18:37, april 3, 2022
The Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City were a turning point for LGBTQIA+ policies not only in America, but worldwide. The short-term and long-term effects of these riots were felt throughout the international community and were impossible for positivist methodologies to predict. This essay will analyze the shortcomings of positivist approaches in international politics, focusing on the global effects of the 1969 Stonewall riots, and the subsequent failure of positivist methodologies in the international stage.
The Stonewall riots were a series of protests in the streets of New York, taking a stance against a violent altercation between police and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, on an early morning on Saturday, June 28, 1969. The inciting altercation occurred outside of a gay bar in Lower Manhattan, named the Stonewall in. A group of policemen entered the bar on a warrant to search for illegal alcohol sales. Finding what their warrant was after, they then arrested a total of thirteen people. Among these people were employees, and, in accordance with New York's criminal statute at the time, anyone who was not wearing at least three pieces of 'gender-appropriate' clothing. As word got out about the incident, an angry crowd began to form on the street outside of the entrance to the bar. When the police finally did emerge, patrons and employees in custody, the crowd outside reached a breaking point. Increasingly upset with the treatment from the police, a riot broke out, with onlookers throwing stones, bricks, bottles, and other objects at police and at the bar. Over the next few hours, the police would call in other precincts to help restrain the crowd. However, they would be unsuccessful. The following Saturday and Sunday, thousands took to the streets to continue the protests. Though the situation had calmed down on Monday and Tuesday, the most major protests took place on Wednesday. The protests finally came to a head on Thursday, July 3, but by that time, the momentum had begun for LGBTQIA+ activists, not only in New York, but throughout North America, and, eventually, the world (Stein, 2019). These events are motivated by people's emotions, a culmination of fed up individuals, offensive and irrational police tactics, and reactive bystanders. Thus, they are something positivism could not have predicted.
After the incidents in New York, news of the protests spread slowly but surely throughout international communities. Activists in the Philippines and Brazil caught word of the incident, inspiring them to protest the unfairness that they saw mirrored in their own communities (Silva & Jacobo, 2020). Similarly, activists and allies throughout Denmark and the Netherlands started their own series of protests and demonstrations, citing both the Stonewall riots and Anita Bryant’s outspoken anti-gay positions as the inspiration for these events (Shield, 2020, 199). Though it took some time for the international movement to really take off, in 1977, the first annual late-June demonstration in the Netherlands took place, copied from the Christopher Street Day Parade. Initially known as the ‘International Gay Liberation and Solidarity Day’, it later came to be known as ‘Pink Saturdays’. However, it continued to employ the theme of international solidarity, drawing attention to not only local issues faced by LGBTQIA+ community members, but also challenges faced by community members across the globe (Hekma, 2002, 84). These events continuously cited Stonewall as the inspiration and stepping stone for their actions (Shield, 2020, 199). Pink Saturdays continued to circulate around the Netherlands, not just staying rooted to the populous and vibrant city of Amsterdam, but taking place in several other provinces across the country, further spreading the influence of the events at Stonewall. The lasting legacy can be seen in the recurrence of Pride celebrations at the end of June, not only in America, but around the world.. In Canada, for example, pride month is recognized throughout all of June, informally celebrated by people all across the country. In 1994, the first gay pride march was held in the Philippines, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots (Tan, 2001, 126). In Australia, the first Sydney Gay Mardi Gras was held on the 24 June 1978, as a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, as well as an opportunity to express pride in homosexuality (Markwell & Waitt, 2009, 152). A plethora of evidence proves to us that it is undeniable that the Stonewall riots have influenced and inspired pride demonstrations and celebrations around the world. Though current celebrations have parted from the initial source of the Stonewall riots, they are still undoubtedly rooted in the events of that week in 1969.
In the context of international relations, positivism is a methodology which involves approaching the subject strictly as a science. There is an emphasis placed on quantitative results over qualitative. Founders of the positivist school of thought, such as Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim, emphasized the value of the natural over the supernatural, and worked to convince researchers to focus on finding laws that could be applied universally to sociological situations, regardless of time, place, or influence. However, despite his stress on the value of empirical datasets, Comte did say ‘mathematical analysis itself may betray us into substituting signs for ideas, and that it conceals inanity of conception under an imposing verbiage’ (Compte, 1853, 108). Using mathematical analysis in solitude restricts researchers to a very limited scope of view. A quantitative dataset, removed from its initial context, is meaningless in the scope of a social science. Positivism’s claim to certainty is based on certainty in numbers and statistics, but it says nothing about the certainty of human behaviour. Social structures and behaviours are not removable from the individuals, activities, and institutions that form them. They reflect the views, morals, and opinions of the actors that shape them, and can change with time. Positivism’s goal of finding laws that can universally apply to situations, regardless of outside factors, is dismantled by the fact that social structures are fundamentally shaped by the actors that they affect, and will change depending on the individuals or states involved, timeframe, and location. Positivism’s claim of truth relies on the false assumption that truth has only one facet to it, quantitative and based on concrete objects. In fact, the concept of ‘truth’ is multifaceted. No agent in the anarchic stage of international relations can separate itself from what it shapes, and what shapes it. In a social setting, truth has unseen and abstract aspects, such as emotions, values, and morals of the actors. Positivism assumes that states will act rationally and in their best interests, but this is directly disproven by the irrational actions of the protestors at Stonewall. They did not act as rational actors, in their own best interests, instead sacrificing their own safety to defend their values and morals. Humans are not robotic actors, and they make the choice to act selflessly and irrationally. Subsequently, states and institutions are fundamentally made up of human actors with irrational thoughts and beliefs that often directly contradict what positivism would see as a rational decision.
Another issue that positivism fails to recognize is the flexibility of datasets. Though all of the information in a dataset may be fully true, if it is separated from its original context, individuals are free to project a context onto the dataset that warps the information to fit their worldview or goals. Similarly, statistical datasets can be cherry-picked for information. By selectively omitting or stressing points within a set of data, one can modify the context that the dataset is trying to express. Void of its original context, datasets can be used and misrepresented freely under the positivist approach. Alongside this issue, positivism does not tell researchers how to approach these datasets. It simply stresses that the world must be viewed in a purely concrete and empirical sense. However, once these statistics have been collected, positivism does not provide a method with which to analyze this data. The trends and graphs that positivism supplies, once again, can not predict the unpredictability and spontaneity of human emotion and choice. Humans are fallible and influenced by irrational concepts, like their emotions, passions, values, and dislikes. States, in turn, are run and affected by these fallible humans and their irrational choices. By failing to acknowledge the flexibility of humans and the effects that they have on states and international actors, positivism fails to accurately predict or analyze the contemporary landscape of international politics.
Post-positivist thinkers such as Morgenthau and Bull rejected positivist views for these reasons. They viewed international relations as requiring conceptual and interpretive judgements. They valued viewing concepts as they existed and interacted with actors, instead of focusing wholly on the numbers and statistics that concepts presented. Under a positivist view, the events at Stonewall should have never had the global effect that they did. Empirical data could not extrapolate that nine police officers, 13 arrested individuals, and an initial crowd of roughly 300 would expand into global movements still celebrated worldwide to this day.
The largest pitfall of positivism in the contemporary stage of international relations is the inability to predict the choices and influences of human emotion. The interpretation of purely numbers has little bearing on today’s landscape of individual driven politics and political movements, and post-positivist positions such as Hedley Bull’s positions in the English School of thought are far more apt approaches for an ever-changing landscape.
Compte, A. (1853). The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (H. Martineau, Ed.; Vol. 2). John Chapman.
Hekma, G. (2002). Amsterdam. In D. Higgs (Ed.), Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600 (pp. 61-88). Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203028742
Markwell, K., & Waitt, G. (2009, April 29). Festivals, space and sexuality: Gay Pride in Australia. Tourism Geographies, 11(2), 143-168. 10.1080/14616680902827092
Shield, A. D. (2020, January 18). The legacies of the stonewall riots in Denmark and the Netherlands. History Workshop Journal, 89, 193-206. 10.1093/hwj/dbz051
Silva, M. R., & Jacobo, J. (2020). Global South Perspectives on Stonewall after 50 years, part I—South by South, Trans for Trans. Contexto Internacional, 42(3), 665-683. 10.1590/s0102-8529.2019420300007
Stein, M. (Ed.). (2019). The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. New York University Press.
Tan, M. L. (2001, May 21). Journal of Homosexuality, 40(3-4), 117-142. https://doi.org/10.1300/J082v40n03_07