The discipline’s intellectual penchants and inner organisation have become important research objects in recent years. Indeed, enquiries into the social and material structures of IR knowledge production and dissemination turned into a veritable research agenda: Whether it is the debunking of the great debates narrative, in-group citation, pedagogical penchants, publishing patterns or hiring practices – works on the sociology of IR have contributed significantly to fostering a more comprehensive and reflexive understanding of the discipline. And considering the authority that IR has over world politics as practice, i.e. its influence on students and policymakers, this is a rather good thing to observe.
For many researchers, myself included, this research agenda is far from exhausted: IR teaching practices, for instance, should also be analysed beyond top-ranking university departments, and in semi-academic teaching places such as diplomatic academies and military schools. A full analysis of publication patterns would also have to go beyond a restrained set of journals published in English. Enquiries into IR knowledge production and dissemination might be interested in conference and other networking politics and practices. And further accounts of the material structures of different national higher education systems also seem in order.
Attending IR conferences, however, it seems that for certain scholars the conclusions can and should already been drawn today. Especially the Western- and US-centrism of IR theorising, publishing and teaching – three central findings of the sociology of IR literature – seem reason enough to forgo further enquiry at this moment: At the ISA Annual Convention in New Orleans I heard numerous scholars draw on the sociology of IR literature’s insights in order to call for the creation of ‘national IR schools’, i.e. new and exclusively locally defined approaches to international analysis. An Indian school of IR ranked prominently among the candidates, but so did a Chinese school of IR, an Anatolian and a Brazilian one, and further propositions made at the panels and roundtables I attended centred on Eastern Europe.
Hearing these calls, I wondered: Is the institutionalisation of national IR disciplines really what the sociology of IR research agenda seeks to achieve? I agree that the dominance of some geo-epistemic communities in our field of work must spark a debate, and especially for the more ‘critically-minded’ among those contributing to the research agenda, existing disciplinary power structures do require reconsideration. What is more, some determined propositions might be in order in a discipline that has a fair amount of influence over world politics (and whose internal hierarchies subject individual careers to rather selective indicators of professional achievement), yet seems unwilling to find much time to discuss its own intellectual and geo-cultural predispositions.
But is the nationalisation of the discipline the way to go? In New Orleans, proponents of national IR schools suggested that it is, and they advanced three lines of argumentation in support: The first claimed that only scholars intimately socialised to a specific region (sometimes also meaning: only researchers carrying a local passport) can truly understand local politics, and thus also national foreign policy-making. A second argument suggested that the discipline must be turned multipolar because any type of hegemony has to be rejected. And a third justification for ‘nationalising IR’ heard in New Orleans suggested that the discipline favoured the status quo of world politics, and that this was not in the interest of many.
Of course, discussions at the ISA Annual Convention do not tend to go terribly deep, and so the arguments listed here might be simplifying and incomplete. Yet at this level of articulation, it did not seem to me then – and it still does not seem to me today – that the nationalisation of IR proposes a productive way forward, or that it reflects well the ambitions and goals of the broader sociology of IR research agenda, no matter how often the latter’s insights are mobilised for support. Indeed, in my reading, works on the sociology of IR are much more ambitious at the empirical/analytical and – for those recognising and subscribing to such a component – the ‘political’ level alike.
At the empirical/analytical level, the research agenda’s goal is and remains to develop a grounded and comprehensive understanding of the basic processes by which IR as a professional field is working. As mentioned, this goal appears far from achieved, not the least since the sociology of IR research agenda has only been launched recently. Indeed, it is not for more than a couple of years now that the discipline proper has become an object of systematic reflection and empirical work, and so it seems premature to draw final conclusions already today. In my understanding, many of the central mechanisms of disciplinary operation still remain to be mapped and understood.
In my reading, the sociology of IR also subscribes to a considerably more dialectical type of pluralism than what the nationalisation of IR is offering. For many scholars enquiring into IR, pluralism is not about instituting a multipolar discipline in which a multiplicity of self-contained thinking systems competes with each other for global supremacy. Instead, the aim is to empower reflected engagement with paralleling frameworks of world politics, their explicit assumptions and tacit penchants. The kind of pluralism pursued by the sociology of IR agenda seen this way appeals strongly to analytical schooling, not standpoints. The proliferation of self-referential scientific discourses, and thus the reproduction of exclusion, is not among its aims.
This said, I do not wish to simply reject out of hand the arguments made by the proponents of ‘IR nationalisation’. Rather than to endorse their underlying premises, some of which flirt rather heavily with essentialist and nationalist propositions, however, I would like to re-engage them from a more analytical perspective. By developing further the arguments heard at ISA and elsewhere, so I would hope, some central concerns of the speakers’ can be engaged – yet their analyses can also be aligned more productively with the ambitions and goals of the sociology of IR research agenda, i.e. the body of literature on which presenters draw to call for ‘national IR schools’.
Instead of proclaiming that – as heard in Louisiana – ‘only Indians can understand Indian IR’, for instance, and to thus shut out foreign scholars from addressing local politics, why not enquire more deeply into the body politics of disciplinary knowledge production and dissemination? How and why precisely scholars’ personal and physical situatedness matters to understanding and explaining IR practices presents a formidable research contribution that can cover some of the concerns implicit in the argument here, yet without resorting to implicit essentialism. And needless to say, insights from anthropology or feminist IR might be mobilised particularly productively for a deeper analysis of such interplays.
Similarly, rather than to give in to a reflex of rejecting hegemony and power, why not say more about their multifaceted constitution and forms of operation? The literature does not suggest disciplinary practices to be advanced by a homogenous group of scholars, and neither does it claim scholarship in the ‘periphery’ to be uniform or a mere recipient of Western wisdom. Whose paradigms, methods and standards become authoritative and whose do not, and how these are transposed across cultural, linguistic and other types of borders – turning hegemony into a social reality in places such as Turkey and Romania (but also Switzerland or the UK, for that matter) – still are challenging questions to pursue. Prior to rejecting hegemony and power tout court, their differentiation can create interesting insights as to what and whose responsibilities are involved in making, keeping and/or changing disciplinary authority.
And lastly, why not engage values more explicitly? Instead of claiming cultural and political inclinations of dominant IR to be incompatible with others, it seems mandatory to be explicit about what penchants are to be rejected, which are to be endorsed, and why. Yes, IR scholarship does have important geo-cultural penchants – little surprisingly perhaps, given it being a product of complex social contexts. Without specification of what precisely is to be rejected about it, why, and with what it is to be substituted, however, a suspicion emerges that the nationalisation of IR is a rather hollow strategy for bolstering a scholar’s own local authority, irrespective of content. Also on this third front here, much potential hence lies in complexifying the argument, and in developing its claims into a fuller research contribution. Without it, the retreat into national IR schools does not strike as a terribly productive strategy.
Does everyone need a national IR school? I agree that inputs from places thus far ignored might contribute successfully to enriching, challenging or subverting the discipline. In the same token, I also agree that some present scholarly communities might need to become more aware of their own ‘national’ penchants: Me, too, I don’t think that current US foreign policy debates (homeland security, counterinsurgency etc.) should be mistaken for international politics writ large, for example, that the US presidential and the British Westminster system provide useful templates for comparative analyses across continents, or that empirical IR work always needs to rely on Anglo-Saxon case studies. Seen this way, a certain ‘nationalisation of IR’ at the epistemological level might indeed be useful and necessary.
In a reflexive manner, however, such insights should serve to contextualise and critically reflect on intellectual penchants in the discipline, thus giving way to a learning process that can be used constructively in the analytical schooling of students. In my understanding, such a form of critical education is much more sustainable – and it also reflects much better the key concerns of the sociology of IR research agenda – than the creation of 200 or so national IR schools and the installation of a multipolar discipline.
Jonas Hagmann is a Senior Researcher and Lecturer in International Relations at ETH Zürich. His research focuses on local conceptualisation of world politics, with special attention to notions of international insecurity. Jonas Hagmann is the author of (In)Security and the Production of International Relations (Routledge, 2015), and his articles appeared in European Journal of International Relations, Security Dialogue, Critical Studies on Terrorism and Contemporary Security Policy among others. For further information see www.css.ethz.ch/people/CSS/hagmannj/index or https://ethz.academia.edu/JonasHagmann.