Rethinking the ‘Global’ with approaches from the South

A Conversation with Prof. Siddharth Mallavarapu

As a scholar from the Global South, what do you think are the latest developments in International Relations theory from the Global South, which could contribute to the way in which the world today understands or conducts global cooperation today?

This is a very exciting time for thinking about international relations and questions of global cooperation. As we know, there a number of certitudes in International Relations that no longer hold true. We must reflect on areas of neglect, wherein regions of the world, which have until now not been treated as equal partners in the creation of knowledge, are brought into the ‘global’ conversation. There are more claimants to the word ‘global’ now. For instance, the world is far more curious today about some parts of Asia – what is the state of play in Chinese International Relations thinking or in India at this point. There are many ways in which one can contribute to these ideas from the setting of the global south. One worthwhile pursuit is to bring these diverse intellectual inheritances in conversation with the existing bodies of thought, and second to consciously engage with the global.

Could you elaborate a bit more on that?

Some of the questions we are interested in within the discipline of International Relations are not very specific to one region or place. They have wide resonance and are best understood when they are treated as enquiries on their own terms as viewed from different parts of the world. For example, questions relating to political order, war and peace, the nature of global cooperation, the constraints on cooperation, questions related to justice and political legitimacy- these are globally relevant, but scholars from different regions may have disparate perspectives on them. Thus, we could have scholars located in parts of Africa, South America, the South Pacific, the Arab world, and Asia, for example, contributing actively towards rethinking some of these notions and see how they depart from mainstream conceptions around these questions. We need to explore these perspectives much more fully than has been done so far.

What according to you are the special foci required, in order to maximize the potential of global cooperation research?

I think that two things we need in this direction are multidisciplinarity and sound empirics. We are often ritualistic about multidisciplinarity but if we are able translate this idea into something very real; it provides a great vantage point for a problem-driven understanding of global issues. We must avoid having a preconceived notion or impose particular paradigms to think about global cooperation. My own research at the Centre sought to build on insights from the field of cognition studies. I brought this in conversation with conventional social sciences and asked questions relating to our assumptions about language, perceptions, and the role of emotions and affect in politics. It was interesting for me to see how cognition studies might enrich the traditional understandings we may have had in our social science disciplines. It culminated in a chapter in a co-edited book of Dirk Messner and Silke Weinlich. It examines how insights from cognition studies could help us think about institutional design. Studying global cooperation is strongly rooted in theory, and good theory draws on good empirics. To think in diverse empirical registers on these questions of global cooperation is important, especially as global cooperation is not always benign. There are complicated power dynamics that could be studied through a good mix of qualitative and quantitative data drawing on multi-method research.

The current projects you are working on also bring the voices from the South into the academic conversations on the ‘Global’. Could you give us some details on them?

There are a couple of things I am currently working on. An important and intellectually rewarding project from a global south perspective is a collaborative endeavor with my mentor Kanti Bajpai, a distinguished academic at the National University of Singapore. This is a multi-volume series on India’s internationalist and strategic thought. The idea was to bring together important slices of thinking within India dating back to the days of the anti-colonial nationalists and a close examination of how they conceived of the category of the international and strategic thought while responding to global political and intellectual currents. The first volume is in press and is forthcoming later this summer (2019).

Apart from this, I have just finished a chapter on comparative political theory for a Handbook of Political Science co-edited by Dirk Berg-Schlosser, Bertrand Badie and Leonardo Morlino. The contribution is forthcoming as part of a Sage Handbook of Political Science to be published in early 2020. I have also recently published a chapter on Octavio Paz in a Routledge Handbook of Critical International Relations edited by Jenny Edkins. Paz is a well-known Mexican Nobel Laureate who also served as a diplomat having done a stint in India between 1962 and 1968. I tried to glean insights from Paz’s life and work that could potentially be of value to students of international relations.

I see a common thread running through all these projects that interest me. This relates to what the Kenyan academic and writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o refers to as the ‘politics of knowing’. I have been for some time now been preoccupied in the context of the study of International Relations to understand what it means to think about categories and maps of knowledge that are shaped elsewhere and travel to other parts of the world. Walter Mignolo refers to this process as ‘transculturation’. Further, we need to ask how the global south can contribute to the creation of what counts as knowledge and what are the silences around the term ‘global’ even today? I think all of these questions converge when we seek to decolonize the study of International Relations through a multidisciplinary perspective.

 

Interview by Mouli Banerjee