What is in a (conference room) name?

charles-barsotti-you-re-free-range-when-i-say-you-re-free-range-new-yorker-cartoonRenaming of the rooms at the conference hotel of the upcoming EISA conference at Giardini Naxos has disappointed many. The Tumbler post ‘congratulated’ EISA for having chosen all male thinkers. Cai Wilkinson’s blog post pointed to the male and ‘European’ bias in the selection of names.

I am not an outsider to the EISA. I have served on the governing board of the EISA in its initial five years. I was one of the program chairs of the previous pan-European IR conference at Warsaw in 2013. However, the reason I am writing this post is not to clarify what happened–I do not yet know. It is because I wanted to express a few thoughts on the ‘Europeanness’ of IR in ‘Europe’. As Cai Wilkinson suggested, and I agree, ‘diversity does not just exist along a single axis. Adding female scholars of European origin to the list of names would address one shortcoming, but it would not address the continued marginalisation of non-Western scholars in the discipline. In this respect, the key point is that getting it right along one axis of diversity, be it gender or theoretical pluralism, does not absolve one of responsibility to be as inclusive as possible along other axes as well’.

My (slightly random) thoughts on this subject were first presented at an ISA panel in early 2015. The question heading the panel was the following: ‘What is European about European International Relations?’

‘European IR’ exists insofar as scholars who identify themselves as ‘European’ seek to distinguish their contributions as ‘European’–as distinct from others in North America (US?) or the rest of the world. This is not the same as IR studies in ‘Europe’. There are many IR scholars who do not self-identify as doing ‘European IR’.

What I see as a characteristic of IR as it is studied in Europe is it being more open to acknowledging and addressing IR’s limitations than IR in some other locale—I’d include my own context (Turkey) in the latter group. If we identify ‘lack of openness’ as one of the limitations of IR, an issue that this year’s ISA conference theme has sought to underscore, IR as it is studied in Europe goes further than IR in some other parts of the world to address the problem of ‘lack of openness’.

This is work in progress, needless to say. But there seems to be more awareness about the limitations of IR in IR scholarship in ‘Europe’. Arguably, IR in ‘Europe’ promises more in terms of moving beyond Eurocentrism than IR in some other parts of the world–not only North America, but also those parts of the world where debates may take the form of ‘anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism’.

IR’s lack of ‘openness’ is problematised by the critics, not only in terms of who does the theorising but also what kind of theorising by whom. IR’s critics single out the field’s lack of ‘openness’ as a limitation for the study of world politics not because IR’s record is any worse than some other social science disciplines. They single out IR’s lack of ‘openness’ as a problem because while ‘the international’ is its subject matter, there is little interest within IR on the perspectives of those ‘others’ who also helped to constitute ‘the international’. This is a problem that Justin Rosenberg diagnosed as a consequence of IR’s definition of ‘the international’ being less than ‘genuinely sociological’ . Writing in the early 1990s Stephen Chan had arrived at the same conclusion: that IR needed ‘a new historical sociology’. More recently it was discussed at greater length by Vivienne Jabri and Sanjay Seth.

As such, IR’s lack of ‘openness’ has had two inter-related aspects: sociological analyses of IR as a field revealed it to be ‘not so international’ (to invoke Ole Waever’s phrase); historical sociological insights showed how IR’s understanding of ‘the international’ was less than sociological.

What is at stake in debates about lack of ‘openness’ in IR is not merely about critical IR opening up to others’ contributions, but opening up IR to others’ heterogeneous perspectives. Some of the latter may indeed question IR’s self-understandings regarding the constitution of the international.

Put differently, the problem here is not limited to (critical) IR’s focus on ‘Europe’ and/or its use of ‘European’ categories in seeking to understand the rest of the world. What is problematised by the (postcolonial) critics includes IR’s understanding of ‘West’ itself, which, then, distorts IR’s understanding of ‘West’ and ‘non-West’, and (the constitution of) the international.

As attractive as it might be, seeking to imagine a ‘European IR’ do not come across as helpful in addressing this particular limitation. It may actually be unhelpful insofar as it could amount to inventing one parochialism to counter another. Furthermore, listing distinct characteristics of ‘European’ IR risk reifying ‘Europeanness’ of IR in ‘Europe’, whereas its most interesting characteristic, I think, is its relative openness. I would like to think this is what is ‘European’ about IR in ‘Europe’–that the contributions of critical approaches have been better integrated in IR scholarship in ‘Europe’ than some other parts of the world.

One of my co-panelists at ISA, Robbie Shilliam’s presentation was previously published as a blog post. More than six months after the ISA conference, I have decided to publish my thoughts as well, so that the readers can decide whose response to the ISA panel question they agree with. Or, perhaps, they would ask, ‘what is in a (conference room) name?

Advertisements