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Do we know what our concepts do in our analyses?

By Henrik Larsen, Copenhagen University

Within the social sciences, there is an increasing interest in the ways in which the theoretical concepts employed in research and politics contribute to making the objects they are studying. This development has been dubbed the performative turn. It is based on a view of theory as constitutive: theories are not simply neutral observations of a given reality but are complicit in the construction of that reality.

That may sound abstract – and it is. We may think that we have full control of what our concepts do when we chose them for our analyses. Our concepts have huge consequences for our analyses – and we want them to – but do we always know what they do in the analyses? The answer to this question has wide and concrete implications for the field of European studies and not least for research on European foreign policy. A number of concepts are frequently used in the analysis of EU foreign policy – the Capability-Expectations Gap (CEG), Civilian Power Europe (CPE), Normative Power Europe (NPE), Market Power Europe (MPE), presence, actorness etc. These are “local” concepts in the sense that they have been developed for, or are mainly used within this field. This tailor-madeness may, somewhat paradoxically, lead to a lack of critical inquiry. Do we know what these central concepts do in our analyses of European foreign policy? The particular nature of what they do – their performativity – cannot be assumed and may well be different from the stated aim of the author or the originators of the concepts; systematic empirical studies are needed in order to examine, for example, how the concepts work to construct the objects of research, shaping how we go about studying and analyzing them.

In my article I provide an analytical framework for studying what our theories and concepts do It proposes the concept of performativity as a well-suited analytical tool. My article proposes an approach to studying performativity, drawing on Derrida, and illustrates the use of the approach through an analysis of the performativity of the Capability-Expectations Gap concept, an important concept first formulated by Christopher Hill in 1993.

I show that the use of the concept in the academic literature reproduces a gap discourse. The gap discourse presents the EU as an unfulfilled international actor due to a quasi-permanent gap between capabilities and expectations or other kinds of gaps. The performativity of the concept is such that the gap discourse is reiterated whenever the CEG concept is used; empirical work rarely engages in explicit considerations about how to examine the gap or, indeed, the relevance of the gap.

It seems to me that this is important. In Hill’s central articles he launches the Capability-Expectations Gap as a new way to measure the EU’s dynamic agency in International Relations through criteria that are not based on traditional statehood. But, in the subsequent literature referring to this concept, something else happens. A quasi-permanent gap in EU foreign policy is presented as a fact with reference to Hill’s Capability-Expectations Gap. This demonstrates why it is interesting to study the performativity of concepts.

A second point in the article is that my findings on the Capability-Expectations Gap challenge the view of what discourse is dominant in the literature on EU foreign policy. In an important article, Cebeci has argued that European foreign policy research constructs an `Ideal Power Europe’ metanarrative according to which the EU is a foreign policy actor and aspires to be a positive force in world politics. A part of the metanarrative is the conceptualizing the EU as a superior and real normative power.

I argue, however, that European foreign policy research does not unambiguously construct the EU as an `Ideal Power Europe’. The use of the Capabilities-Expectations Gap concept does not draw on the “Ideal Power Europe” meta-narrative since it is mainly used as a critical label to describe EU foreign policy. “Ideal Power Europe” is not hegemonic as the discourse on “Ideal Power Europe” competes with a gap discourse and potentially other discourses. Although “Ideal Power Europe” may have a greater impact beyond academia than the gap discourse, the article also suggests some ways in which the gap discourse is performative beyond academia. Amongst other things, in my article, I show that the score cards of the European Council of Foreign Relations draw on a gap discourse.

I conclude that we need a more finely tuned and detailed examination of the performativity of concepts in European foreign policy. There seems to be scope for a more detailed analysis of the performativity of concepts such as Civilian Power Europe, Normative Power Europe, Market Power Europe, presence, actorness etc. which also includes a dynamic dimension of the changes over time. We should be reflexive about the direction our concepts take us in. This is not just a question for the academy since academic concepts sometimes make it into politics and import their own performativity. It is generally seen as a good thing if policy choices are informed by theoretical concepts. But policy-makers should be reflexive about the full implications of how particular concepts are used in policy papers or speeches. An unreflexive use of theoretical concepts as positive buzzwords without considering their performativity may pull policies in different directions from the ones intended by policy-makers.



Henrik Larsen

Henrik Larsen is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, Copenhagen University. His research interests include the performative role of theories in the analysis of foreign policy, the formulation of a distinct approach to foreign policy analysis for EU member states and theoretical approaches to the analysis of national foreign policy including discourse analysis.








Further Readings
Cebecci, M. (2012) ´European Foreign Policy Research Reconsidered: Constructing an “Ideal Power Europe” through Theory?”. Millennium, vol.40 (3), pp.563-583.
Giesen, B (2006) ´Performing the sacred: a Durkheimian perspective on the performative turn in the social sciences’. In J. Alexander, B. Giesen, & J. Mast (Eds.), Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) , pp. 325-367.

Hill, C. (1993) ‘The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualising’s Europe´s International Role’. In Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol.31, No.3, pp.305-328.

Hill, C. (1998) ‘Closing the Capability-Expectations Gap?”. In Peterson, J and Sjursen, H. (eds.) A Common Foreign Policy For Europe? (London and New York: Routledge), pp.18-38.


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