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IR conference interrogate Africa’s marginalisation in theory

Date Released: Fri, 7 June 2013 11:59 +0200

Setting out to investigate the reasons for Africa’s marginalisation in International Relations (IR) discipline and theory and how this issue can be addressed, the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University recently held a two day conference, ‘African Voices in New International Relations Theory’.

The conference aimed to interrogate key questions around Africa’s marginalisation in IR theory in a time when the axis of world politics has shifted from East-West to North-South with South-South relations on the rise, the political and economic space has increasingly opened up for the former Third World.

Key questions debated during the conference included whether there are African contributions that are ‘hidden’; what the sources of an African contribution to IR theory are in terms of history and culture, gender, thoughts of revolutionary leaders, practices of statecraft and regional cooperation and writings of contemporary IR scholars.

The other key questions the conference grapple with how to reconcile the local and the global in projecting an African contribution to IR theory; whether there should be an ‘African school’ of IR theory; what the benefits and dangers of such an approach are; and what is the nature of Africa’s contribution to the practice of international relations?

According to Professor Paul Bischoff, Head of Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University said the study of IR first and foremost seeks to define and explain the international and in doing so tell us how our world works.

“At the same time,” Prof Bischoff said, “International Relations is co-habited by those who describe how the powerful understand and position themselves in the world and by those who have sought to mitigate the position of the powerful and reform international relations towards less self-interested and more peaceful and justifiable ends.”

Yet the study of IR has been a construct of mainly the Anglo-Saxon world, he said, explaining that as the study of IR came to be in ever greater demand, all others followed this lead, taking their cue from the paradigms already in place. 

However, recent scholarship in IR has begun to devote more attention to dealing with the marginal place of the prevalent paradigms to studying and explaining the international in and for a non-Western world.

These efforts, Prof Bischoff explained, are about overcoming a “disjuncture”, whereby these supposedly universal theories fail to capture and explain the key trends and puzzles of international relations in parts of the developing world.

“There is the concomitant call for the development of a new paradigm of IR theory that is more global, open, inclusive, and able to capture the voice and experiences of both Western and non-Western worlds and avoid the present disjunctures between theoretical tools and the lived realities of the world beyond the West,” he said.

“Too often Africa has been the testing ground for Western derived conceptualisations which have had little durability. To have relevance for Africa, a new IR Theory needs to be more inclusive, intellectually negotiated and mutually agreed or also more authentically grounded in African history and the ideas, institutions, intellectual perspectives and practices of African states and societies.”

According to Prof Bischoff, new IR theory must develop concepts and approaches from African contexts that are valid locally, but also have applicability to the wider world. “In doing so, IR scholars can start looking at how to describe, help build and nurture African agency on the continent and in the world,” he said.

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield