Theory Talk #61: Pınar Bilgin on Non-Western IR, Hybridity, and the One-Toothed Monster called Civilization

Interview published on Theory Talks, December 20, 2013 (Print version of this Talk in pdf).

Questions of civilization underpin much of IR scholarship—whether explicitly (in terms of the construction of non-Western ‘others’) or implicitly (in the assumption that provincial institutions from Europe constitute a universal model of how we ought to relate to one another in international politics). While this topic surfaces frequently in debates about postcolonial international politics, few scholars are able to tackle this conundrum with the same sense of acuteness as Pınar Bilgin. In this Talk, she—amongst others—elaborates on not doing Turkish IR, what postsecular IR comprises, and discusses her own position in regards to that one-toothed monster called civilization … //

… What would a student need to become a specialist in IR or understand the world in a global way?

  • In terms of skills, I think that studying at different institutions if possible, different settings with different academic traditions helps a lot. Institutions vary widely in their emphasis—Bilkent for instance believes that the best teachers are those who do cutting-edge research. Others may disagree and say that small teaching colleges are the best, because they pass on what they specialise in. I think therefore that studying at different institutions is very good for students, whether it be within formal exchange frameworks or acquiring fellowships for study away, not to mention of course fieldwork, which offers new settings: every new environment is an important learning experience, even if the substance is not so useful and what you learn is not necessarily so significant. Secondly, some would suggest learning a different language is important, along with acquiring a foothold in area studies and comparative studies, and I agree with that. Thirdly, Stefano Guzzini talks about IR theory being what a student needs in terms of disposition and skills: he has this piece in the Journal of International Relations and Development (2001), where he makes the case specifically for would-be diplomats in Central and Eastern European countries that by learning theory, students would be equipped to communicate across cultural boundaries—it’s like learning a new language. They would learn to watch out against ethnocentrism, he argues, and this is one of the pieces I use when I teach IR theory. In this spirit, I think it important to use theory as a new language, as one of the tools that every student should have in their toolkit. And finally, I think I’d follow Cynthia Enloe’s (Theory Talk #48) recommendation that it’s useful to have a foot both in IR theory and in comparative studies. I feel that one without the other is less rewarding, though one will not know what one is missing until one goes to explore.
  • In my PhD work I focused on the Middle East, since then I have looked more in depth at Europe’s relationship with the Euro-Mediterranean relations and Turkey-EU relations as empirical points of reference. This has been enriching and has benefited my research. In sum, it is essential to read as broadly as possible, and I give the same advice to my M.A. and to my PhD students. You can’t read everything, and it can happen that the more we read the more confused we get, but in this Theory Talks is doing a great job by allowing students to learn from the experience of others. Learning happens also at conferences: you may find subjects that are of no interest to you, but that is helpful also, and on the other hand new subjects will broaden horizons. The wealth of cultural references in each part of the world can be baffling and may make it difficult to delve deep. The only way we make sense of the unknown through what we know.

What regional or perhaps even global protagonism can you envisage for IR studies emerging from Turkey? Turkey is often perceived to bridge Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Asia, but we have the problem that Asia itself is a Western idea, then a ‘bridge’ is in danger of belonging to neither.

  • As I made clear in what I said above, I don’t think of IR in terms of contributions emerging from this part of the world or that part of the world. And although I grew up in Turkey and began my academic career there, I don’t consider my own work to be in any way a ‘Turkish perspective’ on IR. What can be said to be Turkish about my perspective is that I have to travel to Aberystwyth and Copenhagen and all those ISA conference locations to discover that I can have (and some say I should) have a Turkish perspective. My undergraduate education was about learning IR as a ‘universally undisputed’. I now know the limitations of that universalism, but I cannot offer a specifically located perspective, for it is a complicated picture that emerges in front of us. I am not in favour of replacing one parochialism with another one, in terms of those who speak of X School of IR versus Y School of IR.
  • Having said that, I consider that my contribution as being comfortable with what Orhan Pamuk has called the ‘in-between world’, though I prefer to use the term ‘hybridity’, not in-between-ness. That Turkish policy-makers have always claimed a bridge status for their country, but these ideas are rooted in Turkey’s hybridity and belonging to multiple worlds (as opposed to being in between multiple worlds). Policy-makers can talk about being a bridge between Europe and Asia, or Europe and the Middle East, because Turkey in fact belongs to all these worlds. So in some ways being at ease with this hybridity does allow me to have a particular perspective in IR that I may not have had if I had come from a different background. But then again, it’s difficult to know. I have taken courses in political anthropology, learning about the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey as an imagined community, but all my introductions to geocultural studies and epistemology came from Critical IR settings, so looking for geographically or culturally specific roots simply doesn’t work. As Said put it, it is ‘beginnings’ that we should be looking for, not ‘origins.’

When Europeans and North Americans speak of ‘state building’ and ‘development’, Turkey is often taken as a model example of conversion to Western models—largely by its own choice. Should Turkey’s path and modern reality be understood differently? … //

… (full long interviewe text and related links).

(Pınar Bilgin is the author of Regional Security in the Middle East: a Critical Perspective (Routledge, 2005) and over 50 papers. She is an Associate Member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences. She received the Young Scientists Incentive Award of the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK) in 2009 and ‘Young Scientist’ (GEBIP) award of Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA, 2008). She served as the President of Central and East European International Studies Association (CEEISA), and chair of International Political Sociology Section of ISA. She is a Member of the Steering Committee of Standing Group on International Relations (SGIR) and an Associate Editor of International Political Sociology).

Links:

Video: This Is What Solidarity Looks Like, 7.26 min, how Long Island Food Not Bombs’ Hunger Relief Efforts are eclipsing that of NGO’s with multi-million dollar annual budgets, on the sparrow project (also on vimeo), by blog owner, Dec 23, 2013;

Food Not Bombs on en.wikipedia is a loose-knit group of independent collectives, serving free vegan and vegetarian food to others. Food Not Bombs’ ideology is that myriad corporate and government priorities are skewed to allow hunger to persist in the midst of abundance. To demonstrate this (and to reduce costs), a large amount of the food served by the group is surplus food from grocery stores, bakeries and markets that would otherwise go to waste. This group exhibits a form of franchise activism//
… inclusive See also and External Links;

Leaderless resistance on en.wikipedia or phantom cell structure, is a political resistance strategy in which small, independent groups (covert cells), including individuals (solo cells), challenge an established adversary such as a government. Leaderless resistance can encompass anything from non-violent disruption and civil disobedience to bombings, assassinations and other violent agitation. Leaderless cells lack bidirectional, vertical command links and operate without hierarchal command.[1] While it lacks a central command, the concept does not necessarily imply lack of cooperation.
Given the simplicity of the strategy, as well as the fact that it is difficult to stamp out, leaderless resistance has been employed by a wide range of movements, from terrorist and hate groups, to the animal-liberation movement, radical environmental movement, as well as anti-corporate, anti-abortion activists and resistance to military invasion or colonialism//
… inclusive See also and External Links;

We Will Not Be Silent: Activists and Creatives Will Carry Over One Hundred Messages to New York’s Financial District, on the sparrow project, by blog owner, Dec 18, 2013;

India: Mizo women’s big push for legal reforms, on OneWorld.net, Sept 30, 2013: Traditionally, Mizo women have played a productive role not just within their homes – as wives and mothers – but have also made a mark as entrepreneurs, teachers and officers in the state administration, writes Ninglun Hanghal …;

Faster progress in education and health in Philippines, on OneWorld.net, May 28, 2013: … The country also has great strengths in the social arena—for example, a 95-percent literacy rate. And the participation of women in wage employment, in both chambers of Congress, and in senior management stands well above levels in Indonesia or Sri Lanka …;

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