In the second half of the twentieth century, worldwide attitudes toward whaling shifted from widespread acceptance to moral censure. Why? Whaling, once as important to the global economy as oil is now, had long been uneconomical. Major species were long known to be endangered. Yet nations had continued to support whaling. In "The Power of Words in International Relations", Charlotte Epstein argues that the change was brought about not by changing material interests but by a powerful anti-whaling discourse that successfully recast whales as extraordinary and intelligent endangered mammals that needed to be saved.Epstein views whaling both as an object of analysis in its own right and as a lens for examining discursive power, and how language, materiality, and action interact to shape international relations. By focusing on discourse, she develops an approach to the study of agency and the construction of interests that brings non-state actors and individuals into the analysis of international politics.
Epstein analyzes the 'society of whaling states' as a set of historical practices where the dominant discourse of the day legitimated the killing of whales rather than their protection. She then looks at this whaling world's mirror image: the rise from the political margins of an anti-whaling discourse, which orchestrated one of the first successful global environmental campaigns, in which saving the whales ultimately became shorthand for saving the planet. Finally, she considers the continued dominance of a now taken-for-granted anti-whaling discourse, including its creation of identity categories that align with and sustain the existing international political order. Epstein's synthesis of discourse, power, and identity politics brings the fields of international relations theory and global environmental politics into a fruitful dialogue that benefits both.
Epstein powerfully demonstrates a vital aspect of social construction by focusing on a very material object, whales. In rejecting the dualism of the material and the ideal; analyzing how discourses structure the possible positions actors can take on an issue; and demonstrating the power of norms to exclude as well as regulate, Epstein shows how whales were discursively transformed from commodities into social objects uniquely worthy of protection; and in doing so how an entire economic order was transformed. Empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated; weaving the theory through the cases and across levels of analysis, The Power of Words in International Relations is a tour de force. --Mark Blyth, Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University "According to mainstream international relations theory, states are not supposed to handle whaling the way they do. Epstein demonstrates how the discursive framing of the issue cannot be fully accounted for in terms of material interests and state-system characteristics. Drawing on the literature on identity and social movements, Epstein deftly demonstrates how social power is changing the face of global politics." --Iver B. Neumann, Director of Research, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs "The Power of Words in International Relations interweaves nuanced theoretical analysis with a rich historical narrative. Behind the popular slogan 'Save the Whales!' and the decades of political maneuvering both for and against it lies a fascinating story about the co-construction of discursive and material practices. Charlotte Epstein has given us an outstanding case study about meaning-making at the intersection of science, politics, economics, and ethics. This book should find a wide audience in international relations, environmental studies, and the social studies of science." --Karen T. Litfin, Department of Political Science, University of Washington "If whales could read, Charlotte Epstein's The Power of Words in International Relations would be essential for them to understand why humans behave as they do. As it is, they cannot read but, to our good fortune, we can. Accordingly, we should pay close attention to what Epstein has to say about international relations, the global economy, history, environment, language, and action and make this book required reading for our students." --Ronnie D. Lipschutz, Professor of Politics, University of California, Santa Cruz
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Charlotte Epstein is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.