A conversation with Dr. Yolande Bouka on the state of the academic study of International Relations

By Maeve Murphy

In May 2020 I met with Dr. Yolande Bouka, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University in Canada, to discuss several issues regarding academia and race, the relationship between white supremacy and IR, and her solutions for creating a more egalitarian, holistic discipline. As a scholar-practitioner, her research and teaching focus on gender, African politics and security, political violence, and field research ethics in conflict-affected societies. I was a student in Dr. Bouka’s course “Security Challenges in Africa” in Spring 2019.  Dr. Bouka was the first of my professors to integrate into coursework scholars from diverse backgrounds, including Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), from the countries we were focusing on in class.

Dr. Bouka and I began our discussion with what she called the “genealogy of International Relations (IR) scholarship.” She told me that in order to understand what IR is as a scholarly discipline, we must critically explore its origins. The year 1918 was a pivotal juncture for the discipline, with the founding of an international studies department at a university in the United Kingdom, “in memory of the fallen students of our University for the study of those related problems of law and politics, of ethics and economics, which are raised by the prospect of a League of Nations and for the truer understanding of civilisation other than our own.”[1] This set the stage for IR to be constructed from a European perspective, which after World War II became the established mainstream view. As Dr. Bouka put it, this post-war, winning side perspective is not “value neutral.”

Today, when introduced to the discipline of IR, students are required to read works written by scholars who most often are white men from a Western background. The list is long:  Thomas Hobbes, Carl von Clausewitz, Karl Marx, and more recently Hans Morgenthau, Jack Snyder, Joseph Nye, Robert Jervis, Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer… and the list goes on. Dr. Bouka noted that many introductory syllabi may take a week or so to introduce some “critical perspectives” with the works of feminist scholars like Cynthia Enloe, or postcolonial critics like Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey[2], but the majority of scholars we memorize are from the same white men of the West. While these scholars are important to include to understand the intellectual traditions that shaped the discipline, they have approached these issues from a singular perspective. It could be argued that without a commitment to mainstreaming more diverse voices and juxtaposing perspectives, IR cannot be considered truly “international.”

In the aftermath of World War II, the discipline became dominated by American scholars who were overwhelmingly white men. Dr. Bouka pointed to the book, White World Order, Black Power Politics, in which author Robert Vitalis explores the history of IR as an American discipline.  He shows how the discipline had very few Black scholars who only existed in an academic sphere parallel to the white scholars who dominated the canon. American development of the field of IR allowed for the white supremacy embedded in America to bleed into academica. The canon of IR scholarship emphasizes Eurocentric[3] ideas of rationality, state formation and sovereignty but only to the extent that it serves a Eurocentric audience. Dr. Bouka argued that the Eurocentric perception of concepts such as rationality or alliance, among others, establishes a “paternalistic framing of international relations and international affairs.” This framing “claims that sovereignty is a right of all states…But the reality is that some states are more ‘sovereign’ than others.” Dr. Bouka reminds us that this is the reason why it is difficult to imagine the international community considering the deployment of peacekeeping missions in North American or Western European countries, regardless of how unstable things could get, and why, despite escalating political violence at the hand of security forces against American citizens, there will never be international intervention in American domestic issues.

The Eurocentric, paternalistic[4] framing of IR legitimizes the power of organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and allows them to impose their will upon countries that are ranked by Eurocentric standards, without the consistent inclusion of other voices or perspectives. While much of this work may be well-intentioned or even necessary, it is important to interrogate the intended audience and outcome of work, including development and peacekeeping. The unequal power balance between the “Western World/the Global North” and the “Global South” perpetuates the “othering” of non-white bodies, cultures, societies, and states. It also allows for non-white voices to be excluded from IR discourse, both academically and in policy. Dr. Bouka referenced the works of W. E. B. DuBois, who called this the “color-line”—racial segregation that established a hierarchy of race so implicit in American values that is in inextricable from them.[5]  Dr. Bouka noted that while many actions to enforce this color-line domestically and internationally were overt, it is often more insidiously implied in treaties and agreements, policies and laws that, due to their covertly racist nature, are harder to recognize by the white dominated world of academia. Even with the best intentions, it can be very difficult to interrogate our norms because they are so normalized.

In terms of solutions, Dr. Bouka told me that throughout her career she has actively sought the viewpoints and perspectives of a more diverse group of scholars. She noticed that IR students and academics have “been disciplined into this field to think that nothing else exists.” Dr. Bouka observed that: “the reality of IR, the reality of the connections between states, the connections between groups of people within states, the rivalry and the cooperation of social movements… is rarely captured by what we learn in North American, Western European textbooks…We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we base our analysis and our frameworks on theories that are very limited in scope.” According to Dr. Bouka, within the study and practice of IR in her regional area of focus, Africa, academics are socialized to believe “that African political entities were always dysfunctional, which is not true.[6] This perception, she noted, has impacted “how the U.S. and the U.K. engage with African partners or Asian partners or even Latin American partners, in terms of development and in terms of security. The origins of the discipline continue to impact how we see the world and how we engage in policy in the 21st century.”

For Dr. Bouka, her goal as a scholar and her call to others is to examine different vantage points. IR scholars must be willing to ask critical questions to unsettle what “just is.” To say “it has always been this way” is not a valid reason to maintain a norm. We must ask ourselves, “how else could it be if we open our minds and our perspectives to what is really out there?” One difficulty here, she noted, is that the individualistic nature of many fields in social sciences encourages people to strive for their own recognition alone. The field of IR claims to serve an international audience, but in reality it only reflects a small portion of that audience. White scholars may be uncomfortable with diverting attention from themselves, but with access to positions and platforms with power and reach, it is their duty to elevate the work and voices of BIPOC scholars.

In the past several decades, this understanding that change within the study of international relations is essential, has prevailed, carrying with it buzzwords like “diversity,” “inclusion,” “decolonization of curricula” and “intersectionality.” This is relevant not only to the contributions of academic scholars but to the institutions of higher learning that house them. Universities in Western countries have elected deans and added staff in the name of diversification, but because our field has not changed dramatically we are forced to question our commitment to change. Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)[7] face heightened expectations and other obstacles in academia that are not present for white scholars. Actively engaging with intersectionality[8] is a crucial element of enacting this change, but we must interrogate how we operationalize it in academia and in our policy communities.

The conclusion is inescapable: IR is enriched by more diverse voices and perspectives. Dr. Bouka said:  “I do believe that engaging with scholars who are notoriously underrepresented makes our discipline richer. I think doing that means we are not holding space only for these groups, but… [incorporating them] among those people who are established [and in] very powerful institutions or in powerful countries. We need to be willing to step down and allow other people to be more visible. We need to be willing to cite their work.”  She added that we must “have conversations between underrepresented scholarship and scholarship that we consider canon. And if you really want to be revolutionary (this is where it gets a little bit scary for some people), it’s throwing some of the stuff out. That would be beneficial for the discipline, but also how we understand world politics.”  Academia, including the field of international relations (IR), is in need of profound change. For a field that theorizes about international actors, the classic IR canon and theories we rely on are overwhelmingly white and male, shockingly antiquated and devoid of diversity. It is our responsibility as scholars and practitioners to question and search beyond what is given to us.



Further reading:


[1] Aberystwyth University History

[2] note: all from Western countries and universities

[3] Merriam-Webster: reflecting a tendency to interpret the world in terms of European or Anglo-American values and experiences

[4] Further reading: Academics: it’s time to get behind decolonising the curriculum

[5] Othering & Belonging: The Endurance of the Color Line

[6] The Guardian: Story of cities #5: Benin City, the mighty medieval capital now lost without trace

[7] New York Times: BIPOC background and meaning

[8] See: further reading at the end of the blog