In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychoanalysis in Global Politics and International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Questions of Ontology and Knowledge Production in IR
  • Sovereignty, State and Geopolitics
  • Political Subjectivity
  • Security, Foreign Policy, and War(fare)
  • Law and Affect
  • Nationalism, Populism, and Racism
  • Race and Postcolonial Thought
  • Aid, Development, and Global Political Economy
  • Trauma and Memory
  • Radical Politics and Cultural Criticism

International Relations Psychoanalysis in Global Politics and International Relations
Andreja Zevnik, Moran Mandelbaum
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0300


Critical and poststructural theories were introduced to global politics in early to mid-1990s. Since then there has been a proliferation of critical thinking in global politics with Derridean and Foucauldian approaches being the most popular. While psychoanalysis made its appearance and gained in popularity alongside other critical approaches to international politics in mid-1995, it has never become one of the “go to” theories. However, since 2010 psychoanalysis has been slowly reemerging on the global politics scene. If initially psychoanalytic approaches focused on a number of different theorists such as Castoriadis, Jung, Freud, and Lacan, the most recent thinking draws most significantly on the contribution of Lacanian psychoanalysis and thinkers such as Žižek, Butler, or Kristeva, all of whom heavily rely on Lacan. In postcolonial studies a distinct psychoanalytic account was also developed by Frantz Fanon. This contribution provides an overview of psychoanalytic approaches in the study of global politics with a focus on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and its derivatives (Žižek, Fanon, Butler, and Kristeva). The reason for the selected focus is simple—this has been the most popular approach since the introduction of this thinking to the discipline. Lacanian theory revolves around concepts such as desire, jouissance (radical/excess enjoyment), fantasy, and drive, and is concerned with explaining the social bond—that is how the subject comes to existence and what social factors determine the subject’s existence in society. Its distinct contribution to the field of global politics is its focus on conscious and unconscious factors. In other words, it focuses on that which can be represented and that which remains unrepresented but still impacts the world. Affects, symptoms, or unconscious material impact the way the subject (and society) behaves. While the theory’s foundations are in psychiatry (and many critiques of psychoanalysis point that out vehemently), psychoanalysis is not a theory of the individual and neither is it concerned with the individual psyche. It is a theory of society; Lacan even characterized it as antiphilosophy. Psychoanalysis has appeared in a number of different contexts in global politics. The presented selection is not exhaustive though the aim was to include the most significant contributions the theory has made to the discipline’s different subfields. Key areas include the state, sovereignty, ontology, Political Subjectivity, law and foreign policy; and subdisciplines such as postcolonialism (the theories of Frantz Fanon), racism, affect, Radical Politics and Cultural Criticism, and development and aid, as well as trauma, populism and nationalism.

General Overview

The works selected here offer either a general overview of Lacanian psychoanalysis or contextualize it in relation to other thinkers and ideas more commonly discussed in international politics. With the exception of Edkins and Vaughan-Williams 2009 the selected works are not classic textbooks but research-led collections or monographs which are written in an accessible way. Edkins 1999 makes two key contributions: The book rethinks the subject of international politics in psychoanalytic way and it outlines how the subject is embedded in social reality. Edkins and Vaughan-Williams 2009 gives a textbook-style introduction to the main critical thinkers in international politics; this includes some of the key figures in psychoanalysis, such as Žižek, Freud, and Butler. Glynos and Howarth 2007 is a classic example of the Essex school of psychoanalysis. It is particularly useful for understanding how psychoanalytic theory can be used in political research. Jabri 2011 offers an in-depth engagement with its postcolonial subject and gives an overview which includes psychoanalytical work inspired by thinkers such as Fanon and Said. The edited volume Kapoor 2018 focuses on the unconscious to discuss political phenomena. This is an excellent example of how psychoanalysis can be used across a number of different political issues. Prozorov 2014 introduces another interrogation of political subjectivity in international politics. Drawing on critical theory—including psychoanalysis—it aims to rethink the foundations of political subjectivity in international politics. Stavrakakis 2002 is a classic introductory text to Lacanian theory for students of social sciences and humanities. It introduces key concepts of psychoanalysis and shows how they might be used in political analysis. Stavrakakis 2007 builds on Stavrakakis 2002 in offering an in-depth analysis of power, authority, and identity in contemporary politics. Tomšič and Zevnik 2015 is a collection aimed at students with some initial knowledge of psychoanalysis. The book introduces key concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis before showcasing their usefulness in political analysis. These books all present a good starting point for anyone interested in psychoanalysis in global politics, and are also appropriate for undergraduate and graduate teaching.

  • Edkins, Jenny. Poststructuralism & International Relations: Bringing the Political Back In. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.

    This is a great introductory book for the use of psychoanalysis in global politics. It locates psychoanalytic accounts in relation to other critical thinkers, demonstrates how central psychoanalysis is to other critical thinking, and in a very accessible way outlines foundations of psychoanalytic thinking for humanities and social sciences.

  • Edkins, Jenny, and Nick Vaughan-Williams, ed. Critical Theorists and International Relations. London: Routledge, 2009.

    This is a classic textbook-style introduction to critical thinkers used in international politics. The book includes chapters on thinkers that inspire psychoanalytic thinking in international relations, such as Fanon, Freud, Butler and Žižek.

  • Glynos, Jason, and David Howarth. Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory. London: Routledge, 2007.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203934753

    Drawing upon hermeneutics, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and postanalytical philosophy, this book proposes a novel approach to practicing social and political analysis based on the role of logics. This is an essential contribution for those who wish to use psychoanalytic thinking in political analysis. This is also an exemplary work of the so-called “Essex School.”

  • Jabri, Vivienne. The Postcolonial Subject: Claiming Politics/Governing Others In Late Modernity. London: Routledge, 2011.

    This book places a lens on postcolonial agency and resistance in a social context that has witnessed great transformations in international politics. While drawing on a number of theories, psychoanalytically inspired work by Fanon, Said and others is essential to it. The book offers a great introduction to the understanding of psychoanalysis in the emergence of a postcolonial subject.

  • Kapoor, Ilan, ed. Psychoanalysis and the Global. London: University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

    In this edited volume the contributors use psychoanalysis to expose the unconscious desires, excesses, and antagonisms that accompany the world of economic flows, cultural circulation, and sociopolitical change. The psychoanalytic lens highlights the unconscious circuits of enjoyment, racism, and anxiety that trouble globalization’s economic, cultural, and environmental goals or gains. This is a great introduction to psychoanalytically informed analysis of global politics.

  • Prozorov, Sergei. Theory of the Politics Subject: Void Universalism 2. London: Routledge, 2014.

    This contribution offers a great overview of how political subjectivity is understood in critical international politics. It contextualizes Lacan’s account of the subject and puts it in discussions with accounts presented by other critical thinkers. A great way to begin to understand the significance of psychoanalysis for the study of subjectivity in international politics.

  • Stavrakakis, Yannis. Lacan and the Political. London: Routledge, 2002.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203006160

    This is a classic go-to text for those wishing to learn the basics of Lacanian theory, written with politics students in mind. Introduces key concepts and highlights their political significance.

  • Stavrakakis, Yannis. The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748619801.001.0001

    This very accessible contribution puts forward innovative analyses of political power and authority, nationalism, European identity, consumerism and advertising culture, de-democratization, and postdemocracy.

  • Tomšič, Samo, and Andreja Zevnik, eds. Jacques Lacan: Between Psychoanalysis and Politics. London: Routledge, 2015.

    This is an edited volume which aims to offer an introduction to Lacanian theory for students of international politics. Drawing on the key ideas in Lacanian theory and selected political topics it explains key Lacanian concepts as well as demonstrating their use in political environment.

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