Politics of Resistance and the Changing Field of International Relations

As an academic discipline, International Relations (IR) has traditionally been more interested in studying how political elites work to maintain order and balance in the international political system rather than discussing the activities and goals of those who seek to disrupt this order.

The dominant theories of IR, regardless of their other disagreements, have all relied on a somewhat commonsensical conception of politics, focusing on power struggles between nation-states and the doings of their political elite (heads of state, ministers, diplomats, and so on). According to this view, as Bice Maiguashca puts it, “politics has been primarily conceptualised as originating from a conflict of interests and as involving the actions of states and those of their accomplices or opponents to resolve them under conditions of anarchy” (Maigushca 2003, 4).

During the long decades of the Cold War, this approach seemed to work; it seemed possible to explain even ethnic, religious or ideological conflicts in the non-Western world by treating them as sideshows—” proxy war” was the favourite term at the time—of the larger conflict between the two superpowers (the USA and the Soviet Union), both of which were guided by national self-interest and rational calculation. More self-reflective theoretical approaches that were developed in other social sciences (sociology, political science, political philosophy) deemed unnecessary for the study of international relations.

However, since the end of the Cold War, the situation has changed. Even if the traditional schools of IR—realism and liberalism—remain influential (or even dominant) the discipline has witnessed an influx of new theoretical perspectives, concepts and practices. The field of IR is today much more diverse than a few decades ago, as a new generation of feminist, poststructuralist, multiculturalist and ethically oriented scholars have taken the task to criticize and problematize many of the basic concepts—power, national interest, security—whose meaning had previously been taken for granted. Even such a fundamental question as “What is politics?” does not anymore appear as straightforward as before.

The new generation of IR scholars has also actively worked to reorient the research priorities of the field. New emphasis has been placed on various forms of protest and resistance to the international political system, giving rise to a subfield that is referred to as “Politics of Resistance.” This field contains a diverse set of political practices and ideologies, which share a common feature: they are in some way directed against the status quo and the political, economic or cultural elite.

Teaching a course Politics of Resistance to the IR students is an interesting and rewarding experience, as the topic gives the instructor the chance to include into the syllabus a diverse set of themes and readings that would probably seem out of place in the more traditional courses. It also allows the students to pursue areas of personal interest and reflect upon their own experiences and impulses in a manner that would rarely be encouraged in the conventional IR courses.

At MIUC, a course on Politics of Resistance is offered every year for the MA and fourth-year BA students of International Relations. When teaching the course, my goal has been to provide the students with a wide range of subjects and approaches that can be discussed under the rubric of “politics of resistance.” This has included both historical topics—slave rebellions, great revolutions, organized labour, anti-imperialism—and contemporary themes—feminism, anti-globalization movements, radical political art. The approaches can vary a lot as well; my students have learned and written about political rebellions, online resistance campaigns, forms of cultural resistance and strikes in factories.

Last year, for example, one of my students wrote an excellent paper on the work of famous Russian poets in the 1930s, analyzing them as a form of resistance against Stalin’s totalitarian system. Another student chose a very contemporary theme, discussing Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and election platform. This is precisely what the students have most liked about the course; it allows them to choose a topic that is personally close to them and to familiarize themselves with theories and ideas that can help them to approach it more analytically and to see it in a new light. If the popularity of the subject among my students is any indicator, then Politics of Resistance will remain an important element of International Relations also in the future.

By Juho Ahava


Maiguashca, Bice. “Governance and Resistance in World Politics: Introduction.” Review of International Studies, No. 29 (2003): 3–28.