Ambiguity, Uncertainty, and Risk: Rethinking Indeterminacy1


  • 1

    An earlier version of this article was presented at British International Studies Association conference in Cork, Ireland, December 2006.


In this paper, I argue that critical international theory could benefit from a broader and deeper conception of the limits of knowledge—that what is needed is more attention to the role of ambiguity in contemporary politics. While not challenging the usefulness of the more prevalent concepts of uncertainty and risk used by scholars applying the frameworks of global governmentality and world risk society, this essay proposes that we understand risk and uncertainty as two specific categories of indeterminacy that have come to preoccupy contemporary neoliberal thinkers and policy-makers, and hence their critics, but which nonetheless tend to downplay the interpretive dimensions of the limits of knowledge. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, as well as the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, I develop an analysis of the role of ambiguity in global governance—as an object of global governance, a tool to be exploited by it, and a limit to its operation. Concluding with the case of international financial governance, this essay suggests that not only will a focus on ambiguity shed light on the historical evolution of global finance, but it also provides us with some clues to the sources of the current subprime financial crisis.