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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchDecolonizing to Reimagine International Relations: An Introduction

Decolonizing to Reimagine International Relations: An Introduction

Author: Somdeep Sen

Affiliation: Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark 

Organization /Publisher:  Review of International Studies

Date/Place: July 5, 2023/UK

Type of Literature: Forum Article

Number of Pages: 32


Keywords: Decolonisation of International Relations, Decolonisation, Eurocentrism, Imperialism, International Relations


The academic field of international relations has marginalized and undervalued the past, present, and future of people from the Global South. As a field, it believes that the Global North is a source of universally applicable ‘big ideas’ (i.e., grand theory), resulting in International Relations Theories (IR) to be deeply rooted in and influenced by the history, intellectual traditions, and agency claims of the West. Conversely, the Global South is given limited agency as a source of intellectual viewpoints that are valued or influential enough to impact the mainstream academic agenda.

There is a group of pessimistic scholars who question the ability to decolonize the field of international relations. These scholars highlight the difficult of decolonizing something as basic as food (food sovereignty). This challenge seems too daunting after generations of colonial destruction of indigenous food systems.

However, in this “forum article” (based on a seminar had been organized by the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University-Denmark) the author’s main interest lies in the possibility of producing actual change in the IR field. The author offers a more positive viewpoint, not solely focusing on the potential to decolonize the field, but also analyzing what a decolonized IR field would look like.

The author argues that despite the existence of numerous publications and studies (ranging from journals to panels and roundtables at major international conferences) that have had a transformative impact on the field and forced acknowledgement of the colonial roots of IR, recognition does not always translate into the acceptance of reparative strategies. 

Detractors argue that decolonizing IR is challenging because it encompasses a broad objective, is perceived as cruel towards the beneficiaries of IR’s colonialist history or is seen as disruptive to established disciplinary and institutional practices and norms.

The forum, which the author refers to, engaged in discussions about decolonization as a process of dismantling the colonial heritage of IR. To achieve this, it proposed a redesigned disciplinary framework that considers and rectifies the persistent influence of this heritage on the intellectual priorities and material aspects of IR.

Furthermore, this forum perceives decolonization as the necessary eradication of IR’s colonial legacy, which casts a long shadow. In pursuit of this goal, a reimagined disciplinary architecture is being developed, which acknowledges and addresses how this legacy continues to shape the intellectual priorities and relative significance of IR.

Forum posts conceptualize decolonization as a construct. In essence, colonialism is not merely an “event” but a system that ensures colonial continuity over time, perpetuating local control over external entities. The author asserts that this structure encompasses the academic and institutional norms, traditions, and practices that sustain the colonization of IR in the present era. As a remedy, the decolonization of IR must necessarily be systematic.

The author describes the colonial as the structure of scholarly and institutional norms, traditions, and practices that keep up the colonially of IR in the present. 

As an antidote, the decolonization of IR needs to be a structure that can replace the colonial disciplinary architecture with one that embodies scholarly and institutional norms, and traditions, that seek to minimize the consequences of IR’s colonial origins and redefine the field. This redefinition would necessarily have to meaningfully connect with and represent the past, present, and futures of peoples (and views) that have been marginalized and undervalued in the discipline.

The author mentioned various contributions in this forum that seek to rethink IR. For instance, Ilan Kapoor, uses development studies to consider the possibilities and impossibilities of decolonizing international relations. He proposes that development studies, as a topic rooted in colonial legacies and colonialism’s civilizing goal, is an ideal starting point for decolonizing International Relations (IR). However, Kapoor contends that dealing with coloniality in development studies and international relations necessitates both epistemic (knowledge-related) and material decolonization. Epistemic decolonization involves reclaiming the discipline’s intellectual foundation by recognizing and constructively engaging with indigenous and subaltern worldviews and experiences. This approach goes beyond simply acknowledging indigenous and subaltern knowledge and instead empowers it to impact and affect how we work and live.

As for epistemic decolonization, Somdeep argues that it needs to occur at a conceptual level. Like any other discipline, IR encapsulates a conceptual vocabulary that forms the ‘building blocks’ of its grand theoretical claims about the world. Herein, if coloniality shapes the foundational purpose of IR, the conceptual lexicon through which the discipline theorizes also reflects a scholarly validation of colonialism and imperialism. For one thing, this ‘lexicon and theoretical register’ is unable to comprehensively explain the workings of the global order.

For example, Ajay Parasram focuses on the concept of ‘sovereignty’. Within IR, the author notes, there is a disciplinary assumption that an understanding of sovereignty rooted in a ‘Eurocentric genealogy’ has universal validity. This commitment to a universalist conception is a colonial and white supremacist, as it willfully marginalizes (and stigmatizes) other ways of being in the global order.

Among the contributions that were mentioned in the forum, Somdeep Sen discussed Kristina Hinds and Dana El Kurd’s arguments on the geographical location in IR theories. The author believes that what IR says frequently has a lot to do with the geographical place from which the global order is theorized. Looking outwards from the metropole, as expected, results in knowledge production that serves the colonial and imperial. As a result, it becomes important to ‘go’ elsewhere to develop a scholarly perspective that might unsettle IR’s colonial and white supremacist worldview. 

Hinds and El Kurd argue that we should theorize the world from somewhere else. Specifically, they present Caribbean and Arab perspectives on decolonization. They argue that when the Caribbean does appear in academic discussions, it is portrayed as a region of “vulnerability, underdevelopment, and illegality, and the same thing applies with regard to the Arab world that is largely missing in efforts to decolonize IR. The authors argue that due to the Caribbean region’s vital part in “building systems of empire,” meaningful engagement with ‘Caribbean perspectives’ and intellectual traditions can then offer important insights into the ‘capitalist, exploitative, racialized, and gendered’ workings of the world.

With regard to El Kurd, the author stated that she reveals the messiness in which substantive decolonization is undermined by regional scholars’ focus on ‘performative metrics’ and by northern scholars who ‘pretend at localism’ while continuing to exclude regional scholars from the disciplinary mainstream. This line of critique may prompt sceptics to underline the hopelessness of any endeavor to decolonize the field. 

While Somdeep Sen presented many opinions from forum participants in an attempt to explain the nature of IR Decolonization and its obstacles, the beginning of the effort to decolonize the field arguably started with Consolata Raphael Sulley and Lisa Ann Richey’s contribution.  Their work serves as a starting point in the quest to decolonize a notion such as ‘humanitarianism’ within the context of a collaborative research project in Tanzania. They proposed a framework of North-South research collaboration as a platform for engaging in conceptual decolonisation, not least as a means of undoing the hierarchical (core-periphery) structures that have come to characterize the field of international relations as a discipline. The writers then take an inductive and practice-based method to develop decolonial theory through an “iterative back-and-forth exchange” that seeks to not “retreat into relativism” or abandon the endeavor. 

Somdeep Sen closes the article with feedback from the forum: emphasizing the importance of decolonization as a multidimensional and multisite endeavor. Nonetheless, the goal of decolonization has become a contentious public and political issue. In a postscript, he discusses the broader implications of decolonizing academia and, by extension, questioning the notion that scientific knowledge production is apolitical. 

By: Chourouk Mestour, PhD Student in International Relations



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