What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

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What We Talked About At ISA2015: A Debate Around John Hobson’s ‘The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics’

Below is the text of my intervention at a roundtable organized by Alina Sajed entitled ‘Race and International Relations—A Debate Around John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics‘. TDoT has hosted a symposium on the book: you can read an initial post by John, commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett, and a reply from John. I’ve tried not to cover the same ground.

While race and racism have recently become topics of increasing interest in the rather parochial world of IR scholarship, few books have ranged so widely across time and thinkers as John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. This is a monumental work of scholarship that accumulates a staggering amount of evidence, were further proof necessary, of the white supremacist and/or Eurocentric foundations of IR as a discipline (I use the ‘and/or’ advisedly, because much of the debate that the book has generated and some of my own critique focuses on the complex relationship between the formations that Hobson identifies as ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’, about which more in due course). So whatever my problems with the book, I want to endorse it as a deeply necessary intervention in the IR academy. Nonetheless, I find myself in sharp disagreement with some of its central claims in ways that have not been fully addressed in earlier discussions. I will focus here on two areas of disagreement: first, the book’s treatment of Marx, Lenin and Marxism in general; and second, its crucial distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’.

Why focus on a critique of Marxism as Eurocentric and/or imperialist? (Again the ‘and/or’ seems necessary because Hobson’s careful mapping of European thought finds conjunctions of racism and/or Eurocentrism with both imperialist and anti-imperialist sensibilities). Partly this comes out of my own intellectual investment in denying what I believe to be the false choice that is often presented between Marxism and postcolonialism. As such, I find myself troubled as much by Marxist work that repudiates postcolonialism as I am by the opposite tendency (which I think is at work in this book). But partly this also comes out of a sense that if Marxism were in fact as Eurocentric and/or imperialist as Hobson suggests, this would leave inexplicable its enormous appeal in the Third World both in the heyday and aftermath of the great decolonization and liberation movements that it informed. More prosaically, I think Hobson’s readings of Marx and Lenin are temporally truncated and therefore somewhat misleading.

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What We Talked About at ISA2015: State Transformation and the Rise of China

At this year’s ISA, Shahar Hameiri and I talked about our new research project on state transformation and rising powers, with specific reference to China. In a nutshell, we suggest that, like other states, those of so-called ‘rising powers’ are undergoing epochal transformations associated with transformations in the global political economy since the late 1970s, profoundly conditioning how they are ‘rising’.

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The Global Transformation: A Response

The final post in our forum on The Global Transformation, in which Barry Buzan and George Lawson respond to the points raised by Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson. The original post, summarising the book is available here. The book will also be discussed further at the ISA conference in New Orleans and a launch at LSE.

[Editor’s note: The authors are not responsible for the images in this post. But it’s Friday.]


Given the ‘excess’ of contemporary academic production, it is a rare treat to have colleagues engage seriously with your work. We therefore offer our heartfelt thanks to Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson for their close reading of our book and for their thoughtful critiques of it. We offer our equally heartfelt thanks to the editors of The Disorder of Things, particularly Meera Sabaratnam, for investing a considerable amount of time in organising and publishing these commentaries.

The interventions by Go, Mulich and Allinson raise two main issues: the first relates to our use of, and contribution to, theoretical debates, particularly those around imperialism, and uneven and combined development (UCD); the second concerns the relationship between history and theory, most notably our use of macro-historical frames such as ‘modernity’. We discuss these issues in turn.

On theory

Julian Go is right that The Global Transformation ‘expressly rejects any grand theoretical narratives or systems’. He is also right that we do not use ‘categories derived from a larger and more comprehensive theoretical system’. And, however tiresome it is to keep agreeing with your critics, Go is once more right in saying that our use of uneven and combined development is not meant to correct this shortcoming – as we discuss below, we use UCD as an analytical shorthand rather than as a theoretical schema containing a range of causal claims.

Why is this the case? The first reason is strategic. At the beginning of the project, we had several choices to make: whether to pitch the book primarily to an IR audience or whether to also take some swings at cognate disciplines; whether to get drawn into internal debates associated with particular theoretical schemas or seek out a position in-between, or perhaps above, the fray; how to balance big picture and fine-grained historical analysis, and more. In each of these instances we chose the easy option – easy not in the sense of being straightforward to do, but in the sense of ‘less is more’. For example, rather than spend much time on the shortcomings of disciplinary historical sociology when it comes to its ‘occlusion of the global’, we concentrated on what historical sociology (and economic and world history) contributes to IR debates. Given that the answer to this was ‘quite a lot’, we made this our primary concern. Similarly, rather than distract ourselves – and readers – with the minutiae of debates internal to the whys and wherefores of ‘the global transformation’, we constructed a composite argument that assembled diverse storylines into a single narrative. To be clear – we are not saying that we neither built on, nor took a stand on, many of these debates, not least around the ‘internalism’ and Eurocentrism of many existing accounts. Rather, we made a deliberate decision to take an ecumenical approach, building on insights from a variety of theoretical churches rather than sticking to a single tradition.

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When Ernest Met Leon

This is the fourth post in our forum on Buzan and Lawson’s The Global Transformation, from our own Jamie. The opening post, responses from Julian Go and Jeppe Mulich, and the authors’ rejoinder are all live.


Imagine that you are a collier in one of the mining districts of central Scotland in 1799. You spend your days hewing minerals from the earth, as your predecessor of one century before almost certainly did. You eat a similar, limited, diet and probably return from darkened pit to tallow-lit cottage on the same route and to the same few possessions as that of one hundred years previously. Perhaps most important, as vast proportions -possibly a majority – of the rest of humanity had been and remained at the time of your birth, you are not a legally or politically autonomous individual. You are a serf of sorts: your labour if not your entire body bound to the will of another. Should you attempt to flee this master, and were not returned to him within a year and a day, any person found to be harbouring you would be liable to pay one hundred pounds compensation for your person .

Compare now the grandson or great-grandson (for by this point, and unlike the case of 1799, daughters would not be working down the pit) of this collier in 1899. It is quite possible you or your forbears would have emigrated, as one-sixth of your European contemporaries did, to lands such as Canada and Australia cleansed of their aboriginal inhabitants to enable you to flourish. Where once you were the property of a mine-lord, you are now the citizen-subject of the world’s most powerful Empress: a ‘psychological wage’ available to you should you choose to take it. Your work remains back-breaking, but aided by machinery. Most of all, you are paid for it. This wage relationship creates not just a free individual but a potentially conscious collectivity. That collectivity, in which you may recognise yourself not just as miner, Briton or Scot but as a member of something called ‘the working class’, has its own flags, buildings, trade unions and – an entity unknown to your forbear of 1799 – political parties.

Has there ever been a century in which so much changed for so many? The wager of Barry Buzan and George Lawson in their magisterial book The Global Transformation is that – with the possible hazy exception of the early holocene transition to settled agriculture – there has not. In doing so, they are revising revisionism, with great consequences not just for historical sociology but for the discipline of IR.

The view of the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the French Revolution to the Russian as a ‘great divide’ in human history has fallen into disfavour, smacking as it can of the triumphal sense of European, male, bourgeois self that characterised the century in question. The institutions and social practices heralded as novel can usually be traced back to other times and places, and the picture of shocking change within a lifetime transformed into something less immediately perceptible. To the extent that there is a popular historical consciousness, in the UK at any rate, it thrives on finding the familiar in history: the ways in which the Edwardians, or Victorians, or Tudors or Plantanagets were ‘like us’. Buzan and Lawson’s reminder of the recent nature, and the strangeness, of the past is a lapidary one.

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Tea-plantation workers in Tsarist-era Georgia.

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Modernity Is Everything; Empires Are Everywhere

JMulich_squareJeppe Mulich brings us the third post in our forum on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. Jeppe is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History at New York University. He works on comparative empires, global history, and colonialism in world politics. His research on regionalism, law, and intercolonial networks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been published in the Journal of Global History and in the anthology The Uses of Space in Early Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

The authors’ original post, Julian’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now live.


Let me start off by stressing that The Global Transformation is a fantastic book. Buzan and Lawson manage to pack a host of information and analysis into a relatively short and very readable book, while at the same time keeping their fundamental argument sharp and coherent. It is one of those works that leave you wondering why it has not already been written, particularly in a discipline so intent on retelling the wrong stories over and over again.[1] It is also, incidentally, a book that strongly argues in favor of the relevance of my own field, something that any aspiring scholar should welcome with open arms. With this in mind, my comments and critiques in the following piece might come off as nitpicky, but if they do this is only because I agree with so very much of Buzan and Lawson’s core argument. I am not trying to offer a counterargument or even a corrective to their account, but rather a few friendly jabs and perhaps an opening for further research into and discussion of some of the wider themes and implications of this important book.

I will primarily provide comments on the book from the perspective of a historian, with the theoretical underpinnings which that classification implies. My comments are divided into three broad sections. The first section will deal with issues of thinking in time, in particular how to date the type of global shifts that Buzan and Lawson are interested it and, related to this, how to disentangle the historical forces of change and continuity. The second section will delve more into the specific substance of the global transformation – namely the notion of modernity and the potential problems and benefits of using this nebulous concept. The third section will focus more on a particular part of the puzzle of the nineteenth century – that of colonial configurations and the multitude of state-forms emerging at this time – and consider this phenomenon vis-à-vis Buzan and Lawson’s treatment of rational state-building.

Periodization and Eurocentric Narratives

BelleyWhile Hobsbawm (1962) introduced the idea of a long nineteenth century more than half a century ago, in the first of his three books covering the period from 1789 to 1914, the past decade and a half has witnessed a resurgence of interest among historians and historical sociologists. Unlike Hobsbawm’s work, which focused almost entirely on events and developments within Europe, many of these new accounts are in various ways attempting to grapple with the inherent Eurocentrism of earlier histories. Such projects are often accomplished by telling decidedly global stories of the nineteenth century, with the most widely read example being C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, joined in the past year by Jürgen Osterhammel’s 1000-page behemoth The Transformation of the World.[2]

What the works of Bayly, Osterhammel, and Buzan and Lawson have in common is their focus on the transformative nature of the nineteenth century, apparent with just a cursory glance at their titles. While these authors might be interested in a certain kind of big history, their work focuses on shifts, breaks, origins, and turning points – not on continuities and long trajectories. This is in many ways true for most academic history, which often ends up as an exhausting chase to find the origins of specific phenomena or practices or, when coupled with the peculiar obsession with modernity, an endless argument over when and where the first example of a truly modern state/revolution/economy/philosophy/society/ideology/science/war should be found. Increasingly relegated to the sidelines are the crotchety old contrarians who insist that nothing much ever changed anyhow.[3] Continue reading

Reading across the ‘Colour Line’: Texts, Traditions, and Academic Solidarity

ShowFullImageA guest post by Prof Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Warwick

Four incidents in the last week have caused me to check the calendar and confirm that I hadn’t accidentally time-travelled back a generation. Debates on which I had believed there to have been some (positive) movement over the last couple of decades seem to have made such little impact on many colleagues that it was as if the earlier debates had never happened. I outline the first three incidents briefly before going on to discuss the fourth in greater detail; I do so in order to reflect on their implications and consequences for academic work and engagement.

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bebop-2014-flyer-names-low-resA community statement was circulated by colleagues in Germany protesting against the development of an academic programme of Black Studies that did not include Black scholars or thinkers or engage with Black scholarship. It seems astonishing, in 2015, to have to rehearse the arguments, again, about why setting up a programme addressing the distinct experiences of a particular group of people and not including people – academics, activists, and others – who have had such experiences and have produced scholarship articulating that experience is problematic. Just so that people don’t misunderstand me here: I am NOT saying that only people with the experience can ever study or talk about such experiences. However, I am saying that to set up a programme for study without the participation of people whose experiences and writing are putatively central to it is problematic. There has been so much discussion on this topic that to repeat the mistakes of earlier times seems deliberately willful and it is this willfulness that requires to be addressed.

Since starting to write this piece, the director of the programme has disbanded it, apparently temporarily, in favour of an open debate about how to move forward in light of the criticisms being raised. Instead of disbanding, why not restructure on the basis of the criticisms and by taking them into account? They are not new.

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europeislamSecondly, the professional association that I consider to be my academic ‘home’ has advertised its forthcoming annual conference theme as ‘Fragmented Societies: Migrating Peoples’. As another colleague suggested, why not just call it ‘Migrating Peoples Fragmenting Societies’ and do away with the niceties and apparent distance created through the use of the colon. Thus far, there has been no response from the professional association to the suggestion that the wording of the conference theme be changed to avoid it sounding like a UKIP-sponsored conference.

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The third incident involves the setting up of expert panels at an international conference where all the experts chosen are from north America. There is not a single all-male panel; but all the panelists on all four panels are white. When concern about this was expressed on social media, one response was:

“Moronic tokenism, mk 2. Not satisfied with gender equality on panels at XXX? Rant about people’s skin colour instead”

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