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).
This page is devoted to short book reviews of publications that I found particularly interesting and insightful.