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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The politics of the unknown : theorising exploration in international relations Sharp, Gregory Levi


State-sponsored exploration is often framed as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge to the benefit of all humanity. While this would seem to represent a unique way of intervening in global politics, a deeper examination reveals a host of often contradictory reasons why states explore. This dissertation offers an in-depth examination of what exploration is and why states do it. To this end, a discursive approach is brought to bear on two genealogical case studies: British exploration of the North American Arctic and American exploration of outer space. This dissertation begins by theorizing exploration as a bundle of interlinked narratives and practices focused on a space discursively framed as an unknown. From there it makes three overlapping contributions. The first expands on both the form and function of exploration in global politics. Specifically, it elaborates a set of five functions: exploration as a legitimacy building tool, a platform for cooperation, as a way to build support, a means of obfuscating capacity or intentions, and a way of signaling capacity and building prestige. The second is centered on the conditions under which practices and narratives change. It finds that existing practices and narratives are remarkably stable in uncertain conditions and that change is instead more likely as the result of success. The final contribution surrounds how we, as societies and individuals, approach and understand the unknown. It looks at the troubling stability of patterns of domination and argues that a radical relational approach is required to overcome this in future exploration. More broadly, this dissertation contributes by bringing the study of exploration to International Relations and by offering insights from the study of global politics to the existing work on the subject.

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