Theme Panel: Coloniality of Power/Knowledge in International Relations

Coloniality of Power/Knowledge in International Relations

Co-sponsored by Division 60: International Relations Theory
Full Paper Panel

(Chair) Lou Pingeot, Université de Montréal; (Discussant) Anna M. Agathangelou, York University

Session Description:
International Relations (IR) as a discipline has largely obscured the field’s racial and colonial origins, which have only recently been excavated and brought to the forefront (Odoom and Andrews 2017; Capan 2017; Zondi 2018; Gruffydd Jones 2006; Shilliam 2021; Vitalis 2015). As Stanley Hoffmann argued, IR was born as an “American Social Science”, and the discipline’s ethnocentricity has been criticized from various localities (Hoffmann 1977; Weaver 1998; Agathangelou and Ling 2009; Shilliam 2010; Tickner & Blaney 2013). In the last couple of decades, IR scholars have started to develop self-awareness of systemic racism and coloniality not only in the transmission of knowledge, but also in the very fabric of our theoretical and empirical approaches to international relations (Odoom and Andrews 2017; Capan 2017; Zondi 2018; Acharya 2021). This theoretical move has been accompanied by social movements such as #RhodesMustFall, #BlackInTheIvory, as well as major protests in western universities. This panel addresses coloniality of power and knowledge, colonization of the mind, and the enduring legacy of colonialism both in International Relations as a field and in contemporary international relations. The papers discuss what decolonizing IR might look like from diverse angles, looking both at how we do IR and how we teach IR. They focus on historicizing colonialism and decolonial struggles, decentering the Western experience, and challenging the disciplinary boundaries that limit what counts as an “IR issue.”


Decentering the Western Gaze of IR: Evidence from Undergraduate Training
Maïka Sondarjee, Université d’Ottawa

Amidst the debates on the colonial legacies of IR, only scarce studies have studied the western IR classroom. And whereas the literature on the sociology of IR has studied textbooks and graduate training, they only seldom studied undergraduate courses. This paper addresses basic undergraduate training and maps the ethnocentric and colonial biases in western IR. It does so by analyzing 50 Introduction to IR syllabi in the United States and Canada, as well as published articles from leading journals in the discipline from 2017 to 2020. By centering voices and epistemologies from African, South Asian, Latin American and indigenous scholarships, this article studies how pedagogical practices can perpetuate a western gaze. It demonstrates that the discipline is taught, published, and conceived as an enterprise centered on western experience, epistemes, history, and agency.

Same Old, Same Old? What IR Course Syllabi Tell Us about Disciplinary Diversity
Nathan Andrews, University of Alberta

Discussions about diversifying the discipline of International Relations (IR) are often met with limited evidence in practice. Employing the concepts of epistemic oppression and academic dependency, this paper contributes to filling the existing knowledge gap by examining what the pedagogical practices of IR professors particularly in terms of syllabi design and content tell us about the state of disciplinary diversity. The paper examines results from a preliminary study that sought to analyze different graduate-level IR syllabi from leading universities in the Global North (represented by U.S. and U.K.) and Global South (Africa in particular) in order to determine how their design, including required readings and other pedagogical choices in the classroom, contributes to the explicit diversity needed to push IR beyond its usual canon. The findings suggest that although more perspectives have become accepted or recognized, what is considered essential for graduate students to study and further propagate is still primarily mainstream. Another point is that what has become known as ‘critical IR’ cannot automatically be equated with diversity. This means there is the need to further interrogate and critique what can be characterized as a ‘critical canon’ of IR. The evidence presented in this paper has important ramifications for the broader discipline of Political Science in North America and elsewhere and should lead us to question the various historical trajectories and ongoing practices associated with the discipline.

Valuating Sovereigns: The Developing State in the Colonial Global Economy
Alice Chessé, McGill University

This paper analyzes how the disciplinary and analytical boundaries between critical security studies and global political economy have constrained the study of the coloniality of contemporary global governance (Agathangelou 2017; Quijano 2000). Eurocentric practices of knowledge production around the conceptualization of the sovereign state (Behera 2021) have reinforced an artificial dichotomy between states and markets. In turn, this dichotomy has limited our understanding of how post-World War II decolonization possibly maintained the unequal structures of the colonial global economy (Bhambra 2021) through the negotiation of the multilateral project of development (Escobar 1995; Doty 1996). With decolonial feminists (Lugones 2011), I study the postcolonial state as both a gendered (Parashar, Tickner, True, Peterson 2018) and colonial institution that reproduces the “white man’s burden” in the civilizing mission carried on by global institutions (Nandy 2003). In this paper, I analyze practices of classification and valuation of national economies by multilateral institutions as contemporary enactments of practices of colonial management of difference constitutive of a global colonial modernity (Mignolo 2011). I conduct an institutional history of the country category of “developing country” which traces its origins in a radical anticolonial project of global redistributive and reparatory justice in the Interwar and its dilution during decolonial struggles at the United Nations in the 1960s and 1970s. The postcolonial institutionalization of the category constituted the developing state as a gendered state, feminized under a masculinist ideology of protection and infantilization. By representing it as a failed sovereign, it justified violent multilateral interventions. I conclude that epistemic practices of classification and valuation of national economies by global institutions have been historical corollaries to cartographic practices of boundary-drawing constitutive of an unequal postcolonial global order.

Decolonizing International Criminal Justice: An African Postcolonial Perspective
Mohamed Sesay, McGill University

Since the early 1990s, international criminal justice—accountability for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other grave crimes—has emerged as an essential element of the post-Cold War rule-based world order (Ba 2017, 2020). But by treating the ‘goodness’ of international criminal justice as given, scholars in international relations and law have devoted scant attention to the particular ideological and political character that the norm takes and its ability to discriminate among those subjected to its accountability standards (Epstein 2017). Specifically, we know very little as to why international criminal justice has enthusiastically focused on nearly all major conflict and post-conflict situations in Africa while steering clear of this approach elsewhere in the world (Okafor and Ngwaba 2014). Why do we have one international criminal justice standard for African despots and war criminals and another standard for powerful leaders elsewhere who may have committed similar atrocity crimes? This paper attempts to tackle these questions from a post/decolonial perspective to argue that the norm is constituted and sustained by specific forms of power-knowledge relations that privilege the powerful. International criminal justice as presently constituted reproduces and sustains the coloniality of power and knowledge upon which the global normative order is based. In showing how the assertion of universal human rights masks underlying politics of domination, this paper also attempts to lay the premise for decolonizing international criminal justice as essential for its legitimacy in Africa and globally.

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