Is IR Theory White? Racialised Subject-Positioning in Three Canonical Texts

This post is a little introduction to my recently published (open access) article in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, in which I use the scholarly literature on whiteness to examine three highly influential books in International Relations (IR) – Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony and Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics.

Of course, the answer is what you might expect (duh); but I hope the route to reaching that conclusion might be something worth considering, and maybe not exactly what you were expecting. It articulates an account of whiteness which is ultimately less pessimistic than the oft-caricatured ‘identity politics’ framings of race – indeed it argues that it is absolutely possible to overcome the limitations of whiteness as a standpoint, but that this would not be transformative without other structural changes.

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I began thinking about this issue because I was simultaneously excited, provoked by and wary about a framing emerging from the student movement at UCL: “Why is My Curriculum White?” – a moment in which both Nathaniel Coleman and Adam Elliott-Cooper played leading roles. We were also increasingly having conversations with students and colleagues at SOAS about race and decolonisation in the curriculum whilst we witnessed what was going on in South Africa and elsewhere.

Despite the care and precision with which the UCL collective expressed itself on the question of whiteness as an ideology, the media and the Right concocted a fevered moral panic around the issues, proclaiming an attack on Western Civilisation, free speech and academic freedom by the ungrateful, and the emergence of ‘reverse racism’ and so on. It did not help that some contributions from elsewhere in the movement seemed to be rather essentialist around the questions of race and racism (in ways which had been long abandoned with respect to gender, for example). From a political point of view, the ‘culture wars’ framing of matters was eliciting a set of destructive emotional responses anticipated in the whiteness literature itself – shame, guilt, anger, denial – which were a (sometimes intentional) distraction from more transformative and productive conversations.

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TRIP-ing the Geek Fantastic: A Note On Surveying Disciplinary International Relations

The preliminary results of the 2011 Teaching and Research in International Politics (TRIP) Survey for the US are out (this is a way of saying that if you’re not an IR geek, you’ll likely find what follows boring and/or incomprehensible). As well as feeding into the usual list fetishism for “those looking to run the world” (*barf*), there are also a number of questions pumping faculty for predications, threat listings and popularity contests (turns out Professors of International Relations rate George Bush Snr. as a better President than Obama, but have almost nothing but contempt for young W.).

The self-image of the discipline continues to shift within the American heartland, not least with respect to the Big Other of Realism. The 2009 TRIP Survey recorded the percentage of self-identified Realists among US respondents at 21%, with Liberals at 20% and Constructivists at 17%. Things have progressed some way since then, with only just over 16% now willing to call themselves Realist against a steady 20% of Liberals and a narrowly triumphant 20.4% of Constructivists (and given the rankings awarded to Wendt within the ‘top four scholars’ sections, the shorter TRIPS may be rendered more simply as: ALEXANDER WENDT MADE ME A CONSTRUCTIVIST). Agnostics and Refuseniks together continue to outnumber these main categories with 11.5% naming themselves ‘Other’ and a further 25.7% declining to name any paradigmatic preference (a slight increase, but essentially the same levels as in 2008).

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