Department of Politics and International Relations

This entry is divided into two submissions: Political Theory and International Relations.

Political Theory

Thinking about the nature of colonialism and the aftermath of empire is a significant feature of key elements of the teaching and research of DPIR’s political theorists, although they acknowledge that there is much more work to be done to engage, in particular, with historical and contemporary thinking on race. In terms of teaching, debates over reparations for colonialism are addressed at both undergraduate level (in, for example, a topic on historic injustice in the “Advanced Paper in Theories of Justice”) and graduate level (including in particular a paper on “Mitigating Historical Injustice”). Reparations are the primary focus of Daniel Butt’s research: he is the author of Rectifying International Injustice: Principles of Compensation and Restitution Between Nations (OUP, 2009) and has published widely on topics relating to colonialism and historic injustice, including work on the inheritance of rights and duties of reparation, the duties of the beneficiaries of injustice, and the nature of colonialism and post-colonialism. Cécile Laborde’s work on religion and secularism has centred on colonial and post-colonial contexts: her first book was on Islam in Senegal (1996); her third book was on secularism and Muslim integration in post-colonial France (Critical Republicanism, OUP 2008); and her most recent article (“Minimal Secularism” APSR 2020) is on secularism in post-colonial India. David Miller has published on a wide range of topics directly related to the aftermath of empire, including work on nationality, collective responsibility, national self-determination, duties of reparation, and the political philosophy of immigration. Zofia Stemplowska’s work on historic injustice defends the idea that those currently alive have stringent duties to respond to cases of historic injustice including duties of remembrance and compensation. She examines how demanding such duties are, on whom the fall and towards whom they are directed. Stuart White’s research on democratic and constitutional reform in the UK also raises significant decolonising concerns. Asking how the UK, or a post-UK state, could and should be more democratically structured involves questioning the assumptions of the UK's traditional state, the producer and product of empire, and opens up a discussion about new, more democratic forms of national identity. Related topics also form the subject of much post-doctoral and post-graduate study. For example, in 2016, Udit Bhatia and Payaswini Tailor co-founded the South Asian Political Thought Discussion Group. The group has hosted academics from around the world working on the intersections of political theory and South Asian studies. Seminars hosted by this group are now a regular feature of Oxford’s events calendar. Udit Bhatia’s own work has tried to centre the Global South in his research in normative political theory. He has published two papers that engage with the impact of party discipline (Critical Review of International Social & Political Philosophy 2020) and the legal regulation of parties (Law & Philosophy, forthcoming) in India and Pakistan. 

International Relations

Western academic International Relations has frequently, and with justice, been criticised for its Eurocentrism. It is a field whose dominant theories, concepts and approaches have been largely derived from European and U.S. history and whose disciplinary development has been dominated by institutions, scholars, journals and publishers in the West.  It is certainly the case that the study of International Relations in Oxford did historically often adopt a statist, top-down, Great Power view of the world and that its institutional development reflected the context of British, European and Western foreign policy. But this is not the whole story and the moves towards the de-centering, provincializing and globalizing the study of International Relations have been gathering pace over the past two decades.  This has been reflected in both our teaching and research focus, starting with the themes and readings of our core seminar in International Relations. Four dimensions of change can be noted:

  1. the first area involves research around the development of the subject itself. Recent work in the disciplinary histories of International Relations and the critical histories of international law have highlighted the centrality of empire and of race. One early example of this is Beyond the Anarchical Society: Grotius, Colonialism and Order in World Politics (Cambridge, 2002) written by Eddie Keene, Associate Professor of International Relations. By focussing on the colonial and imperial side of European international society this work fed into what has since become an enormous body of work on decolonizing and provincializing Westphalia. Patricia Owens, who returned to Oxford as Professor of International Relations in 2020, has been leading a Leverhulme-funded programme on Women and the History of International Thought. Her work highlights the central role of what was then called colonial administration in how the subject of International Relations was conceived and taught, including the role of such major figures as Lucy Mair at LSE and Margery Perham in Oxford.  The importance of race has been a further feature of this work.  Robbie Shilliam worked on the global politics of race as a Hedley Bull Junior Research Fellow in Oxford. Doctoral thesis research has run from Naoko Shimazu’s path-breaking work on the racial equality proposal at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference through the thesis research of Susan Rice and Shelley Leanne on the end of white-rule in Southern Africa, to Musab Younis’s recently completed thesis on ‘The Grand Machinery of the World: Race, Global Order and the Black Atlantic’. In a major new contribution, faculty member Sudhir Hazareesingh has recently completed Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Ouverture (Penguin, 2020).
  2. a second, and related, theme concerns the way in which European or Western international society “became global” during the period of decolonization and the emergence of what came to be called the Third World or Global South and the contested ideas and practices of global order viewed both from the perspective of western states and those resisting western dominance. One of the most important figures in the development of the subject in Oxford was Hedley Bull, Montague Burton Professor from 1977 to 1985. One of Bull’s central preoccupations was with the Third World challenge and what he termed the revolt against Western dominance. Although often criticised for its Eurocentrism, Bull’s work and the critiques it provoked have served as an important reference point for the more recent upsurge of work on the globalization of western international society, on non-Western thought and theory, and on the international relations of different areas and regions of the world.  This has involved thesis research on such subjects as Third World cosmopolitanism (Rahul Rao), semi-sovereignty, social stratification and hierarchy, the international relations of emerging powers, including China (Rana Mitter). Current doctoral research includes work on sovereignty and territoriality in Chinese international legal thinking, Southern understandings of intervention during the Cold War, the imperial origins of national self-determination, the relationship between decolonization, territoriality and resource curse, and on the Southern sources of global norms including in the nuclear non-proliferation regime (Kjolv Egeland, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh).
  3. third, Oxford has a long tradition of research that connects International Relations to the study of particular areas and regions of the work. Many Oxford faculty combine disciplinary and theoretical work in International Relations with area studies expertise, including on the varied regional traditions of thought and ways of looking at the world. At the 2019 International Studies Association Meeting the Oxford IR group organized a panel on ‘Why Area Studies Needs International Relations’ coordinated by Kate Sullivan and including contributions by Louise Fawcett, Andrew Hurrell, Todd Hall and Kalypso Nicolaidis with an interview on Global IR.  These have come together in the August 2020 guest section of the Oxford Student magazine STAIR which can be considered as an Oxford IR ‘manifesto’ on the importance of de-centering international relations around a mutual constitution between IR and Areas Studies (see here).

    Examples of the importance of de-centering agenda on particular regions include the research project entitled led by Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis, ‘Rethinking Europe in a non-European World’ (RENEW), which ran from 2005 to 2020, and brought together faculty and students for fifteen years to explore what the group called Europe’s post-colonial condition, the critique of the EU as a model, and its relevance to the study of IR and inter-regionalism. One of its first output in collaboration with the History department Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and the Colonial Legacies (I.B. Tauris, 2015) which drew on research from across the world and across empires, grounded in critical social theory and post-colonial studies. Recent doctoral work has included theses on Doctoral work in this area has increasingly been based on new archival materials in the Global South, as with published theses on Iran, Brazil, and Sino-Japanese and current research on India (Kira Huju), as well as pan-Africanism, on Pan-Americanism; (Nora Fisher-Onar) and comparative regionalism by Tobias Lenz and Professor Louise Fawcett. Other work in this area also has a strong pedagogical purpose. Karma Nabulsi, Associate Professor of International Relations has led a British Academy-sponsored and prize-winning project concerned with the production of a digital resources and teaching materials on the Palestinian Revolution.

  4. fourth, as mentioned in the outset. there has a been a shift in the coverage of core graduate teaching in International Relations to reflect some of the developments described above, as well as a large number of workshops, research projects and seminars on such subjects as Provincializing Westphalia,  Contested Narratives of the Global, and How to Study Global IR.  Some of these formed part of Oxford’s contribution to an EU-funded Marie Curie Initial Training Network which involved doctoral students from ten countries across the emerging and developing world. In addition, Andrew Hurrell, Montague Burton Professor of International Relations, teaches a graduate course with Louise Fawcett on the International Relations of the Developing and Post-Colonial World.  Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis teaches on de-centering the EU, including post-colonial assessments of rule of law and democracy promotion, work she started with Rachel Kleinfeld.

Graduate students continue to form a central part of this work, both through their own academic work (as in a few of the examples given above); and through the organization of workshops and seminars. One example was a student-organized inter-disciplinary workshop on military orientalism that led to the publication of Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski eds., Orientalism and War (Hurst, 2012). In 2017-2020, The Global Thinkers of the International (GTI) has been a discussion series to discuss the work of internationalist thinkers beyond the Anglo-American world.  Led by two doctoral students and supported by the University and Department, the most recent term focused on thinkers from the Lusophone world (Cabral, Freyre and Nabuco). This is to be followed by a series on women thinkers from South Asia.

How Oxford – and the field as a whole -- should teach and study International Relations in a post-western world remains a continuing and daunting challenge. There is certainly far more to do in terms of broadening the range of perspectives, voices and materials and in terms of challenging dominant theories and methodological approaches.  Universities flourish when they embrace different cultures, ways of thinking and worldviews, and the questioning of all orthodoxies is central to the academic life-blood.  But it is a mistake to think that there is an easy solution, or indeed any stable endpoint in an ever-changing global system. Rather there needs to be a shared willingness to engage critically and constructively in the debates about what the global study of International Relations is all about and how it might best be taught, researched and organized. This is likely to combine cutting-edge disciplinary developments; the importance of on-going critical reflection (including of the subject’s colonial connections), and of the need to move ‘beyond critique’, especially in terms of combining theoretical and conceptual innovation with the highest quality historical and area-grounded empirical knowledge.