The International Studies Association (ISA) hosts a growing group of scholars working on the intersection of international relations (IR) and Global South perspectives. ISA’s Global South Caucus dedicates itself to dialogue with IR’s mainstream, complementing efforts of scholars who have for decades been pushing theoretical boundaries. The caucus approaches Global South IR scholarship not in geographic or ethnic terms, but as rooted in alternate histories and empirical realities.
From a Global South perspective, IR’s mainstream remains characterized by a dominant mindset that is resistant to potentially dislocating self-reflection. While potential issues for self-reflection abound, three are noteworthy.
Despite efforts to jump-start more discussions around studying the Global South, IR’s mainstream still lacks vibrancy. For scholars interested in theorizing the “international” and in developing generalizable concepts, this absence of disciplinary enthusiasm for a vast part of the world is disconcerting—particularly at a time of increasingly complex linkages across varied political, economic, and socio-cultural contexts. Compared to other disciplines that share an interest in the international, the local/regional, and their interaction, IR remains largely insular and less reflexive. Debates in critical geography, anthropology, sociology, and post-colonial studies around pluralizing dominant concepts such as “modernity,” “development,” “democracy,” and “the state,” among other terms, and on “decentering the West,” have led to a broad agreement that Western experiences are not universal, and should not be the exclusive starting point for conceptualizing or theorizing. These debates are rife with internal disagreements, and many risk unhinging these disciplines by challenging foundational assumptions; such debates, however, have been critical as disciplinary reality-checks contributing to healthier, more realistic, and more relevant theory-building.
Within IR, hospitable spaces for critical reflection remain few, and the challenge of a doggedly disinterested mainstream is one with which scholars of the Global South must still contend. A starting point for bringing Global South voices, debates, and ideas into productive conversation with the mainstream would be to increase access to journals and conferences, and to promote cross-sectional collaboration.
Unlike many other disciplines, IR is peculiar for the way in which its theories developed to explicate a particular historical moment: from WWI through the Cold War. Its main theoretical core was developed in this relatively short span of time, and as a discipline IR has yet to fully move beyond the assumptions and realities of this period. A lasting consequence has been to confuse ontological categories with historically contingent empirics. In so doing, certain core assumptions have remained unchallenged and many avenues for inquiry have been foreclosed. Theorizations of the “state” are a glaring example of the confusion between concepts and empirics: mainstream IR theory assumes modern nation-states as the model from which to theorize world politics. This “state,” however, is the outcome of the Western political experience in a Westphalian system, and is therefore neither natural nor necessary but just one instantiation of how a polity may be organized. While this historically specific “state” might be useful for analyzing Global North states that have largely adopted the model and share very similar characteristics, its application elsewhere is problematic. When used as an ontological category, the “state” becomes the model against which different political polities are judged and measured; divergences from the model are understood as failures to be explained (and eventually corrected), not as evidence that there are other ways of legitimately and effectively organizing political-social life. In effect, the ontological assumption at the heart of IR is that humans organize themselves into political groups, not that they organize themselves into states. It is the scholarly failure to recognize this difference that has led to an atrophied understanding of much of the Global South as “failure”—of democratization, development, governance, and so on.
This use of a historically contingent Western experience as a core ontological category explains the mainstream IR assumption that Global South theories are merely derivative, that is, that the South need only tweak mainstream IR theories for explanations. The disciplinary concern for generalizability—rather than nuanced understandings of a complex world—has fueled this use of a faulty ontological category. IR has been willing to assume high levels of similarity in core analytical units, such as states, despite serious gaps in empirical data that dispute its conclusions. It has therefore consistently misunderstood and misrepresented much of the world.
IR’s mainstream would do well to rethink generalizability in light of a critical engagement with its actual ontological categories. Global South scholars are not arguing for an abandonment of universally applicable concepts or generalizable explanations; rather, they are calling for greater theoretical humility, and for approaches that do not misrepresent in order to generalize.
Global North Theory
Mainstream IR implicitly assumes that its theories have been able to fully explain the North, relegating the debate to one of how applicable its core concepts are to global scholarship elsewhere. However, the Global North has fundamentally changed over the past hundred years. The Europe and North America of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are neither the European Greco-Roman world that emerged after 1648 nor the United States, Canada, or European Union of today. The leverage of citizens in defining political processes in the West has changed in the past century; citizens today have significant, albeit varied, influences on issues with major global implications, regardless of what foreign policymaking elites think. Mainstream IR should therefore problematize assumptions about political agency in these societies and, more broadly, it should investigate if and how the logic of the state system of today is different from that of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.
IR needs to critically interrogate and debate its assumptions about the world, its units of analysis, and its methodologies if it is to produce research that is able to understand and better explain the empirical realities of the Global North itself.