Global IR and Academic Authorship in Latin America: Why Inclusion Is Not a Panacea

By Jochen Kleinschmidt
This article is part of the TRAFO series “Doing Global International Relations”.

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The heterogeneity of the region

For myself as an International Relations scholar working in Colombia, hence as someone geographically situated outside the classic centers of IR knowledge production, the debate suggested by the editors of this TRAFO Blog series is a welcome opportunity to comment on the notion of a more inclusive “Global IR”. I do so with reference to contemporary debates among academics in Latin America. More precisely, I intend to elucidate potential problems that the project might encounter based on an incipient discussion among Latin American IR scholars on what a specifically Latin American perspective on IR would entail.

Often, the geographical imaginary underlying the notion of Global IR is one of the region as an essentialised, homogenous space – one that cannot fail to produce a specific perspective different from the disciplinary mainstream. But as Tim Rühlig demonstrates in his contribution on Chinese IR, such expectations are often disappointed by the internal heterogeneity of Southern IR communities. Likewise, as I seek to corroborate below, academics in Latin America are far from united in how their belonging to a world region should shape their academic endeavors. In fact, some of the ideals underlying academic authorship in Latin American IR might complicate the acceptance of the Global IR project considerably.

The character of authorship in Global IR

In his 2014 article “Global IR and Regional Worlds”, Amitav Acharya posits that “a course toward a truly inclusive discipline” could be taken by incorporating the work of non-Western authors into the discipline of International Relations. This would allow new and original theoretical contributions to enter IR debates, instead of relegating them to the region-specific application of general theories that were originally devised in Western institutions of higher learning. The inclusiveness of IR theory is therefore described as a function of the cultural or geographical diversity of its authors – change the composition of the latter and the former will shift as well; an assumption that other studies of center-periphery relations in IR have also entertained.

Indeed, if one examines available research on the geographies of authorship and citation in our field, it appears as obvious that much work remains to be done in terms of inclusivity, even though North American dominance might be in a slow decline. The project of Global IR therefore appears at first as a basically atheoretical undertaking that aims at greater representation for hitherto unheard voices, thereby “broadening and deepening the academic study of international life in order to make it truly universal”. Such an aspiration is obviously worthy of support, yet, some of its implicit assumptions also deserve critical discussion.

One of these assumptions that leave a number of questions is the characterization of authorship inherent in the Global IR narrative. Global IR seems to imply a common-sense notion of academic authorship, namely, that the inclusion of the work of scholars geographically or culturally removed from the context of Euro-American universities could quasi-automatically result in a richer theoretical understanding of phenomena relevant to the discipline. However, this is not an atheoretical assumption. In fact, it is an idea that relies strongly on a perspectivist understanding of the role of the author in the production of academic texts, such as Robert Cox’ assertion that though individual cultural, political and historical experiences might be transcended in theoretical work, they would always form the epistemic foundation for such transcendence.

The lack of southern perspectives in contemporary IR then might appear as a form of intellectual hegemony, as the blocking of dissident perspectives through colonial power – a situation that might be rectified by an increased emphasis on inclusivity such as the proposal of Global IR. Yet, as critics of such interpretations emphasize, these assumptions can be themselves colonial, as they imply a lack of agency on the side of ‘peripheral’ scholars. In their volume on International Relations Scholarship around the World, Arlene Tickner and Ole Wæver for instance point out that the local conditions which shape IR communities’ participation or non-participation in global disciplinary debates are often not well understood in traditional centers of scholarly production.

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The world views in Latin American IR communities are highly diverse, and might resist attempts of inclusion in universalist epistemic projects, copyright: Jochen Kleinschmidt

Three tendencies which point beyond a simple notion of Northern hegemony

Recent publications within Latin American IR demonstrate that three tendencies might play a more significant role than a simple notion of Northern hegemony: First, many scholars do not claim a separate regional academic identity at all and rather insist on the unabridged validity of established perspectives. Second, many scholars do not perceive theoretical work or academic debates as central concerns of their profession, and instead often engage with political actors on the local or national level. And third, scholars working within those traditions that do emphasize a distinct scholarly identity tend to see global academic discourse as something that they resist, and not participate in.

The persistence of centrisms

The first tendency is illustrated in a recent article in the Colombia social sciences journal Revista OASIS. Here, Javier Garay and Manuel Martínez argue that Latin American IR had found little necessity for the propagation of theoretical viewpoints specific to their region or to the Global South as a whole. Rather, according to their quantitative study of articles in Latin American IR journals, even when criticizing hegemonic policies of Western countries, scholars in the region appear to mostly rely on arguments derived from Marxist texts of Western origin, and generally operate within the paradigmatic confines of ‘Northern’ IR. This is not criticized, but rather welcomed as the rejection of an intellectually unproductive desire to integrate political differences into theory. Affirming positivist epistemologies as a universal foundation for the social sciences, Garay and Martínez actually dismiss any notion of a region-specific perspective in IR as an “exclusive, even xenophobic way of thinking the world”.

While to some this argumentation may sound overly extreme, this kind of resistance to perspectivist epistemology is far from particular to the Latin American IR community. On the contrary, the arguments sound quite compatible to the universalism that Russian IR scholars profess in a recent study on their perception of global academic hierarchies. In both cases, adherence to ‘Northern’ and mostly positivist styles of theorizing is not only seen as a prerequisite for the desired inclusion into global circuits of knowledge generation. Rather, defending the image of the academic author as a mere conveyor of scientific objectivity appears to serve as a rhetorical shield against any attempt to shrink scholarly autonomy in the name of political projects such as those associated with the current wave of Russian nationalism. Such vulnerabilities may explain why certain, strongly positivist positions remain attractive in those environments where for various reasons academic independence is under threat.

Producing practical knowledge

The second tendency is illustrated, inter alia, by Raúl Bernal-Meza in the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, who, besides highlighting the important contributions of Latin American authors to structuralist IR theory, emphasizes the importance of IR scholars in creating concepts and strategies for the formulation of Latin American foreign policy strategies. Basically, the application of ‘mainstream’ IR theories to the foreign policies of Southern countries is presented here as an opportunity to generate legitimacy for their needs and demands in a global public sphere. While autonomy and/or resistance constitute important aims, these are considered political norms that do not need – and, extending the argument somewhat, might actually suffer from – attempts to establish forms of autochthonous theoretical discourse.

Another study of Latin American IR publications confirms this general tendency of not challenging established theoretical frameworks, but rather using them to elucidate normative or political positions specific to the author. This might imply, for example, seeing the international sphere as hierarchical rather than anarchical, which goes hand in hand with an emphasis on unequal economic and social structures rather than security problems. In other words, many Latin American IR authors do pursue perspectives inherent to their regional situation. However, they do so as a venture directed primarily at the critique or legitimation of government policies or civil society initiatives, for which theoretical work serves mainly as a vehicle.

Arlene Tickner has described this phenomenon in Latin American IR as the “primacy of lo práctico” – the widespread idea that the ultimate purpose of IR theorizing is the generation of knowledge easily convertible into social or political action. Sociological studies of Latin American universities have generalized this finding across the disciplines, ultimately tracing it back to 19th century preferences for ‘useful science’ in the service of national modernization, or, in the words of Mexican revolutionary Justo Sierra, for “a science that defends the motherland”.

Depending on ideological preference, this orientation may produce either ‘scholar-technocrats’, concerned with achieving political effect for their positions and therefore mostly engaged with policymaking circles, or ‘scholar-activists’, primarily engaged with civil society movements and seeing academia primarily as “an opportunity to generate social change”. What both figures have in common is, firstly, an interest mostly in dialogue on the national or even local level, from where they derive their societal relevance, and, secondly, a mostly instrumental view of theory-building. Both factors are likely to lessen the interest of Latin American scholars in Global IR as a worldwide venture aimed mostly at change in academia itself, the workings of which may be of secondary interest to ‘technocrats’ and ‘activists’. Even though younger generations of scholars may increasingly discard those labels in the search of more flexible roles, many of those will probably continue to primarily pursue effects outside of academia, thereby perpetuating this situation.

Resisting inclusion on wrong terms

Finally, as a third tendency, there are positions that actually do insist on the necessity of generating region-specific or Southern theoretical perspectives, and thus instinctively appear to be most compatible with perspectivist metatheory and therefore with Global IR. Mostly, but not exclusively, these are associated with postmodernist, feminist and especially postcolonial approaches that have a significant presence in Latin American IR, and which have been hailed by Amitav Acharya as “vanguard theories” for the project. Yet, just as is the case with more traditional IR scholars, there are factors that might prevent them from fully embracing it.

As Ole Wæver has noted, most poststructuralist approaches have shown a “tendency […] to engage primarily with specific subjects […], and engage less with general theory debates both vis-à-vis the establishment and internally”. This has definitely been the case so far in Latin American IR, for example in the case of the literature concerned with the coloniality of knowledge, especially as expressed in U.S.-Latin American relations. In these cases, poststructuralist scholars have often displayed preferences different in form, but not in principle, from their more mainstream peers. Both inspiration and audience for their work can be found more in civil society initiatives, indigenous movements or feminist and migrant groups than in the academic community per se, which again might reduce interest in Global IR.

Furthermore, much of their writings focus on opposition to hegemonic forms of knowledge, anchored in local life-worlds and their specific ways of resisting homogenizing imperatives of global economic, scientific or power-political structures. Based on what has been written so far on Global IR, I would argue that there is enormous uncertainty whether these Latin American scholars would not perceive the project as one of the “universal knowledge projects” that they set out to resist. Some strands of postcolonial work, such as current research on the inherent differences between Latin American and European regionalist projects or Amaya Querejazu’s contribution to this series, may indeed be highly amenable to participation in global academic debates. This might be much less the case with scholars who see their responsibility more in contributing to southern intellectual debates on how to resist northern hegemony.

Postcolonial IR scholars who, instead of describing “alternative modernities”, are rather interested in formulating “alternatives to modernity” could see little benefit in debating with scholars whose conceptual apparatus consists of a terminology that the former perceive not merely as different or inadequate, but as a form of intellectual colonization: not a different perspective in the sense of the mild perspectivism suggested by Global IR, but a hierarchical structure that needs to be demolished, not added to.

How to produce a region-specific position

Based on everything said so far, it becomes clear that integrating the views of Latin American IR scholars into a more universal version of our discipline faces challenges beyond the commonly cited disinterest of Northern academia and possible linguistic barriers. Rather, significant parts of Latin American academia have developed interests markedly different from those underlying the project of Global IR. One risk stemming from these incompatibilities lies in the possibility that Global IR might only integrate those Latin American ideas coming from scholars already attuned to its underlying assumptions – thereby operating contrary to its original intentions of more fully capturing the intellectual diversity of IR.

Yet, this does not imply that the dialogue suggested is necessarily meaningless. In my opinion, the original idea of a simple, fluid integration of Southern knowledge into a discipline heretofore dominated by the North is unrealistic. It is inhibited not necessarily only by Northern hegemony, but also by tendencies inherent in Southern scholarly communities. However, as the recent publications cited above suggest, there might be an incipient debate within Latin American IR on the self-understanding of the discipline, in which the three positions outlined above might contain the nuclei of a conversation on authorship and regional perspective in Latin American IR.

Latin American scholars may find it rewarding to first develop their theoretical stances in a debate among themselves (without, of course, implying regional exclusivity) before considering their intervention in Global IR. This would hardly be unprecedented.  After all, the emergence of German-language IR as a globally visible research community took place in the context of the so-called “ZIB-Debatte” among German-language scholars.

For Latin American IR, its own debate – perhaps on the validity of a region-specific position in IR theory or on the role of IR scholars in a wider sense – might be a necessary precondition to participate in truly global theoretical debates. After all, this has recently also been called for by a group of Latin American scholars. Other initiatives to further scholarly discussions within the Latin American IR community, such as the foundation of the Latin American International Studies Faculty (FLAEI), also seem to point in this direction. If the project of Global IR has the impact of firing up such a debate, it will indeed have contributed to making IR more inclusive and interesting – only in a very different way from the one originally imagined.

Jochen Kleinschmidt is Profesor Principal at the Faculty of Political Science, Government and International Relations of Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia. He obtained his doctorate in 2014 from Ludwig-Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, Germany, with a thesis on spatial concepts in the political theory of Niklas Luhmann. Among his recent publications are an article on the political geography of drone warfare and a co-authored book chapter on the so-called drug war in Mexico. Currently, he is working on the application of differentiation theory in political geography and comparative regionalism.


Further Readings on TRAFO:

Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016),  Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Frank Mattheis (2016), New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Catherine Baker (2016), South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Amaya Querejazu (2016), Andean Cosmovision and Global Governanc,  TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.
Tim Rühlig (2016),  Is there a Chinese understanding of International Relations?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

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Citation: Jochen Kleinschmidt, Global IR and Academic Authorship in Latin America: Why Inclusion Is Not a Panacea, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.10.2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5369


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