An interview with Dr. Rita Abrahamsen
Rita Abrahamsen is Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS). Her research interests are in African politics, security and development, security privatization and postcolonial theory. She is the author (with M.C. Williams) of Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and the Good Governance Agenda in Africa (Zed Books, 2000). Her articles have appeared in leading journals including African Affairs, Alternatives, International Political Sociology, Journal of Modern African Studies, Political Studies, Third World Quarterly and Review of African Political Economy.
In the year 2007 you wrote in your article “Postcolonialism” that “The ‘global voices’ in the dialogue of IR are, it seems, not so global after all.” Now after about a decade do you see any changes due to the recent evolutions in the discipline or do you still believe that the voices of the repressed or subaltern are barely audible in IR theory or more generally in social sciences?
Thankfully a lot has changed in IR and the social sciences in the last ten years or so. One of the most encouraging developments in IR is an increasing awareness of the discipline’s parochialism, and in this sense IR is becoming more self-reflexive and aware of its shortcomings as a Western-centric, or primarily American and European discipline. Postcolonial approaches of various kinds are, for example, much more common and prominent within IR today than they were in 2007, and there is also much more attention to non-Western parts of the world and to non-Western agency in international affairs. I think in general, there is also a much stronger awareness among scholars and editors of the need to always double-check our references in terms of inclusiveness of diverse perspectives and voices. As an example, the International Studies Association is hosting a conference in Accra (Ghana) in 2019, focusing on the agency of the global South in international studies. It is hard to say what the actual effects of such initiatives will be, but at the very least it is an indication of awareness of the need for change.
That said, there is still a long, long way to go, and in many ways the statement unfortunately still holds true. I wrote about this in a recent article in African Affairs, and suggested that in most respects, four decades on Stanley Hoffman’s 1977 description of IR as ‘an American social science’ remains a reasonably fair depiction. IR is rarely told from the ‘periphery’ and IR theorizing remains steeped in Western theories and perspectives. It is, in fact, far from easy to change this, and as I argue in the African Affairs article, simply bringing African or other parts of the non-Western world into IR by looking at won’t in and of itself fix the problem. It’s not a question of ‘add and stir’, as bringing non-Western part of the world into IR also involves epistemological and methodological challenges relating to our object of study and political challenges relating to contemporary geopolitics. Overall, however, I think we are in a better place than we were a decade ago.
One more final observation; I have taken your question to refer to scholars of the Global South. If we take it to mean the voices of the majority of suppressed and subaltern people in the world – the poor and excluded – then these voices are still barely audible.
Would you please explain the concept of ‘provincialize Europe’? This concept is not understood well in Iran.
First, let me say that this is not my concept. It comes originally from Dipesh Chakrabarti’s book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, first published in 2000. So, you should really ask him – but let me explain how I understand it: Chakrabarti shows how in the social sciences Europe occupies a kind of mythical place, whether implicitly or explicitly, that always positions it as the origin of political modernity and social progress. In short, we have no vocabulary for political modernity outside the European tradition – concepts such as state, citizens, civil society, to mention but a few, are intrinsic to the social sciences and to how we analyze history and politics. For Chakrabarti, European thought stands in a tensions-filled relationship to postcolonial societies like his own India; it is both ‘indispensable and inadequate’ in exploring postcolonial modernity. Because it is indispensable, it cannot be rejected or abandoned; and because it is inadequate it must be renewed from within the postcolonial world, to serve its purposes. In a way, we could say that it is about recognizing the specificity, as opposed to the universality, of European modernity, or destabilizing its centrality and thereby creating a space for different ways of being in the world – while at the same time holding on to the necessity of a social science that speaks in terms of categories and totalities. As Chakrabarti argues, this is no easy task, hence his emphasis on the simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy of European thought for capturing postcolonial modernities.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was represented as a catastrophe by western media so public opinions all over the world especially in western countries paid remarkable attention to it. But no one sympathizes with Yemeni people who have been killed innocently since Saudi Arabia attacked their homeland and those children who are starving to death! Why the public conscience in the West awakens so selectively? Is it indicative to the fact that the West still tends to marginalize the poor people of the global south and disregard them?
That’s a tough one to answer, and I’m not the best person to do so. I think there are so many different factors that go into explaining the world’s disregard for the terrible suffering of the Yemeni people, and also the outrage caused by the killing of Khashoggi. At a fairly simplistic level, it is easier for people and the media to associate with one, named individual than with the suffering of thousand nameless people in far-away places. In the Khashoggi murder, it is easy to recognize right from wrong, good from evil. In a complex war, this is much more difficult. There is also undoubtedly some compassion fatigue in the case of Yemen, and somehow the war and then ensuing humanitarian crisis have never really captured the public consciousness in the war that say the Syrian crisis did, or the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. We can only hope that the global attention to the killing of Khashoggi will spur diplomatic action in favour of ending the conflict in Yemen. At the time of speaking there are promising signs coming from the UN-brokered peace process in Sweden. Clearly there are strong geo-political reasons why Western leaders have not previously put more pressure on the Saudi regime over its actions in Yemen, but the murder of Khashoggi was so outrageous that several countries have now imposed sanctions and stopped arms exports. And even if President Trump is standing by the regime, the US Senate has condemned Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the war and argued in favour of ending US military support for the war. That said, perhaps what the suffering of the Yemeni people illustrates more than anything is that humanitarian action is always tempered by geopolitics - perhaps that’s why we hear less and less about responsibility to protect?
As a female Western scholar, what is your perception of ‘Third World Women’ especially those with Hijab? Do you think that your perception is constructed by a Western-centric Orientalism or do you think that we should accept the importance of specificity and ‘differently situated’ experiences?
I don’t think we can generalize about ‘third world women’ any more than we can generalize about ‘western women’. There are just too many differences; of class, ethnicity, geography, and so on, to make it possible to draw any sharp distinctions in this regard. Of course, my own views are inevitably shaped by my positionality as a white, Western scholar, but I would like to think (and firmly hope) that this does not condemn me to Orientalism. In terms of the debate about the Hijab, my own view is that liberation and empowerment cannot be reduced to a question of dress-code, and the sexualized and objectified bodies of Western women challenge any easy binary between the free, liberated western woman and the oppressed veiled Muslim woman.
Do you think that Postcolonialism has achieved decent status in IR theory or do you still regard it as a relatively new entrant in the discipline which remains on the margins of IR? How do you anticipate the future perspective of this theory?
It’s no longer new, but definitely still on the margins, although working its way into more mainstream platforms, journals and debates. As I mentioned above, IR is becoming increasingly aware of its own parochialism or Western-centrism, in no small part due to the work of postcolonial scholars and critics from the global South. In this regard, I think the recent efforts to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum are important, and a way of bringing more diverse voices and perspectives into IR and the social sciences more generally. Postcolonial approaches have also diversified and become much more diverse, which again I think is a good development. For me, this is very much about diversity and a plurality of perspectives. It is not about dogma of any kind, whether western-centric or postcolonial. Moving forward I would hope for an increasing diversity of postcolonial approaches, and also a greater attention to grounded theoretical explorations. In my own work, I’ve tried to combine a postcolonial sensibility with assemblage approaches, and in this way study Africa simultaneously as a place in the world and of the world, capturing the continent’s politics and societies as simultaneously unique and global. For me, that is one way of ‘provincializing’ or decentering Europe, but I’m sure there are many others and yet more to be discovered.