cumulation of Knowledge in International Relations: Introduction*. International Studies Review, 6(4), 1–6.

Gutting, G., & Oksala, J. (2019). Michel Foucault (E. N. Zalta, Ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Hooper, C. (2001). Manly states : masculinities, international relations, and gender politics. Columbia University Press.

Keohane, R. O. (1989). International Relations Theory: Contributions of a Feminist Standpoint. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 18(2), 245–253.

McAfee, N., & Howard, K. B. (2018). Feminist Political Philosophy (E. N. Zalta, Ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. Arcturus Publishing Ltd. (Original work published 1859)

Somekh, B. (2005). Research Methods in the Social Sciences (B. Somekh & C. Lewin, Eds.). Sage Publications.

Staats, M. (2012). Poststructural Feminism.

Tickner, J. A. (1992). Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. Columbia University Press.

Tickner, J. A. (1999). Why Women Can’t Run the World: International Politics According to Francis Fukuyama. International Studies Review, 1(3), 3–11.

Weber, C. (1994). Good Girls, Little Girls, and Bad Girls: Male Paranoia in Robert Keohane’s Critique of Feminist International Relations. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 23(2), 337–349.

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