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Chapter Analysis: “Margins, Silences, and Bottom Rungs”

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Introduction: The Center and the Margins

  • Start by drawing a pyramid ( Δ ) on the blackboard, then jump into the presentation
  • In Chapter 2 of The Curious Feminist, Cynthia Enloe talks about the difference in perspective between people at the global “center” – the power players and economic movers-and-shakers who make politics in Washington, London, and Tokyo – versus the people at the global “margins” – the so-called “silent” dishwashers, farmers, housewives, and factory workers who don’t have the power, but instead have to live according to the center’s rules and decisions.
  • To make this concept easier to understand, Enloe analogizes the world political order to a pyramid of power. The people at the center are the top of the pyramid (write the word “center” next to the top of the pyramid). And the people on the margins are at the bottom (write the word “margins” next to the bottom of the pyramid).
  • For Enloe, even though geographically-speaking the people at the bottom of the pyramid may live only a few blocks away from the people at top, because of their common experience of marginalization they are actually a lot closer to other people at the margins from all over the world. And vice versa: the Mexican President Felipe Calderón has a lot more in common with President George Bush than he does with a poor Mexican farm worker in rural Chiapas.

How International Relations Ignores the Margin

  • The point that Enloe wants to make in this chapter is that the study of international relations and economic globalization in general needs to take into account the experiences and perceptions of the people at the margins – at the bottom of the pyramid.
  • Right now, international relations focuses only on the viewpoints and values of the people at the center, and it completely ignores everyone and everything else. For international relations analysts, the people at the margins are not important. The “truth” about international politics is uncovered by studying the power players – leave the margins to the socialists and the anthropologists.
  • Enloe thinks this is the wrong attitude to have. Far from being irrelevant to international relations, the people at the margins are the base on which the whole pyramid of international power is constructed (point to base of pyramid that you drew earlier). In order to maintain their position at the top, and keep the status quo operating like it is, the people at the center rely on a whole series of relationships and power structures. Because it ignores all of these power structures, the formal study of international relations completely underestimates and oversimplifies what it takes to keep the international system functioning.
  • Instead, Enloe thinks that why some people are at the top and not others is just as important a question for international relations as what they do once they get there. If analysis of international relations only focuses on the power centers, it will be leaving out a whole lot of the story, and will be really surprised when the parts that they left out suddenly become important.

What is Happening on the Margin

  • As a good example of this, Enloe talks about the people of Chiapas, a poor Mayan region in southern Mexico (she also takes a lot of excerpts from a book about these people called The Nine Guardians). These are exactly the kind of people that international relations usually ignores – poor, isolated, and far away from the major power centers. However, it is possible to connect what has been happening in Chiapas over the past century with the international political life of Mexico.
  • In the early 1900s, white landholding farmers held all of the power in Chiapas and kept the local Indians poor while taking all of their labor, land and resources for themselves. They kept this system going by subjugating women and the Mayan races. This system was the base on which “Mexico” (which really means Mexican Power Holders) was built, and Mexican leaders in the mid-1900s let the small landowners continue their exploitative ways in order to make the country stronger so that it could hold its international borders together.
  • It was only because of this stronger Mexican state, built on continuing gender and racial violence, that President Salinas was able to get the country to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.
  • Because international relations had been ignoring the margins, however, it didn’t look at Chiapas when NAFTA entered into force in 1994. And because it ignored what was going on in Chiapas, it had no warning when the Zapatista revolution – formed of the same marginalized people that were being oppressed by white small land-holders in the early 1900s – suddenly turned Mexico upside down. Anyone looking at the margins would have been aware of the fragility of the Mexican state – but international relations had no idea that the glue holding the country together was coming unstuck.
  • In conclusion, Enloe emphasizes that the people on the margins are not “silent” because they don’t matter, or because they don’t have anything to say. They are silent because they cannot be heard – because the people at the center aren’t listening, and the people at the margins don’t have the resources to make them listen. But scholars need to listen to these voices, and look at all of these various forms of power, otherwise their analysis is hopelessly incomplete.

Questions for discussion

  1. What do you think about Enloe’s point? Is it important to look at what is happening on the margins? Or do you think that it’s only important to look to the center?
  2. What kinds of things do you think we are ignoring today that we will regret not looking at in the future? Who is on the margins in our country? Women? Immigrants? How can we relate their experiences to international politics?
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