Tales of a Not-So-International Discipline: The Past and Future of IR Scholarship

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Written by Max Nurnus and Daniel Clausen

It has become commonplace to refer to the study of International Relations (IR) as a not-so-international discipline. As an academic field, its most influential and prestigious publications as well as its main forum—the International Studies Association—are dominated by Western scholars, particularly Americans. Thus, the discipline has been called an “American Social Science”. Numerous studies have shown this phenomenon in peer-reviewed publications, course syllabi and among the participants of the International Studies Association’s main conferences. In our own study, we recently found that even on a subject of regional concern like North Korea, Western, especially American, authors dominate. American power over the discipline is reflected not only in participation in its main scholarly forum and peer-reviewed articles, but also in the number of PhDs it grants and the role the recipients of U.S.-based PhDs play in universities throughout the world.

The evolution of IR into an American social science, and the dominant role of traditions such as the Realist school of thought, is oftentimes seen as a result of the end of the Second World War, where the U.S. was left as the dominant power on the world stage. Though the way of telling and the content of IR’s history are highly contested (see, for example, Brian Schmidt’s comprehensive examination), many authors agree on the influence of geopolitical events on the discipline’s development. While it is easy to make the connection between American power and the development of the discipline, what is less clear is the exact relationship of this power and how it has conditioned the development of the field. What is even more unclear is how the field—or even whether the field—will develop in other countries as their political and economic power within the international system grows.

The point is a complex one—but not one beyond making a few educated guesses. First, IR as an academic discipline will not develop in a linear fashion relative to economic power. This is already evident in the way that IR has developed in countries such as Germany or Japan. As Syed Farid Alatas has argued for the case of Japan, it is a “world economic power but it is not a social science power by any means”. Though economic power does matter, and economically powerful countries have the ability to increase their role in the global production of the social sciences, this does not mean they will.

Secondly, even when IR departments develop in other countries, it does not mean that contributions will take the form of articles published in top-tier journals, most of which are published in the West. We can speculate that there will always be professionals who “do IR” in some capacity, but the way this will take place will be based on the needs of that particular nation. It will depend on particularities of the university education, the relationship of the university system with the West, and the weight departments place on publications in peer-reviewed journals. As has been demonstrated by the 2010 UNESCO World Social Science Report, the production of social science research often depends on the peculiarities of the nation in which social scientists work and the degree to which professors have the resources, time, or financial security to perform academic research. Among those who do conduct research, many do so in order to address local issues in capacities other than academia, for example as consultants and for research institutes. In the developing world, this is often done in order to supplement poor salaries. When scholars do publish academically outside the West, they are more likely to publish in local journals or in periodicals written in their own language.

Thirdly, and following the argument that geopolitical circumstances can shape a discipline’s development, it is unlikely that any other country will find itself in a power position similar to that of the United States after the second World War. As Stephen Walt argued in his blog, America is the natural home of great thinkers of global affairs because great powers naturally spend more time thinking globally. Furthermore, he argues that authoritarian societies are bound to produce poorer quality of work on global affairs because discourse on the subject is highly circumscribed. These points seem fair, and as the authors have found during their time living in Japan and South Korea, local scholars there tend to approach global affairs from the perspective of their respective countries.

With these points in mind, it becomes anything but self-evident that the contemporary shifts in economic and political power will also reshape IR as a discipline. Countries such as China, India and the larger BRIC grouping may be gaining weight on the international stage, but we should not expect this trend to change the face of IR’s prestigious publications and forums. Being present in these academic outlets is, after all, only one way of thinking and publishing about global affairs. As the current situation in many countries outside the West emphasizes, rising powers might choose to do IR in different ways. The future might well bring about a post-American world, to borrow the title of one of Fareed Zakaria’s books, but it might not transform IR into a post-American social science.

 

About the authors: Max Nurnus is a PhD Student at the Graduate School of International Studies of Seoul National University and currently a Fulbright Visiting Researcher at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University. Daniel Clausen, PhD is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. His research has been published in Asian Politics and Policy, e-IR, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies and Culture and Conflict Review, among other publications.