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Problematizing Global Challenges:
Recalibrating the “Inter” in IR-Theory
Goethe University Frankfurt
MORTEN VA LBJ ØR N
Keywords: international relations theories, inter, space, Global IR
The field of IR has been described as an “‘inter’-type discipline,” in the sense that
it is devoted to studying the interactions of different kinds of international actors
(Lapid 1996, 10). However, despite the fact that the discipline has never been
a-vis the “in-between” (or relational) dimension of the subject matter
(Kaiser 1971, 791; Rosenau 1990, 40–42; Kratochwil 2007, 502–3), much of the
focus in recent years’ discussions has, in various ways, been directed to the inter-
national in IR-theory. While acknowledging that this has alerted the discipline
about the prevalent Western-centrism in much IR-theory and how it helped foster
an awareness of the diversity of IR-communities around the globe, the present
forum takes its point of departure in the view that in order to make the academic
field of IR-theory worthy of its own name, it is now time to move the debate
about global IR (Acharya 2014) a step further and connect it to what has been
unearthed in recent decades’ mapping of IR around the globe. To succeed in
this endeavor, this forum suggests that it is necessary to both refocus and recali-
brate the “inter” in IR-theory. Thus, in addition to bringing attention back to
the inter-national dimension of IR-theory, it is also necessary to examine the
Gunther Hellmann is Professor of Political Science and a principal investigator in the Cluster of Excellence
“The Formation of Normative Orders” at the Goethe University Frankfurt.
Morten Valbjørn is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University.
Acknowledgment: We are grateful to Carina Berg, the editors of International Studies Review, and three anonym-
ous reviewers for critically engaging with our forum. The “EISA Exploratory Symposia” in Rapallo in the fall of 2014
provided a stimulating environment. Thanks also to Daniel Fehrmann for research assistance and technical support.
Hellmann, Gunther. (2017) Problematizing Global Challenges: Recalibrating the “Inter” in IR-Theory. International Studies
Review, doi: 10.1093/isr/vix009
CThe Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Studies Review (2017) 00,1–31
conditions that determine how relevant actors (e.g., scholars and practitioners)
interact in producing knowledge about “the international,” that is, the forms,
formats, and foci of intellectual interactions (cf. Ro¨sch and Watanabe 2016;
In this introduction, we will first elaborate the background for this call in order
to explain why it is necessary and how it relates to, but also aims at transcending,
the discussions about (post)-Western IR-theory in recent decades. We conclude
with a sketch of how a recalibration of the “inter” in IR-theory involves a range of
dimensions to be taken into consideration and how these are examined in the
various contributions to this forum.
Inventing the Western Origins of IR-Theory
The introductory remark about IR’s “inter”-type appeared in one of the volumes
that marked the arrival of “the ship of culture” (Lapid 1996) to the field of IR,
which in the subsequent decades has been preoccupied with investigating its
cargo. As a result, the perception of IR as “culture-blank” has been challenged
based on an argument about how the study of international relations has been
blind not only to the diversity of the various forms of behavior, dynamics, and
actors in international relations, but also to its own limited or bounded perspec-
tive (Chan 2001;Valbjørn 2008).
One of the outcomes of this critique has been an “inward-looking” debate
about whether IR was made “by and for the West” (Barkawi and Laffey 2006), to
what extent it can be described as an American social science (Hoffmann 1977; see
also Crawford and Jarvis 2001;Kristensen 2015;Turton 2016), and how core as-
sumptions of the discipline are embedded in Western—or, even more narrowly,
Anglo-American—intellectual traditions and experiences (Gruffydd Jones 2006;
Mapping the Global Field of (Post-Western) IR
This critique of IR as being culture-blind has subsequently given rise to a more
“outward-looking” debate. Instead of examining expressions of parochialism
within Western IR, this debate has engaged in a “mapping” of IR globally based
on the assumption that the study of international relations might be “quite dif-
ferent in different places” (Wæver 1998, 723). This “mapping exercise” led to a
rich and diverse literature on various dimensions of “post-Western IR”
(Mandaville 2003,211),howinternationalrelations are seen differently from a
“Third World/Global South” perspective (Tickner 2003), and whether/why
there is no “non-Western” IR-theory (Acharya and Buzan 2007). “IR scholarship
around the world” (Tickner and Wæver 2009) has been mapped as reflected in
the growing number of publications about IR with national (Chinese, Japanese,
Russian, Danish, Indian, French, German) or regional (Asian, European, Latin
American, African) characteristics (Xinning 2001;Tickner 2003;Jørgensen and
Knudsen 2006;Behera 2007;Inoguchi 2007). This mapping exercise has shown
how the evolution of academic IR-communities around the world has differed
from the standard story about great debates in (American) IR (Jørgensen 2000)
and how key concepts in IR may have different meanings in different geograph-
ical contexts (Tickner and Blaney 2012). Finally, scholars have explored classic
doctrinal sources of various cultures/civilizations that have given rise to consid-
erations about Hindu Constructivism, Confucian Marxism, ancient Chinese con-
ceptions of the other, and Taoist notions of global security (Dallmayr 2002;
2International Studies Review
Internationalizing or Re-Nationalizing IR?
On the one hand, these inward-looking self-reflections among Western scholars
combined with the outward-looking mapping exercises into other ways of concep-
tualizing the “international” are important and necessary steps toward making
IR-theory worthy of its own name. On the other hand, these efforts are insuffi-
cient and entail pitfalls, which may end up being counterproductive. One of the
pitfalls relates specifically to the strand of research that studies classical sources
for identifying presumably distinct non-Western ways of “seeing the interna-
tional.” This entails the risk of constructing a story about IR in country X similar
to previous versions of IR’s general/Western history. Here, the focus has been on
the myth of the disciplines’ great “founding fathers,” like Thucydides,
Machiavelli, and Hobbes, which resulted in the history of the field being “written
in terms of the development of an epic tradition” (Schmidt 2002, 7). It yielded an
idealized version of the past where attention has been diverted from the actual
academic practices and individuals who have contributed to the development of
the field. In a similar way, speculations on what IR might be like when it draws on
Chinese philosophy, Buddhism, or Islam entails the risk of diverting attention
from how IR-scholars and -practitioners in a particular country actually under-
stand international relations.
More generally, mapping exercises carry the danger that a fixation on exotic
difference will result in a kind of “re-nationalization” of IR where we all end up
presumably living in separate universes (Buzan 2016). From a sociology of science
perspective, one can easily explain why one may want to push the view that “only
Chinese” can understand China’s role and conduct in international affairs—to
use China here as a placeholder for any other “national” variant. Raising the
equivalent of a non-tariff trade barrier to knowledge claims from outside China
about the question what drives “China” normally helps establish “domestic” con-
trol of the “China in IR” knowledge market. Aside from the fact that this variation
of methodological nationalism tends to reinforce the role of the nation-state as
the most basic (and even “natural”) organizing principle of social and political
relations (Chernilo 2006), it can also result in a kind of exceptionalism and
regional/national narcissism according to which “my country” can only be under-
stood on its own terms and by means of special theories that also account for
From Inter-National to Inter-National
These potential pitfalls associated with a strong attention to the inter-national in
IR-theory do not mean that previous mapping exercises have been futile. On the
contrary, they have, in important ways, contributed to a greater awareness of the
diversity of IR-communities around the globe. However, the ambition of making
IR into a truly international discipline requires that we move a step further in order
to connect what has been unearthed in previous mapping exercises. It is time to
bring the “inter” back by refocusing the inter-national in IR-theory.
This call is based on the conviction that the fact we are not all alike does not
mean that we live in separate universes. Theories, approaches, and debates from
the “academic world market” do travel (Bilgin 2008). Interestingly enough,
Chinese traditions may, in fact, be at least as forthcoming as “Western” traditions
(if not more so) when the development of new ideas and new methods for the
practice of political and cross-cultural theory is called for (Jenco 2007). What we
need is a willingness to engage—based on the assumption that we may acquire
valuable knowledge if we look at cosmologies, philosophies, and/or theories as
being accessible, at least in principle, by anyone. Foreign systems of knowledge
may not be easy to understand. However, as Jenco puts it, with reference to two
THE FORUM 3
Chinese classicists, their “borders are made permeable not by means of prior in-
tellectual or ethnic background, but by means of ... very hard work” (Jenco 2007,
Towards a Recalibration of the “Inter” in IR-Theory
If genuine interaction is possible in principle, but will only succeed through “very
hard work,” a call for a stronger focus on the inter-national in IR-theory should,
therefore, not only specify “why” this is important. It must also address the ques-
tion about “how” this becomes feasible. In other words, it is necessary also to re-
flect on the conditions that determine how relevant actors interact in producing
knowledge about “the international” and whether and how this entails some kind
of “recalibration” of our notion of the “inter” in (i)nternational (r)elations.
One might approach this task by distinguishing two dimensions: (a) the empir-
ical subject matter of international relations phenomena “out there” in the world,
which is sometimes labeled as the “ontological” dimension of international rela-
tions, and (b) our ways of conceiving or conceptualizing these matters (sometimes
referred to as the “epistemological” dimension of IR). Although distinctions such
as this one between ontology and epistemology are heavily loaded and contentious
in themselves, they might serve as a rough guide in sketching the way ahead.
Key “ontological” references in IR, such as distinctions between “agents” (e.g.,
states or non-state actors), “structures” (e.g., anarchic systems or polarity), and
processes (e.g., interaction, relations or “structuration” [Giddens 1984, 5–28])
have become sufficiently accepted among IR-scholars to form a basic common vo-
cabulary in order to grasp and theorize these phenomena in varied forms. Knud
Erik Jørgensen’s contribution to this forum provides a new take at the ontology of
international relations by re-describing global dynamics in terms of multiple dis-
tinct inter-related “chess-boards” of orders and how the horizontal global order of
sovereign states coexists with a hierarchical vertical order of empires. Felix Ro¨sch
investigates another ontological dimension of the “inter,” that is, the space that
fosters dialogue in the “inter.” Stressing its precariousness, Ro¨sch argues that
space needs to be conceptualized liminally, as it enables us to experience individ-
ual subjectivity-boundaries. Realizing these boundaries encourages dialogues that
make collective spaces as capacity imaginable. Other conceptualizations highlight-
ing the ontological priority of the “inter” include forms of theorization that em-
phasize a shift from the fixation on both agents and structures toward “process”
or “relations” (cf. Jackson and Nexon 1999;Qin 2011).
A recalibration of the “inter” also calls for adjustments in how we think about
and approach the very conceptualization of the phenomena of international rela-
tions, a dimension of thought that is often referred to as epistemology. This
relates to the very conditions of possibility of drawing meaningful distinctions lin-
guistically in the first place and making these distinctions sufficiently understood
and accepted among scholars and practitioners belonging to different epistemic
communities. The contributions by Morten Valbjørn and Gunther Hellmann illus-
trate this dimension. Based on an argument about the importance of “dialoguing
about dialogues,” Valbjørn presents a typology of four different ideal-typical no-
tions of dialogue (hierarchical, reflexive, transformative, and eristic) and shows
how they differ regarding the purpose, procedure, and product of dialoging in
global IR. Hellmann discusses the prerequisites, difficulties, and opportunities of
translating (or “interpreting”) different vocabularies of international politics in
such a way that they render common descriptions of global developments pos-
sible. Finally, the contribution by Audrey Alejandro shows how the ontological and
epistemological dimensions are intertwined. Based on interviews with IR-scholars
in India and Brazil, she provides evidence as to how recalibrating the “inter” in IR
4International Studies Review
might be achieved via reflexively transforming the narrative upon which our rela-
tion to our foreign colleagues relies.
Inter Alia: On Global Orders, Practices, and
KNUD ERIK JøRGENSEN
Yas¸ar University and Aarhus University
In contrast to science, it is fairly common in science fiction to encounter and ex-
plore parallel worlds. In IR, we tend to shy away from the possible existence of
parallel worlds. According to a widespread worldview in the field, there is, as
Stephen Walt (1998) has put it, “one world—many theories.” In this brief essay, I
will explore three parallel worlds, arguing that they are not at all fictional but very
real and should become the subject of a six continents social science that we with
a well-established misnomer call IR (Jørgensen 2003, 2017). Hence, the “inter” I
focus on is thus foremost ontological and concerns relations between these paral-
lel worlds as well as relations between the multiple units we can identify in these
worlds. More specifically, I aim at making three points. First, I argue that the
conceptual triptych (state/empire/civilization) provides a helpful guide to the
parallel worlds, their inter-relations, and how the units are intertwined. Because
conceptualization helps us know the parallel worlds, the triptych establishes an
“inter” between ontological and epistemological dimensions. The extended con-
ceptual repertoire allows for a broader understanding of identity politics that
goes beyond default (state) understandings of self and other. Second, the triptych
allows for the inclusion of non-Western IR-theories that despite rumors about the
opposite do exist and do provide insightful guides to things inter-national/-
state/-empire/-civilization. These theories are not only insightful, but also
innovative in their conceptions of global orders and thus most suitable for global
reflexive dialogues. Third, I argue that the non-Western theories demonstrate, in-
advertently, that Europe or “the West” no longer enjoys a monopoly on ethnocen-
trism, exceptionalism, or universalism, making criticism of Eurocentrism both
relatively less relevant and—in its generic form—more relevant than ever.
A Promising Triptych: State, Empire, Civilization
The conceptual triangle of state, empire, and civilization is back in vogue yet char-
acterized by a very uneven degree of refined conceptualization and continuously
slides between analytical and political-ideological functions of the concepts. We
have probably been too successful in persuading ourselves (and our students)
that the only world order of significance is the international states system; an
order where the state is considered the most successful entity of all and where all
alternatives are either absent, irrelevant, or insignificant. We developed our speci-
alized IR language to help us explicate the dynamics of the global order of states.
However, the vocabulary appears increasingly insufficient. About two decades ago,
Lucian Pye (1992) conceptualized China as “a civilization that pretends to be a
state,” that is, a civilization first and foremost and only pretending to be a state.
Indian scholars tend occasionally to claim a similar identity for India. At the same
time, Samuel Huntington experienced great success with his (re-)introduction of
THE FORUM 5
primordial civilizations, bound to be in conflict, and prominent politicians were
keen to develop global discourses on civilization. A decade later, the George W.
Bush administration and the Iraq War triggered a renaissance of the notion of
empire as a relevant concept for global order (Lake 2008). In addition, Hartmut
Behr (2010) and Mark Langan (2015) have suggested that the EU represents a
system of imperial rule cultivating neo-colonial relations. Finally, Janusz
Onyszkiewicz (2015; see also Trenin 2011;van Herpen 2014) claims that Putin’s
Russia is “an empire that wants to be a civilization.”
While traditional conceptions of the Westphalian system of states are character-
ized by simplicity, extensions with either multilateralism (Ruggie 1992)oran
emerging global public domain (Ruggie 2004a) blur simplicity. However,
conceptions of global order in terms of states, civilizations, and empires blow
away simplicity by introducing dimensions of culture and religion as well as hier-
archical international orders that are outside the boundaries or comfort zones of
The notion of empire usually carries negative connotations, and for many this
function is a sufficient reason to employ the term. Onyskiewicz’s performative act
of labeling Russia as “an empire that wants to be a civilization” is functioning as a
message that does not need explication. Typologies of empire or refined concep-
tualization come second, if at all, and rigorous conceptual or empirical analysis is
usually not on the research agenda and anathema to the political agenda. Empire
as an inter-state hierarchical order is largely off the research agenda, and it
follows that theorizing about inter-empire relations is limited. Classical configur-
ations such as the European Concert are analyzed in great power balance-of-
power terms and thus without the disturbing factor of hierarchical relations
within the involved empires. When conceptualizing international society, English
School theorists elegantly avoid the issue (Keene 2002). Scholars typically analyze
regional great powers as lesser great powers than global great powers and not as
imperial powers. Regarding the EU case, Langan goes back to Ghanese president
Kwame Nkrumah’s notion of neo-colonialism and Behr (2007) finds inspiration
in historical inter-empire relations, specifically relations between nineteenth-
century European empires and the Ottoman Empire.
The parallel worlds that are constituted by states, civilizations, and empires are
inter-related, and they interact in often complex fashions. In order to compre-
hend the complexity of inter-world relations, Rudra Sil and Peter Katzenstein’s
(2010; also Katzenstein 2009) work on civilizations represents a quantum leap in
terms of turning civilization into an analytical concept. He elegantly balances the
controversial distinction between civilization and civilizations. He skips the notion
of primordial civilizations, presenting them as malleable and characterized by in-
ternal diversity. Moreover, as the parallel worlds are parallel, it is probably helpful
to think in terms of both/and instead of either/or. These social structures inter-
act. Brzezinski and Mearsheimer might be correct in observing how China is
being socialized into the Westphalian order of states, Ikenberry might be correct
in observing how China is being socialized into the multilateral system, but Pye
might also have a point in characterizing China as a civilization-state where the
ruling elite thinks in terms of civilization yet engages in the Westphalian order.
Does Russia cultivate “frozen conflicts” in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia,
and Ukraine in order to assert or protect a Russian civilization based on
Orthodox Christianity, Russian language, and the mythological “Rus”? Are the
conflicts in Chechnya or Dagestan the outposts of a Christian (Orthodox) civiliza-
tion facing a different (Muslim) civilization or simply unruly provinces in a
Russian empire? Is the Eurasian Union a means to (re-)establish a Russian empire
with an Orthodox civilizational core or simply a response by Russia facing NATO
(and the EU) in the West and a rising China in the East? Does civilization dis-
course guide or shape policymaking, or is such discourse merely being used
6International Studies Review
instrumentally to justify policies that are determined by other factors? This is obvi-
ously a general issue, and as many binaries invite, the debate can go on forever.
However, we could also respond by saying, “It depends,” thus abandoning the fu-
tile search for a final solution and instead allowing for both roles and essentially
making it an empirical issue.
It might be that we academics have our preferences regarding the phenomena
we find worthwhile, analyzing how we want to explain these phenomena, but we
do not have a monopoly on explananda or explanans. Politicians, journalists, mili-
tary folks, diplomats, and religious people all have their worldviews and en-
trenched ideas about how the world operates. They have their vocabularies and
teach students often a long time before students become our students. These con-
ceptualizations do not make these authors IR-scholars, and their worldviews are
not necessarily IR-theory. But their thinking and worldviews might well have an
impact on how the world operates even if we, the observers, refuse to accept or
recognize the parallel worlds or the cognitive practices.
Beyond the Global Northwest: Theorizing Ontological Incongruence
The conceptual triptych enables the inclusion of non-Western IR-theories and
thus a better understanding of the degree to which global IR-theories reflect con-
temporary global politics practices. I argue that the ontology of the parallel worlds
helps us better understand the dynamics of contemporary conceptualization and
theory building in a discipline that is in a state of “after hegemony” (Jørgensen
2014). Shih and Yin (2013, 72) employ the term “ontological incongruence” for
global orders that are constituted by different types of units—states, civilizations,
or empires—and how these units are intertwined. However, ontological incongru-
ence is not only about global orders constituted by different types of units, and
how these units are intertwined, but also concerns our specialized vocabularies.
Once upon a time, Europe’s self-image was “the civilization,” in the singular,
capable of setting “standards of civilization” (Gong 1984). These days, Europe
shies away from such bragging self-images, leaving it to upbeat nationalists on
other continents. At the same time, authoritarian presidents are keen to propose
“dialogues among civilizations” (Khatami and Erdogan). While the Chinese con-
ception of sovereignty is said to be “modern” (in contrast to a European postmod-
ern conception), it is in potential conflict with the Confucian idea of a harmoni-
ous society, characterized by unity and order, and based on dynastic
authoritarianism, that is, a hierarchical mode of international politics. In Russia,
the notion of “nova Russia” surfaced for a while as a cognitive frame, meaning the
civilization of all Russians, no matter in which state they live. The cognitive frame
accompanies the idea that states x, y, and z are not really states.
In non-Western IR-theory, key terms include both “empire” and “civilization,” yet
limited conceptualization characterizes each term. Relations between civilizations
and the states system are not addressed in any systematic fashion, yet intriguing sug-
gestions flourish. Moreover, scholars have promoted and critiqued both empire
and civilization. While critique of Western imperialism is to be expected, the active
promotion of non-Western empires is perhaps slightly surprising. The author of
the preface to Civilizations and World Order (Dallmayr, Kayapinar, and Yaylaci 2014),
Ahmet Davutoglu, is both the former Turkish prime minister and, as IR-scholar,
the author of “Strategic Depth,” a blueprint for neo-Ottomanism, that is, a highly
contested term in Turkish identity politics. In Iranian identity politics, processes of
self-image formation draw not only on Islamic sources but also on imperial and civi-
lizational sources. In the China case, the harmonious world idea has striking simi-
larities with imperial peace. In Russia, Alexander Dugin and other neo-Eurasianists
do not hide their appetite for a new Russian empire, specifically a (re-)integrated
Soviet empire without communism. Andrei Tsygankov (2008) introduces the rich
THE FORUM 7
tradition of civilizational debates in Russia and situates the civilizational perspec-
tives along two axes: their identity—Europe/West vs. non-West—and their degree
of essentialism. In Russian civilizational debates, it is particularly the Eurasianist cur-
rent of thinking that cultivates counter-hegemonic but not anti-hegemonic ideas.
Whereas balance-of-power theory provides a rationale for avoiding hegemony,
Eurasianists seek to counter and replace what they see as an existing Western he-
gemony. Drawing on Slavophil ideas, neo-Eurasianists are convinced that they can
count the days of Western world leadership and that Russia will replace the West.
Concerning India, Priya Chacko (2012) navigates brilliantly between traditional
and revisionist perspectives on Indian foreign policy, the former emphasizing
Indian versions of idealism, the latter emphasizing why India needs to “grow up”
by means of adopting power-oriented perspectives. Her own approach is to con-
sider foreign policy “a self-reflexive ethico-political project of identity construc-
tion.” She emphasizes the deep ambivalences in Indian discourses on foreign pol-
icy and analyses the meta-narratives that present India as a civilization-state
embedded in civilizational exceptionalism. Unhappy with the tendency to keep
analysis at a general level, she explores how ideas about civilization inform policy-
making and the conduct of foreign relations including the role of civilization dis-
course in reasons for action, that is, in strategies of justification.
Ever more states are thus lining up for a status as a civilization-state and/or -em-
pire, and political discourses related to inter-civilization relations are thriving.
Among the main initiatives, we find the “Dialogue among Civilizations” (former
Iranian president Khatami) and the UN-sponsored “Alliance of Civilizations.”
Given the global material power shifts and the sustained debates about normative
global orders, it is increasingly clear that IR is moving toward an after-hegemony
phase (Jørgensen 2014). Theoretical perspectives and debates on global order
have become de-centric, are conducted in several languages, and constitute differ-
ent discursive structures with nodal points around the key terms “state,” “empire,”
and “civilization.” The traditionally close relationship between discourses of prac-
tice and discourses of theory is maintained, yet with the twist that global IR-theory
seems to reflect more than shape practices.
Beyond European Eurocentrism
The inclusion of non-Western theoretical perspectives on civilizational and imperial
global orders is not without problems. The employment of distinctly non-Western
concepts is obviously a notable challenge to lazy Western minds and a highly dis-
quieting factor in the (de-)construction of our worldviews and globalizing discip-
line. Yet it is an even bigger cognitive challenge to acknowledge that non-Western
theoretical reflections on things “inter” predominantly tend to be primed by fea-
tures that critical IR aims at problematizing. The following three challenges for a
sound six continents IR-discipline therefore amount to a mission nearly impossible.
It is in the first place not particularly exceptional to think in terms of exception-
alism. Scholarship on Eurocentrism, orientalism, and European integration docu-
ments, despite notable differences and sometimes unintendedly, how Europeans in
practice and theory are no strangers to thinking in terms of exceptionalism.
However, American exceptionalism is also a phenomenon of considerable conse-
quence (Ruggie 2004b;Holsti 2010). Likewise, scholarship on Russia, India, and
China demonstrates the existence and significance of exceptionalism with Russian,
Indian, and Chinese characteristics. Analysts report and/or represent conceptions
of unique and/or primordial Russian, Indian, and Chinese (state-) civilizations
(Pye 1992;Shlapentokh 2007;Tsygankov 2008;Chacko 2012;Dugin 2014). Indeed,
exceptionalist thinking seems predominant around the world, making it somewhat
hard to find exceptions to this seemingly universal way of thinking.
8International Studies Review
Moreover, it is not particularly exceptional to think in terms of ethnocentrism. In
the Russian case, ethnocentrism is among the key characteristics of the neo-
Eurasianist conception of global order, with notions of Russian cultural superiority
accompanied by prescriptions of power maximization and territorial advances. Being
perpetually torn between Western and Eastern civilizations, it seems Russia has to
choose. Yet neo-Eurasianists reject the dilemma by claiming a distinct Russian civiliza-
tional status, thus using in-betweenness as a source of identity. In Global South per-
spectives, cultural or moral superiority claims are ubiquitous and cherished. As a
leading Muslim Brotherhood social theorist, Sayed Qutb (2006) claims a moral su-
periority based on Islamic faith. Confucianism is characterized by a significant degree
of ethnocentrism; Han Chinese ethnocentrism, to be precise. This version of ethno-
centrism comes as a full package, including ideas about non-Han races being barbar-
ians. In India, it is a widespread idea that the Indian state-civilization is more peace-
ful than most and certainly morally superior (Chacko 2012).
Finally, it is not particularly European or Western to cultivate universal ideas.
Similar to Western liberalism, Confucianism is universalistic, cf. notions like tian-
xia and expectations about a global order with Chinese characteristics, beginning
with China’s peaceful rise. Yet contending universal ideologies are bound to cause
diplomatic challenges. It is hardly surprising that relations between China and
the EU are characterized by “conceptual gaps” (Pan 2012;Jørgensen and Wong
2015), that is, concepts that are shared globally but with contending meanings or
key terms that only are known to or have meaning in parts of the world. In
Chinese nationalist discourse, the notion of “a century of humiliation” is routinely
cultivated, whereas a European version, for example “a century of decline,” hardly
exists in nationalist discourse. Likewise, concepts that Europeans take for granted,
for example “Renaissance” or “the Enlightenment,” might understandably pro-
voke cognitive turbulence elsewhere.
In a genuine six continents IR-discipline, it will be difficult to acknowledge that
Europe (or the West) does not enjoy a monopoly of exceptionalism, ethnocentrism,
and universalism, for which reason criticism of Eurocentrism appears increasingly to
be a critique of yesterday’s state of affairs. While it is well documented that the discip-
line in the West has been and is heavily Eurocentric (Hobson 2012), the persistent
exclusion of non-Western concepts and theories has contributed to produce this
state of affairs. The way forward might be a continued critique of this version of cen-
trism while at the same time critically considering non-Western conceptualizations,
thereby eventually redefining what Ted Hopf (2002) calls a particular well-known
consensually foundational literature. Moreover, the mega-trend of European relative
decline and the related global power shifts make a universal critique of centric per-
spectives of all sorts more relevant than ever.
The Inter as Liminal Spaces: Prudence,
Transience, and Affection
If we accept the premise that IR should be the study of differences, then the “in-
ter” has to take center stage, as it is within this realm of the “in-between” (cf.
Berenskoetter 2007;Thomassen 2012;Horvath, Thomassen, and Wydra 2015;
THE FORUM 9
Valbjørn this forum) that dialogues can evolve, enabling people to speak across
differences. It is argued that the “inter” is constituted in liminal spaces. Being
under-appreciated in IR (M€
alksoo 2012, 482), the anthropologist Inge Daniels
(2010) helps provide a first visualization of its meaning in her study of the
Japanese house. In a typical Japanese house, the genkan (entryway) constitutes a
liminal space, as it is distinguishable from the rest. Separated by a step, it is a
space in between, which “enables informal exchanges between the inhabitants of
the house and visitors” (Daniels 2010, 61). Hence, the genkan fully belongs to nei-
ther the privacy of the house nor the public sphere.
In IR, we can define liminal spaces similarly. As assemblages of material objects
and inter-human relations, liminality is a characteristic of non-spaces (Neumann
2012, 474). Following Marc Auge´ (1995), highly structured mono-functional areas
that lack identity and history make up such spaces. This assumption, however,
seems inappropriate given that Auge´ is mainly referring to the infrastructural net-
work of today’s globalized world, like train stations, (air)ports, bus stops, roads,
and hotels, as many of them have extensive histories. Still, people do not continu-
ously inhabit them, because they merely facilitate human transit from one place
to another. This alludes to a further characteristic. Liminal spaces are also un-
structured (Thomassen 2009, 20). People pass through them every day, offering
myriad opportunities for human encounters. Since the composition of people is
temporally conditioned, these encounters are relational and never identical.
Hence, liminal spaces are socially constructed entities that defy fixed characteriza-
tions and rather stress the processual character of life (M€
alksoo 2012, 482).
Feminist scholarship has demonstrated that knowledge-power relations in what
Christine Sylvester (2002, 255) calls “borderlands” are particularly pronounced
because people are in a precarious situation. They are removed from their habit-
ual sphere, making their knowledge potentially unsuitable. However, liminality
does not only cover the extraordinary, but is in fact a “fundamental human ex-
perience” (Horvath, Thomassen, and Wydra 2015, 3) that can affect every aspect
of human life. Focusing on the diversity of gender, Laura Sjoberg (2012), for ex-
ample, has shown that the precariousness of liminality is an everyday occurrence
even in the habitual sphere.
To explore liminality further, we first distinguish it from marginalization,
as the latter is usually referred to as a space that encourages dialogue and
knowledge-exchange, in particular. Scholars follow this by an investigation into
the precariousness of liminal spaces and their subsequent increased communica-
tive activity to provide the grounds for a discussion of major aspects of liminality:
prudence, transience, and affection.
While it may be that marginalization provides for the spatio-temporal require-
ments to resist promises of absolute knowledge, as Richard Ashley and R. B. J.
Walker (1990, 262) have argued, marginalized spaces do not encourage dialogue.
Rather, unilateral communication attempts characterize marginalization. Societal
majorities are usually unwilling to engage with knowledge that is intended to
question the habitual. As long as majoritarian “collective memories” (Assmann
1995) enable people to bring their experiences into what they consider to be a ra-
tional order, there will be limited interest in challenging this system. IR evidences
this. Then-ISA president Robert Keohane (1988) urged critical theories to move
toward mainstream explanatory theories to be considered worthwhile additions to
IR-theorizing. Equally, Ann Tickner (1997) demonstrates that because feminism
is operating with different ontological and epistemological assumptions, IR is still
often at odds with feminist contributions. Consequently, misunderstandings ra-
ther than dialogues emerge. In marginalized spaces, therefore, foreignness is an
absolute category whose dichotomic reality constructions do not allow for dia-
logues (in the sense of opening up a space for common, unprepossessed think-
ing). Rather, discussions in the form of defending antagonistic thoughts emerge,
10 International Studies Review
in which the marginalized thought-collective is either forced to follow the main-
stream or, if unwilling to renounce its thoughts, accepts remaining marginalized
(Radtke 2011). Although these knowledge-power relations are equally pro-
nounced in liminal spaces, people have the opportunity to engage with them con-
structively (Sjoberg 2012, 347). The well-being of people relies on dialogues,
which enable them to survive in these precarious spaces. Here, foreignness is not
an absolute category, but it is relational because it applies to everyone. Although
it is beyond the normality-perceived established order, foreignness is continuously
experienced in liminal spaces and, therefore, it is regarded as an integral part to
human existence (Behr 2014).
This precariousness of liminal spaces rests on two aspects. First, there is a phys-
ical aspect; being on the move exposes people to danger. Some of these dangers
are related to weather conditions, as people are extradited to natural disasters.
Even common weather conditions can be a disruptive experience, as beautifully
depicted by Utagawa Hiroshige in his woodblock-print series Fifty-Three Stations of
the Tokaido. At the forty-fifth station (Sh
ono), he painted travelers seeking refuge
from a downpour. Dangers also arise from means of transportation, as they can
lead to accidents. Repeatedly, accidents have been the topic of artists, as exempli-
fied in the work of Frida Kahlo, demonstrating that art canalizes and provides an
outlet for emotions that people experience in face of the abnormal, violent, and
awful (Bleiker 2009). Also, people on the move are facing higher risks of suffering
from and spreading contagious diseases. Ju¨ rgen Osterhammel (2009, 283–90) for
example highlighted how cholera came to be known as the “travelling epidemic”
during the nineteenth century. Finally, getting into contact with strangers can be
perceived as a threat and even cause conflicts. As the recent refugee crisis in
Europe epitomizes, they may arise due to disagreements about allocations of re-
sources (Osterhammel 2009, 228) or because of challenges to local gender roles
and society norms in general (Ling 2007, 142). This physical precariousness also
affects people in their own everyday spheres. Maria M€
alksoo (2012, 486) mentions
among others “political dissidents, participants of social movements ... [and] eth-
nic or socio-political minorities” that can face repercussions in their home coun-
tries by not agreeing with the socio-political mainstream. Equally, physical assaults
against people that question common gender binaries and/or who do not suc-
cumb to societal norms give testament that liminality is a common characteristic
of life-worlds globally.
Second, there is an intellectual aspect. People who have left their habitual sur-
roundings frequent liminal spaces. Hence, they not only travel through different
landscapes, but they also experience situations in which different languages are
spoken, different customs pursued, different (religious) ceremonies performed,
or different sign-systems employed (see Hellmann in this forum). Being out of
the habitual, people cannot refer back to what Karl Mannheim (1985, 40) called
“collective unconscious[ness],” in order to give meaning to these experiences and
to act appropriately within these situations, as they realize that their collective
knowledge can lead to dissatisfying results in the new environment. People might
misunderstand an experience, do not know how to react at a given situation, and,
consequently, might trigger violence. To avoid these problems, information about
distant places has to be collected. In the past, people’s efforts were often in vain,
as information was scarce, incoherent, and did not always match common and/or
scientific assumptions. Even today, in times of virtual meta-platforms, prospective
travelers have to deal with conflicting information (Jeacle and Carter 2011). This
aspect of precariousness can also affect people in liminal spaces at home. Facing
an existential crisis, experiencing loss of meaning, and disruptions (Horvath,
Thomassen, and Wydra 2015, 2–3) can break the connection to the collective
memory, as it no longer provides a “framework of possibility” (Jenco 2015, 30)
that helps people master their everyday lives. However, by providing “a vital
THE FORUM 11
moment of creativity” (M€
alksoo 2012, 481), liminality may lead to the develop-
ment of new frameworks, as it enables us to challenge the habitual.
As a result of their precariousness, liminal spaces inspire dialogues through
three conditions. First, liminal spaces require prudence (Vorsicht), understood as
“the ability to judge the rightness of a given action from among possible alterna-
tives on the basis of its likely political consequences” (Korab-Karpowicz 2013). In
liminal spaces, prudence is important because people want to avoid the
mentioned dangers. However, their ability to judge is severely hampered, as their
collective memory may prove useless in order to bring their experiences into a ra-
tional order. To avoid misjudgments, people have to critically reflect on their per-
spectives (Alejandro in this forum) in order to understand that inappropriate
meaning-allocations may have taken place. However, this is not yet sufficient to
avoid creating potentially dangerous situations, as it only leads to perplexity. To
overcome it, people need to acquire or verify information through the exchange
of knowledge either with people who are also in transit or with the local popula-
tion. To this end, prudence encourages modesty, as people acknowledge “the
limits of our knowledge of international practices, of avoiding the making of hu-
bristic claims” (Brown 2012, 456). It can be argued that this is different with peo-
ple who experience liminal spaces as emancipatory, but even then, modesty has
to prevail. One’s socio-political agenda is just one perspective of the human con-
dition, and while it may be liberating for some, it may not be for others.
Second, liminal spaces visualize transience (Verg€anglichkeit). In his study about
railway carriages, Joseph de Sapio (2013, 202) writes that fellow travelers acted as
“a temporary insulator ... against the disorientation of travel and the discontinu-
ities of identity as the traveler experienced new and changing landscapes.”
Experiencing diverging landscapes, built environments, and climatic zones, peo-
ple physically and intellectually realize that space is not a static condition, but
spatio-temporally dynamic. However, experiencing transience does not lead to “a
total despatialization of life.” Rather, a “crisis and a modification of our traditional
experience of space and place” (Agnew 2007, 144) occurs, which points toward a
second aspect of transience. Liminal spaces are socially constructed and, there-
fore, spatial meaning is dynamic. Since liminal spaces often have mono-functional
purposes, these spaces only gain identity through human engagement with each
other. Hence, transience helps people understand that they can take ownership
of space not in the sense of domination, but in the sense of adding personal, cog-
nitive dimensions to the functional purposes of a site. Although they are realms
of “great ambiguity” (M€
alksoo 2012, 481), it is in these liminal spaces that societal
changes are being triggered and new collective identities can emerge, as Bahar
Rumelili (2003) has demonstrated for Turkish-Greek relations.
Finally, liminal spaces foster affection (Verst€andnis). Felix Berenskoetter (2007,
672) posits that “friendship is ... less about solidarity by default and more about
mutual learning, which entails sharing concerns, listening, and the willingness on
both sides to adapt.” In this sense, liminal spaces promote friendship. Mutual
learning takes place in suasive interchanges, as people have to be willing to in-
corporate new knowledge and to question their previous knowledge if they want
to reduce the potential of conflict. This condition, therefore, signifies the attempt
to construct an image of security. Engaging with others helps reduce feelings of
insecurity, as it allows establishing a temporary habitual sphere. Sapio (2013, 202)
demonstrates this aspect, arguing that “the role of the passenger ... formed the
backbone of the entire institution, becoming social identifier ... knowledge store-
house, and ... a community in miniature who aided each other when necessary.”
However, these communities are often transient and end or gradually vanish after
liminal spaces elapse because these communities only exist due to the mutual
stressful experience of traveling (Sapio 2013, 212–13). Therefore, rather than call-
ing it friendship, as this term implies at least a moyenne dure´e, affection is better
12 International Studies Review
suited to capture the temporality of human encounters. Through the work of
Andrew Linklater (2011, 90–105) and the Eliasian term of “affectedness,” scholars
can argue that a mutual understanding evolves, as people want to reduce poten-
tialities of experiencing harm. This incites people into entering dialogues with
others in order to gain information. Understanding objectivity as dynamic (Pru¨gl
2012, 658), these dialogues lead to “emphatic cooperation” (Sylvester 2002, 242)
in the sense that diverging viewpoints are being accepted as legitimate contribu-
tions in achieving people’s ambitions.
To close, liminal spaces of the “inter” give people the opportunity to experi-
ence “space as a capacity.” This means that “space [turns into] ... a category of ...
becoming, an emerging property of social relationships,” as Alberto Jime´nez
(2003, 140) writes. People have the opportunity to understand space as no longer
narrowed to a perception of the world as an ontologically predetermined cat-
egory, but one that understands space as capable of changing. This has implica-
tions for IR (M€
alksoo 2012, 484). Thinking about liminal spaces returns the own-
ership of life-worlds to people that had been taken from them by neoliberalism
and other ideologies because history is no longer perceived in essentialist catego-
ries of progress and conceptualizing international politics as determined by fixed
entities in an anarchical structure loses its bearing. Furthermore, liminality with
its persistence on becoming is in stark contrast to positivist approaches with their
focus on being. Hence, thinking about liminal spaces can provide counterpoints
to IR’s “disciplining acts meant to police the sensible boundaries of politics, iden-
tity, [or] community” (Vrasti 2008, 300).
Dialoguing about Dialogues: On the
Purpose, Procedure and Product of
Dialogues in Inter-National Relations Theory
MORTEN VA LBJ ØR N
If “dialogue” in a very broad and general sense is associated with an exchange of
ideas or a conversation between different actors, this notion is crucial for this
forum’s effort to redirecting focus from a narrow mapping of the global field of
IR to stronger attention on how to reconnect the various perspectives and in-
sights. The promises and pitfalls of (different ways of) dialoguing within IR there-
fore deserve attention. Against this background, it is useful to examine how actors
debate and practice the notion of having dialogues elsewhere. Calls for greater
dialogue are by no means reserved to this specific debate on “post-Western” IR. In
a discussion of sociology in a post-disciplinary age, Camic and Joas (2004) even
talk about the emergence of a “dialogical turn,” and notions of dialogues between
civilizations and inter-faith dialogues have in recent years received much atten-
tion—not only within academia but also among politicians and religious figures
and in the broader public discourse. Within IR, “dialogue” has, in various ways,
also already entered the vocabulary. In addition to discussions about the virtues
and challenges of the idea of “dialogues between civilizations/cultures/religions”
(Esposito and Voll 2000;Dallmayr 2002;Petito 2011;Bilgin 2012), this has been
reflected in debates about the possibility of inter-paradigmatic dialogues
THE FORUM 13
(Hellmann et al. 2003), in the initiation of a multidisciplinary dialogue on secur-
ity (Bourbeau 2015), in the introduction of a dialogical approach to questions of
identity and alterity in international relations (Guillaume 2011), in the publica-
tions of special issues about “International Relations in Dialogue” (Millennium:
Journal of International Studies), in the titles of IR-journals such as Security Dialogue
and ID: International Dialogue, and in various calls on IR to engage in a dialogue
with, among others, anthropology, area studies, and religious studies (Mandaville
2001;Valbjørn 2004;Sheikh 2015).
This broader debate about dialogues holds a number of insights that are also of
value for the present discussion about reconnecting the various IR-communities
through a refocusing on and recalibration of the “inter” in the global field of IR.
On the one hand, it shows that dialogue has a generally positive association, as it
is difficult to find anybody who is outright against the notion of having a dialogue
(in particular if the alternative is conflict). On the other hand, it also appears that
the specific meaning of dialogue is often unelaborated (cf. Bilgin 2012). Indeed,
upon closer inspection, it turns out that an agreement regarding the desirability
of dialogues in principle does not necessarily translate into consensus as to why
and how such dialogues should take place, or what is supposed to be exchanged
and to what end.
If “dialogue” in this way has turned into a “weasel word, one that inevitably
ends up meaning different things to different people” (Burbules 2000, 252), this
poses the question of how to address this multiplicity of meanings. One possible
alternative to the prevailing strategy, where the concept of dialogue is assumed to
be self-explanatory, is to start by clarifying the “true” or “right” meaning of the
concept—or what constitutes authentic versus inauthentic dialogue (Ayyash
2010)—and then quickly move on. Inspired by Gallie’s (1956, 193) point that an
acknowledgment of a concept as “essentially contested” implies recognition of
rival uses of it, I will adopt another strategy, which regards the multiplicity of
understandings of dialogue as an important object of inquiry in itself and not just
a point of departure. In other words, it is important—including for the present
discussion about recalibrating the “inter” in (post-Western) IR-theory—to engage
in what Lapid once described as a “dialogue about dialogue” (in Hellmann et al.
As a way of structuring this “meta-dialogue,” I will present a typology of four
ideal-typical models of academic dialogue. Each of these four ideal types is associ-
ated with different notions about purpose, that is, why dialogue is something to
strive for; procedure, that is, how a dialogue should take place; and product, that is,
to what extent a dialogue is intended to a) leave a field of study basically the
same; b) cause change within the field of study in terms of revisions of theories
and concepts, but without changing the existing boundaries between fields of
study; or c) trigger a more fundamental transformation in terms of the emer-
gence of completely new ways of organizing academia as such. While the typology
draws on insights from the broader debate on dialogues in academia and was ori-
ginally developed in another context,
I am going to show how it is also useful for
the present discussion as a way of bringing awareness to how a refocusing of the
“inter” in IR-theory can lead the global field of IR in very different directions de-
pending on which of these dialogues prevails.
This typology was originally developed as part of a discussion about the “‘dialogue”’ between EU studies and
new regionalism (Jørgensen and Valbjørn 2012). The models of dialogue identified, however, are not confined to
the relations between these two specific fields of study: they can be considered more general ways of imagining
“‘dialogue’.” The typology can in this way be used as an analytical tool in explorations of debates about dialogues in
various contexts, such as the present discussion of the refocusing and recalibration of the “‘inter”’ in IR-theory.
While the specific meaning of “‘dialogue”’ is often left unelaborated among those calling for more dialogue, this of
course does not mean that the present typology is the only one on offer (cf. Weldes et al. 1999;Ayyash 2010;
Hutchings 2011;Guillaume 2011).
14 International Studies Review
The Hierarchical Model of Dialogue: Global IR as an International Center/
One way of refocusing and recalibrating the “inter” in IR-theory is by way of what
in the present typology would be labeled the hierarchical model of dialogue. This first
ideal type of academic dialogue can be compared, in a metaphorical sense, to
neoclassical economic theories on free trade, comparative advantage, and division
of labor (Weldes et al. 1999, 21). From this perspective, academia is divided into a
number of academic fields, each endowed with different but potentially tradeable
“goods” such as theories, concepts, methods, and empirical data.
The purpose of dialogues is accordingly a matter of trading goods based on the
principle of division of labor. The procedure for this kind of exchange may at first
appear to be a complementary process, profitable to all and harmful to none
involved. However, similar to the Marxist critique about the uneven exchange of
goods in a capitalist market, upon closer inspection it appears that this kind of
trading often takes place on uneven terms, as the exchange is based on a hier-
archical relationship. Some academic fields are “masters,” as they possess and
produce what is considered the most valuable good: theories. They assume intel-
lectual leadership, whereas other disciplines are granted roles as “servants” who
must submit to the wishes of their masters and whose value consists of their ability
to deliver “raw materials” to be used and refined in the production of theories.
If we apply this first, hierarchical model of dialogue to the present debate about
reconnecting the various IR-communities around the world, the result may be a
kind of global IR resembling Wallerstein’s (1974) world system, with a global div-
ision of labor between a core and peripheries. Quite similar to the role often as-
signed to area studies (Valbjørn 2004), the (usually non-Western and) allegedly a-
theoretical periphery has the role of subcontractors to a (usually Western) theory-
producing core. A well-known example of this kind of division of labor can be
found in publications coauthored by a Western and a non-Western IR-scholar,
where the latter provides “local empirical data” to be used in the testing of al-
legedly universal theories possessed by the former (e.g., Yom and Al-Momani
Besides the (re)production of an already existing IR-hierarchy, with a theory-
producing core and a periphery peddling local empirics, the outcome—or the
product—of this kind of dialogue is quite limited when it comes to the dialogists
involved. The IR-communities and scholars engaged in the dialogue are believed
to remain discrete and essentially unaltered, not least because the exchange of
“goods” is not assumed to impact the identities, basic natures, or existing key con-
cepts, categories, or theories in the global field of IR.
The Reflexive Model of Dialogue: Learning about Yourself by Meeting the Other
One of the most prominent expressions of a kind of “dialogical turn” outside a
narrow academic context is the intense discussion during the past decade about
the promises of inter-faith and civilizational dialogues as an alternative to a
Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations.” The point of departure here is a recogni-
tion of a plurality of different but equal civilizations or religions, each marked by
distinct values and visions. Thus, instead of aiming to impose a superior civiliza-
tional vision upon another, or to pave the way for some new universal mega-
civilization, the goal of inter-civilizational dialogues is, to quote former Iranian
president Khatami, “to recognize and understand not only cultures and civiliza-
tions of others, but those of ‘one’s own.’ We could know ourselves by taking a
step away from ourselves and embarking on a journey away from self and home-
land and eventually attaining a more profound appreciation of our true identity”
(cited in Bilgin 2012, 1109).
THE FORUM 15
These ideas represent a reflexive model of dialogue in the present typology, where
the purpose of an academic dialogue is to promote a more advanced understand-
ing of the other while at the same time catalyzing a self-reflection process leading
to a better, less parochial self-understanding. Based on Todorov’s notion of the
“other-as-subject, equal to the I but different from it” (Inayatullah and Blaney
2004, 163), the procedure of this kind of dialogue is supposed to be a two-way con-
versation between peers (cf. Acharya 2011). The engagement entails a dialogical
play between the taken-for-granted common sense of the dialogists; and, insofar
as they are testing their own prejudices against those of the other, they may end
up undermining or transforming existing prejudices (Weldes et al. 1999, 24).
Contrary to the next model, this kind of dialogue is not going to lead to changes
of the existing fields of study as such, or the elimination of differences between
different disciplines. The product, however, is more extensive than that of the pre-
vious model, as the dialogue is expected to lead to changes within each discipline
in terms of a reflexive rethinking and contextualization of own categories, theo-
ries, and concepts.
While the first model of dialogue may be a fairly accurate description of the
terms of much of the existing interaction between the various communities within
current IR, many of the recent calls for more dialogue as a way of making IR into
a genuinely international but at the same time pluralist discipline draw on this se-
cond model of dialogue. An early example is Brown’s (2001) intervention in the
debate about IR as an “American Social Science.” In order to make IR more truly
international, there is a need, he suggests, for making “American IR more open
to the parochial, less wedded to the universal—perhaps even more explicitly
‘American’” (Brown 2001, 204). At the same time, this would make this branch of
the global field of IR more aware of its own distinct perspective and attentive to
how there are various “ways of seeing.” More recently, this model of dialogue can,
for instance, also be identified in Ann Tickner’s (2011, 614) reading of Hobson’s
(2007) “call for a mutually respectful dialogue among equal partners who recog-
nize each other’s foundational stories and knowledge traditions,” or in Bilgin’s
(2008) reflections about the challenges in “thinking past ‘Western’ IR,” where she
points to how a dialogue between Western and non-Western thinking may bring
awareness to how there can be elements of non-Western experiences and ideas
built into Western ways of thinking and vice versa.
The Transformative Model of Dialogue: On Creating a Common Understanding
in a New Kind of Global IR
The most ambitious kind of dialogue in this typology is the transformative model of
dialogue. It takes its point of departure in the original Greek meaning of the term
dia-logos (“meaning-through”) and carries similarities with Gadamer’s (1998) ac-
count of (authentic) dialogues. The purpose of this kind of dialogue is “coming to
an understanding” (Ayyash 2010, 114) in the sense of a “collaborative meaning
making” (Bohm 1996), or a joint “truth production.” The procedure for this kind
of “dialogical synthesis” (Hellmann et al. 2003, 150) involves a question-answer ex-
change that moves beyond the temptation to “win” the dialogue in favor of letting
the subject matter lead the exchange, which is ultimately supposed to result in
“fusions of horizons” and the creation of a new common language (Ayyash 2010,
114). From this perspective, dialogue is “an effort by two or more people to make
something new together” (Hellmann et al. 2003, 130; author’s emphasis). It in-
volves transformations in the sense that dialogists are “wholly turned into some-
thing else by the subject matter” and “this something else is the ‘true’ being of
the subject matter” (Ayyash 2010, 115). In other words, contrary to the former
model, the product of an academic dialogue is not limited to changes within
16 International Studies Review
specific academic fields, but changes of these fields as part of a more fundamental
transformation of academia as such.
This third model of dialogue can be applied to the present debate about dialo-
guing in the global field of IR in quite different ways. In one variant, the meeting
of Western IR with non-Western colleagues is supposed to erase unacknowledged
provincial traits of the former, paving the way for a new, cosmopolitan, and genu-
inely universal IR, quite similar to how area studies was originally thought to con-
tribute to a de-provincialization of the social sciences and the making of a new
structure of scientific knowledge (Mitchell 2003). In another variant, more preva-
lent in the current debate, the point of departure for a transformative dialogue
about global IR is to draw less from Western than non-Western sources of know-
ledge. This is reflected in discussions about whether the Muslim Umma or the
Sikh Khalsa Panth offer us an alternative conception of universality and a more
“solidarist” notion of international society (Shani 2008, 724), or in attempts to
combine Buddhist philosophy with ideas of constructivism (Acharya 2011, 636).
The Eristic Model of Dialogue: Identity (Re)Production through Dialoguing
A final and more peculiar form of dialogue is the eristic model of dialogue. It carries
similarities to what Ayyash (2010, 614), in his discussion of Gadamer, refers to as
“inauthentic” dialogue, but it nevertheless deserves to be mentioned, as it appears
to be more prevalent than is usually acknowledged.
The immediate purpose of this kind of dialogue is usually to “win” in terms of
proving that “I am right, you are wrong.” As also indicated in the reference to
“eristic,” which derives from the ancient Greek word Eris, denoting a wrangle or
strife, the procedure can in its more extreme versions take the form of a fight about
who can shout their position the loudest, with perhaps a parallel conversation tak-
ing place among members of the same academic field discussing how “we” are dif-
ferent from (and superior to) “them.” The latter points to one of the most signifi-
cant products of the eristic dialogue: the reproduction of distinct academic
identities. Thus, from a constructivist perspective of identity-making, the (re)pro-
duction of an apparently stable identity is associated with a process of othering,
where a self is delimited from an other, which is represented as different.
Few may openly subscribe to this notion of dialoguing. On closer inspection, it
does, however, not appear to be completely irrelevant for the present discussion.
As pointed out by Jørgensen in this forum, the rise of some sort of global dialogue
on the international reveals that exceptionalism and ethnocentrism are far from
reserved to a “Western” context. On the contrary, it appears to be predominant
around the world and reflected in various expressions about cultural or morally
superiority based on an “us/them” distinction. Echoing a similar concern,
Acharya (2011, 626) asks whether progress in IR really requires “fighting
American and European ethnocentrism with Chinese and Indian ethnocentrism.”
Although it does not take the form of real shouting—or claims about exceptional-
ism—an interesting illustration of how dialogue can play an important role in
(re)producing a distinct identity by contrasting “us” from “them” can be found in
the theorizing efforts by Yaqing Qin (2016), who is one of the leading proponents
of a Chinese School. For the present, discussing it is interesting not only to notice
how he presents his “relational theory of world politics” as embedded in a distinct
Confucian tradition, which then is positioned as being the opposite of what is pre-
sented as the individualistic rationality that allegedly nurtures mainstream
Western IR-theory. His explanation for why the Confucian notion of guanxi (rela-
tions) became a core concept in his theorizing efforts also deserves attention, as it
turns out to be an outcome of a dialogue and a deliberate attempt to appear as
different and distinctive. Thus, as part of their study about “the innovation of a
Chinese school of IR,” Ras Nielsen and Peter Kristensen (2014, 97) interviewed
THE FORUM 17
among others Qin, who explained that he had chosen to focus on guanxi after
having asked many foreigners about what they saw as the most stereotypical
Chinese. In other words, “growing interaction with the world, in the case of aca-
demic IR, may also lead to the emphasis, and even manufacture, of difference.”
Recalibrating the “Inter” through Dialogues about Dialogue
As noted above, it is usually difficult to find somebody who is outright against dia-
logues as such. This also applies to the present call for more dialogue across the
global field of IR. This, however, does not mean that the debate about refocusing
the “inter” in (post-Western) IR-theory should immediately proceed to efforts to
promote more dialogue. Even as brief an exploration as the present one reveals
how dialogue means different things to different people and how this also carries
implications for the present discussion. A dialogue across IR can, in principle, be
about the (re)production of a hierarchy in which a non-Western periphery plays
the role of subcontractor, providing local empirical data to a Western theory-
producing core; a self-reflexive rethinking of some of the pseudo-universal con-
cepts and theories present within parts of Western IR, leading to a stronger aware-
ness of the existence of a plurality of different perspectives on the “international”
across the globe; the merging of perspectives from across the globe into com-
pletely new theories and approaches that may even result in a fundamental trans-
formation of the very discipline of IR; or it can lead to a new kind of wrangle and
strife that is, first and foremost, about defining how “we” are different from—and
better than—“them.” As these four outlined models of dialogue are ideal types,
actual dialogues might be much more nuanced, but the introduced typology
does, nevertheless, point to how an effort to reconnect the various perspective
and insights revealed in recent years’ mapping exercises can lead IR in very differ-
ent directions. A “recalibration” of the “inter” in IR-theory, therefore, must begin
with a dialogue about dialogues that involves a discussion about the basic ques-
tions concerning the purpose, procedures, and intended product of the strived-
Interpreting International Relations
Goethe University Frankfurt
Is there anything today that man is not interested in, that is: as he understands
“interest”? “Inter-esse” means: being among and between subject matters, standing
at the center of a subject matter and staying with it. Yet nowadays “Interesse” is
reduced to what is interesting. These are things that allow for being indifferent the
next moment and being replaced by some other things which are of equally little
concern as what preceded it. (Heidegger 1954, 2; author’s translation)
In IR, the prefix “inter” (as in “inter-national”) is often taken primarily to refer
to the multiplicity of states or “nations.” The Merriam Webster definition of
“international”—“of, relating to, or affecting two or more nations”—stands for a
widespread understanding of the word. To emphasize the additional meaning of
“inter” as being among or between—as in the epigraph quoting Heidegger’s no-
tion of “inter-est” or “Inter-esse”—is much less appreciated.
18 International Studies Review
This is surprising. For an academic discipline that focuses on relations among
political communities that obviously speak different languages (in an ordinary
sense and figuratively) it is astounding that inter-pretation—the assignment of
meaning to words, concepts, and sentences—is widely considered to be a minor
problem. To be sure, there are significant segments of IR-research that take con-
cepts and meaning to be problematic in the sense of deserving our primary atten-
tion as communities of inquiry. Yet for proponents of “explanatory theory”
(Dunne, Hansen, and Wight 2013, 409), the meaning of words, concepts, and
even whole vocabularies is not only unproblematic, but has to be taken as such be-
cause the focus of research is on causation, which, in Thomas Kuhn’s (1990, 309)
words, “invokes an original act of baptism or dubbing as an essential determinant
of reference.” Causal theory is about the nexus between some definite thing taken
as cause and some definite thing taken as effect.
In contrast, meaning (and, therefore, interpretation) is central for “constitutive
theorizing” (Dunne, Hansen, and Wight 2013, 411) or “ontological theorizing”
(Guzzini 2013, 534). Hans-Georg Gadamer simply calls it “theorizing.” Theory,
Gadamer (1998, 31) recalls, derives from the Greek theoria, which means,
“observing” and not merely “seeing.” Theory “does not dwell on a particular en-
tity, but in a region. Theoria is not so much the individual momentary act as a way
of comporting oneself, a position, and condition. It is ‘being present.’
Heidegger and his student Gadamer stand for a tradition, which (in IR) is nor-
mally called “understanding” (in contrast to “explaining”; see Hollis and Smith
1990). With Wittgenstein, its adherents prefer to say (if forced to choose among
the two opposites of another dualism) that “(w)e must do away with all explan-
ation” and that “description alone must take its place” (Wittgenstein 1958, §109;
emphasis in original). It is a tradition that eliminates the depreciative qualifier
“mere” in “mere description” (Waltz 1979, 1) because descriptions and
“redescriptions” of, for instance, the different uses of concepts are critical in order
to explain and understand their meaning (Rorty 1982, 195–203).
Against this background, the plea of this forum to recalibrate the “inter” in the
practice of IR-scholarship is also a plea to re(dis)cover the importance of inter-pre-
tation. A first step along these lines might be to correct a widespread misunder-
standing in Thomas Kuhn’s argument about the incommensurability of different
“paradigms,” which, in turn, is dependent on the social necessity, and human cap-
acity of translation (Section 2). One way to ameliorate the negative effects of lin-
gering paradigmatism in IR is to embrace Kuhn’s solution for overcoming the
limits of incommensurability, which he calls “language learning.” This would
focus more on influential works by key authors than paradigms (3). Such a
recalibration of prevailing habits of interpretation would also promise additional
benefits in a globalizing world, which is ever more shaped by a proliferation of
theoretical vocabularies (4).
Translation and Interpretation
The plea to re(dis)cover the importance of interpretation bears a family resem-
blance with Heideggerian staying at the center of subject matters, Gadamerian
theorizing, Davidsonian “radical interpretation,” and Rortyan/Wittgensteinian
(re)description. It is a plea to more fully appreciate the manageable difficulties of
translation. To “translate” usually means to transfer the meaning of a word from
one language (broadly defined) to another. Translation is not easy because words
do not stand for themselves, as anybody quickly realizes when he or she learns a
new language or uses a dictionary. Words are always embedded in vocabularies.
“Individual words don’t have meanings. They have a role in determining the truth
conditions of sentences” (Davidson 2001, 79).
THE FORUM 19
Yet the problem of the transfer of meaning contained in sentences is also that
translation is necessarily indeterminate: there are always many different ways of trans-
lating a sentence, which are equally correct. This is what Willard van Orman
Quine (1960, 73–79) called the “indeterminacy of translation,” and this is also
what renders translation anything but a simple operation. In Davidson’s (2001,
71) version of the “indeterminacy of interpretation,” the challenge of translation
results from the holistic character of meaning and belief that shapes how we ap-
proach interpretation and translation. Since all aspects of the mental are inextric-
ably linked and mutually dependent—Davidson (2004, 16; emphases added)
speaks of “holism of the mental,” that is, all our beliefs are “caught up in a web of
evaluative attitudes and practical knowledge”—the challenge of translation lies in
particular in deciphering the meaning of linked words, concepts, and sentences
that result from webs of belief different from our own.
However, interpretation and translation are not as difficult as some suggest. In
IR, the perception of difficulty is nurtured by a particular reading of Thomas
Kuhn’s thesis of the “incommensurability” of different paradigms from the early
1960s, which still has a firm grip on the practice of scholarship. For instance, in
two related publications—one being an introduction to “theory and metatheory”
in IR—Fred Chernoff (2007, 104–5; 2009, 163–65) recapitulates Kuhn’s initial
thesis in some detail. At its core he reads Kuhn as arguing that scholars “who ap-
proach a problem from different theoretical traditions ... do not truly engage in
dialogue with one another,” and that “the competing frameworks or paradigms”
with which they work “cannot, in principle, be directly compared to one another.”
While Chernoff (2009, 163; also Jackson 2011, 14–15) briefly grants that Kuhn,
“in later works, sought to circumscribe” the incommensurability thesis, his conclu-
sion is probably justified that “Kuhnianism as understood by social scientists has
generally followed the interpretation of his earlier versions of IP [the principle of
the incommensurability of paradigms].”
From a sociology of science perspective, this version of “Kuhnianism” served a
discipline well that fancied itself as conducting great debates. Belief in IP stabi-
lized what Randall Collins (1998, 38) calls the “law of small numbers,” that is, “the
principle of change through structural rivalry” among a limited number of intel-
lectual communities. IR-Kuhnianism allowed for the scholarly equivalent of
“peaceful coexistence” among “incommensurable paradigms”: rivalry without an-
nihilation—but also “debate” without the kind of dialogue that called for genuine
efforts to understand diverging ways of theorizing. IR-Kuhnianism, in other words,
served as a useful protective belt—to misappropriate another concept from phil-
osophy of science debates that were actually noticed in IR (Lakatos 1970, 133–
35)—in order not to engage in the type of “language learning” that Kuhn himself
had identified as a prerequisite to understand foreign theory vocabularies.
The Promises of Language Learning for IR
“Language learning” and “translation,” Kuhn (1990, 299) argued, are the two
common strategies to deal with the challenge of understanding foreign theoret-
ical vocabularies. But translation—taken to be “a quasi-mechanical activity gov-
erned in full by a manual that specifies, as a function of context, which string in
one language may, salva veritate, be substituted for a given string in the other”—is
insufficient to fully transport the meaning of theorizing in one language into an-
other language. This is what Kuhn meant to describe initially with “incommensur-
ability,” and this is also what he sticks to in his later works. Yet in these later works,
he also elaborates more fully that incommensurability (which still “equals untrans-
latability”) does not prevent understanding via “language learning.” However, lan-
guage learning requires “that one must go native” (Kuhn 1996, 204).
Understanding via language learning (“becoming bilingual”) is based on the
20 International Studies Review
assumption that “anything that can be said in one language can, with sufficient
imagination and effort, be understood by a speaker of another.” In this sense, trans-
lating a theoretical vocabulary is analogous to the challenges a translator of litera-
ture faces (Kuhn 1990, 300; emphasis in original). Yet we do know that such trans-
lations succeed in enabling understanding.
Learning theoretical languages of this sort is not fashionable in IR. Difficulties
seem to abound already at the most basic level of interpreting the work of fellow
academics who write in the same, often English, language. For instance, reputable
scholars of different persuasions have read the work of the most prominent and,
therefore, most widely read IR-scholar, Kenneth Waltz, as being “positivist” (Cox
1986, 243; Ashley 1986, 280–86) and “anti-positivist” (Mouritzen 1997, 71); “scien-
tific realist” (Wendt 1987, 351) and thoroughly “anti-SR” (Chernoff 2002, 192;
generally Booth 2010, 6). Similarly conflicting readings could be shown to apply
to the work of other IR-giants, such as Morgenthau or Wendt himself—not to
mention a long list of political philosophers from (“Western”) antiquity to mod-
ernity, which have been claimed for any type of IR-“ism” (Behr 2010). Obviously,
some of these differences may be due to the fact that meta-theoretical “-isms”
(like positivism or scientific realism) offer a still broader spectrum of variegated
interpretability to IR-scholars than the typical IR-“isms” (e.g., realism, liberalism).
Yet to some extent, these differences of interpretation may also be due to discip-
linary incentive structures that tend to reward presumed theoretical innovation
(rather than penalize sloppy reading). Proposing a new theory (i.e., a new theor-
etical vocabulary) is more highly rewarded than simply applying (or “testing”) a
theory—not to mention efforts at reconstructing established theories and con-
cepts (Herborth 2013) or translating them via language learning. Even if a new
theory only builds on a “tradition”—as in the lineage leading from Morgenthau’s
(classical) realism via Waltz’s neorealism to Mearsheimer’s offensive realism—the
temptation is strong to fix some “‘-ism” instead of engaging with Morgenthau and/
or Waltz and/or Mearsheimer as sui generis exemplars of a certain type of theoriz-
ing (also Valbjørn’s discussion of the “eristic model of dialogue” in this forum).
Language Learning in a Globalizing (IR) World
Inquiry via theory reconstruction or via language learning may, however, become
more of a necessity in a political world (and a globalizing IR-community) where
power shifts are increasingly accompanied by new political as well as theoretical
vocabularies that defy “the classical intellectual division of labor [in IR] whereby
theory is produced in the [‘Western’] center and consumed and applied in and
by the [‘non-Western’] periphery” (Tickner and Wæver 2009, 332). The exponen-
tial growth in the production of Chinese IR-scholarship that is published and dis-
cussed in English language outlets—and, thus, increasingly recognized as not
being marginalizable even from a “Western” perspective—is a case in point. Even
if one is not familiar with the Chinese language, reading this literature quickly im-
parts a sense that a genuine appreciation of Confucian tradition plays at least as
much of a role in the pursuit of indigenous “non-Western” roots, as do attempts
at building a “Chinese School of IR” modeled on projects such as the “English
School” (which were at least partly also driven by anti-hegemonic impulses against
the dominance of American IR).
If Thomas Kuhn is right—and I believe he is—IR language learning will cer-
tainly be aided by an attitude that looks at theorizing in terms of rewriting “unfin-
ished dictionaries” rather than “producing cookbooks” for theory building and
testing (Guzzini 2013, 523). But language learning requires more than a renewed
focus on dictionaries. It calls for Heideggerian “Inter-esse” in translation—a will-
ingness to immerse oneself in foreign theoretical “vocabularies as wholes” (Rorty
1989, 5), which tries to do justice to what the author meant to say—irrespective of
THE FORUM 21
whether these vocabularies sound “neorealist” to a “post-structuralist” reader or
look “Chinese” to “Western” eyes (or vice versa). Since it has been a long-standing
habit in IR as a discipline to “import” from neighboring disciplines, such as phil-
osophy, reading a bit of Confucius even in “Western” academies will not hurt—es-
pecially when influential Chinese IR voices identify him as an important source
for focusing on dimensions of “relationality” in world governance (Qin 2011,
132–39). Luckily, the plea for refocusing our analytical attention from agency and
action to relations and interactions also happens to be at the center of an older
social theory, which is not only said to be the most genuinely American one, that
is, pragmatism (Joas 1992, 7–15), but which also happens to have been redis-
covered among “Western” IR-theorists (Friedrich and Kratochwil 2009; Hellmann
et al. 2009). More than 60 years ago, Alfred North Whitehead advised that “if you
want to understand Confucius, read John Dewey. And if you want to understand
John Dewey, read Confucius” (Price 1954, 145). If recalibrating the “inter” via lan-
guage learning sounds like a worthy project, then (re-)learning the languages of
Dewey and Confucius might indeed be a fitting ambition for IR-scholarship in
“Eastern” and “Western” centers of power (analysis).
The Narrative of Academic Dominance:
How to Overcome Performing the
London School of Economics
By asking how to recalibrate the “inter” in IR, this forum interrogates the practical
aspects of building new types of relationships among IR-scholars globally. One
way of addressing relations is to focus on the identifications through which schol-
ars connect with each other. Distinctions between groups are materialized via bin-
ary categories, with different characteristics being attributed to each (Der Derian
and Shapiro 1989;Doty 1996). In the case of IR, these identifications commonly
distinguish between scholars from the “core” and those from the “periphery”
(Tickner and Wæver 2009, 332). Scholars from the first group are generally associ-
ated with the “West” or the “North,” while those of the second group tend to be-
long to the “South” or the rather vague “non-West” (Thomas and Wilkin 2004;
Mayall 2011). Due to the gate-keeping practices that academics tend to develop,
scholars from the “core” are accused of excluding the works of scholars on the
“periphery” (Tickner and Wæver 2009).
To face their responsibility regarding the scientific and ethical conditions of
the global circulation of knowledge, a growing body of “inward-looking” literature
insists on the need for “core” scholars to reflexively act upon such biases (see the
forum’s introduction). In this article, I designate as the “dominance narrative”
the common discourse that insists on viewing the relationship between the two
groups of scholars through a lens of dominance. Because they can actually perform
the same political and social relations they describe, discourses have represented
a key concern for critical scholars inspired by, for instance, Michel Foucault’s the-
ory of power-knowledge, as well as by neo-Gramscianism and post-colonialism.
22 International Studies Review
As such, the dominance narrative represents a paradox, for if this discourse po-
tentially performs the reality it describes, then the narrative runs the risk of actual-
izing the same relationship of exclusion it denounces.
This article is a direct response to that paradox, in that it shows how I, after
realizing the counterproductive performative elements of the dominance narra-
tive, have shifted my narrative regarding the relations between scholars in the glo-
bal field of IR. This article relies on 60 semi-directive interviews conducted in
2012 with IR-scholars and PhD students in Brazil and India.
These countries rep-
resent two particularly interesting cases for challenging the discourse of domin-
ance, as this narrative suggests that scholars from the “South” are specifically tar-
geted by IR’s global discriminations.
This contribution first offers a reflexive account of my realization of the “self-
fulfilling prophecy” of the dominance narrative. It then exposes an alternative
narrative that I have consequently developed, which—being based on a “transver-
sal” identification encompassing both “core” and “periphery” scholars—is more
consistent with self-empowerment and the circulation of ideas globally, both of
which are promoted by the critical literature.
Inadvertently Performing the Dominance Narrative
While the dominance narrative was present in the discourse of the interviewees
(though only marginally so in Brazil), it did not accurately reflect their profes-
sional practices and experiences. Indeed, based on a “core-periphery” identifica-
tion divide, the ontological presupposition of the dominance narrative describes
global dealings in the field as being exclusionary and discriminative. The internal-
ization of this narrative therefore results in anticipatory strategies on the part of
scholars who do not have the firsthand experience of internationalization. As
such, the dominance narrative performs exclusion by diffusing an image of a field
that is more discriminative than the actual experience of the scholars who are
supposed to be excluded.
Unlike in Brazil, where interviewees did not seem to perceive any difficulties re-
garding their internationalization, Indian academics tended to agree with the
dominance narrative when asked about it during the interviews. However, this
narrative was not referred to when they described their everyday professional
practices. For instance, they did not publish in international journals because of
rejection from peer-review committees, but because their target audience was pri-
In such ways, the experiences of the interviewees contradicted the dominance
narrative—despite the fact that this narrative remained present in the interviews.
The following excerpt shows how one scholar from Delhi University mobilizes the
dominance narrative while attributing her article’s mixed reception to factors that
had nothing to do with her “peripheral” status:
You can check the statistics; I don’t think there are many Indian scholars whose
work is easily accepted by these Western journals. You know, when I came back from
ISA Montreal, that same paper was received very well by the crowd; you know, the
chair said it was excellent, it was excellent, it was much discussion and debate. When
I came back, I sent it for review, one to England and one to America. Now the reply,
the review that I got from the American journal, was “It’s a solid paper, you know,
theoretically it is very strong in these areas, etc. etc.,” and the one that I got from
the British journal was “This is, this is simply describing from the American point of
view.” Such different reviews, so I also feel that Western journals ...this is why we,
scholars based in India, don’t publish.
All interviews were conducted in confidentiality, and the names of interviewees are withheld by mutual
THE FORUM 23
In certain cases, the dominance narrative performs the same exclusion it de-
scribes by creating anticipatory counterproductive strategies among scholars who
consequently do not dare to publish in international journals for fear of being dis-
criminated against. To better understand how this exclusion is performed, we asked
a number of PhD students about the origins of their belief in the dominance narra-
tive. Notably, these students did not acquire this perception through firsthand en-
counters, as none of them had any international experience. In some cases, they
identified a senior scholar who told them about it. Significantly, this question some-
times led to a reflexive moment when the interviewees realized the self-limiting
character of this belief, as shown in the following excerpt with a student from Rio:
Q: And why [does] publishing abroad seem impossible to you?
A: Well ... I don’t know! That is a very interesting question indeed .. . [laughs]. I
didn’t think about it ... so I think there must be a gate-keeping of ... how can I say
that? More than a real gate-keeping; an invisible gate-keeping, like that. A gate-
keeping that results in making us believe it’s not possible to do it. That’s the reason.
Scholars in a later stage of their career often expressed how their early interna-
tional experiences helped them similarly challenge the narrative. This was the
case with one scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, who described his early
participation in international conferences as helping him break free from the
So, I think there are very specific ways I have benefited, but in a very—not in a very
material sense, but in a very psychological, to put it that way ... So, you place your-
self on a pedestal where you are mentally and psychologically able to critique
[Western academics’] ideas. I think that is the beginning of growing in confidence,
intellectual confidence. So this kind of confidence is actually acquired in interna-
tional conferences. I don’t have a foreign degree, so my interaction with Western
academics has been in conferences. So, it’s basically because of the many confer-
ences I go [to] that I interact with the men and the kind of work that they do.
In addition to disproving the dominance narrative, the fieldwork also high-
lighted the narrative’s counterproductive performative effects. Therefore, I
decided to look for discourses that would enable the construction of an alterna-
tive narrative regarding the global organization of IR that would avoid the exclu-
sionary and hierarchical relationship described by the dominance narrative.
An Alternative Narrative Based on Transversal Identification
To do so, I focused my reflexivity on what I identified as the origin of its counter-
productive performative effects: the polarizing essentialization that distinguishes
scholars of the “core” from those of the “periphery” and attributes both groups
with different characteristics. For instance, the dominance narrative describes
scholars from the “core” as being immune to gate-keeping practices vis-
demic diversity, and thereby links them with sole responsibility for the global cir-
culation of IR-knowledge. On the other hand, it depicts “periphery” scholars as
being immune to parochialism, while also being passive and powerless regarding
international circulation patterns.
Taking as a starting point the alternate perspectives offered by the interviewees,
I adopted a narrative that abandons the above-mentioned meta-categories. This
endeavor served to shift the presupposed ontological rift between “dominant”
and “dominated” scholars by offering a transversal identification that goes beyond
the “core-periphery” divide. This framework acknowledges both the participation
of each community toward more international openness via their reflexive efforts,
as well as their potential exclusion and inadequacy regarding international stand-
ards of publication. I will explore this alternate transversal framework below
through two key themes that emerged during the fieldwork in India and Brazil.
24 International Studies Review
The first theme to emerge was the reflexivity demonstrated by IR-scholars in
the alleged “Southern” Indian field. Although almost absent in the literature deal-
ing with global diversity in IR (e.g., Holsti 1985), the narrative of the need for
one’s academic community to emancipate itself from its parochialism is not a priv-
ilege of the alleged “core” communities. On the contrary, this narrative is also pre-
sent in India and, to a lesser extent, in Brazil—though both nations fall squarely
within the “periphery.” While there is the perception of a growing openness of
the Brazilian field by Brazilian scholars, the same cannot be said for India, where
national parochialism in IR continues to be largely denounced (Alagappa 2011).
The “transversality” of this alternative narrative lies in the fact that it acknow-
ledges that Indian scholars produce the same kind of “inward-looking” literature
regarding their responsibility toward the lack of international circulation in the
field of IR. Indian scholars denounce the absence of “systematic collective soul-
searching among the IR-scholars in India” (Mallavarapu 2010, 180) and discuss
the “responsibility” of scholars (Basrur 2009, 106) to expand a “selfcritical” posture
that already exists at the margins of the national field (Alagappa 2011, 216).
To implement the reflexivity called for above, some interviewees exposed the
strategies they adopted in order to change their mind-set, such as consciously
choosing to stop reading a certain kind of literature or ceasing to interact with a
specific milieu. By accounting for those different national discourses and practices
of openness regarding IR’s diversity, this alternate transversal narrative potentially
performs an empowering non-hierarchical identification.
The second theme to emerge was the inverted understanding of the “dominant”
and the “dominated.” Literature focusing on academic diversity and the gate-keeping
practices that might prevent its expression aprioriexcludes “core” countries from its
analysis. However, no empirical data has proven that the whole “South” falls greater
victim to this discrimination than the whole “North” or “West.” For instance, the
Brazilian interviewees challenged my belief that French scholars (such as myself), by
belonging to a so-called “Western” country, were in a “dominant” position compared
to their “Southern” Brazilian counterparts. Rather, it seemed clear to various
Brazilian scholars that I was doing a PhD on global discriminative practices in IR pre-
ciselybecauseIbelongedtooneofthenational communities most discriminated
against by what they identified as global “mainstream” criteria. Specifically, Brazilian
scholars identified their French counterparts as being much more marginalized than
they themselves were regarding the global production of IR. For example, one
Brazilian scholar told us that, since the 1990s, Brazilian social sciences had been mov-
ing away from the French model. This severing had strong intellectual and institu-
tional implications that thereby improved the Brazilian IR-scholars’ overall interna-
Indeed, French IR represents an emblematic case of marginalization due to its
national specificities in the study of IR. The same criterion expressed in the dom-
inance narrative characterizes the lack of internationalization: invisibility of the
national community at international conferences and in international journals;
poor mastery of English; differences in academic writing style; and the absence of
internationally renowned French journals (Cornut and Battistella 2013).
However, French scholars have never been analyzed through the dominance nar-
rative lens, as this narrative is wholly reserved for scholars from “periphery” coun-
tries. While no sociological analysis of the professional strategies and trajectories
of French IR-scholars has been provided, French academics are described as
being solely responsible for their own marginalization due to a sort of “Parisian
pride” (Friedrichs 2001) or a lack of need to participate in the “international
game” (Breitenbauch 2013). This proclamation ignores the possibility that the cri-
teria for academic production (within which French scholars have been social-
ized) might be discriminated against on the global level.
THE FORUM 25
The two examples provided here—the reflexivity of Indian scholars and the mar-
ginalization of French scholars—represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of
the kind of discursive practices we ought to be having if we want to engage in the
construction of transversal identities that go beyond mere “core-periphery” distinc-
tions. Furthermore, they show the intellectual and social interests served by con-
structing comparative analyses that use the same analytical framework for scholars
belonging to the alleged “core” as for those who belong to the alleged “periphery.”
This contribution aimed to challenge the naturality and benefits of the domin-
ance narrative, which pervades the field of International Relations. By describing
scholars from the “periphery” as essentially “dominated,” and scholars from the
“core” as “dominant,” this narrative performs the selfsame hierarchical and exclu-
sionary system it denounces. In order to adopt a perception of the world that
avoids the traps of such biases and better apprehends the experiences of Brazilian
and Indian scholars, I reflexively looked for an alternative discourse—a pursuit
that enabled me to construct a transversal global identification capable of going
beyond the “core” versus “periphery” binary.
Although neo-colonial relations exist and continue to structure the interactions
between countries and people globally, this article invites us to question the actual
emancipatory role of the discourses we use—for those discourses, we must not for-
get, are also a product of those same hierarchical systems they aim to speak out
against. Though the “core-periphery” and “dominant-dominated” discourses
might have some explanatory value and serve emancipatory purpose in some con-
texts and for some national cases, we need to take care not to overgeneralize their
use, as they hold potential counterproductive performative effects. As such, this
contribution provides but one example of how individual reflexivity can be imple-
mented in order to shape one’s ontological perspectives according to one’s val-
ues—and, by doing so, further enable the conscious construction of the academic
discourses and professional relations that can foster the performance of inclusivity
across the global field of IR.
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