We all suffer if the field is parochial

27 August 2020, 2145 EDT

David C. Kang is Maria Crutcher Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California, where he also directs the Korean Studies Institute. His latest book, coedited with Stephan Haggard, East Asia in the World: Twelve Events that Shaped the Modern International Order, will be published Cambridge University Press next month.

This summer, the graduate students in our Ph.D. program here at USC, and the undergraduates as well, called for an end to the Eurocentric curriculum in our department. They noted that there are twice as many classes devoted to Europe as there are to any other region of the world; if we add in classes on American politics, there are easily 3x as many classes.

I absolutely support our students in their call to be aware of a Eurocentric curriculum and scholarship, and to our colleagues to think much more widely about, and be open to, ideas and cases that might be much more vivid and lively than they suspect, and have much more to teach us than we originally thought.

In this case, what’s politically important and socially conscious is also scientifically sound. The basic problem of Eurocentric scholarship is selection bias — If we care about social science, and if we want to understand anything about the world, we need to define concepts in generalizable ways. We all suffer if the field is parochial: our concepts are narrow, our cases are truncated, and the true richness and possibility of what international relations actually is can be overlooked.

I want to point out what that means in practice using three examples. I will conclude this post with a few possibilities for both young scholars, and the way we pursue research and publish.

Example 1: When and Where Did Universities Originate?

First, let me start over 20 years ago, when a colleague commented that the University of Bologna was the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088. I responded naively that in 682, the Korean Silla dynasty established the Royal Confucian Academy, with instruction in science, mathematics, Confucian Classics, history, and Chinese literature; in Japan, a Confucian Academy was established around 671, with instruction in the Confucian Classics, calligraphy, law, mathematics, medicine, and Chinese language. Obviously in China the academies were far older than that.

My friend replied, reasonably, that a university is a Western invention and so the Asian examples don’t count. I responded, just as reasonably, that by any definition these were institutions of higher learning that had entrance examinations, institutionalized curricula, extensive libraries, formal academic ranks, and held the sum total of knowledge at the time, which frankly was considerably greater in East Asia than it was in Europe at the time.

My friend defined his concept so narrowly that by definition he was right: Universities are only Western, therefore only Western examples count.

This is pure selection bias: if we widen the term to mean higher education and scholarship, then clearly the Asian examples count. If we care about the concept of higher education, and want to research its impact on scholarship, learning, society, or politics, we would clearly need to use the wider definition. After all, scholar-officials were extraordinarily influential across thousands of years of East Asian society.

Example 2: Which Wars Matter?

Example #2: A few weeks ago, @Beijingpalmer published a great essay calling for not using Greek history – yet again – to draw lessons for Asia, and instead provided 7 examples of Asian wars that might be worth studying. The general response, if my sporadic glancing at my twitter feed is at all scientific (which it is, thank you very much), was that the mainstream IR profession paused, looked up, and then proceeded to debate European history, with spirited defenses of using Thucydides or suggestions that Plutarch or Boethius were better sources to study.

This was selection bias as well: the overwhelming majority of the vast literature on power transitions only uses European cases. Taking the conventional wisdom about power transitions at face value, it would appear that all power transitions in history involved a Western power, and evidently nothing else happened around the rest of the globe. From the Incas and Aztecs to the numerous polities on the Indian subcontinent, not to mention all of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East –evidently none of them ever experienced a power transition. This may be the case, but there is no scholarship that actually asks whether all other regions of the world fall outside of the scope and boundary conditions for the theory to apply. In other words, scholars have not yet directly addressed whether power transition theory can be transposed outside of the European experience, and to what extent it is the appropriate lens to interpret the contemporary East Asian regional security dynamics.

Example 3: What Do We Mean by Nationalism?

Example #3: a few days ago, I posted on the Twitters what I think is a very plausible viewpoint: Asia’s past has a partial affect Asia’s present, and we should take that seriously. I made a side point out Korea as a nation with something that looks like nationalism at least 1,200 years ago. The response has been fascinating: almost nobody has engaged my main point about taking Asian history seriously (maybe I convinced everybody and so I can declare victory and go home? J ) but they did push back on nationalism in Korea, pointing out that nationalism has a very specific definition as a recent, 19th or 20th century phenomenon, and that I need to engage the extant literature on European nationalism, among other comments.

Again, the selection bias: our definition of nationalism is explicitly “modern nationalism,” based on Europe in the 19th century. Therefore, by definition, whatever is going on over in Asian history can’t be nationalism, and doesn’t deserve to be engaged with.  

Note again that we end up arguing about Europe rather than taking the rest of the world seriously.

Europe is never held to account for expectations arising in Asia; but Asia is constantly held to expectations arising in Europe. Can you imagine if somebody writing about 19th century European nationalism and identity was met with a reviewer who said “Korea had a clear national identity a thousand years before you claim it emerged in Europe. You have to engage the literature on proto-nationalism in premodern Korea first, before I’ll take you seriously about Europe.” Yet regularly we are told to engage the literature on Europe and the history of Europe first, and wade through all of that, before anyone will take an argument about East Asia – or any other region of the world, for that matter — seriously.

As Evelyn Goh put it, “many IR scholars who study in-depth other countries or regions will have experienced having to undertake the requisite literature review about ‘the state of the art,’ desperately trying to infer or deduce from a largely US (or Western)-emanated literature that is interested in neither their particular region nor the milieu of their cases.”

This is malapportionment in our discipline, in both scholars who study the West and scholarship about Europe/U.S. We would never plan a discipline like this: where the overwhelming majority of scholars focus on a region that at best has 800 million people (Europe + US); and we have barely any scholars who study India for example, with 1.3 billion people by itself; much less East Asia, with easily 2 billion people, or any other region of the world.

The standard rejoinder has been “Europe was more important substantively for war and wealth,” but that was probably never true – and certainly it’s not true today.

Another rejoinder is that we just have better data and written histories about the West, so it’s natural to do research there. To which my response is that we should then be over-rewarding scholars who bring new data and new evidence from other regions, it should be easier – not harder – for them to publish. They should be cited more – not less – than those working on established, conventional areas. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Calling for an end to Eurocentrism also raises many awkward questions for our discipline, questions that rapidly begin to deal with area studies, language studies, and even power and privilege in the academy. I suspect, for example, that while some of the disdain for area studies has actual methodological bases, at least some of it also comes from the fact that many scholars of IR do not speak foreign languages other than German, Spanish, or French, and only learned Western civilization in school. And charges of Eurocentrism are also implicit calls for them to “go back to school.”

As I tell my graduate students from East Asia, it is absolutely unfair that for you to be at the top of our profession, you must be fluent in English; but to publish at the top of our profession about China, a scholar often doesn’t need to even pretend to know anything about China or Chinese language.

And, the problem is, we all suffer with a provincialism that insists on beginning with the European experience. It’s a tautology, and there is no denting the armor.

I want to help set the context for younger scholars (and students!) to feel empowered to question Eurocentrism. To point out to those who might be open to changing their minds how power and position in our discipline work; but also to know that it is possible to move forward.

The discipline has done a good job responding to the clear evidence of gender bias in publishing – many top journals now explicitly point out that women are cited less frequently and expect all articles to actively attempt to cite more women. My coauthor and I have already pointed out how biased graduate curricula are towards European cases; a few years ago I looked at the absence of Asia in publication patterns; and others have shown the racism woven into the discipline. The evidence is fairly clear that our curriculum, journals, and even the data we collect are biased in favor of Western and European cases, as well…

Overcoming Selection Bias

So…what are we going to do about it?

I have a specific reform that might be useful. 

While it is very easy to skim a bibliography and count up the number of female authors cited, it is only slightly harder to skim a bibliography and assess how many of the empirical sources draw on American or European data/cases as opposed to data and cases from other regions. It is not THAT hard. So just as journals as authors to assess and reflect on the proportion of their citations that are to female-authored scholarship, they should be asked in the boilerplate part of the R&R email to look and make sure they are citing empirical literature drawn from across regions of the world. That isn’t actually a hard reform, and it could be a valuable nudge. Sure, it may just send scholars on a 2 hour project to hunt up a handful of citations post-hoc, but the first couple of times an author does that, they probably have a few “aha!” moments when they find interesting work, and they gradually change practices to perk up when they see non-European cases in a project, even if they are only, at first, spotting an opportunity to add “regional balance” to their bibliographies.

So, just as with gender citations nudges, this would have an effect on the scholars doing the citing. And, this also has an effect on scholars being cited — those citations build prestige and build careers. Now work on non-European regions becomes more likely to be cited and the professional incentives to study non-European regions shift.  The balance of power (slowly) shifts within the discipline.

The same is true when we nudge/force instructors to provide regional balance in readings on an IR syllabus. It gradually builds the awareness and knowledge of the discipline, and it raises the profile and prestige of scholars working on those regions.

Most importantly, we should not just critique Eurocentrism, but also provide clear alternative theoretical and empirical evidence and arguments. Truly “Global IR” as Amitav Acharya called it many years ago. That’s the way forward for all of us. It is up to those of us who see the alternative possibilities to work between and within accepted IR theory and evidence; and also with new theories arguments, and evidence.

This is exceedingly difficult – it is much harder to introduce new data, new empirical concepts, and new arguments than it is to work off of accepted stylized facts or in regions where there is a comfortable conventional wisdom. It is always harder to push against institutions and established norms than with them; and the burden of proof will be higher.

But if we can embrace a true widening, the reward individually, and as a discipline, can be considerable.