From language, beliefs, customs to literature and art, defining culture is no easy feat. To this day there are discussions about what culture does and does not encompass. It is an elusive and ungraspable concept to many, even though the field of Cultural Studies has been gaining more traction in recent years.

But what makes the area of Cultural Studies so important to contemporary International Relations? What can someone dealing with International Relations gain from an understanding of culture?

“On a daily basis, we face problems that cannot be tackled by using disciplinary knowledge,” says Dr. Giulia Pelillo, head of the newly established research area of Cultural Studies at the Vienna School of International Studies, on the necessity of the connection between Cultural Studies and International Relations.

The Politics of Narratives

Cultural Studies is intimately concerned with narratives. As a student of Cultural Studies, it is crucial to exhibit an awareness and understanding of these narratives, as they not only form the core of Cultural Studies but are also present in every aspect of human life. “We never deal with objective stories, as people always have positionings. Cultural Studies is a means to gain depth into these multiple positionings and try to understand how they interact with each other, for better or worse,” Dr. Pelillo explains further.

If our lives are thus shaped and influenced by narratives, so is International Relations. After all, what field uses more narratives than politics? The study of culture allows for deep insights into narratives, which in turn can deepen our understanding of politics and contemporary International Relations. What are we observing? What is the narrative pushed through an article or a speech? Narratives are never innocent; they always convey deeper and multiple meanings, and being aware of this is a critical tool when examining modern politics.

Borders: Geography or Culture?

Borders are yet another essential feature of Cultural Studies. The distinction between self and other forms the most basic of these borders, though on closer inspection, much of human life is built on the notion of borders. The key word that needs to be highlighted? Built on. “It is very important to raise consciousness about the constructed nature of borders and boundaries”, Dr. Pelillo emphasises.

There are numerous conflicts centred on the notion of borders, be it geopolitical or cultural ones, with groupings using culture and borders as a means to construct the other, the enemy. “Looking at the construction and remaking or unmaking of borders and boundaries is another important tool to understand how politics and culture interact with each other,” Dr. Pelillo explains. Cultural Studies can provide the tools to understand the complex nature of these borders. They can help to deconstruct them and recognise the role of, for example, institutional actors, the media, and people experiencing life at borders. Dr. Pellilo adds, “It’s incredibly enriching to see how the same topic gets discussed by people coming from different backgrounds and people who have crossed different borders.”

Diversity as an Opportunity

If there is one area that Cultural Studies is by definition concerned with, then it is diversity. Were it not for the variety of the world’s cultures and peoples, the study of culture would after all not exist. Dr. Pelillo highlights the necessity to think of diversity and its role in both International Relations and politics, stating that “diversity is often seen as something that needs to be managed, as a challenge to the unity of the state, and a challenge to democracy.” 

While different traditions of homogeneous and heterogeneous views of diversity exist in Cultural Studies, there is also a broad understanding that it is exactly this diversity that allows for the most fruitful insights. The intertwining of cultures and identities, the diversity, is regarded as an essential part, as something that cannot and should not be viewed in isolation. Diversity within a society or nation must not be a threat nor a challenge to unity, instead it can be an opportunity, which is also reflected in the European Union’s motto: “United in Diversity.

Media Evolution

Cultural Studies has been an interdisciplinary field from the beginning, but the role of media studies has undoubtedly become a major focus in recent years. From the evolution of newspapers, radios, and television to the modern media landscape of instant messaging and social media, media is ever-present and ever-evolving. Media training is part of politics, of course, but Cultural Studies focuses on more than assertiveness and appearance. Instead, the crucial factor is awareness: awareness of the audience near and far, awareness of the narrative and its implications, awareness of the weight of one’s words.

“This is actually a problem for those who want to become diplomats in the future. I think it was much safer in a world in which the media was limited to a few newspapers, and you had much more safe space in which you could negotiate. If something went wrong, then it went wrong only among this group of people. But now, everybody looks at you when you say something. You have to know that the audience you have in front of you or even the audience you think you are addressing your message to is much broader. You don’t know the outcomes,” Dr. Pelillo remarks on the evolving role of media in international relations and diplomacy.

The Potentials of Cultural Studies

Culture in all its facets permeates every aspect of our lives and significantly influences the way we think about the world. There is no one way to explain an issue and, importantly,  never only one way of analysing events. The complexities of the modern world do not allow for straightforward interpretations. But that does not mean that we are wholly ill-equipped to deal with contemporary International Relations, as Dr. Pelillo adds: “We have to question the frameworks of knowledge, the production of knowledge. This is something that Cultural Studies is very good at, because it offers this critique of representations. Not regarding the content itself, but rather: Why is this content expressed in this way? What is the filter that makes you understand this message in this way and not in another?”

Cultural Studies deals with unveiling this plethora of nuanced narratives that shape us. The critical lenses acquired in its study enable us to bridge the cross-disciplinary gap to International Relations, empowering us to improve our cultural competence, raise cultural awareness, and heighten cultural sensitivity.

To the question “What is the importance of cultural studies in international relations?,” Dr. Pelillo answers: “It is an awareness. It is a way of empowering not only students but also practitioners and everybody who deals with these complexities in order to gain a better understanding of the world.”

Written by Marlene Palan, Edited by Viktor Kharyton

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