global politics, relationally

On not overcoming divides

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This post by PTJ is part of the RI feature series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It is a response to Beate Jahn’s post “Modern social and political thought has its origins in imperialism — and perpetuates it.” Page number references are to Jahn’s published piece in the edited volume.

Beate Jahn’s paper makes a clear and provocative claim: the division between History and the social science disciplines participates in and perpetuates imperialism. It does so because it masks and obscures fundamental connections between entities in favor of a focus on, from the History side, an analysis of entities in constitutive isolation from one another, and from the social science side, an analysis of patterns of what remain accidental or inessential second-order interactions between those pre-constituted entities. This in turn allows “political actors to endorse the universal principle of freedom even while they engaged in imperialist power politics” (p. 28), attributing empirically-measurable inequalities (between people, between polities, between ethnic groups) to internal characteristics of entities and thus absolving themselves of any implication in the ongoing (re)production of those inequalities. We scholars of international affairs thus inhabit a cage with disciplinary bars that prevent us from seeing the whole and correct picture.

While broadly sympathetic to the project of embedding our conceptual inheritances in the broader political and social environment from which they grew, I am not convinced that examining what a conceptual architecture was used for, or which situations it was developed in response to, tells us much about what the architecture can be used for in the future. Jahn follows Foucault in highlighting the emergence of “the modern episteme” that regards “individual actors…as developing in accordance with their own internal nature” (p. 18), and argues that this was the key shift that made possible a plethora of modes of domination predicated not on direct rule, but on a variety of informal and indirect ways of maintaining practical inequality despite formal equality. In her almost functionalist account this episteme arose in order to mediate the “tension between freedom and empire” (p. 27) at the beginning of the 19th century, and because of this troubling origin any concentration on particular situations and individual entities is automatically suspect. But despite the suggestive homology between the discourses of sovereignty and development on the one hand, and the methodological division of the world into (historical) particular facts and (social-scientific) generalizations on the other, I do not think it follows that a pattern of knowledge-practices that emerged during a crisis of empires is invariably yoked to the perpetuation of imperial rule. Certainly nationalist histories helped to shore up the notion of the world as naturally divided into discrete peoples with distinct characters, and certainly accounts of human groups as occupying different levels or stages of development underpinned and reinforced the differential treatment of such groups—to the detriment of the non-European and non-white populations of the planet. But that is far from compelling evidence that the academic discipline of History is inevitably fated to produce such essentialist accounts, or that the social sciences invariably have to build on such accounts because of their common participation in “the modern episteme.”

Indeed, I am not especially comfortable with the notion that “the modern episteme” is causally responsible for anything (and make no mistake, to claim that “the modern episteme” is responsible for effects in the world is to make a causal claim, albeit not a neopositivist-nomothetic one). To my mind, the notion of the modern episteme is an ideal-type rather than the name of a concrete object; its utility lies in drawing together disparate gestures and figures of thought so as to make plain the broad pattern into which they—imperfectly, but insightfully—fit. So as a conceptual instrument, the notion has descriptive and explanatory value insofar as it illuminates concrete and specific cases, and informs causal accounts, so to speak, indirectly: an outcome is explained by its particular antecedents, some of which may be usefully regarded as an instance or an instantiation of “the modern episteme” in practice. This in turn points towards the need for a precise and careful tracing of just how specific utterances and justifications led to specific outcomes. Unless we are clear on the need for such empirical tracing, we run the risk of inadvertently turning “the modern episteme” into a parametric structure, despite Foucault’s own well-known aversion to such structuralism.

Insufficient attention to specific deployments and articulations can also lead to too-hasty generalizations, even caricatures, of the academic disciplines caught up in and constituted by this “modern episteme.” Jahn’s portrayal of History as exclusively concerned with particular facts is belied by the existence of traditions of critical historiography, and Jahn’s contrasting portrayal of the social sciences as exclusively concerned with “nomothetic theories” (p. 21) is similarly belied by robust debate within and among the social sciences about the nature of explanation and its relationship to lawlike empirical generalizations. As with any academic discipline, and following Andrew Abbott’s discussion of how academic disciplines work, History and the various social sciences are not constituted by fundamental agreement as much as by a delimited set of disagreements that replicate, fractally, over time, as scholars seek to differentiate themselves from one another while still locating themselves within a common tradition of contention. So the characterizations that Jahn provides may accurately represent one part—perhaps even the dominant part—of the academic disciplines that she mentions, but academic disciplines being what they are and functioning as they do, the distinction between ideographic and nomothetic knowledge-practices is itself a live issue within those disciplines. That is the case even if the modal historian is more ideographic than the modal social scientist. Indeed, sufficient resemblances between parts of the disciplines exist that a Social Science History Association exists, bringing together historically-inclined social scientists and social-scientifically-inclined historians. So in practice, academic disciplines are far from the homogenous wholes suggested by discussion of a single, uncontested, “modern episteme” within which each plays a distinct functional role.

It will not have escaped the careful reader that I have consistently referred to “the social sciences,” and not to “IR,” when discussing a contrast with History. That is because I am unconvinced that “IR” is an academic discipline, as it lacks the career-organizational structure that Abbott maintains is essential to a discipline’s continued existence: most international studies scholars aren’t trained in IR and then go on to get jobs in IR, but are trained in some discipline or other (Political Science, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology…even History) and then get jobs either in departments corresponding to their degree and training, or in multi-disciplinary units where disciplinary divisions persist either formally (as departments) or informally (in rankings of publication outlets that are appropriate for members of the faculty working in that discipline). A lot of Anglophone international studies is, in fact, organized as “International Relations,” a subfield of the discipline of Political Science. But not all of it. International studies is bigger than its “IR” part, and has always been more of a multi-disciplinary meeting-place than a coherent academic discipline, which makes a contrast between History and international studies even more tenuous—especially since there are historians in international studies! The closer one looks into the specifics, the more “the modern episteme” fades from view, and the more we are left not with a continuation of imperialism functionally shored up by a system of separate academic disciplines that cannot grasp the whole picture, but with a complex variety of knowledge-practices whose characteristic insights and characteristic blindnesses spring from the same soil.

Jahn finds a lot to lament in the fragmentation of modern knowledge, particularly in the functional connections between fragmentation and hierarchy. But rather than seeing this as the persistence of empire, maybe we should see it as the mutation of forms of hierarchy—the global order we have now in international affairs is clearly not just the same as the empires that preceded it. Hierarchy per se may not be the important thing, at least not as important as the diverse forms that hierarchy takes. Do we really think that hierarchy would not have persisted in the absence of the fragmentation of academic knowledge into separate disciplines? Maybe hierarchy and inequality are like greed, basic constants in human existence, varying only in terms of which forms we regard as acceptable and to what degree.

In addition, what Abbott calls the “chaos of disciplines” might be seen as an opportunity rather than a liability—an opportunity that international studies, as something more than a single discipline itself, is well poised to take advantage of. Across the field as a whole, we can draw on a variety of discipline-specific tools and techniques for investigating hierarchy and inequality, and by bringing multiple perspectives to bear on the problem, as Nietzsche might put it, our “objectivity” might increase. That might provide opportunities for practical action in defense of “difference with equality” that would not have been possible under conditions of formal empire and unified knowledge. So perhaps we should not be so concerned about overcoming divides; perhaps instead we should work to push each side of each divide as far as it can go, knowing that none of these separate divisions are ever going to be uniquely equal to the tasks of the time.