Isn’t it strange that international relations would avoid sustained engagement with national groups to disproportionately favor inter-state relations? Can “Western” defined academic disciplines rise above their original intentions to support the European-centered colonial project? How has IR, as a discipline, managed to avoid taking on North American relations with indigenous populations? These questions and others are central to J. Marshal Beier’s International Relations in Uncommon Places, which I have just finished reading as part of a winter reading list (of my own creation, of course).
Dr. Beier’s puzzle is simple enough: Why has IR largely ignored indigenous peoples? Why should indigenous peoples be an “uncommon place” to find IR, when their position is clearly the result of international history/politics (i.e. colonialism)? His argument is largely situated in the history of the discipline, and what he calls the hegemonologue. Don’t let the terminology fool you, the book is largely digestible even for the less linguistically elevated of readers (in which, I would count myself). Rather is it meant that IR and other co-disciplines have failed to adequately take on the topic of indigenous peoples as a result of a hegemonic monologue. In other words, scholars tend to perpetuate the historical and cosmological ideology of the hegemonic power, without any note of conversation with indigenous people’s own cosmologies. Rather, IR (as well as anthropology and history) perpetuates the erasure of indigenous ways of knowing by devaluing oral histories and not engaging with indigenous populations.
Even when IR scholars do make reference to indigenous populations it has historically been in the context of the realist “state of nature” and the anarchy of pre-U.S. America. The author is quick to point out that even the theoretical commitments of the supposed emancipatory schools of thought, such as post-structuralism, feminism, and Marxism, will often repeat the same mistakes. Rather than being counter-hegemonic, much of this critical literature is contra-hegemonic, meaning that while it may seek emancipation it does so only on its own terms (Beier 2005, p. 46). Indigenous understandings of the world are international theories in their own rights, and IR scholars will need to recognize their value in order to address the shortcomings of the discipline.
The author relies on the Lakota as his principle case study. However, the case study is really there as more of an example to carry his arguments into the realm of reality. Still, I am left to wonder about the utility of the case study to his argument, and whether by presenting relatively little Lakota-specific information, he has not lost an opportunity to offer the reader more on Lakota ways of being, knowing, and teaching. I am sympathetic that the book is aimed more at establishing the guidelines of how to enter into an IR that can begin to value alternative/indigenous cosmologies than to actually start the conversation (in his words: pre-conversational moment). However, I saw little evidence of his own attempts at conversation, making it still a little unclear what the take-away of this book/project should be.
In the end, this book is a welcome and necessary addition to the reading list of any student of International Relations interested in pushing the discipline to move beyond its Western-centric origins and committed to valuing different cosmologies within their work. Personally, it had a great impact on me, my methodological and theoretical commitments, and my future research plans. Great book!
(Note that I am trying to keep book reviews under 500 words whenever possible, and as such may not give the books the full justice they deserve).
After a semester of indoctrination into the cult of political science, I am convinced that this ‘science’ is based on the all-important de-personalization of scholarship. Research topics, proposals, and interests are to be thoroughly based on possible contributions to the field: personal interests are to be hidden and avoided- feared as unprofessional and not serious. I am completely convinced…
…or at least I thought I was before reading this excellent volume compiled/edited by Dr. Naeem Inayatullah at Ithaca College. Autobiographical International Relations is likely to be one of the most unique publications in IR literature, combining stunning insights into methodology, international politics, and history alongside an intimate, almost voyeuristic insight into the personal relationship scholars have with their research and their personal motivations for entering our unique craft.
As we should expect from Inayatullah and the other critical voices of political science/IR, the common theme between most articles is a certain level of discomfort with the common IR tropes of globalization, the post-imperial moment, and privilege. Now, I for one was certainly exhausted by these themes during my undergraduate work, having spent too much time in Gender Studies classes; however, the books engagement with these issues remains nuanced, sophisticated, and (as you may have guessed) autobiographical. Additionally, it is not a boring compilation of solely American scholars, but includes contributions from South Asia, the Balkans, and Europe as well. The book does more than hint that its commitment to diversity is intentional, pointing out the privilege U.S. researchers often enjoy when working overseas.
While I found every chapter contribution exciting and unique, a couple of the stories stand out in my memory. Narendran Kumarakulsingam’s childhood as a Tamil in Sri Lanka revealed the important ways that politics are perpetuated, played out, and even formulated on the playground. Politics and international affairs are not relegated to government palaces and the ministries of foreign affairs, but are deeply personal, manifesting themselves in the seemingly universal playground fights and elementary school disciplinary procedures that we are all familiar with. Khadija F. El Alaoui made me noticeably uncomfortable with her account of teaching American politics in Morocco and other parts of the Arab world. U.S. scholars miss important considerations by failing to understand the U.S. from the eyes of the outside world. Students decrying human rights abuses and imperialism can simultaneously oppose U.S. operations in the Middle East even when they appear to us (U.S.?) to be fighting for those very ideals. Finally, I was left very introspective after reading Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s deeply personal account of his experience with the autism spectrum, from his own high-functioning variety to his son’s seemingly much more serious condition.
My personal favorites aside, the goal of the book is to show that our personal histories, ideas, values, and cultural background are always shaping our intellectual interests. The epilogue points out that the editor is more likely to ask a scholar what makes them angry over the more common question of disciplinary interests. The question, like the approach of the book in general, is subversive and radical.
Ultimately, we are left to question whether personal interests are not the center of scholarship, rather than a side issue to be avoided in favor of a supposed professionalism.
This page is devoted to short book reviews of publications that I found particularly interesting and insightful.