Decolonising International Relations – some Pedagogical Reflections

This is a guest post by Maïa Pal and Doerthe Rosenow, Senior Lecturers in International Relations, Department of Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes University.  Maïa is working on a co-edited volume for Routledge on The Extraterritoriality of Law: History, Theory, Politics and on a monograph for Cambridge University Press on Jurisdictional Accumulation: An Early Modern History of Law, Empires, and Capital. She is also an editor for the journal Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory. Doerthe has recently published the book Un-making Environmental Activism: Beyond Modern/Colonial Binaries in the GMO Controversy and a series of articles about critique and its limits. 


On 22 February 2018, Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at SOAS appeared on the BBC Radio4 Today programme [2.53 onwards] to discuss ‘What is decolonisation?’ and what it means to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. She faced David Aaronovitch, columnist at the Times, who complained about the problem with the word ‘decolonise’, stating it was ‘not the job of university studies to decolonise or recolonise’. Instead, he suggested, universities should ‘think critically’ and not look ‘like a political project’ that imposes a particular view on students. In other words, Aaronovitch claims that a university education should – and can – consist in a neutral, open, apolitical transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student, and definitely not the other way round. He is shocked at ‘this business of’ students participating in the elaboration of curricula – no pun apparently intended, but Aaronovitch is obviously a natural. His sentiment is amplified by the current 9K fee system because if students are paying so much, they should expect to get a service delivered exclusively by teachers.

The underlying scandal here is that Aaronovitch is actually complaining about teachers whom he thinks are asking students to do their jobs for them – in spite of Sabaratnam reminding him in her introduction that most of university teachers and other professional staff are currently on strike to defend their pensions from being made dependent on the fluctuations of the stock market, which could result in a 25% pay cut. So behind a poorly constructed and intentionally naïve critique of decolonial education as a political project (which surely Aaronovitch himself does not believe in, since he must be well versed in debates about the objectivity and/or neutrality of epistemology stretching back to ancient philosophies, Western and non-Western) is the old conservative refrain of counter-establishment or radical projects being the product of lazy lefties, in this case teachers skiving by getting students to write their syllabi.

Thus, the anti-decolonising arguments (embedded in various attacks on the SOAS students, on the Oxford Rhodes Must Fall campaigners, on scholarship daring to criticise the British Empire) reveal the class privilege and hierarchy to which they are a threat. To be fair, however, Aaronovitch is gracious enough to admit that ‘refreshment or updating’ of curricula is ok, because ‘we know more than we did’, and ‘we’ve come into contact with different people’. Yes, indeed we have. And what contact! In fact, to try to be similarly naïve and condescending, does Aaronovitch know that the decolonising move (and hopefully, increasingly a movement) is precisely about resituating the origins and conditions of this added knowledge and ‘contact’? We are actually just giving curricula a face-lift, nothing else.

Because isn’t the point – beyond the catchy, powerful and arguably problematic metaphor ‘to decolonise’ – to just assess how knowledge of the world was gained, how we ‘know’ more than we did, how we ‘made contact’? It seems to us perfectly in line with what ‘we’ want (i.e. us apparently neutral, apolitical, innocent, empty vessels waiting to be filled to the brim by know-it-all teachers for a ‘bit’ of debt – oops, we mean ‘graduate contribution’).

Isn’t ‘decolonising’ just assessing that knowledge was made and transmitted by white European men? However, ‘coincidentally’ – to continue being naïve about it – a lot more started to be known about the world from about the same time as when these men went to ‘make contact’ with the rest of the world by pillaging, spreading diseases, fighting, negotiating, abducting, deceiving, robbing, raping, enslaving, and killing others. And obviously, to be able to share the experiences of this ‘contact’, it was needed to bring some of these people back to the European continent, and put them on display for the sake of the public interest. Specimens of their bodies, of their houses, of their land, of their minds were needed because one can’t acquire more knowledge without possessing it, right?

Because the ‘business’ of education – and we mean this in Aaronovitch’s sense, not the dirty economic transaction sense of course – is apparently about taking something from someone because you have paid them to do so. It means sitting on your backside, and flicking some notes at the waiter because they took your coat off for you. It means not in any way contributing to a ‘dialogue’ or any ‘collaborative exercises’, because that’s not what you’ve paid for. In her amazingly patient, polite and self-contained responses under the circumstances, Sabaratnam tried to explain to Aaronovitch that he was naïve about depoliticisation; that the politics of Western institutions have occluded diverse voices, that these specific forms of exclusion result from Western dominance. She explained that ‘decolonising’ projects are obviously more about the various, broader forms of exclusion involved in education, rather than the exclusively historical impacts of British colonialism, however damaging and far-reaching those are.

In other words, university studies are about ‘challenging received wisdom’, as Sabaratnam’s words brilliantly closed the discussion. But they have only been sporadically able to perform this function throughout the long history of educational institutions. Living in Oxford does teach you a thing or two about the role of educational institutions. It is clear to most of us in universities that these are spaces of power, where politics are inevitable, inside and outside the classroom. This is especially because colonial Empires built them that way, partly by co-opting and limiting the potential of teachers to challenge the class, gender and racial privileges according to which being of a certain colour, sex, and able to pay and access certain spaces of learning guaranteed you a specific job and social standing.

Resituating the history of the university and the knowledge that it produces and conveys in its colonial and imperial context, discussing with students from all over the world and from a variety of social backgrounds how they’ve come to access a space they couldn’t a few decades ago, and figuring out together how we can nurture and protect that ‘ability to challenge received wisdom’, i.e. colonial wisdom, is what we understand by ‘decolonising the university and the curriculum’.

Talking to students about what they think should go into a curriculum is in many ways the same activity as asking them to sit in a room for two hours and answer questions for an exam. Or even better, it is similar to asking them to fill in the NSS and module evaluations, documents regularly used to define our practice and rank universities. Our point here is that following Aaronovitch’s logic, if students shouldn’t be involved in a dialogue and collaborative exercise rewriting curricula, should they be asked to provide so much feedback and in some sense be asked to rewrite our session plans, or which modules should run, or whether this teacher was helpful, or what types of sandwiches are in the cafeteria? Student feedback is one of the most defining characteristics of our 9K tuition fee system, so to accept students’ significant involvement in that system, but then reject it when it concerns ‘decolonising curricula’ seems to be clear evidence that Aaronovitch’s logic is politically motivated too, but his is hidden under the veil of a supposed neutral, apolitical vision of education.

This brings us to our specific experience with Doerthe’s module ‘Introduction to IR 1: Themes’ which Maïa contributed to and that we co-lecture. It is our modest attempt to decolonise our curriculum, to provide a theoretical and historical introduction to the discipline, to reflect on the politics of history, on the history of politics in the shaping of the discipline, in the shaping of our conceptions of the world. Traditionally, students learn in their first semester of studying International Relations that this is a discipline about the interaction of states, that the idea of states as sovereign entities that are formally equal to each other came about in Europe with the Westphalian Peace treaties of 1648, and that the most important actors to study are the Great Powers – which are of course Western. The history of International Relations is normally taught in a very Eurocentric way, and even those of a critical mind tend to start with the ‘traditional’ approaches before they come to the ‘critical’ ones towards the end, when the mind of the student has already settled on the ‘common sense’ of the approaches of realism (‘it’s all about state power and struggling for survival’) and liberalism (‘states can cooperate and international institutions can help them to uphold the rule of law and implement liberal values’).

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In order to challenge this approach, we start our Introduction to International Relations by talking about the forgotten moments of the discipline: about ancient empires to make clear to students that the world has not started in Europe, about the interactions between early modern empires such as the Chinese, the Ottoman, Moghul, etc. and to think of a world of oceans and routes, rather than fictional territorial borders. When we introduce the first IR theory, it happens to be Marxism. Then we talk of how the first concern in International Relations in the period between the First and Second World War was all about the ‘angst’ about the first anti-colonial struggles, about colonial administration, about coming ‘race wars’ that might challenge the ‘white’ order. In short, how the discipline of International Relations has conveniently forgotten about Empire, and how there has only been a very short period of time (if ever) that states have existed outside of empires.

Teaching the module in this way has been a challenge for us both – but also an absolute pleasure. There are of course highlights such as a student spotting in an essay how an author, despite being of a critical, anti-Eurocentric mind set, tends to refer to ‘Africa’ as ONE, despite it being home to many different histories, societies and cultures. Or the student who stands up in a seminar to explain intersectionality to her fellow students who have never heard of this term before. Or the student who enthusiastically writes in an exam: ‘It’s hard to believe that it has not been normal so far to learn about non-European history and events in International Relations. I’m so glad I have been able to study this!’ Or the absolute silence in a lecture attended by 200 students when a slide about the horrors First World War is followed by a slide with a picture of a slave ship. ‘Why is not THIS considered to be the beginning of International Relations?’ Doerthe asked. The greatest feeling was probably marking 200 exam papers in our first run of the module answering the question: ‘What is Eurocentrism?’

However, not everything has been a smooth ride. One of our exam questions this academic year was:

“History should be studied by historians, not by scholars of International Relations.” Critically discuss this claim based on one historical event of your choosing.”

We learned so much from setting this question. To be fair, what we received as an answer by many students was shaped by the way the question was phrased by us, and what we have taught (or not taught them) about history as a discipline.  Students understood that they were supposed to criticise International Relations (after all, we had been repeating this for the past 11 weeks!), but they hadn’t been able to quite grasp that the problems of International Relations are not confined to that particular discipline. Many students argued that while International Relations scholars didn’t study history properly (which is often true!) and while much IR work was overtly shaped by political ideological contexts, the study of history was about objectivity, neutrality, and the tracing of the linear unfolding of events.

We realised that students didn’t understand that both history and IR, as disciplines, were subject to politics, to interpretations, to conflicts, to contradictions, to privileges, to inequalities, etc. Firstly, this meant that we probably hadn’t spent enough time explaining these fundamental epistemological issues to them, so we took that on board. But also, because we are not positivists, we know that this is not students’ ‘natural state of being’, but that their education system, their socialisation, their class, race, gender, sexualities, and other constructed and lived identities had been shaped to come to this conclusion. According to many of them, history is the ensemble of true facts about the world, whereas political theory and/or IR are wishful thinking, in the ideas of statesmen, or the ideas of crazy academics.

So although we attempted to decolonise, however much we talked about ancient empires, about critical theories, using non-Western authors, emphasising the voices and perspectives of non-Western peoples, we perhaps forgot something essential. We forgot that our students – as those not yet well versed in analytical reflection – come to university without understanding the process of knowledge production. We forgot that gaining ‘epistemological perspective’ i.e. separating their knowledge of the world from others, and reflecting, visualising, abstracting from the process through which they get to know more stuff and ‘make contact’ is one of the most fulfilling tasks of the job of a teacher, but also one of the most difficult ones.

The reason why most students stubbornly continue to adapt realist or liberal perspectives in International Relations (up to their final year dissertations), even if that perspective is not held or advocated by any of their IR teachers (as is the case in the IR group at Brookes), is, precisely, because these perspectives are so common sense – in line with what students have learned about the gaining of knowledge from pre-school education onwards. However much help students can bring to decolonising curricula, Aaronovitch doesn’t understand that collaborating with students in this way, listening to them before advising them, is key to teaching them that knowledge is collaboratively constructed, that it is an epistemological journey and often struggle – on top of the fact that for many disadvantaged non-Western people, or people from the wrong class, it’s an everyday practical struggle which other students and teachers need to learn about.

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4 thoughts on “Decolonising International Relations – some Pedagogical Reflections

  1. Hello there
    My name is Isaac Rwakagoro graduate International Politics from University of Liverpool. I just came across this extract and found it interesting to read as it pinpoints critical reasoning about the continued Western pedagogical influence on its former colonies.
    However, I would like to understand what did you mean by …”non Western people or people from the Wrong Class” in the closing paragraph. Who are “people from the Wrong Class”? I am very perplexed by this expression as such your response will be highly ppreciated.

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  2. Hi Isaac, talking about the ‘wrong class’ is meant in a polemical way – as in those classes that were traditionally excluded from higher education, i.e. lower social classes. Students (and indeed academic members of staff!) at universities from those classes still feel out of place, given the institutional set-up, etc. Which is what the ‘wrong class’ refers to. All best, Doerthe

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  3. Pingback: Contesting Coloniality In International Relations’ Reading Lists | International Relations

  4. Pingback: Blog: Is the lack of ontological diversity killing social research, or was it already dead from the beginning? - KITLV

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