Pinar Bilgin

The question at the top of this post probably doesn’t keep you awake at night. If it does, that means you have been following the 1990s debates on which approach to adopt (explaining or understanding), which question comes first (epistemology or ontology), or whether commensurability is possible (whether it is desirable to search for approaches that can be evaluated through each other’s categories and standards).

In the past decade, debates surrounding this question have taken a turn that is not entirely helpful to new entrants to the field. This is because of the emergence of so-called ‘non-Western’ approaches to the study of world politics. These approaches are presumed to respond to the parochialism of ‘Western’ IR, helping to address its limitations. Yet, those who have turned their attention to the self-styled ‘non-Western’ approaches were quick to discover that these ‘new’ approaches often propose to replace one parochialism with another. As students of world politics, we should not reduce the question heading this blog to the unhelpful ‘Western/non-Western’ binary but think about it in new terms instead.

Let us start from the beginning. Why is parochialism a limitation for IR? It is not because the most famous institutions of the field originated in the UK and US. Nor is it only because the ideas ‘we’ are most familiar(ised) with are traced to ‘European’ thinkers. It is not only where ideas come from (i.e. their ‘situatedness’) that is our concern. Parochialism is a concern, for we often remain oblivious to the implications such ‘situatedness' has had on ‘our’ knowledge about the international.

Here, there is one irony and one contradiction.

The irony is that IR, by definition, is expected to help us make sense of the international. But how do we make sense of the international if the ideas of those who also constitute the international are not considered? Such discrepancy between what IR promises (insight into the international) and what many approaches offer (‘particular’ perspectives on the international that are sometimes presented as ‘universal’) continues to limit us, notwithstanding the significant progress that has been made in the past decades.

And here is the contradiction. The contributions of ‘others’ are not there insofar as we continue to trace the presumed ‘origins’ of key concepts and ideas to ‘European’ traditions of thought. They are there as the ‘constitutive outside’, understood as the ideas and experiences of ‘others’ who have shaped ‘us’ even as ‘we’ are not aware of and/or acknowledge what ‘we’ owe each other. As such, the concept of ‘constitutive outside’ highlights a contradiction that is central to thinking post-colonially about the international: that others’ ideas and experiences have shaped world politics and yet these contributions and contestations have not been acknowledged explicitly in scholarly studies on the international (see, for example, David Blaney and Naeem Inayatullah and Pal Ahluvalia).

The irony is our legacy. We have inherited IR’s parochial limitations from the previous generations. The contradiction cannot be resolved but it can be thought through. To do this we must not get too bogged down in debates on binaries (Western/non-Western, one world/many worlds…). Instead, I suggest that we follow the lead of scholars who have been studying the ways in which our ideas and institutions have been ‘intertwined’, to borrow a phrase from the literary scholar Edward Said.

The method of study that these scholars adopt is Said’s method of choice: that of ‘contrapuntal reading’, which he borrowed from music and adapted to literary critique. This allows us to appreciate that while all people make history, they have unequal access to power, which, in turn, shapes the way history is written. Consider for example ‘our’ research into human rights. Contemporary debates on human rights often reach an impasse between those who claim ‘Western’ ownership of human rights and those who reject them for the same reason, i.e. ‘Western’ origins. It is possible to locate the multiple beginnings of core ideas and institutions such as democracy and human rights in different parts of the world. More importantly for our purposes, postcolonial scholars studying the ‘connections’ and ‘communications’ between the world’s peoples have challenged both the assumption that human rights is an exclusively ‘Western’ invention, and the presumption that other ways of thinking about human rights would likely be narrower (see the writings of Siba Grovogui for instance). The point here is that inquiring into multiple ‘beginnings’ and ‘connected histories’ of key ideas such as ‘human rights’ will help us render IR less parochial. It is not about inventing new parochialisms in the name of ‘non-Western’ IR.

This is not to underestimate the significance of research that looks into IR’s ‘problem of difference’ (see, for example, Cynthia Weber, Naeem Inayatullah and David Blaney). However, I follow Said who wrote that the point is ‘to convey a more urgent sense of the interdependence between things’.  Accordingly, ‘our’ task, as students of world politics, becomes one of moving beyond seeking to warrant our research with recourse to a self-referential history of ideas (be it ‘European’, or ‘Chinese’ or ‘Arab’) but rather to look at how ideas have been produced, their multiple origins and their uses in different parts of the world.

In his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, Said wrote that ‘Survival, in fact, is about the connections between things’. Over the past decade, an increasing number of scholars have explored and analysed these ‘connections’. Some are interested in the investigation of the self/other relationship (e.g. Iver Neumann, L.H.M. Ling); others have focused on the impact that global socio-economic relations have had on the production of ideas and things in different places (e.g. John Hobson, Tarak Barkawi, Vivienne Jabri).  Another group of scholars has looked at ideational give-and-take between people worldwide (e.g. Siba Grovogui, Sandra Halperin, Robbie Shilliam and Gurminder Bhambra). Quite simply, an alternate way of responding to the question of how we engage with the world has been taking shape in IR and the broader social sciences: studying how ‘we’ have been connected.


Pinar Bilgin is Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University.  This blog post draws on and reflects upon a chapter with the same title to be published in International Relations Theory Today, 2nd ed., Ken Booth and Toni Erskine, eds. (Polity 2016).

Image: Simone Busatto