The Power of Words in International Relations

From Politics, Science, and the Environment

The Power of Words in International Relations

Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse

By Charlotte Epstein

The role of discursive power in shaping international relations analyzed through the lens of whaling politics.





The role of discursive power in shaping international relations analyzed through the lens of whaling politics.

In the second half of the twentieth century, worldwide attitudes toward whaling shifted from widespread acceptance to moral censure. Why? Whaling, once as important to the global economy as oil is now, had long been uneconomical. Major species were long known to be endangered. Yet nations had continued to support whaling.

In The Power of Words in International Relations, Charlotte Epstein argues that the change was brought about not by changing material interests but by a powerful anti-whaling discourse that successfully recast whales as extraordinary and intelligent endangered mammals that needed to be saved. Epstein views whaling both as an object of analysis in its own right and as a lens for examining discursive power, and how language, materiality, and action interact to shape international relations. By focusing on discourse, she develops an approach to the study of agency and the construction of interests that brings non-state actors and individuals into the analysis of international politics. Epstein analyzes the “society of whaling states” as a set of historical practices where the dominant discourse of the day legitimated the killing of whales rather than their protection. She then looks at this whaling world's mirror image: the rise from the political margins of an anti-whaling discourse, which orchestrated one of the first successful global environmental campaigns, in which saving the whales ultimately became shorthand for saving the planet.

Finally, she considers the continued dominance of a now taken-for-granted anti-whaling discourse, including its creation of identity categories that align with and sustain the existing international political order. Epstein's synthesis of discourse, power, and identity politics brings the fields of international relations theory and global environmental politics into a fruitful dialogue that benefits both.


$65.00 X ISBN: 9780262050920 352 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 4 figures


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262550697 352 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 4 figures


  • According to mainstream international relations theory, states are not supposed to handle whaling the way they do. Epstein demonstrates how the discursive framing of the issue cannot be fully accounted for in terms of material interests and state-system characteristics. Drawing on the literature on identity and social movements, Epstein deftly demonstrates how social power is changing the face of global politics.

    Iver B. Neumann

    Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

  • The Power of Words offers a lively and insightful exploration of discursive politics, interweaving nuanced theoretical analysis with a rich historical narrative. It turns out that behind the popular slogan, 'Save the Whales!' and the decades of political maneuvering both for and against it, lies a fascinating story about the co-construction of discursive and material practices. Charlotte Epstein has given us an outstanding case study about making meaning at the intersection of science, politics, economics, and ethics. This book should find a wide audience in international relations, environmental studies and the social studies of science.

    Karen Litfin

    Department of Political Science, University of Washington


  • Runner-up, 2009 Harold and Margaret Sprout Award given by the International Studies Association.