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Epistemic hegemony: the Western straitjacket and post-colonial scars in academic publishing – interview with Orion Noda by Carolina de Lima

The field of International Relations (IR) is barely ‘international’. Scholars have voiced their concerns and as a result, we have witnessed calls for diversity and inclusion in IR, be it in publication or in syllabi. Notwithstanding, the misrepresentation of non-Western scholars in the production of knowledge is significant. This article sheds light on the dynamics of publishing from a non-Western perspective and reinforces Post-Colonial epistemological critiques in IR. Based on the latest dataset from the International Studies Association (ISA)’s journals, this article argues that the current setting of IR journals is not suited for and receptive of non-Western scholars and epistemologies.  

Orion Noda’s article brings light into an important discussion in the field of international relations: how international are we really? After his analysis of important IR journals, it’s safe to say we are not as international as we think we are. A Western perspective has taken over the discussion and even though the journals say they are willing to change this, they are failing it, as the numbers in his article shows. Mr. Noda’s “Epistemic hegemony: the Western straitjacket and post-colonial scars in academic publishing” published in vol. 63, n. 1 of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional highlights how much post-colonial research exists and does not find space in IR journals, but also argues how much colonialist logic is still present in the analysis of the field. 

You mentioned practical, organizational and epistemological factors that might contribute to the misrepresentation of non-Western authors in the main publications of IR. At the same time, you also showed that on average, 19% of all submissions to the main journals were made by non-Western. Besides that, do you believe that due to the small percentage of non-Western authors being published, these scholars are somehow demotivated to apply their studies to the journals mentioned in your article?  

Absolutely. If you are a non-Western scholar, particularly an early career scholar, you are bombarded from day one of your undergraduate degree with a myriad of Western scholarship and, if you are lucky, you might find a few works by non-Western scholars toward the end. This unfortunate reality deeply affects scholars’ sense of self. It creates and reproduces an internalised ideology rooted in colonial practices: Westerners produce knowledge, non-Westerners accept and merely reproduce it. By not seeing their peers succeed, non-Western scholars implicitly believe their work is not good enough to be disseminated. This belief is so ingrained in their perception that it ultimately demotivates non-Western scholars not only to submit their work for publication in major outlets, but also to even dare escape the constraints of Western epistemologies and the Western straitjacket. 

To what extent are we non-Westerners stuck in a vicious cycle? Since knowledge and international prestige are the basis for power and dominance, doesn’t this reproduction take place almost automatically in an attempt to gain space in IR discussions? Isn’t it, as you said, a straitjacket: if they talk about themes outside Western standards, they are marginalized, if they talk about Western topics, they are just reproducing the same knowledge? 

In short, academia is unfortunately stuck in a vicious cycle. Knowledge and power consist of an autopoietic system; a closed relationship reproducing itself, and this is the largest, most observable – and yet one of the most neglected – scars of post-colonial relations. It is observable because the overwhelming majority of high-impact publications in IR is produced by Western scholars. Yet, it is also neglected insofar as Western epistemological domination is so embedded in the ontological nature of IR that it is sometimes perceived as natural, that is, IR is this way just because it is. Western institutions – scholars, journals, universities – structurally suppress any type of deviation from the Western standard of knowledge, trapping IR in a Western straitjacket: IR is either proper, valid, Western knowledge, or it is subaltern, alternative, or even ludicrous. The key takeaway is that IR scholars and the IR community as a whole must be painfully aware of this at all times in a continuous attempt to break free from the straitjacket. One cannot escape constraint if one does not even realise it is constrained.  

When you criticized Acharya and Buzan’s hypothesis that “there are non-Western IR theories, but they are scattered and hidden” you said that the main question concerning it is why they are hidden, and you mention the language barrier. Furthermore, how much does it not fit in the logic of the generations of academics who are, with few exceptions, more aligned and committed to Western theories?  

Being fair to Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, it’s not their hypothesis, but one that commonly surfaces and they address it. But the very belief that scholars align with Western IR shows how deep are the roots of Western dominance in IR. I am not claiming that non-Western scholars cannot or should not conform to Western IR theories. Rather, I am claiming that many who do fail to see it as Western IR, seeing simply as “IR theory.” For many in the field, there is no Western IR because the full body of scholarship they are familiar with is Western – there is no other option. Furthermore, much of the IR produced in non-Western countries and communities is either a translation or reproduction of Western IR. My goal is to show that there is a plethora of interesting, original, and valid knowledges outside the Western sphere.  

Since publications come from the West, but mainly that magazines are Western, to what extent are the rejection of articles that run away from Western logic not rejected precisely because they are ideologically against what is set? How interesting is it for big publications to go against what they’ve been giving for a long time? 

One reason I deliberately did not include the major and scoped journals in the field is precisely because they are known to lean towards one pole of the epistemological spectrum, a specific area, or both. The journals I selected are all – at least in theory – unbiased in that nature. Nevertheless, in analyzing the majority of IR journals, including the major ones whose epistemological inclinations are known, most of them state that they are open to different perspectives and analytical angles. They state their willingness to expand their repertoire and accept diverse epistemologies and methodologies. As I mentioned in the article, frequent calls have been made to decolonise IR and to diversify its production, and journals are – once again, at least in theory and rhetoric – advocates of this fight. What we see, on the other hand, is a completely distinct reality. Journals still – consciously or not – prefer Western scholars and Western publications. The gains for academic journals of broadening their epistemological scope is to fulfill their ultimate task: the promotion of cutting-edge research. Rather, they seemingly prefer to reproduce the same epistemologies and methodologies with slight twists, simply strengthening Western hold on IR. 

Accordingly, do you believe that the not-so blind double peer-review is turning IR Theory into a self-fulfilling prophecy? In a way that we are always reading from the same authors with the same perspectives and we don’t see changes in IR analysis 

Not only because of the failed blinded peer-review process, but in essence, yes. In IR we see a proliferation of the same mentality, epistemologies, and methodologies. The data presented in my article, particularly related to the results of surveys asking what the most influential IR scholars are, shows this staleness in the production of knowledge in IR. A large portion of the scholars in that list made their latest major contributions decades ago. Some, as is the case of Kenneth Waltz, have been dead for almost 10 years. IR needs the renovation; the “old school” of IR needs not only to give way to the newer generation of scholars, but also not doctrine and constrain them in the old school ways.  

Finally, in parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement a process of questioning the historic Western figures that were involved in the genocide of indigenous people, human trafficking and slavery has begun. Would this be an opportunity for journals to start doing a historical repair to non-Western themes and scholars? Driven also by the fact that the new generation of non-Western scholars is increasingly committed to their place of origin. Or do you think we are still far from seeing non-Western narratives gaining relevance in IR? 

These movements are crucial; however, we must be very careful not to shift their focus or steal the limelight. The Black Lives Matter movement stands on its own and has its own agenda that we all must support it. Nevertheless, the movement does trigger a chain of events leading to an overarching questioning of status quo and internalised ideologies. In that sense, I believe the IR community, in being an ally to the movement, could learn from its nature and start questioning the crystallised dogmas of the discipline. It is important to note that this questioning must come not only from non-Western scholars, but also from Western ones. Most journals already state in their mission statements their desire to promote diversity, what needs to be done is to actually take action to make these statements true. Some journals are taking steps to strengthen diversity and equality, such as International Affair’s pledge to reach gender balance in their publications. These initiatives must be streamlined to all journals and adapted to mitigate all types of prejudice that currently loom the field of IR. 

Read the article 

Noda, Orion. (2020). Epistemic hegemony: the Western straitjacket and post-colonial scars in academic publishing. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 63(1), e007. Epub July 27, 2020.https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329202000107 

About the authors 

Orion Noda, King’s College London, War Studies, London, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (orion.noda@kcl.ac.uk) 

Carolina de Lima, M.A. International Relations, Federal University of Santa Catarina. 

How to cite this interview 

Cite this article as: Editoria, "Epistemic hegemony: the Western straitjacket and post-colonial scars in academic publishing – interview with Orion Noda by Carolina de Lima," in Revista Mundorama, 30/07/2020, https://mundorama.net/?p=27477.