Want to Deprovincialize Your Political Theory Syllabus a Little? What I Learned at APSA


American Political Science Association (APSA) annual conventions typically offer a rich selection of pre-conference short courses. This time I went to “Deparochializing Political Theory.” Sponsored by Steven Johnston and Michaele Ferguson and organized by Emily Beausoleil, this course offered two excellent sessions on how to enrich your political theory syllabus with ‘non-western’ content. Loubna El-Amin spoke about Chinese political thought, and Michaelle Browers on Arab and Islamic political thought. These are my course notes from last week, in a Q&A form. My gratitude goes to Michaelle and Loubna for letting me copy/paste from their course materials.

Why comparative theory? Here is a passage from Michaelle’s letter to her students in POL 269 Arab & Islamic Political Thought:

One of my former professors, Dante Germino, described political theory as a “conversation of many voices.” Where Germino understands that conversation as one “between different orientations toward political reality as a whole” and “between past, present and future generations.” Sheldon Wolin similarly situates theory historically as involving the vocation centered on dialogical engagement with the “foreign”: “Theorist’ derives from the Greek theoros, which was the name for an emissary who traveled on behalf of his city to other cities or societies. A theoria, from which ‘theory’ was derived, meant ‘journey.’ Traveling is, of course, an encounter with differences.” In Wolin’s analysis, the task of the theorist is to study “foreign” customs, traditions, practices and, from that experience, to extract more general understandings of social and political life, which can then be used in either promoting or criticizing, justifying or amending practices within one’s “native” political community. In the contemporary context, “the Arab” and “the Muslim” often are constructed as the quintessential “other” to “the West.” As a result, one aspect of our engagement with Arab and Islamic political thought will involve deconstructing and complicating more popular notions of “the Arab or Muslim mind” as we gain greater depth and nuance in our understanding of the ideas and debates that animate that region.

The texts for her course, btw, are Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, plus primary texts discussed by Hourani, some of which can be found in translation in these anthologies & readers:

Margot Badran, ed., Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing (Indiana UP, 2004)

John J. Donohue and John L. Esposito, eds., Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives (Oxford UP, 2006)

Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, eds., Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton UP, 2009)

Arthur Hyman, James Walsh, and Thomas Williams, Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions (Hackett, 2010)

Salma Jayysi, ed., Human Rights in Arab Thought: A Reader (IB Tauris, 2008)

Charles Kurzman, ed., Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook (Oxford UP, 2002)

Charles Kurzman, ed., Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook (Oxford UP, 1998)

Jon McGinnis and David Reisman, eds., Classical Arabic Philosophy: An Anthology (Hackett, 2007)

Mansour Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, eds., Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam: A Reader (Palgrave 2002)

Joshua Parens and Joseph Macfarland, eds., Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Cornell UP, 2011)

How does this work in practice? Loubna workshoped reading comparative political thought with us using short excerpts from Plato’s Euthyphro, Confucius’ Analects, and the Mencius. The idea was to give us a hands-on sense of running a session in an undergraduate, intro class to comparative political thought. The excerpts dealt the themes of the conflict of obligations between filial duties and political duties—themes that central to innumerable discussions of the right character of political community. We were asked to draw comparisons between the Greek and Confucian methods of argumentation, central concepts, and political visions. Not having read any of these texts before, I lacked command of the historical context, but the exercise was broadly familiar. Many IR folks I know have worked with comparisons between Ibn Khaldun and Machiavelli or—I recall my very first IR class taught by Arthur Rubinoff—Kautilya and Thucydides. Purported goals of such exercises of course vary, but they generally serve to identify practical predicaments in political life, whether common or ‘uncommon.’ Also, the more one avoids lazy simplifications—their concerns were the same! Their concerns were completely different! etc.,—the better.

Isn’t this just mere tokenism? Yes, if by comparative political theory we mean adding one or two non-western thinkers to a syllabus dominated with the ‘classical’ political theory canon. But even so, Loubna argued, tokenism beats ignoring that which falls outside the canon.

Does it have to be comparative in the above sense? Nope. For example, Michaelle begins her class on Arab & Islamic Political Thought with Fred Dallmayr, “Beyond Monologue: For A Comparative Political Theory,” Perspectives on Politics 2:2 (2004), pp. 249-257. But then in Week 2, she assigns ‘complicating’ theories such those that insist on irreducible relationality of political thought. Here, Michaelle uses Ella Shohat’s work, as in Shohat, “The Sephardi-Moorish Atlantic: Between Orientalism and Occidentalism,” from Between the Middle East and the Americas (U Michigan Press, 2013) pp. 42-62 or Shohat, “Area Studies, Gender Studies, and the Cartographies of Knowledge.” Social Text 20: 3 (2002), pp. 67–78.

Perhaps even more complicating, I would add, would be theories of creolization. Jane Anna Gordon has written a series of articles—this year expanded into a book—on reading Rousseau’s theory of freedom through Fanon.  This points to yet another way of deprovincializing introductions to political theory.

What assessments methods work best?  As always, the correct answer is “it depends,” but I’ve got to tell you about the interesting things Michaelle does with her students in her POL269. First, there is one of those ‘agree/disagree’ essays where students are asked to assess the relative modernity of nineteenth century Islamic reformist thought.  Then there is something she calls a “jigsaw” writing assignment, the purpose of which is to get students to cover a great deal of material collaboratively. I haven’t seen anything like this before, and probably neither have you, so it’s worth another full-on copy/paste (with Michaelle’s kind permission):


A “jigsaw” reading has two primary, practical purposes: individually, it allows students to focus on a smaller amount of reading at much greater depth; and, collectively, it enables our class to cover more material in a shorter amount of time and greater depth. In addition, the jigsaw reading is intended to promote collaborative learning, generate multiple perspectives about the readings, and encourage students to take responsibility for sharing knowledge with others. Jigsaw groups and assigned readings are listed on the reverse.

To meet these goals your tasks are as follows:

Reading: You will also be responsible for closely reading the response to Sadik al-Azm you have been assigned. Students are also strongly encouraged to read—or at least skim over—the other selections in the book.

Meeting (recommended): You are strongly encouraged to meet outside of class with the other students assigned your jigsaw piece to discuss the reading and to devise strategies for 1) writing your interpretive summary and 2) presenting your jigsaw piece to the class (as a brief summary and in a discussion role-play) on 10/17.

Among the questions you might broach in your meeting are the following:

  • For the writing assignment you will hand in: How does the author you have been assigned respond to our assigned book, Self-Criticism after the Defeat? If you are assigned Azm himself, you should plan to take a retrospective view, as does the preface you have been assigned.
  • For the classroom discussion: How might you introduce your author to the class and how might you adopt your author’s approach, worldview, way of talking about the issues in a debate over the merits of Azm’s perspective and those of his respondents?

Writing: Summarize the central argument of your jigsaw assignment (see fuller instructions and assessment criteria on reverse). You may write your interpretive summary in groups or independently. For jointly written microthemes, the names of all authors should appear on the paper handed in, and that paper should reflect the work of all members of the group, who will be given a single grade for their collective work.

Fitting the Jigsaw Pieces Together in Class: On 10/17 you should come to class prepared to introduce your author (basic biographical information you deem helpful to understanding the author’s perspective), summarize the author’s response to Self-Criticism after the Defeat (in ❤ minutes) and to role-play your author in a broader class discussion over course topics.

Jigsaw Assignments

Fouad Ajami (pp. 7-14):

Sadiq al-Azm (pp. 15-20):

Faisal Darraj (pp. 21-28):

Elias Shakir (pp. 145-164):

Ghassan Kanafani (165-171):

Jamal al-Sharqawi (pp. 172-186):


This interpretive summary writing has two objectives. The first is to build reading comprehension skills by concisely summarizing the argument of a text. The second objective is to develop the ability to follow and give a compelling account of arguments that you find difficult and/or might not necessarily agree with. In effect, it is for you to “listen” to the authors whom you read and guard against the tendency to transpose claims that are unfamiliar or unacceptable to you into terms that you find more familiar or congenial but not in line with the author’s intentions.  It is for you to read closely enough to really understand the author’s perspective to render it in your own words without mis-rendering his or her main points.


Answer the following, in your own words:

How does the author you have been assigned respond to Sadik al-Azm’s argument?  Be sure to specify the main aspect(s) of Azm’s essay the author is responding to and to characterize this response (criticism, revision, restatement, rejection).

References to the text should be noted, with page numbers provided in parenthesis, but avoid use of long quotations. Writings must be typed, fit on one page, and not exceed 250 words.

Due: in class on 10/17.  Late jigsaw writings will be penalized one grade each day past deadline, beginning once class ends.

Grading Criteria

  1. strength of content: reasonable interpretation, well summarized in your own words, consistent with texts
  2. engagement with text: well documented with references to texts
  3. comprehensiveness and balance—i.e., discusses central points and omits secondary ones
  4. clear sentence structure with good transitions, follows usual rules of grammar and punctuation

UPDATE (Sept 3, 2014)

Loubna El Amine has kindly agreed to share her list of ‘Useful references for teaching Chinese political thought.’ Note that her list was not compiled in any systematic way. Thanks, Loubna!

 APSA Annual Meeting 2014, Short Course on Deparochializing Political Theory, August 27, 2014

Good translations of early Chinese texts into English

Confucius. Confucius: Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003.

Confucius. The Essential Analects: Selected Passages with Traditional Commentary. Translated by Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006. (This is an abridged

Confucius. The Analects. Translated by D. C. Lau. London: Penguin Books, 1979.

Han Feizi. Han Feizi: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Mencius. Mencius. Translated by D.C. Lau. London, Penguin Books, 1970.

Mencius. Mencius. Translated by Irene Bloom. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Mencius. Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Bryan Van Norden. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 2008.

Mencius. The Essential Mengzi: Selected Passages With Traditional Commentary. Translated by Bryan Van Norden. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2009. (This is an abridged edition)

Mozi. Mozi: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Sunzi. Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare. Translated by Roger Ames. Ballantine Books, 1993.

Xunzi. Xunzi. Translated by John Knoblock. Stanford: Stanford University Press, c. 1988-1994.

Xunzi. Xunzi: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Zhuangzi. Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters. Translated by A.C. Graham. Hackett Publishing, 2001.

Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Translated by Brook Ziporyn. Hackett, 2009.

Also see Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Hackett, 2003)
AND The Chinese Human Rights Reader, edited by Stehen Angle and Marina Svensson

Good reference books (albeit dated)

K.C. Hsiao, Frederick Mote (trans.), History of Chinese Political Thought (1979) (Very dated but a great reference)

Feng, Yu-lan; Derk Bodde (trans.), History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952)

Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (1985) (I really like this book)

W. T. de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition (1999) (Contains excerpts from the texts)

A.C.Graham, Disputers of the Tao (1989)

Chad Hansen; A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Useful websites

Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy entries on “Confucius,” “Mencius,” “Chinese Ethics,” “Xunzi,” and “Mohism”

Bryan Van Norden maintains a website: http://faculty.vassar.edu/brvannor/ that you might find useful. He has a link there to an article he wrote on adding Chinese philosophy to your introductory class.

http://warpweftandway.com/ is always up to date on the newest publications relating to Chinese philosophy broadly construed.

http://ctext.org is a great online database of Chinese texts, though many of them are not translated.

(Randomly) Selected books that I think you might be interested in

Angle, Stephen C.; Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Bell, Daniel; Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

Bol, Peter; This Culture of Ours: Intellectual Transformations in Tang and Sung China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992)

Brindley, Erica. Individualism in Early China (2010).

Chan, Alan and Sor-hoon Tan. Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History (2004).

Chan, Joseph. Confucian Perfectionism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

de Bary, Theodore and Tu Weiming, eds., Confucianism and Human Rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)

Cline, Erin. Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice (2013).

de Bary, W.T.; The Liberal Tradition in China (New York: Columbia University Press,1983)

Elman, Benjamin; From philosophy to philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Los Angeles: UCLA, 2nd Rev ed. 2001)

Hymes, Robert (ed.); Ordering the World: Approaches to State and Society in Sung China (1993)

Jenco, Leigh. Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jensen, Lionel M.; Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997)

Kim, Sungmoon. Confucian Democracy in East Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Levenson, Joseph; Confucian China and its Modern Fate: A Trilogy (University of California Press, 1969)

Lewis, Mark Edward. Writing and Authority in Early China. New York: SUNY Press, 1999.

Liu, Lydia; The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004)

Louie, Kam; Critiques of Confucius in Contemporary China (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980)

Metzger, Thomas. A Cloud Across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today. Beijng: Chinese University Press, 2006.

Pines, Yuri. Envisioning Eternal Empire : Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

Roetz, Heiner. Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age: A Reconstruction under the Aspect of the Breakthrough toward Postconventional Thinking. New York: SUNY Press, 1993.

Shun, Kwong-loi and David B.Wong, eds., Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Shun, Kwong-loi; Mencius and Early Chinese Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)

Stalnaker, Aaron. Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine (2009).

Tan, Sor-hoon. Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction. New York, SUNY Press, 2004.

Tu, Wei-ming; Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation (New York: SUNY Press, 1985)

Yu, Jiyuan; The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue (New York: Routledge, 2007)

If you’re going to read only one book on early Chinese thought, read

Fingarette, Herbert; Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1972)


7 thoughts on “Want to Deprovincialize Your Political Theory Syllabus a Little? What I Learned at APSA

  1. Srdjan, this is awesome! thank you for sharing and and thanks to michaelle (for letting you share). LOVE the jigsaw idea!!!

    I just want to note that it seems that non-western thought is coming into IR and pol theory more and more, but unsuprisingly, it follows western predilictions with guns and dollars – i.e. “arab” or “muslim” thought and chinese thought. that is in no way to say that chinese thought etc are not worthy to critically study and are not extremely edifying. But sometimes i get depressed that the introduction of these universes are by and large on the terms of imperial concerns. what are the people iwth bombs thinking? what are the people with credit thinking? etc. i also note that in the western academy, African thought is still a non-sequitur as is indigenous thought.

    I love the idea of that pre-conference course. we should definitely do more of this at ISA, eh? x


  2. Yes, thanks for sharing. It is very important to rethink how students are formed to think about the theoretical knowledge that underpins many of the institutions that govern us and how people all over the world across space and time continually theorise this and that this is not something that attaches to a particular canon or conversation. Rather sources are diverse and this comes through really nicely in this post. Also thanks for the fantastic list of sources!


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