International Relations and the Problem of Literacy

4 April 2024, 0930 EDT

In the introductory article of the International Affairs special issue on “Race and Imperialism in International Relations: Theory and Practice,” guest editors Jasmine K. Gani and Jenna Marshall explain that the special issue is both “a call for repair,” and an invitation to adopt “courage and creativity in how we cultivate knowledge, in questioning the purpose and the ends of that knowledge, and to be discerning in how we try to put it into practice.”

The contributions together present important interventions in International Relations (IR) scholarship by not only coming to grips with essential critiques of mainstream approaches to International Relations and what/who they left out of their analyses, but also in moving the needle in terms of repair by providing rich, in-depth cases of alternativity.

Does IR have a knowledge inequity problem?

An important thread that cuts across the entire special issue which I found to be of utmost importance is the question of inequity in knowledge production and knowledge traditions in International Relations. Indeed, one can argue that one of main pitfalls of the discipline is a problem of literacy.

Do we create silos of “diversity and inclusion?”

There is no shortage of knowledge produced in various traditions and diverse scholarly communities. There is no lack of theoretical traditions and political thought that come from non-Euro-American and mainstream canons. There is also no shortage in theoretical concepts and approaches to global politics that are not produced in Anglophone spaces.

Rather, there is still in mainstream International Relations a major problem of literacy to access, integrate, and dialogue with this wealth of IR scholarship produced in and from the margins. These problems of literacy can be summarized in three interconnected aspects.

The first aspect, a rather surface-level one, is about who and how we read and teach in our IR classrooms. How do we construct our reading lists and who do we include and leave out really matters. When teaching about political traditions and political thought, do we teach W.E.B DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter as part of “regular” International Relations or do we create silos of “diversity and inclusion”? Is it enough to reinforce a Manichean system, to use Fanon’s description of the colonial order, with a majority of time spent on mainstream IR peppered with a minimalized, overcrowded, and non-nuanced presentation of, among others, indigenous knowledge traditions?

A race adjacent discipline

The second aspect of International Relations’ problems of literacy is the relationship between knowledge production and impact in academia.

The discipline has most certainly come a long way in terms of being socialized to “other” ways of knowing and experiencing the international. Feminist scholarship is one example of the tectonic shifts that the field incurred. Yet, more distance has to be crossed in terms of reconciling research portfolios that center race and imperialism as part and parcel of what is counted as International Relations “proper” and not an adjacent discipline.

The world always had many centers

This is an issue of territoriality, gatekeeping, and disciplining of what counts as “international relations” and what is pushed aside as area studies, anthropology, history, or other fields “outside” of the disciplinary boarders of “International Relations proper.” Indeed, beyond the surface level of what and who we read lies this deeper issue of what is published, mentored, and nurtured for grants, university press publications, and so on.

In short, what forms of publishing do we consider as part of IR scholarship?

Bridging gaps across multiple worlds

The third element of International Relations’ problems of literacy is the presumed gap to be bridged between academia and “real life.”

In most International Relations settings in many Global South institutions, there is a much more sober realization that scholarship has “real life” impact—not only (or even mainly) on the international institutions that “impact-minded” scholars look to influence. Intentions aside, to presume a high degree of detachment between academics and real life is deeply problematic as policymakers are typically trained in academic classrooms and socialized in academic knowledge-producing institutions. A presumed gap to bridge is a gap perhaps facilitated if not made within the realm of academic classrooms.

The field’s problem of literacy exists, therefore, at various levels of awareness, reflexivity, and ethics of knowledge production and knowledge consumption.

In the end, the special issue’s call for repair is also a call for righting the way we approach literacy in the discipline. It is not enough to speak of decentering or decolonizing this or that aspect of IR scholarship. The world always had many centers and speaking in the language of decentering means buying into the false assumption that the world has one center that needs to be decentered. The more urgent task is to rectify how we read, who we read, why we read, and what we do with it in the broader discipline of International Relations.