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Gendering Global Conflict: Towards a Feminist Theory of War - Laura Sjoberg - Book Review


Book coverWithin the growing discipline of feminist security studies and given the increased attention awarded to mainstream security studies, in what is a geo-politically unstable period for many areas of the globe, Laura Sjoberg’s Gendering Global Conflict offers a welcome intervention into both feminist and mainstream international relations/ security scholarship. Indeed, the overall argument she offers joins a chorus of other feminist security and international relations voices – namely that war cannot be understood without considering gender as a primary unit of analysis. This, Laura Sjoberg goes on to contend, is due to the co-constitution of gender and war, in other words, how gender produces war and war produces gender.


Indeed, this argument echoes other feminist works, such as that of Cynthia Cockburn and Laura Shepherd. Where Laura Sjoberg contributes to this debate is in her comprehensive and sustained exploration of this contention across, between, and in multiple sites – from the international to the personal.

Moreover, although the piece is focused on international relations in a broad sense, Laura Sjoberg’s work draws from a number of historical and country-specific examples of war. As such, the work offers some thoughtful and insightful illustrative accounts of various global and historical conflicts, giving it a comparative feel. In addition,  the author has managed to address issues associated with identity intersections other than gender, such as class and ethnicity.

In pursuit of its ultimate contention – that gender has a continuous influence, both empirically through gendered bodies and analytically, through gendered concepts, on security, and that, therefore, a focus on gender is imperative to war studies – the book is separated into the following chapters. Chapter One offers a review of the mainstream literature in the field of security and war studies to highlight how gender has been omitted. Chapter Two examines the various feminist approaches to understanding war and security in order to demonstrate the diverse range of feminisms, and what their contribution to security studies has been. This chapter sets up the conceptual framework for the book, arguing that the differences between feminisms should not be considered a weakness in feminist war studies but rather, a strength. Following on from Chapter Two, Chapter Three makes a case for the focus of feminist security studies to be narrowed, so as to investigate war rather than security more generally. Concentrating primarily on the causes of war, in the following two chapters Laura Sjoberg applies gender lenses to look directly at the main focus of war studies, namely dyadic-level causes of war and state- level causes of war, respectively. In other words, she discusses the causes of war as they relate to the relationship between states at an international level and as they relate to individual states at a national level. Chapter Six discusses causes of war through an analysis of (gendered) everyday lives at the societal level, through support and participation in the war ‘machine’, and goes on to highlight how war strategy must be understood through a feminist lens in Chapter Seven. As such, Chapter Seven marks a departure in the book, which, up to this point, has discussed the multi-level (international, national, and individual) causes of war, to address how we should understand war strategy. In a similar vein, Chapter Eight looks at how the gendered tactics of war should also be read by feminist scholars, whereby gendering aspects of the war is tactical and also whereby tactics which affect gendered bodies are crucial to the study of war. In Chapter Nine, the penultimate chapter, Laura Sjoberg departs again from looking at causes, tactics, and strategies, to analyse how wars are lived and how this affects gendered bodies – men and women – in the most personal aspects of their lives. The author states here that we should acknowledge that ‘global politics reveals war(s) as lived, experienced, and felt, rather than just made or fought’ (p. 248).

The book ends with a concluding chapter in which Laura Sjoberg makes a convincing case as to the benefits of her conceptual framework for understanding war; namely the greater levels of understanding and knowledge that can be achieved through the creative application of a diverse, rather than ‘pigeon-holed’, feminist theorising.
In terms of the contribution of this book to the literature, I feel that its most significant strength is also its most significant weakness. The conceptual framework, which to an extent amalgamates feminisms, offers an effective toolbox to help analyse the causes, strategies, and consequences of war in a multifaceted way. However, by amalgamating a number of feminist approaches, I also felt that this piece did not offer the rigour that a more defined and singular feminist approach would have offered. Nonetheless, this book remains a very important contribution to the field.

Overall, the book is well written and accessible, with much of the jargon associated with mainstream war and security scholarship demystified. In terms of readership, I would certainly recommend this book to academic scholars and students who focus on conflict and development, international security, gender and development, and gender and international relations. In fact, perhaps the most commendable aspect of this book is that Laura Sjoberg offers a convincing account as to why gender should be taken seriously when we consider both the causes and the impacts of war, whilst managing to speak to a mainstream, as well as feminist, security audience.

Review ©2014 Emma A. Foster, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham, UK

Gendering Global Conflict: Towards a Feminist Theory of War is published by Columbia University Press

Review originally published in Gender & Development 22.2 (2014)

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