Christopher S. Browning, Pertti Joenniemi, and Brent J. Steele, Vicarious Identity in International Relations: Self, Security, and Status on the Global Stage – Oxford University Press, March 2021

Christopher S. Browning, Pertti Joenniemi, and Brent J. Steele, Vicarious Identity in International Relations: Self, Security, and Status on the Global Stage – Oxford University Press, March 2021

Vicarious identification, or “living through another” is a familiar social-psychological concept. Shaped by insecurity and a lack of self-fulfilment, it refers to the processes by which actors gain a sense of self-identity, purpose, and self-esteem through appropriating the achievements and experiences of others. As this book argues, it is also an under-appreciated and increasingly relevant strategy of international relations. 

According to this theory, states identify and establish special relationships with other nations (often in an aspirational way) in order to strengthen their sense of self, security, and status on the global stage. This identification is also central to the politics of citizenship and can be manipulated by states to justify their global ambitions. For example, why might the United States look at Israel as a model for its own foreign policies? What shaped the politics of Brexit and why is the United Kingdom so attached to its transatlantic “special relationship” with the United States? And, why did Denmark so enthusiastically ally with the United States during the global War on Terror? Vicarious identity, as the authors argue, is at the core of these international dynamics.

Vicarious Identity in International Relations examines the ways in which vicarious identity is relevant to global politics: across individuals; between citizens and states; and across states, regional communities, or civilizations. It looks at a range of cases (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Denmark), which illustrate that vicarious political identity is dynamic and emerges in different contexts, but particularly when nations face crisis, both internally and externally. In addition, the book outlines a qualitative methodology for analyzing vicarious identity at the collective level.

“This is a path-breaking work. Its focus on vicarious identity and identification takes the discussion on subjectivity and ontological (in)security in International Relations to new dimensions by offering a theoretically sophisticated and powerful reading of the relationship between vicarious identification and foreign policy strategies. In paying attention to the vicarious bonding of US-Israel, US-UK, and Denmark and the world, the authors insightfully address some of the most pressing issues of our times.” – Catarina Kinnvall, Professor of Political Science, Lund University

“Built on sophisticated engagement with a range of theoretical literature and a nuanced discussion of contemporary case studies, this important book introduces the IR community to the concept of vicarious identity. In the process, the authors manage the impressive achievement of shining a light on what is hidden in plain sight in contemporary IR, pointing to the relevance of dynamics of vicarious identity in making sense of foreign policy, interstate relations, and identity politics. A crucial book for any scholar of identity in IR, and an important book for any scholar of IR.” – Matt McDonald, Reader in International Relations, University of Queensland

Vicarious Identity in International Relations contends not only that a phenomenon common in everyday life is also prevalent in relations between states, but that it does some surprisingly significant work in global politics. Developing a sophisticated new approach for the study of vicarious identity at the state and international levels, Browning, Joenniemi, and Steele offer an erudite and accessible analysis of how ‘living through others’ matters in international relations. This fascinating study will no doubt ignite a fruitful and welcome new research agenda in IR.” – Ty Solomon, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Glasgow

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2 Responses to Christopher S. Browning, Pertti Joenniemi, and Brent J. Steele, Vicarious Identity in International Relations: Self, Security, and Status on the Global Stage – Oxford University Press, March 2021

  1. I. Rose says:

    Really, how far will academe go to enshrine identity? — from individual lives to geopolitics!
    All it has brought to the table is deep, bitter, divisiveness to benefit global technocratic 0.001% oligarchs.

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