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International Relations: An American Social Science?

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The question of whether the discipline of International Relations (IR) was in the past, and is still now, a predominantly American social science, is one that has taken up a great deal of discourse in the field of IR. Indeed this question has been the driving force for the IR theory course for which this paper was written; as evidenced by the title and content of the course textbook at the very least (International Relations — Still an American Social Science?, Crawford, 2001). But how appropriate is it to actually speak of the discipline of Inter-national Relations, as famously proclaimed by Stanley Hoffmann, as an American social science (1977)? If we accept IR as being mainly American, what are some of the major implications that arise out of the almost total influence that the Americans have on setting up a conceptual box of what matters in International Relations, and what is the correct way to study it?

This paper will discuss the fundamental problem with the discipline of International Relations if understood as solely an American social science, as Hoffman would have you believe it is (1977), and limited to what Holsti for example deems as the main criteria for the study of IR (1985). The International Relations discipline seemingly is failing to even live up to its name, and as this paper will demonstrate will not be able to achieve substantial and truly universal insights about the world if it continues to be so heavily American-centric and one-sided. This argument will be reached by first identifying the problem, that is to say, demonstrating that there does exist a major American dominance in the field of IR; so large that it could be considered to constitute the actual discipline in that it defines, “what we call international theory today” as Holsti says (1985, vii). This will be achieved primarily by looking at the incredible bias for American nationals’ work in the major periodical publications that constitute the forums for discussion on IR theory (Aydinli and Mathews, 2000) as well as by looking at the predominantly American content in IR textbooks, which are introducing thousands of students to the discipline each year (Nossal, 1998).

After it is established that indeed there is an American ‘core’ to the discipline as will be demonstrated by examining the overly American biased content of periodicals and textbooks, logically there should also exist a ‘periphery’ of scholars, which is to be discussed in relation to the core. This core-periphery terminology is borrowed from Dependency theory which uses these terms to describe the interactions between states and the resulting dependencies which constitute the international system that is keeping the third world poor so long after the end of direct colonialism (class notes). However the specific meanings of these terms changes when they are taken from the context of states and applied instead to describe a separation in the discipline of IR.

It may be pertinent at this point to clarify and make the distinction between core and periphery as it is used in the Aydinli and Mathews work as well as in this paper. The ‘core’ is to be taken to mean the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, Israel, and Japan predominantly, this is due largely to their similar conceptions of IR theory as well as their significant output of English language content work (Aydinli and Mathews, 291). The periphery should hence be taken to constitute the ‘rest of the world’, which can of course be understood to mean the ‘third world’. These terms are somewhat loose in their meanings, but this is deliberate as their main function is to assist in conceptualizing the split in the discipline; meaning that the idea behind the terms is the important thing to keep in mind, and a precise definition of the terms is less relevant (Aydinli and Mathews, 291).

After discussing the reality of the core-periphery separation which characterizes the field of IR; this paper will move to examine the way this significant national separation between the positivistic narrowly-construed American IR and all other IR theorizing ‘outside the box’ coming from other nationals, serves to inhibit the ability of the discipline to adapt to and address new truly global issues, which require now more than ever, truly diverse global perspectives to be able to construct working universal insights about international relations.

From this assumption of the negative effects of lacking diversity in IR theory approaches, the case will be made for the dissolution of the core-periphery imbalance, and hence the greater recognition and promotion of the viewpoints from scholars previously marginalized from the facets of IR theory expression of periodical journals and textbooks. After the case is made for greater diversity of perspectives in the discipline, some possible steps towards a prescription are discussed as a conclusion to this paper.

The fundamental characteristic of so called American IR is that it is obsessed with a positivistic approach to the study of world politics. This is an important point to remember when discussing how having the discipline and literature of IR be limited to an American conception will hinder the potential development of a wider and more appropriate scoped discipline. The positivistic obsession has grown out of American IR since the conception of the discipline back fifty years ago when the assumptions of realism where considered almost as holy scripture. Positivism is clearly the foundation for the dominant IR theories coming out of the United States; even up until recently with constructivism which paradoxically is supposed to be a positivist reaction to an overly positivistic view of the world which prevails in the discipline (class notes). This concern with empirical knowledge grew from a desire amongst the founders of the discipline to make IR a real science; concerned only with facts and the eternal laws derived from them.

An overwhelming percentage of content printed in the major IR journals and textbooks is written by American nationals as well as other scholars that can be said to have become Americanized in their ideas and writing style. Unfortunately, representing international diversity of ideas is not the predominant trend in the discipline of International Relations; the very discipline that by virtue of its very name alone it should be flourishing in. International Relations must be an International discipline to satisfy not only its name; but also the constitution of the discipline’s leading North American association, the International Studies Association (ISA). As noted by Aydinli and Mathews, the constitution clearly states in the second article that “The purpose of the Association is to serve the needs and enhance the capacities of scholars, practitioners, and others without regard to nationality, having a professional interest in expanding, disseminating and applying knowledge of interrelations among nations and peoples.” (290)

More than just the name of the discipline, or the constitution of one leading association of the discipline, may call for the dissolution of barriers to entry for other scholars coming from the outside the ‘core’ – logic dictates that the inherently complex contemporary issues which the field is presented with demand that perspectives from many countries’ scholars are heard. Major issues which pose significant threats to the entire world’s population such as rampant poverty, explosive population growth, the H.I.V. epidemic, hair trigger alerted nuclear arsenals (as well as loose materials and waste), and of course terrorism will never find solutions in a solely one-sided discipline with theories based on the opinions and findings of Americans which may be far less suited to provide answers than others that have been ‘on the ground’ with such issues. A discipline obsessed with empirical facts and positive lines of knowledge, which shuns creative and progressive thinking especially by people from outside the United States, will be unable to address properly the international scope and connectedness of the issues of our times.

In their joint work, Aydinli and Mathews expose the imbalance of national perspectives which exists in the major IR journals said to be the primary conduits of dialogue for scholars (290). By undertaking the massive task of examining some twenty IR journals, the author’s began on a mission to expose the lack of dialogue between the core and the periphery, as represented by a lack of content coming from scholars based in the periphery.

From their survey of the twenty most prominent IR journals in the discipline, Aydinli and Mathews found a major lack of contributions from authors coming from the periphery, demonstrating the lack of dialogue between the core and periphery; a dialogue that this author sees as crucial to the development of truly universal insights in to IR. The lack of dialogue between scholars of different nationalities, and hence the split between the core and periphery are empirically demonstrated by Aydinli and Mathews, who show that the percentage of American authors in the mainstream IR journals is startlingly high. By organizing and categorizing the past publications of the sample of IR journals based largely on observations of various criteria such as, key words in the title, the author’s nationality, the topic of the article, and the general topic of the article, Aydinli and Mathews show the overwhelming amount of American originating content and American-centric focus of these journals; i.e. the prevalent trend of the core ignoring the periphery (297).

Specifically, the study by Aydinli and Mathews finds that seven of the twenty journals examined which were published in the United States, have an average level of only 3.28% of contributions by scholars from outside of the United States. Indeed, the percentage still remains starkly low at 10.47% even when scholars with foreign names being published inside the United States are factored in as a part of the periphery (293). Arguably, the cutting edge IR journals which can be said to be setting the agenda for the discipline are International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, International Security, and World Politics; what is undeniable empirically, is that these 4 (all American of course) journals have only 3% of their content written by scholars from the periphery, and only 12% of their content coming from outside of the United States even (298). It is quite paradoxical that all these journals with the word ‘international’ in their titles are still not drawing upon more diversified outlooks on the world; something that given the relative ease of transport, and the unprecedented levels of communication which define our day and age, could I believe easily be done.

Further evidence of the core-periphery division in the discipline of IR can be found deeply imbedded in another form of IR publications; textbooks, arguably even more discipline-defining than the mainstream IR journals just discussed. Kim Richard Nossal focuses his work on examining the content of fourteen American authored and published introductory level international relations textbooks, in order to highlight what he perceives as…a critical element of the construction of IR textbooks in the United States: that is, the degree to which American IR textbooks contribute in important ways to how the tale of world politics is told, how a certain image of world politics is constructed and thus world politics is understood, and how this is reproduced from one generation to the next hermetically sealed Americocentric vacuum (Nossal, 183).

In his piece Tales That Textbooks Tell, Nossal describes the way in which the construction of an IR textbooks is in itself a theoretical pursuit, one which must distinguish in the way that has caused so much trouble, what is required reading for an understanding of the discipline of IR. Indeed as Nossal points out, the textbook by its very nature “is designed to organize the diverse phenomena of world politics into a more or less comprehensible whole and structured so that it can be ‘taught’…within the relatively unforgiving time frames [of university]” (168). Nossal points to the overwhelming amount of American references in the textbooks; seemingly all “the examples chosen to illustrate points are American or have to do with the United States” (170).

The textbooks surveyed, which in the years to come will introduce hundreds of thousands of fresh minds to the field of IR, are geared towards the undergraduate level market in the United States where demand is high; so using almost exclusively American examples, the authors and publishers of textbooks are trying to cater to the forces of demand from such a large market. This leads to the unfortunate consequence of a highly Americocentric student populace, as is reflected in at least three ways according to Nossal. The first is that it fosters the idea that the discipline of IR is something that only American scholars make worthwhile contributions to. Secondly, it forwards a general sense that the discipline of IR is revolving directly around the United States. Finally Nossal points out, it is creating a distinction in people’s head between notions of ‘us’ and “the ‘world out there’ – beyond the water’s edge” (170).

These textbooks have the detrimental effect of establishing in the minds of students that IR as a discipline cannot be understood unless the United States is at the core, and furthermore that the entire world cannot be stable unless America is the core (173). Nossal also points to the way that the understanding of hegemonic stability theory amongst the authors of textbooks is really only a refection of a “deeply nationalistic way of telling the tale of the post-1945 period” (174), which portrays the United States as the good-will hegemon that took the decision to bear the weight of the free world on its shoulders after the devastation of WWII. It is understandable and at the same time worrying how such an attitude could take such a strong hold amongst students and scholars of IR in the United States, and lead to the close-minded and close-door textbooks which define the discipline in such a way. Nossal makes a stark summary of his findings in his conclusion:

…these texts portray the world to their readers from a uniquely American point of view: they are reviewed by Americans; the sources they cite are American; the examples are American; the theory is American; the experience is American; the focus is American; and in one case the voice is explicitly American (183).

The strong bias for American scholars in both the leading IR journals as well as the discipline defining textbooks is quite evident as discussed in the cases above. What, if anything, can be done to repair this situation and open up the discipline to the entire world’s views in order to rightfully call this discipline International Relations, and meet the requirements of the constitution of North America’s largest IR association, the aforementioned ISA? It is the view of this author that the current technologies available which drastically reduce geographical barriers in terms of transportation and communication have provided the discipline of IR a unique opportunity to truly flourish as an International discipline as opposed to a mainly Americocentric one.

The relative ease of transcontinental flight and the complete ease of transcontinental electronic communications will slowly, if it must be, but ultimately erode the barriers between core and periphery which prevent dialogue between the two. Hence, hindering the establishment of a discipline equipped to deal with the highly complex real world issues which have emerged seemingly out of nowhere on center-stage, as recently as only three years ago with the issue of terrorism (inherently tied to culture and religion, poverty, and war, etc.); the incredible threat exposed that fateful morning of September 11th. If the discipline of IR is to stay contemporary, and be able to provide any real universal insights about the major issues of the 21st century, than it is absolutely necessary that the imbalance and lack of dialogue between the core and periphery of the discipline be addressed and corrected. Only in this way can we hope for a discipline truly worthy of the name International Relations.

Works Consulted

Aydinli, Ersel and Julie Mathews. “Are the Core and Periphery Irreconcilable?

The Curious World of Publishing in Contemporary International Relations.” International Studies Perspectives. 1, 289-303. 2000.

Crawford, Robert M. A. and Darryl S. L. Jarvis. International Relations: Still an

American Social Science? Toward Diversity in International Thought. New York: State University of New York Press. 2001.

Hoffman, Stanley. “An American Social Science: International Relations.” Daedalus:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 106 (3), 41-60. 1977.

Holsti, Kalevi J. Dividing Discipline: Hegemony & Diversity in International Theory.

Boston: Allen and Unwin. 1985.

Nossal, Richard Kim. “Tales that Textbooks Tell: Ethnocentricity and Diversity in

American Introductions to International Relations.” Paper presented to the biennial meetings of the Association for Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand Macquarie University. July 1998.

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