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Julian Go, editor

ppst@bu.edu

Political Power & Social Theory

c/o Julian Go, editor

Department of Sociology

Boston University

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To herald the launch of Volume 32 of Political Power and Social Theory, The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, PPST's Student Editorial Board had a conversation with Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson.  

 

Student Editors (SE): How might approaching theory and history as co-constitutive speak to or challenge power/knowledge hierarchies or dynamics within academia and/or the wider public (e.g., with respect to certain historical narratives or the perceived universality of theories)? What do you see as the implications of this approach on research and society?

 

The implications of this approach on research and teaching are much clearer than its wider societal implications. On the former, it seems to us that every theoretical approach, once it becomes systematised as an ‘ism’, becomes effectively sealed off from history. This isn’t out of any particular intention on the behalf of its advocates, but the result of a process of normalisation that takes place when concepts and categories that are historically produced become abstract systems of thought.

 

There are any number of examples of how this works in practice. Weberian thought becomes removed from its context in late imperial Germany with Weber as an advocate of a particular kind of elite liberal nationalism – instead, we examine his categories of rationality or authority as if they had no history. It’s the same with Marxian thought. Gone are the 1848 and 1870 revolutions that were so influential on Marx and Engels; gone too are Lenin’s attempts to wrestle with Russia’s ‘ripeness’ for socialist revolution. Instead, we are presented with a series of abstract concepts – alienation, surplus value, capital itself – that are removed from their histories, effectively sealing them off from historicization, and providing them with a status outside history.

 

The special issue aims to return concepts, categories and theoretical systems to the histories in which they emerged and through which they are recrafted. In other words, we want to keep theories alive to their historical production and reproduction.

 

It strikes us that the consequences of this move are significant. It means that theory and history should not be seen as discrete activities, but as intimately and necessarily conjoined. It means that theoretical investigations must start with history rather than using history simply as a means of testing conjectures or gathering data. Most social scientists tend to see historians as blue-footed boobies: quite fun, particularly when dancing, but not serious. And certainly not involved in the production of theory. Seeing history and theory not as distinct realms, but history-theory as a single form of inquiry, should help to break down hierarchies between the social sciences and history. Separate has very often been unequal.

 

When it comes to the second part of your question, it’s not obvious to us that there are clear societal implications that flow from this move. We suspect that engaged publics often find it easier to work with the type of historical social science that we’re advocating. There’s certainly anecdotal evidence of this in the popular appeal of some historians (at least when measured against most social scientists). But the special issue is aimed more at researchers and students than wider publics.

 

A final point to make here concerns power/knowledge. Abstracting knowledge systems from their histories, from the power-laden contexts in which they were produced, is one of the chief ways in which knowledge—science, rationality—appears free of power, separate from power. Re-embedding knowledge systems in their historical contexts helps uncover power’s tracks in the formation of knowledge.

 

SE: In conceptualizing the link between practice/history and theory, you seem to privilege particular historical moments/processes such as wars or revolutions (what might be dubbed “spectacular” events). However, how might more mundane or quotidian forms of practice/experience inform theory building? For example, living as a specifically gendered or raced body?

 

It’s certainly right to say that we concentrate on major events or ‘happenings’ as constitutive of concepts, categories and theories. We do so for good reasons. New thinking is likely to emerge from moments of crisis and to have more chance of being enacted during ‘abnormal’ times. There are many examples of how this works in practice, from the rise of neo-liberalism out of the crisis of Keynesianism in the early 1970s, to the rise of fascism during the inter-war crisis of liberalism. Most of the time, people tend to accept explanations of their everyday lives – this is the stuff of dominant ideologies as understood by Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Mannheim, Ricoeur and others. However, during periods of uncertainty and crisis, there is often a shift from broadly functional explanations for ‘why’ things are as they are to more transcendent sets of ideas about ‘how’ social relations can be made afresh. That’s why we focus on ‘abnormal’ times.

 

 

 

Having said that, there is no experience, quotidian or spectacular, that isn’t informed by wider categories and concepts. And this is likely to be explicitly felt when those experiences are ones of inequality and subjugation. So it would be interesting to see some work on the ‘everyday’ ways in which histories of many different kinds, including bodily histories, are productive of theory. Ta-Nehisi Coates provides one example of how this might work, although he still focuses on ‘spectacular’ trauma and violence, albeit as they are realised in everyday encounters. Another way might be through interrogation of slogans like ‘we are the 99%’, which speak less to spectacular injustice and more to everyday forms of reproduced inequality. Perhaps we should put together a second volume on this!


SE: In examining the situatedness of theory, the volume seems to take encounters across national borders as a dominant mode of knowledge creation. What is the purchase of examining national borders in particular, as compared to other boundaries (ethnic, racial, economic, etc.), as the site of "transboundary encounters”?

 

We don’t want to privilege national borders when it comes to transboundary encounters. By transboundary we refer to the histories that interconnect people across borders, whether these are of groups, states, regions, empires, or other entities. In the contemporary world, it’s true that many boundaries are national, and the current cocktail of nationalism, nativism and populism in many parts of the world reinforces this frame. But the era of nation-states is recent, dating back only to the era of decolonisation. Before this time, empires were the dominant political units in the world, as they have been for much of world history. Empires often had fluid boundaries, as well as a diverse array of internal cleavages. Nation-states too often have much messier borders and boundaries than the neatness of our politics demands – sovereignty is rarely pristine.

 

Our focus in the special issue though was on ‘the international’ as a particular site of knowledge creation because these encounters are often occluded by the methodological nationalism and internalism present in much social and political theory. Very often, we claim particular thinkers and theories for a certain discipline or see them as representative of a distinct ‘domestic’ space when their thought emerges out of encounters with ‘others’: Hegel and Haiti, Weber in America, Smith’s work on international trade, etc. Seeing these encounters not as accidents or afterthoughts, but as fundamental to a wide range of theories and theorists was the key point we wanted to stress.

 

SE: How might we see differently the relationships between assumed binary categories such as “domestic” and “foreign” or “global” and “local” based on this research? In what ways might the international origins of social/political theory illuminate the complexities or embeddedness of these terms?

 

Hopefully one consequence of the special issue will be to help break down these categories, or at least to stop them being seen as straightforward binaries. Our view is that categories of ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ are better seen as co-constitutive rather than as either-or’s. By concentrating on transboundary encounters, we want to emphasize the ways in which the ‘foreign’ is always co-constitutive with the ‘domestic’. Historiography begins with Herodotus as the stories of wars and travels. The discovery and conquest of the Americas, and contemporary representations of its peoples, provided Hobbes his most vivid embodiment of the “condition of warre”. Grotius generated his ideas about the law of the sea from the practices of the Indian Ocean system, just as utilitarian and liberal thought took form around Britain’s Indian empire. In all of these encounters, the boundaries between ‘here’ and ‘there’ have been problematized. This criss-crossing between social sites is deeply productive of systems of thought.

 

SE: In your introduction, you write that “establishing the generative relationship between history and theory should be the starting point for any assessment of theoretical systems. And it should also be the starting point for analyses of the histories that theoretical systems help to shape.” Can you elaborate on this directive to scholars? Beyond this volume, how do you recommend (or what does this mean for how) we approach this intellectual endeavour across various methodologies and/or more broadly in our research?

 

What we mean by this is that the relationship between history and theory is not something that can be reduced to a footnote, introductory note or biographical detail. Establishing the generative relationship between history and theory should be the starting point for any assessment of theoretical systems. And it should also be the starting point for analyses of the histories that theoretical systems help to shape. History is an archive of events and experiences that leads to theorizing, often by practitioners participating in those very events.

What we mean by this is that the relationship between history and theory is not something that can be reduced to a footnote, introductory note or biographical detail. Establishing the generative relationship between history and theory should be the starting point for any assessment of theoretical systems. And it should also be the starting point for analyses of the histories that theoretical systems help to shape. History is an archive of events and experiences that leads to theorizing, often by practitioners participating in those very events.

 

Most significantly for our subfield of International Relations (IR), and perhaps for yours: our account of the relations between history on the one hand, and social and political theory on the other, suggests that ‘the international’ is a central site for theorizing. So the principal provocation we want to leave you with is that political and social theory should be seen as subfields of IR.

 

This is a deliberately provocative way of pointing out that disciplines in the social sciences and humanities have operated primarily with a nation-state ontology of the world, with the idea that you could study the ‘inside’ or ‘domestic’ without attending centrally to the ‘outside’ or ‘foreign’. There are any number of examples of this: French literature, Chinese culture, American history, etc. In our view, transboundary encounters have been central to the making of the modern world as well as its systems of thought, literatures and philosophies. The ‘international’ cannot be regarded as an afterthought, a source of mere ‘influences’ or ‘factors’ which effect an essentially local context. We have to revisit what we think we know from the perspective of the transboundary encounter and the co-constitutive relations that ensue. 

"Our view is that categories of ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ are" better seen as co-constitutive rather than as either-or’s.

By concentrating on transboundary encounters, we want to emphasize the ways in which the ‘foreign’ is always co-constitutive with the ‘domestic’."Barkawi and Lawson 

 
"Abstracting knowledge systems from their histories, from the power-laden contexts in which they were produced, is one of the chief ways in which knowledge—science, rationality—appears free of power, separate from power. Re-embedding knowledge systems in their historical contexts helps uncover power’s tracks in the formation of knowledge."- Barkawi and Lawson