International Relations is Not an American Discipline (Well, Maybe It Is, A Little)

Helen TurtonA guest post on the state of the discipline by Helen Louise Turton. Helen is a University Teacher in International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Sheffield. She received her PhD from Exeter in 2013 for a dissertation on ‘The Sociology of a Diverse Discipline’, and next year Routledge will publish her International Relations and American Dominance: A Diverse Discipline. She also has work on marginality and hegemony in IR forthcoming in the Journal of International Relations and Development (with Lucas Freire) and is beginning a larger project on ‘Rereading European IR Theory’ (with Knud Erik Jørgensen and Felix Rösch). Helen is also the co-convenor of the BISA Working Group on IR as a Social Science. If you wish to join the working group please follow the link.


Gary Hilliard

It has been said on more than one occasion that International Relations is an American dominated discipline, or that the US IR community is hegemonic. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that the disciplinary image of IR being dominated by the US has become a disciplinary truism, with many academics reproducing this characterisation time and time again. The TRIP survey that has just been sent to academics in 33 different countries even poses the question “Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement: The discipline of international relations is an American dominated discipline” to ascertain the degree to which IR scholars around the globe feel dominated by the US. Furthermore, other empirical surveys of the discipline have sought to demonstrate the seeming continued disciplinary dominance of the American academy, pointing to the different ways in which the US is able to exercise its disciplinary hegemony.

In my new book International Relations and American Dominance I challenge the claim that IR is an American dominated discipline because the underlying question is itself deeply problematic. Asking whether IR is dominated by the US presupposes a yes or no answer. We are therefore presented with an either or option which overlooks the possibility that the discipline may be dominated by the US in some ways but not in others. This then leads us to unpack what it means to be dominant. When scholars claim that IR is an American dominated discipline we first need to assess how they understand disciplinary dynamics and relationships of dominance. Are dominance claims being made because it is perceived that American methods populate the discipline? Or do certain American theories dominate global IR? Perhaps the US is stated to be dominant because it is American IR scholars who are in positions of power? Maybe scholars have argued that IR is dominated by the US because there are more American IR scholars than those from other national IR communities? Or does the discipline subscribe to an American agenda and American understanding of what ‘international relations’ is?

The reality is that all these grounds have been used to state that the US IR community is hegemonic. Academics have implicitly drawn on different understandings of dominance and explicitly drawn attention to the different implications of US dominance, but often this is done without first clarifying what is meant or implied by American disciplinary dominance. Often scholars are speaking about one form of dominance on one page of a text, and then refer to a different understanding on another page. What this means is that the word dominance when in the context of claims stating ‘IR is an American dominated discipline’ or ‘IR is no longer an American enterprise’ is used in many different ways, taking on many different forms and measured in numerous modes despite the fact that it is presented as ‘one size fits all’ form of dominance. What this means is that although certain scholars may agree that the US is dominant they may be talking at cross-purposes about how and why America dominates. Whilst there may be agreement in one sense, there will be different answers to the crucial questions of how and why America allegedly became and remains disciplinarily dominant.

Therefore depending on the perspective used one could arrive at a different answer to the question of ‘Is IR dominated by the US?’. As such it no longer makes sense to ask whether IR is or is not dominated by the US. Instead we need to be asking in what ways does the US dominate the discipline, if at all. We need to refine our disciplinary depictions in order to capture the different trends and inclinations in IR, instead of producing generalised claims about US disciplinary dominance that may over-exaggerate the extent to which the American IR community is preponderant.

Intrigued by the different ways in which the US could potentially dominate or not I sought in the book to empirically explore the discipline to see if the popular claims in the literature actually captured our current disciplinary trends. I began by examining the different ways in which the US has been claimed to dominate and found that five prominent (and by no means exhaustive) understandings of dominance had been employed in the literature. These were that dominance is the ability to (in no particular order); 1) set the intellectual agenda; 2) dominate the discipline theoretically; 3) produce a set of preponderant epistemological and methodological assumptions that guide and underpin the majority of IR research and scholarship; 4) command a dominant and overtly significant presence in the institutional structure; and 5) gate-keep the discipline’s borders, thereby managing the process of inclusion and exclusion into the international disciplinary realm.

Exploring each of these conceptualizations of dominance in turn this is what I discovered: The US is dominant theoretically as it produces the greatest volume of IR theory, however this is being slowly challenged, or rather becoming slightly less asymmetrical as different IR communities develop their own theoretical works and analytical frameworks. The US also has a greater number of IR scholars publishing in the discipline’s journals and participating at conferences when compared to other national IR academies, hence the US is institutionally dominant. For instance, out of the 38,478 scholars investigated for the study 17,171 were from American institutions, meaning that 44.62 percent of the academics investigated could be classed as ‘American’, if we define American as being from an American university.

DOTHLTGraph one

However, arguably this is due to sheer the size of US IR academy when compared to other national ones, and this finding is also not peculiar to IR. Many academic disciplines also experience a preponderance of US scholars, although there are suggestions that this is beginning to change in the disciplines of science and technology due to the decline of US global economic power. IR has also begun to recently see some shifts as other IR communities begin to amass prestige, attract students, produce their own graduates, and develop their own intellectual traditions. Meaning we could possibly see a future decrease in American institutional preponderance.

Whilst there was evidence of American dominance theoretically and institutionally, I found that the majority of IR scholars were publishing and presenting on many different issues, issues that went far beyond the scope of American foreign policy concerns. The ontological pluralism exhibited challenged the claims that the US dominates in this manner, for the focus of the discipline was not synonymous with the wants and needs of American foreign policy elites.

The discipline is also incredibly theoretically plural. Even though the US IR academy may produce the majority of theoretical works, texts, etc this has not translated into the ability of the US mainstream to construct a theoretical orthodoxy. Certain American theories (for instance neorealism and neoliberalism) that have been repeatedly stated to dominate and therefore by extension so does the US IR community were not found to be overly popular within the discipline. Instead academics were drawing on a wide range of different theoretical insights, with a large proportion drawing on ‘critical’ or ‘reflectivist’ theories.

DOTHLTGraph two

Moreover, the discipline of IR is not gate-kept by a group of rationalist American scholars. Instead the decisions regarding the inclusion or exclusion of research into the published realm of IR are decided by a heterogeneous group of international scholars. When questioned about their editorial interventions and gate-keeping practices the journal editors I interviewed stressed that articles were not excluded on substantive, theoretical or methodological grounds. Instead immediate decisions of acceptance or rejection were made based on whether a given article fit with the remit and mission statement of the journal and whether it met the required academic standards. Whilst both of these criteria are subjective and therefore can be used as grounds from which to reject non-rationalist or non-American scholarship the plurality (substantive, theoretical and methodological) found in the discipline’s journals explored (even the big name American ones) suggests that this might not be the case.

The editors interviewed also expressed that they felt they had a responsibility to the IR community to ensure that the discipline is as international as possible. Each editor interviewed stated that they were committed to guaranteeing that their journals were representative of the global IR community, in terms of not only broadening the geographical composition of editorial boards but also ensuring that published scholarship is ‘international’ in that it is produced by scholars from different national IR communities. This has resulted in editorial teams working closely with scholars whose first language is not English to make sure that language standards are met.

They also stressed that the inclusion/exclusion of research was not the result of a top-down process led by a dominating editor but rather the published content was the result of an a negotiated space between editors, reviewers, the target audience and the publishers which is conditioned by the increased influence of the journal impact factor and other indices and indicators. The editors interviewed sought to challenge perceptions of the politics of publication by stressing that reviewers have a large decision-making and article shaping capacity, and that decisions of acceptance are also shaped by what the target audience expects and meeting demands of publishers to keep rankings and subscriptions high. I believe that the myriad of influential actors involved in the publication process and the plurality of research found in the journals investigated work to challenge the claims that IR is an American dominated discipline due to the ability of certain American scholars to gate-keep the discipline.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the published scholarship explored was not dominated by rational choice methods. There was actually a comparatively small amount of rational choice or rationalist research published. Instead the discipline demonstrated its methodological pluralism with a clear qualitative emphasis. Using the quantitative/qualitative binary 77 percent of the researched investigated from 12 different international IR journals from 1999-2009 employed qualitative methodologies, leaving just 23 percent of research that was quantitative in orientation. This percentage clearly suggests that the US has not been able to construct a methodological orthodoxy and command adherence to its preferred methodological models. Whilst the American mainstream maybe advocating the use of certain methods, non-American and even American scholars alike are not listening and opting to employ a variety of different, largely qualitative methods, hence there is no American methodological dominance. Certain American journals such as International Organization, International Studies Quarterly and World Politics may have demonstrated a penchant for quantitative analysis of the sort advocated by rationalists, but other American journals and European, Asian and Australian publications did not, and instead their content which gravitated around interpretivist, historical analyses and case studies.

This brief snapshot of the discipline challenges many different ingrained self-images about IR. Not only that does it highlight that IR is both dominated by the US and isn’t, thereby disrupting many claims about the discipline, it also challenges a number of other self-images such as the perceived dominance of rational choice methods and neoliberal/neorealist research. This re-reading and reconceptualising of the discipline poses some interesting, if not difficult, questions for IR scholars. Through acknowledging that IR is not dominated by the US in a number of commonly assumed ways forces us to reassess the way we may position our work, how we perceive American and non-American scholarship, and the journals that we submit our articles to. We need to question whether the notions of American dominance are actually disciplining us? Are our assumptions about the discipline conditioning our behaviour? Are we actually limiting ourselves from sending work to certain journals because we assume that it will be rejected? Are we constructing the dominance of certain theories and giving them an authoritative voice because we presume they are dominant? Are we marginalising certain methods because we perceive them to be dominant? We need to rethink how we are characterising the discipline and begin to acknowledge the specific ways in which the US does dominate and challenge these. But we also need to celebrate the ways in which the US IR community is not hegemonic and explore the plural and growing international environment. Finally, we need to stop uncritically reproducing the image of American disciplinary dominance and question whether this narrative is actually limiting our scholarly encounters.

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4 thoughts on “International Relations is Not an American Discipline (Well, Maybe It Is, A Little)

  1. Who is this “we” you so merrily bandy about? What group identity are you positing?

    I’m not one of your “we” you so artfully invoke in the last paragraph. I’m not part of your problem(atique). I think about why people kill other people.

    Have you heard of tautologies? Here’s a good one: “Instead the discipline demonstrated its methodological pluralism with a clear qualitative emphasis”

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  2. There’s probably enough space in the discipline for more than one problematique, although I’m not immediately convinced that your study of why people kill other people is so above the methodological, conceptual and disciplinary questions that shape the work the rest of us do.

    And the sentence you cite isn’t a tautology (“methodological pluralism” is not synonymous with “qualitative emphasis”), so perhaps having heard of tautologies isn’t as useful as knowing what they are.

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  3. Technically, “instead the discipline demonstrated its methodological pluralism with a clear qualitative emphasis” is a non sequitur, because it is entirely possible to be “qualitative” without anything like methodological pluralism. And contra Helen, with whom I generally agree and whose work I think is really excellent, I would suggest that if one instead looks at methodological categories (not the methodologically meaningless categories “quantitative” and “qualitative”) one sees, in the world of Anglophone IR, a clear dominance of one methodology — neopositivism — and an institutional center of gravity for that dominance in the U.S. Theory and method vary, I agree. But methodology is, in Anglophone IR, pretty uniform. Unfortunately.

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