Core, periphery and (neo) imperalist IR

16 September 2013, 0927 EDT

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.
Terms such as core and periphery (or third world) are largely passé, and may even be conceptually and heuristically objectionable on the grounds that they are rooted in dichotomous language that reproduces power differentials between diverse actors and sites around the world.  However, core-periphery like logics similar to those described by world-system and dependency theory in the 1960s and 1970s are still operational in multiple spheres of (globalized) human activity, including knowledge building.   International Relations (IR) is no exception.  Despite its lip-service to pluralism, and growing attempts to decolonize and decenter it by incorporating non-Western and peripheral readings of the world, IR remains fairly resilient to change.   Why and how the field continues to exhibit and to recreate (neo) imperialist features has failed to engage both critical scholarship that underscores the power relations that play out in academia, and analysts of IR outside the West.  The purpose of my article is to begin to fill this void by exploring the core-periphery dynamics that characterize the field of International Relations.

In the case of International Relations, I identify several kinds of placing strategy that seem to stand out: “fitting in”… “domination by invitation”… and “delinking.”

In order to do this, I make use of general insights provided by science studies.   I find Bruno Latour´s work especially helpful because he approaches fields of scholarly inquiry as global networks that link distinct peripheries to “centres of calculation” in which data is created and processed, and theories are drafted.  In doing so, Latour maps the intellectual division of labor that characterizes scientific enterprises across the globe.   However, post-Kuhnian analyses such as his are less helpful for understanding how power accrued in the core translates into scientific (neo) imperialism, nor its effects upon knowledge-building in those sites that occupy the peripheral rungs of global disciplinary chains.  I argue that instead of agent-less sites upon which power is enforced, peripheral scientific communities make use of distinct ploys in order to place themselves vis-à-vis core-periphery structures.   In the case of International Relations, I identify several kinds of placing strategy that seem to stand out: “fitting in” (premised on acceptance of core domination and academic moves to gain recognition and position within existing core-periphery logics); “domination by invitation” (by which local state, academic or private sector elites conduct explicit campaigns to reinforce relations of domination with U.S. (or Western) bearers of knowledge in order to promote intellectual development); and “delinking” (which stakes out a position of difference outside of or in opposition to core IR).   The fact that I am a participant in this special issue of the European Journal of International Relations, “speaking” from (but hopefully not for) the periphery despite my American origins, suggests that I am at least partially a “fitter inner”.

The core-periphery dynamics traced in science studies have also been documented in the social sciences, albeit to a lesser degree.  Documents such as the UNESCO 2010 World Social Science Report (PDF) highlight severe asymmetries within and between countries and regions around the world in areas such as material and human resources, institutional conditions, and intensity and quality of research.   Bibliometric analyses underscore the invisibility of the global South as measured by participation in internationally recognized peer reviewed journals and citation patterns.  Peripheral scholars themselves reproduce asymmetries in this realm by referring overwhelmingly to core literatures.   Language too acts to exclude those scholars whose main language of publication is not English.  Finally, although some forms of social science, such as public advocacy or public research, are prevalent means of intellectual engagement in many peripheral sites, especially those that are inward-looking (as opposed to be internationally oriented), they are often considered “unscientific” and thus ill-suited for academic journals, with which their marginality is reinforced.

IR displays the same traits as those observed in the social sciences in general.  However, the field’s political economy stands out due to its origins in a single country and to U.S. hegemony and domination over both academic production (in which the size and material resources of the academic community play no small role) and political practice.   Thirty-five years after Stanley Hoffmann’s (PDF) depiction of International Relations as an American social science, some of its basic contours have changed surprisingly little.  International relations textbooks continue to be written by American (and British) authors and rely upon Eurocentric representations in which the United States and Europe are at the center of world politics; publishing patterns in specialized IR journals indicate the pervasiveness of these same scholars; and IR teaching, especially in the area of theory, revolves largely around U.S. authored approaches.  Equally disconcerting, the IR professoriate from 11 countries located outside of Europe and North America is similarly non-pluralist: the 2011 Teaching and Research in International Politics (TRIP) survey indicates that for these scholars too, not a single non-Anglo American has exerted the greatest influence on IR in the past 20 years, or produced the most interesting or best scholarship.

IR scholarship in the periphery is literally “boxed in” by a disciplinary structure within which attempts to overturn (neo) imperialist practices have been relatively futile.

One of the paradoxes that my article highlights is that the deeply rooted core-periphery logic that characterizes global International Relations, in which scholars and institutions from both are actively involved, makes operating  from within the field somewhat counterproductive. IR scholarship in the periphery is literally “boxed in” by a disciplinary structure within which attempts to overturn (neo) imperialist practices have been relatively futile.  Embracing a post-foundational definition of “science” falls short of disrupting the intellectual division of labor characteristic of IR.  Strategies that acknowledge and embrace diversity are inadequate too because scientific cores are hard-pressed to recognize non-Western or Southern intellectual contributions as equals without undermining their own power, privilege and place in the world knowledge chain.

In short, accepting that the field of International Relations would be well served by making room for different know-hows scattered across a wide geocultural spectrum is insufficient to dismantle existing asymmetries.   If knowledge of world politics as recounted by IR is (neo) imperialist and therefore, objectionable, the obvious question is whether or not moving beyond it – towards other fields of study, other places and other sources outside the university – may be a fruitful way forward.  Although in this article I merely pose the question, the contributors to my and David L. Blaney´s Claiming the International (Routledge: 2013) engage it fully.

Editor’s Note: This is the 21st installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post refers to Tickner’s article  (PDF). A response, authored by Naeem Inayatullah, will appear at 10am Eastern.