5. Writing Histories of the International: intellectual and political transformations

Convenor: Lorenzo Cello (University of Queensland)
Chair & discussant: Richard Devetak (University of Queensland)

Date: Saturday 1st July, 2017
Room: Sala Piccola FBK


For the last couple of decades at least, historical approaches have been gaining some traction in IR and international political theory. These approaches tend to emphasise the distinctiveness of social phenomena in history, assuming that many aspects of the past are significantly different from those of their own time. Thus they do away with any supra-historical vantage point from which to conduct research into the history of international political thought and they share the view that ‘the international’ – like ‘the global’ – exist in conjunction with our intellectual capacity to make them thinkable, analysable and, finally, actionable. Overall, this panel will discuss the ways in which the study of international relations benefits from a closer engagement with history methodologically, thematically and conceptually.

Confirmed Papers:  
  1. Lorenzo Cello (University of Queensland), Taking History Seriously in IR: Towards a Historicist Approach
    IR scholars have always invoked history as a valuable resource for understanding the present. However, the question of how should we go about investigating and interpreting the past is rarely asked, let alone answered. While most IR approaches are anchored to the attempt to situate oneself outside history – reading the past in terms of the present or in terms of a hypothetical future – this article strives to redress the kind of historical perspective adopted, if at all, by IR scholars. It does so by advancing a distinctive historicist approach that emphasises the importance of understanding past practices and discourses in their own historical and intellectual contexts. In order to substantiate this claim, the article goes on to critically engage with recent calls to historicise intervention in IR, arguing that a historicist mode of analysis represents a corrective to presentism as well as an alternative route into present-day debates.

  2. Maja Spanu (University of Cambridge), Towards a Global IR? Uncovering Agency, Spatiality and Language in Writing Histories of the International
    In recent years, International Relations (IR) scholars from different traditions have reflected on the implications of historical knowledge on how we conceive of the current international system. Numerous works have been published with the purpose of understanding how the present global order has come into being. Increasingly, these works have revealed the conflicting grounds upon which this order lies. Some scholars have directed their attention to the legacies of empire; others have revealed the preponderance of Eurocentric views and narratives. These works are fundamental contributions to re-thinking the influence of past hierarchical conceptions and practices on more recent world politics. However, if they deal with international norms, structures and social practices, they also often omit other aspects, which, this paper argues, are crucial if we are to conceptualise transmissions of ideas across time and space. This paper calls for the reconsideration of such aspects, along two lines. First, it argues for the importance of examining individual agency to understand transformations and diffusion of specific (and often conflicting) visions of world order. Second, it argues for the importance of including local spatialities, often dismissed in IR as "merely" belonging to the domestic realm.  By taking into account what happens locally and within polities we can gain a broader conception of assemblages of ideas and practices, along with their changing meanings and languages, in different contexts.  This "thicker" account, the paper will argue, might then help to highlight histories of resistance to dominant visions of order, but also, perhaps, help comprehend the darkest parts of the history of our order.

  3. Benjamin de Carvalho (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs), Towards an Ethos of Historical International Relations 
    Historical international relations have come of age. This is evident in how historical topics are treated in the discipline of international relations, in the burgeoning meta-reflections about history and IR, in institutionalization, and in decades of explicitly historical work being been published regularly in the leading journals and by the leading publishers in the field. Yet, for all this coming of age, we still detect a distinct inferiority complex in how IR approaches History/history, and how they compare with ‘proper’ Historians – not to mention how Historians judge the historical work of IR scholars. . Typically, there is at least an implicit focus on what can be learnt from History and how IR-scholarship can be made to be taken seriously by historians. These are important concerns, but we wish to argue here that time has come to lift the gaze. Where the tendency thus far has been to discuss “history in IR” and/or “history for IR”, we want to stake the claim for a distinct approach to Historical International Relations, closely related, but not reducible, to History. We are (albeit tentatively) referring to this approach as an ethos, centered on scholars of historical international relations being explicitly engaged in the pursuit of writing history. We conclude that as IR scholars, although we may never become proper historian or able to do proper history, we can do history properly.

    Benjamin de Carvalho, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI); Halvard Leira, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI); Julia Costa Lopez, Department of International Relations and International Organisation, University of Groningen; Xavier Guillaume, Department of International Relations and International Organisation, University of Groningen; Carlos E. Flores Teran, University of Groningen.