On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.


My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

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This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading

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Decolonising Intervention: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things‘ own founding contributor, Meera Sabaratnam, has published her first book: Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique, with Rowman and Littlefield International. We are delighted to host a symposium on the book, starting with Meera’s opening post, and to be followed over the next week or so by reviews from Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, Lee Jones, Amy Niang and Megan Mackenzie, and a final response from the author. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! The book is available as an Open Access free PDF download here. -LJ

Update: posts by Marta, Lee, Amy, Megan and Meera are now available. The whole symposium is available here.


Cover of the book Decolonising Intervention, which features the former Governor's house on Ilha de Moçambique, now a museum, plus a rusting colonial lamp-post

Things look different depending on where you stand.

This is a simple proposition, but one which, if pursued a little further, deeply challenges dominant approaches to social science, many of which are premised on ignoring or denying the partial character of the social-scientific gaze.

I don’t disagree with the ambition per se of attempting to open up our own understanding of a phenomenon through deep and wide-ranging research; indeed this is what I love about being a scholar. Furthermore, just because things look different depending on where you stand, does not mean you cannot learn more about something, or learn to understand it better. I do not reject the possibility of a better and wider understanding just because points of departure are always partial.

Yet, the first step for studying complex social phenomena must be a recognition of and a grappling with this proposition.

Beyond this, various feminist, anti-colonial and Marxist thinkers have advanced a further proposition: that power relations can be better understood when you look at them ‘from below’, i.e. from the perspective of the disempowered parties.

This stems from the idea that relations of power put different cognitive demands on people by virtue of that relationship.

Grizelda cartoon

Patricia Hill Collins for example points out that domestic labourers must acquire an intimacy both with the ways of thinking of their employers/masters, and with their own sense of how to navigate and survive in this system.

And W.E.B. Du Bois famously drew attention to what many continue to call ‘double consciousness’ – that is, the idea that African-Americans had to apprehend and negotiate the racist negations of mainstream American society, whilst simultaneously cultivating a distinctive intellectual tradition rooted in historical and contemporary attempts at flourishing.

If they are right, then scholars engaging with relations of power from any field of study – and particularly in the field of ‘political science’ – should be especially interested in the perspectives and experiences of the relatively disempowered as a point of departure for analysis. Continue reading

Racism, multiculturalism and Brexit

Robbie Shilliam

I take it as a given (by polls) that the most influential reason why people voted  Brexit was not to restore British sovereignty in the abstract but more precisely to “take it back” in order to stop more of “them” coming over. I also take it as understood that  this statement does not infer that all who voted for Brexit  are racists. Structural racism does not make of every individual a racist but implicates every individual, variously, in the reproduction and/or contestation of racial structures.

I’m sorry I hard to start with Political Theory 101 and Political Reality 101 but I’m afraid that’s the quality of some of the responses to Brexit so far.

Glad that’s over with.

Because I want to move away from an analysis that puts the white English voter at stage-centre and key interlocutor of the Brexit drama. I haven’t got anything that’s too formulated; just some thoughts about the other kinds of…

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“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.


This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives. [1]  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?

We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177).  It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:

The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]

What can we make of this? Continue reading

Can Metrics Be Used Responsibly? Why Structural Conditions Push Against This

Not waving, exactly, but...

Not waving, exactly, but…

Today, the long-awaited ‘Metric Tide’ report from the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management was published, along with appendices detailing its literature review and correlation studies. The main take-away is: IF you’re going to use metrics, you should use them responsibly (NB NOT: You should use metrics and use them responsibly). The findings and ethos are covered in the Times Higher and summarised in Nature by the Review Chair James Wilsdon, and further comments from Stephen Curry (Review team) and Steven Hill (HEFCE) are published. I highly recommend this response to the findings by David Colquhoun. You can also follow #HEFCEMetrics on Twitter for more snippets of the day. Comments by Cambridge lab head Professor Ottoline Leyser were a particular highlight.

I was asked to give a response to the report at today’s launch event, following up on the significance of mine and Pablo’s widely endorsed submission to the review. I am told that the event was recorded by video and audio so I will add links to that when they show up. But before then, a short summary record of the main points I made: Continue reading

The Science Question in International Studies: PTJ, CoI and follow-ups

Science Montage

From the beloved xkcd

Long time TDOT readers may recall the first ever book symposium we hosted, on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. PTJ’s argument regarding the status of ‘science’, epistemology, methodology and reflexivity has continued to generate vibrant and wide-ranging discussion in the discipline. At last year’s Millennium Conference on Method, Methodology and Innovation, PTJ’s keynote speech extended an argument regarding the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge, but argued that international studies did not have to be a science. Responses from Iver Neumann, Mark Salter, Nicola Chelotti, Laura Sjoberg and myself were invited in the follow-up special issue of the journal.

I’ve made my contribution accessible via academia.edu, but here’s a sneak preview: Continue reading

Open Letter In Support of Surrey Politics Department

Last week, members of the Politics Department at the University of Surrey were told by their managers that they would be effectively closed down in the summer, with a reduction of 14 staff to five teaching-only posts, and no guarantee of employment for anyone presently in the Department. The Department had been ranked 6th in Politics in this year’s Guardian Subject League Table, 4th in the NSS 2014 with an overall satisfaction rate of 97%, and 17th in the Complete University Guide 2014. Thanks to a rapid reaction and online campaign immediately following this, as well as discussions with the Political Studies Association over the last week this decision appears to be under review. The initial proposal however remains on the table at the time of writing.  To follow unfolding events, please go to the Facebook page set up by a support group, and follow the Twitter account @surreypolgrads. Many are using the hashtag #savesurreypolitics.

The below is an open letter originating from members of the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London.

Update 26th March: following much enthusiasm, the open letter is now available for all to sign and we have edited according. Please respond in the comments section with your name, role and institution where relevant, and do forward to colleagues.

Continue reading