Conceptual Politics in Practice : How Soft Power Changed the World

Abstract: Concepts are a key feature of academic research and international politics. Despite the fact that interpreting, classifying and communicating the world through concepts has far-reaching social and political consequences, their various roles and complex dynamics remain poorly understood in International Relations (IR). Instead of disregarding concepts, conflating them with other cognitive terms such as norms, or obsessing about their ability to scientifically capture reality, this dissertation builds on the emerging field of critical concept studies (CSS), which understands concepts as open and contestable interpretive devices that observers use to make sense of the world, often to steer political thought and action. In line with CSS, this dissertation refers to these political struggles as “conceptual politics”—the ways in which actors coin, use, promote, revisit and fight over concepts in anticipation of performative effects—and argues that it constitutes a key facet of politics.The field of CSS is mainly theoretically oriented, and few empirical studies address conceptual politics in practice. The purpose of this study is to further the field of CSS by expanding the notion of conceptual politics. It does so first by developing three issues that previous research presumes are important but does not investigate empirically: the dynamics of feedback loops, or interaction effects between interpretations of the world and the world; reification, the treatment of concepts as if they were real rather than human-made interpretive devices; and travel, the movement of concepts across time, levels and space. Next, the dissertation develops an analytical framework capable of tracing conceptual politics empirically. The dissertation seeks to answer the following key questions: How can we study conceptual politics? How do feedback loops, reification and travel shape conceptual politics? What are the consequences of conceptual politics for world politics?Taking an abductive approach, an analytical framework is developed as a “thinking tool” to trace conceptual politics in practice. Based on a case study design and interpretivist process-tracing, the soft power concept—the ability to affect others through attraction—is subjected to a critical concept analysis of its travel from the US to Japan and China and back to the US again. Although soft power has emerged as a key concern in IR and international politics, the concept and its consequences remain poorly understood. This dissertation finds that the soft power concept has become part and parcel of various political struggles over the “correct” interpretation of reality and the way to act on it. The findings reveal the importance of: continuous efforts to ensure soft power’s position in IR; the concept’s common treatment as if it was real; the interaction effects between its various roles (e.g. social fact and interpretive, foreign policy and socialising tool), which have shaped how “power” and “power shifts” are understood and acted on in international politics; and the emergence of new translations and discrete sites of conceptual politics that rely on, exploit, challenge or even ignore the original concept.From the analysis, a more complete picture of conceptual politics emerges that underscores many dynamics and effects that would otherwise be missed, and advances our understanding of the role of concepts and the consequences of conceptual politics in IR.

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