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. Continue reading


Dear Hurt Male Egos

A guest post from Linda Åhäll on a recent controversy. Linda is Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her forthcoming publications include the textbook chapters ‘Poststructuralism’ in Security Studies: an introduction (3rd edition, Williams and MacDonald eds.), ‘Gender’ in Visual Global Politics (Bleiker ed.), and the journal article ‘Affect as Methodology: Feminism and the Politics of Emotion’ in International Political Sociology.


Dear Hurt Male Egos, if I may

I am poststructuralist feminist security studies scholar inspired by and indebted to the work of American philosopher and political theorist Judith Butler. I am also Swedish and have spent the autumn term on research leave in the Political Science Department at Lund University in Sweden where, regrettably, Butler has been dragged into an internal conflict about teaching practice by a Hurt Male Ego. A conflict then turned into a national ‘debate’ by a journalist with, in my view, an anti-feminist agenda: on how, supposedly, ‘Gender Studies is taking over Swedish universities’. A national debate then not only picked up, but seriously misrepresented, in international news media. The conflict and subsequent media attention is framed as a tension between gender mainstreaming policies on the one hand and ‘academic freedom’ on the other. But, above all, what has sparked my feminist curiosity is how a tiny number of people, in a twisted series of events, have managed to use Butler – one of the world’s most prominent feminist and queer theorists – for anti-feminist purposes.

For me, it all started when the Hurt Male Ego at Lund wrote an Open Letter addressed to Butler (‘Dear Judith, if I may’), posted on his blog. In it The Hurt Male Ego talked about a ‘Campus War’ and about ‘campus feminists’ as those infringing on his academic freedom. Crucially, the Hurt Male Ego refers to this incident about teaching practice at the Political Science Department at Lund University as ‘The Judith Butler Affair’ on his website, accompanied by photos of Butler. Some days later, the Hurt Male Ego changed the photo of Butler on his website to one where her face was replacing the (authoritarian) leader in the film 1984. Launching this update of the website, the Hurt Male Ego tweeted ‘Big Sister is Watching’. (He has since changed the photo back to a less provocative one.)

Ahall - Butler Big Sister is watching

Then, the Hurt Male Ego’s PhD Student at Lund University interviewed Judith Butler over email (maybe she knew who he was, maybe she didn’t). In that interview, Butler was asked to respond to the following question: ‘How do you regard having your work imposed on a university lecturer in the name of gender equality?’ She answered, understandably, that she was not in favour of having her work imposed by quotas. But, unfortunately, Judith Butler was misled in that interview. Because, in fact, as I explain below, the policy at the Political Science Department at Lund University was never about the enforcement of gender quotas. There is more to the story. (See also this where Butler clarifies that it would be a mistake to use her remarks about academic freedom as a critique of gender studies.)

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“The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

A guest post from Philip Conway, a PhD candidate in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. His thesis is titled “The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics.” He blogs at Circling Squares and micro-blogs @PhilipRConway.

Cosmological questioning

‘But what about indigenous cosmologies?’ This kind of question is becoming more and more common in debates in International Relations, human geography and other fields. Whether articulated in terms of decolonisation, worlding, ontology, lifeways, cosmopolitics or pluriversality (other terminologies are available), there is a strong and growing conviction that making space for modes of collective existence beyond, besides and despite the hegemonic naturalism of the West is a pressing intellectual and political priority.

Indeed, this is a question that I am asked (and ask myself) on a regular basis. However, it is a more conceptually, ethically and politically complicated question than it may first appear. This essay explores some of these complications in relation to the research project that I am currently embarked upon – namely, a history of how ‘environment’ became a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation by around about 1910.

The project investigates how this everyday expression – ‘environment’ – came to be taken for granted and, more to the point, what this tells us about the ways in which we think (or don’t think) about ourselves, the world around us and, in short, how our conceptions contrive to carve things up (and stitch them back together).

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Speaker Vulnerability and The Patriarchal University: A Response and Tribute to Pamela Sue Anderson

Lara ColemanLara Montesinos Coleman is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and International Development at the University of Sussex. This article was originally written for the alumni magazine of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, where Anderson was based before her death and where the author read Philosophy and Theology, and has been featured on the Women in Parentheses blog.

I never quite crossed paths with Pamela Sue Anderson. She returned to Oxford in 2001 to take up a post at my former college the year after I finished my undergraduate studies. In February 2017, we were both invited to speak at a British Academy conference on Vulnerability and The Politics of Care. Anderson’s paper was read by a friend, just weeks before her death.

All of us spoke about vulnerability, but Anderson’s contribution stood out in that she addressed our own vulnerability as speakers. She began by recounting an occasion, earlier in her career, when her audience was unable to receive her as an expert on feminist philosophy. The story stayed with many of us, because it reflected the painful, hidden histories of speakers who do not conform to preconceptions of how a ‘knower’ ought to look, be or think. These stories, if they are told at all, are normally the topic of hushed and anxious conversations, where the speaker’s close friends and colleagues express outrage and reassurance. Anderson, however, put her vulnerability on display.

Her story was about a talk at Durham on feminist philosophy. Before she arrived, the posters announcing the event had been defaced with the image of another Pamela Anderson: the Playboy model and actress who rose to fame in the 1990s. Anderson’s talk was particularly well attended – by mostly male students and philosophers drawn to it by interest in the other Pamela. From the outset, Anderson was not quite believed to be a philosopher because of her name. However, she was also accused by a prominent male philosopher of ‘disappointing’ her audience because of the content of what she said: her account of epistemology was deemed to lack the ‘particularity, concreteness and relationality required for women, and so, for “feminism”’.[1]

Of course, even the most privileged and celebrated speakers can feel vulnerable when addressing an audience. We all depend upon our audiences to hear us and to recognise us as ‘knowers’ and we all run the risk of being silenced when this recognition is absent. Some of us, however, have a greater material and social exposure to being silenced or dismissed. If we are not embodied or do not perform in a way that fits with stereotypes of the philosopher (male, white, well-spoken and able bodied), then we are often not recognisable as ‘a knower who is trustworthy’.[2] The ‘joke’ of ‘Pamela Anderson’ speaking on philosophy is instructive. It relies upon stereotypes that cannot coincide: a ‘model’ is ruled out in advance as a potential ‘philosopher’.

How do we respond when an audience is unable to recognise us as a knower? Continue reading

The Report of the Death of ‘Polities’ was an Exaggeration: Comments on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History

This is the fourth comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Benjamin de Carvalho. Benjamin  is a senior research fellow at NUPI. His research interests are, broadly speaking, between three fields: He works on issues of broader historical change such as the formation of the nation-state in Europe, sovereignty, and the role played by confessionalization and religion.

The other posts for this forum are available here.

Laust Schouenborg invited me to take part in this symposium on his latest book, a request I was thrilled to accept, given that the book had for some time already been on the list of books I wanted to read. Having now read and engaged with Schouenborg’s work, I am very glad I accepted.

International Institutions in World History (IIWH) is an ambitious and thought-provoking work, which I would recommended to any scholar of IR seeking to understand not only the world beyond the state, but also our current predicament. I found his emphasis on social institutions stimulating and on the whole convincing, and really believe he is onto something. That being said, as he himself concludes, the book marks the beginning of an endeavor rather than its end. And as is the case with any broad claim, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Schouenborg’s three cases, while illustrative of his claim about the “universality” of his institutions, nevertheless leave something to be desired. Granted, nomad Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Central African rainforest are pretty much as remote places as one could have picked to engage on such a trip of discovery from New York and Roskilde. And if his framework of international institutions can be found (or even be useful in analyzing) there, then they must be at least fairly universal, is the thought. But then again, while illustrating their occurrence, their utility to the analyst is to me still a bit unclear. While it does structure his accounts, it seems to me that the analysis could have been brought further. Furthermore, for the whole framework to knock out the state (or polities, for that matter) altogether, the book would also have had to tackle some more common cases and demonstrate its utility by superimposing the findings to those of other works in a more sustained and systematic way. Continue reading

The Whole and Its Parts

This is the third comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Yale Ferguson. Yale is a Professorial Fellow in the Rutgers University-Newark Division of Global Affairs and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Global and International Affairs.  His publications include 12 books and over 60 book chapters and articles. Among his latest books with Richard W. Mansbach (Iowa State) are Globalization: The Return of Borders to a Borderless World?; A World of Polities: Essays in Global Politics; and Remapping Global Politics: History’s Revenge and Future Shock. He and Mansbach have a new book in progress, War and Political Evolution in the Ancient Mediterranean.

The other posts for this forum are available here.

It is a pleasure for me to take part in this symposium on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History (hereafter IIWH), as it was to read his thoughtful and provocative book. Reviewers are always saying that some study is a must-read or should be on every scholar’s and serious student’s bookshelf. Well, occasionally such accolades are merited, and for those of us interested in IR theory and history, they certainly are in the case of Laust’s book. His is indeed a landmark study, and I not only enjoyed but profited from reading it, not least in considering Laust’s observations about my own work with Richard Mansbach on Polities. Laust has read essentially everything relevant to his concerns, set forth other authors’ positions with care and respect, and then explained how he begs to differ. In this little piece, I hope to do the same for Laust.

There are so many things I like about IIWH that I cannot begin to mention them all, so I will simply list a few specifics and then move on to what I see as central issues in the book as a whole. First, the list:

  1. Laust’s focus is on social institutions seen as “made up of patterned practices, ideas and norms” (emphasis in original). Social institutions are what they do on a regular basis, what ideas sustain them (and they convey), and what they regard (and do not regard) as legitimate behavior.
  2. He looks at social institutions from a multi-disciplinary perspective, including IR, anthropology, archaeology, and historical sociology. He weighs their respective contributions to his subject, mixes and matches what he can from them, and then advances his own distinct theoretical position.
  3. His approach in IIWH is also proudly and even militantly cross-cultural and trans-historical.
  4. The empirical second section of the book is a broad study of “three extreme or marginal historical cases: nomad Central Asia, the Central African rainforest and Polynesia.” Laust has the audacity to suggest that he has gone to those extremes or margins to highlight the “universality” of his four functional categories versus the “limitations” of the “state-based framework” he attributes to almost everyone else, including those advancing “stage” models.
  5. Laust insists, quite rightly, that there is no useful or reasonable basis for labeling the likes of his case-study societies and their institutions as “primitive.”
  6. He boldly maintains that we can and should view “the functional activities relevant to corporate social actors or polities” and their “interactions” as falling into only four basic categories: legitimacy and membership, regulating conflicts, trade, and governance.
  7. Last in this list, I have special reasons for liking Laust’s observations about war in his discussion of “regulating conflict.” He notes that war is often viewed as a “social evil” or at best (like Bull) a “necessary evil” to help maintain order. However, Laust comments: “In many past societies, including the three [that are his cases], war did not always carry a “negative connotation.” “On the contrary, it was often celebrated. Hence, we are “allowed to consider the possibility that war might be the dominant mode of social interaction, so to speak.” In fact, Mansbach and I are currently writing a book focusing on war and polities in the ancient Mediterranean that argues war was the primary driver of political evolution for thousands of years and speculates about how far one can push that connection into the present and future.

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A New Language for a New World

This is the first comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Erik Ringmar. Erik is Lecturer in Political Science in the Department of Political Science at Lund University. He works on topics such as international history, international relations, cultural sociology, and social theory.

The other posts for this forum are available here.

The basic insight that drives the argument presented in this book is that we need a new way of thinking about international politics which does not privilege European experiences and the idea of a sovereign state. This is required since we need to be able to talk about other parts of the world, about European history before the rise of the state, and about a future in which the state no longer will be with us. World history, simply put, is not about the state, and it really isn’t the case that der Gang Gottes in der Welt daß der Staat ist. And people who claim that this is the case — not only Hegel, but all philosophers of history from Adam Ferguson to Walt Whitman Rostow — are simply mistaken. Compare the recently fashionable idea of a “failed state.” To identify a state as having failed is to identify it as not living up to a European standard. It is like saying that a woman is a “failed man.”

Laust Schouenborg‘s suggestion is to dispense with state-talk in favor of a discussion of political functions. We should stop talking about what political entities are and focus instead on what they do. Perhaps we could think of this as a move from ontology to practice. We are in Durkheimian territory, in other words, or Talcott Parsonian. The state, says Schouenborg, can be disaggregated into four functions having to do with 1) legitimacy and membership; 2) conflict regulation; 3) trade, and 4) governance.

Since all polities of whichever kind they may be fulfill these basic functions, this, not the state, should be our focus. Instead of a state-centered vocabulary which only allows us to talk sensibly only about Europe, a function-centered vocabulary allows us to talk sensibly about all of world history and everyone everywhere.  This taxonomy provides a “basic grid,” says Schouenborg, which is neutral between historical and geographical contexts. “So, my general argument in this book is not only that four functional categories can be used to capture social institutions throughout history. I also argue that we should discard the main alternative conceptual framework in the form of the state and the attendant stage models.” Continue reading