When I started doing international relations professionally, I subscribed to many beliefs I no longer hold. One such belief was the idea that states are the principal actors in international relations, and that as a consequence real IR scholars study what states are and what states do.
I won’t detail all of my disagreements with this proposition, not least because, as a working matter, most of my work still involves trying to figure out how particular states work and how particular states interact. But over the past seven years I’ve become increasingly interested in how individual people involve themselves in international relations.
Viewing the world from the individual-up instead of the state-down has a lot of interesting implications–not least the fact that one suddenly realizes that all of those people getting on airplanes, making goods for trade, and depicting other countries in fiction are doing a lot more international relations than professors clacking away in their offices.
Engaging in “the international” entails learning how one relates to others on the basis of categories that are assumed or irrelevant when one deals with others in “the domestic”. For expats, a category into which I once fell, performing the roles associated with national identity becomes rather more obvious. Much as I have been most conscious of my racial identity in contexts where I am a visible minority, so I am most aware of my national identity and all that entails when I am treated not as me but as an American.