What’s In A Name?

A guest post from Knud Erik Jørgensen. Knud Erik is Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University and the author of many works on European foreign policy, the European Union and European IR theory. He is also former Chair of the ECPR Standing Group on International Relations (2010-2013) and current President of the Governing Council of the European International Studies Association (EISA). This is the first in a short series on naming, representation and power in the discipline of IR.

In a Duck of Minerva blogpost about the 9th Pan-European Conference on International Relations, Cai Wilkinson got most things wrong and three things right. Regarding the latter, the conference and section chairs did indeed manage to produce the probably most diverse programme in the world and they have rightly been highly praised for this accomplishment. I can therefore imagine it took Saara Särmä, the Tumblr artist/activist and admirer of David Hasselhoff a really long search to find something to admonish but then, finally, in a moment of triumph, she spotted 18 of the 32 meeting rooms. Second, greater diversity in organisational structures does not necessarily result in a different politics. This is probably correct but does not demonstrate much insight into policy-making processes within associations or address the issue why one would expect that greater diversity in governance structures would produce a politics that is favoured by Wilkinson. Third, diversity does not just exist along a single axis and the naming of rooms in Sicily illustrates neatly how multiple axes of diversity produce numerous encounters and compete for attention and space.


Wilkinson got most things wrong and therefore claims injury and insult. The rooms in question were not renamed but named. If Wilkinson had asked the organizing committee or for that matter attended the conference she could have learned that 18 converted guest rooms had numbers but got names. Room 5115 became Zimmern and room 5114 became Wolfers, etc. During the conference some panel rooms were unofficially renamed.

This brave act, on Twitter presented as ‘resistance’, to introduce the theorist of revolutions and imperialism, Rosa Luxemburg, as an IR scholar disqualifies itself yet raises an important question about the relationship between theorizing by academics and by key intellectuals within social movements. Luxemburg was shot dead in January 1919 about five months before the Versailles Peace Treaty was concluded (often regarded a foundational moment for the IR discipline), thus loading ‘1919’ with dual symbolic significance.

Wolfers EISA

Wilkinson and Särmä do not comment on the 14 rooms with non-IR names, given by the conference hotels, for instance Calipso, Circe and Pythagora. Wilkinson and Särmä do not like the 18 IR names and, seemingly, it is not because the names represent scholarship that somehow is problematic but simply because they seemingly assume that the naming exercise should be read as a tribute to prominent IR scholars at all times and from all continents. They assume wrong.

Wilkinson claims the 18 names represent eminent theorists of European origin and that this is far from unproblematic? Well, define Europe, origin and problematic! Hedley Bull’s origin was Australia and Charles Manning was of South African origin, yet both contributed to the development of the discipline in Europe. Others were of European origin yet had, due to the rise of nazism and fascism, to get out of Central Europe and some settled in the United States where they played a significant role in getting the discipline on track. The choice of a Gramsci room for a conference with a major contribution by neo-Gramscian scholars appears to be uncontroversial. The wider issues are, i) if every single aspect of a contemporary IR conference needs to reflect multiple axes of diversity and an exclusively global context, ii) how we can navigate between unfounded universalism and a self-contained ethnocentrism without cherishing vague hybridity.

Wilkinson believes this is one of those excruciatingly exasperating facepalm moments that with a little thought could have been avoided. Avoided? The naming exercise was simply an employment of Saara Särmä’s junk feminism technique (see her “Junk Feminism and Nuclear Wannabes – Collaging Parodies of Iran and North Korea”). And it worked! Especially in terms of promoting disciplinary diversity, even without Särmä’s endless promotion of David Hasselhoff from Baywatch. Let me explain how.

The naming of rooms was linked to the theme of section 43, “For decades, International Relations (IR) was perceived to be an American discipline. Since Stanley Hoffmann’s famous article, many scholars have employed the notion of American hegemony in their meta-studies of the discipline, and enthusiastically discussed how this intellectual monopoly could be challenged.” Given that contemporary IR scholars in Europe are largely unaware of the traditions of international thought they/we represent, the naming of rooms was meant to draw attention to those guys who one way or another made a contribution to the early development of the discipline in Europe (hence they are all deceased). The first axis of diversity is, thus, temporal and the past is given priority over the present; the second axis of diversity is geographical and the focus is on Europe, i.e. a focus that is fairly rare in examinations of the discipline’s trajectories. Know yourself and conversations with the global community of IR scholars might improve.

The first suggestions of alternative names that popped up on Twitter included Jean Bethke Elshtain, Kathryn Sikkink, Cynthia Enloe and Ann Tickner. Prominent scholars, sure, but hardly prominent in the early development of the discipline in Europe. It is indeed deeply ironic to see Wilkinson’s plea for diversity accompanied by pleas to reproduce American hegemony, cf. the suggestions to name rooms after contemporary, white, middleclass, American scholars. There might also be a second selection bias playing a role. At least I note that for instance Janice Gross Stein, Helen Milner, Adda B. Bozeman or Coral Bell were not first choices. A room could indeed have been named Strange, yet Susan’s ISA presidential address in 1996 did not exactly make her popular among IR feminists so if one insists on reading insult into a name this would have been an exceptional good opportunity.

Among the few comments only one, ‘General_Chaos’, bothered asking the following, “I am just curious who would be on your list for inclusion”. A ‘Kerstin’ suggested Arendt (“who wrote something on power and violence” to which ‘General_Chaos’ responded, “Nothing but respect for Arendt…a stellar figure. Just not an IR scholar.” It seems to me we here encounter the highly delicate axis between diversity and discipline but perhaps also a possible way forward. Because the challenge remains intact: Which 49 guys (male/female) did one way or another make a significant contribution to the early development of the discipline in Europe? As I am involved in preparing several books related to the topic, this is an open invitation.

Among the candidates I have already mentioned Susan Strange, not least for her intervention in 1970 to (re-)install IPE as a major field within International Studies and subsequently cultivate the field as well as her role in creating the professional association BISA, deliberately designed to be a means to reduce the power of the old boys’ network in Britain. May I also nominate Bertha von Suttner? After all, she was the first female Nobel Peace Prize Winner and author of numerous books on peace and war but then, I have been advised that she, being white and an aristocrat, is problematic along race and class dimensions. It is truly getting increasingly complicated to satisfy all axes of diversity. However, given their role in the early development of the IR discipline in Europe, the other prominent female IR scholars would be?? Should representation in the 1920s and 1930s be 50/50 or would that be an example of presentism one step too far?

The name game does not stop with the issue of inclusion and exclusion of names but extends into the issue of naming as such. At a roundtable during the conference it was seriously suggested that EISA drops ‘European’ in the name of EJIR, in the conference name and in the roundtable title, “Is there a European approach to International Relations?” It was unclear if the proposal to drop ‘European’ also includes the name of the organizing association, a proposal that for sure would trigger certain copyright issues.

So, here we are, with the names of early prominent IR scholars and ‘European’ becoming too difficult to handle? Too problematic? (to use the most used word during the conference to silence or admonish opponents). Would section titles be next? Should we stick to bland shopping mall designations: you are now entering green section, where you find room 5115 on your non-left. Let me finish by thanking Cai Wilkinson for initiating this conversation. It is about issues that are of much more significance than 18 of 32 meeting rooms in Sicily and, let me also reiterate the All-Male Panels blog’s message “You can do better, and we expect more”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s