International Relations from Below 1 David L. Blaney and Naeem Inayatullah Critical theorists seek to defeat claims about modernity’s exhaustion by revealing the unrealized ‘emancipatory’ potential of the current social order. Critical theory thereby locates itself mostly within modernity. An ‘IR from below,’ by contrast, necessarily locates itself both within and beyond an ‘IR from above’. The ‘below’ implies a geopolitical space as well as an evaluative threshold: as space it connotes the global South or the Third World; as threshold it points to those below a certain civilizational or material level, and specifically below the vital ability of shaping the world according to their own vision. 2 Those who envision themselves as living ‘below’ have, by necessity, a multiple and complex critical vision: they live within the theory and practice of a world 1 We thank Tarak Barkawi, Gurminder Bhambra, Shampa Biswas, Matt Davies, Kevin Dunn, Xavier Guillaume, Sankaran Krishna, Mark Laffey, Siddharth Mallavarapu, Himadeep Muppidi, and Arlene Tickner for invaluable comments. 2 It might also point to the everyday or the feminine, which are treated as below the threshold of the international or the political. Feminist critiques and engagements with the everyday can be considered as homologous with an ‘IR from below.’ 1

“International Relations from Below,” (with David Blaney) in (eds) Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal, Oxford Handbook of International Relations, (Oxford 2008, pp. 663-74)

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International Relations from Below1

David L. Blaney and Naeem Inayatullah

Critical theorists seek to defeat claims about

modernity’s exhaustion by revealing the unrealized

‘emancipatory’ potential of the current social order.

Critical theory thereby locates itself mostly within

modernity. An ‘IR from below,’ by contrast, necessarily

locates itself both within and beyond an ‘IR from above’.

The ‘below’ implies a geopolitical space as well as an

evaluative threshold: as space it connotes the global South

or the Third World; as threshold it points to those below a

certain civilizational or material level, and specifically

below the vital ability of shaping the world according to

their own vision.2 Those who envision themselves as living

‘below’ have, by necessity, a multiple and complex critical

vision: they live within the theory and practice of a world

1 We thank Tarak Barkawi, Gurminder Bhambra, Shampa Biswas, Matt Davies,Kevin Dunn, Xavier Guillaume, Sankaran Krishna, Mark Laffey, Siddharth Mallavarapu, Himadeep Muppidi, and Arlene Tickner for invaluable comments. 2 It might also point to the everyday or the feminine, which are treatedas below the threshold of the international or the political. Feminist critiques and engagements with the everyday can be considered as homologous with an ‘IR from below.’


largely created by those ‘above,’ but also in worlds partly

defined by alternative visions that critique praxis ‘from

above.’ Speaking from this critical position invites

disparagement from above and casts ‘IR from below’ beyond

the disciplinary pale. Interestingly, this displacement of

‘IR from below’ is constitutive of the IR discipline. From

its position as simultaneously ‘cast out’ of IR and as the

necessary constitutive other of IR, ‘IR from below’

challenges the ontological atomism of dominant

modern/western theories by highlighting the historical co-

construction of contemporary institutions and processes

(including the mutual constitution of ‘above’ and ‘below’)

and by proposing alternative futures usually prohibited by

modernity’s focus on potential or realized progress.

Lessons Foretold: The Dismissal of Dependency Theory

The dependency thinkers of the 1960s presage the status

of an ‘IR from below.’ Dependency theories offer a

“counter-analysis” of the workings of the international


system—the origins of which are traced to the experience of

peripheries as imperial subjects (Slater 2004, 118-120) or

to the non-aligned movement’s political language of “neo-

colonialism” (Young, 2001, 44-5, 51). Primarily associated

with Latin American authors, the most prominent of which,

not least because their work is available in English,

include Cardoso (1972; 1977; Cardoso and Falleto, 1979),

Sunkel (1969; 1973), and Dos Santos (1970), dependency

thinkers and other associated theorists of unequal

development, such as Amin (1974; 1976), argue that the

historical development of the international system – the

structures of the state-system and the capitalist global

division of labor – produce forms of systematic

underdevelopment (stagnation in some places and deformed

processes of development elsewhere). 3 Mechanisms of

dependence, including external military domination,

transnational investment, unequal trade relations, and

global financial arrangements, condition national

3 Many useful summaries of the contributions of dependency theory are available. See Slater (2004, 118-127); Valenzuela and Valenzuela (1981); and Chilcote (1984).


development prospects by subjecting the peripheries to

domination by the system’s centers. Though global, the

system’s loci of dynamism, its social structures and

attendant class relations, are transnational, existing both

internally and externally in relation to the peripheral

countries and regions. Nevertheless, these structures of

dependence and domination marginalize large zones. The

experience of the peripheries cannot, then, reproduce that

of the advanced regions since the later have already

asymmetrically integrated the former into this wider system

of production and goverance. Representations of peripheries

as traditional or less developed are, therefore, ideological

deflections and conventional policy advice guarantees

continued marginalization. Alternative approaches might

foster distinctive forms of national economic integration or

involve selective de-linking from the structures of global

capitalism, though any effective response requires the

realignment of class forces within the periphery and,

eventually, a transformation of global structures.


Leading North American scholars justify the brief sway

of dependency theory in disciplinary terms, though perhaps

better linked to the waning of the oppositional politics of

the Third World Movement.4 Theories of dependency, as

Gabriel Almond (1990, 229-30, 233) claims, are “inescapably

ideological” -- “a backward step” measured against the

conventions of social science. Pakenham (1992, 29-30, 43,

103-4) likewise stresses that dependency theory is

unscientific because its critical status makes it

“unfalsifiable.” Confirming its origins in ‘backward’

zones, Pakenham (1992, 255-60) associates dependency

proponents, not with science or reason, but with “theatre,”

“drama,” or “symbol and ritual.” Not surprisingly, then,

dependency theorists ignore the dictates of rationality,

eschewing the obvious mutual gains from interdependence

(Pakenham 1992, 306).

Others are more deliberative but still place dependency

theory beyond the disciplinary pale. In a review, Caporaso

4 Despite this, theories of dependency sustain interest in Latin America. Tickner (2003, 317-8) argues that “autonomy” continues to finda central place in Latin American IR, quite by contrast with contemporary North American IR.


(1980, 622-3) recognizes Cardoso and Faletto’s very

different stance towards history; they reject a Newtonian

notion of time -- “homogeneous, infinitely divisible, and

purely formal” -- that facilitates generalization, favoring

instead a “lumpy” or “qualitative” notion that limits our

capacity to generalize beyond particular times and places.5

Rather than evaluating dependency theory on its own terms,

Caporaso (1980, 615) defends disciplinary standards of

“falsifiability and verification” without which “the

scientific enterprise cannot succeed.” Even in this more

generous reading, dependency theory is displaced beyond IR

-- an outside whose pre-scientific and politically imprudent

(irrational) status serve to confirm the epistemic

superiority of IR proper. Cardoso (1977, 15-16) saw the

writing on the wall. To gain disciplinary respectability,

theories of dependency were boxed into uniform, static, and

thereby testable propositions that misrepresented their

historical approach based on a dynamic and dialectical

analysis of concrete situations. This “straw man” is “easy

5 Cardoso and Faletto (1979, x-xiv, xxiii) defend their emphasis on analyzing concrete situations. See Palma (1978).


to destroy.” Caporaso (1993, 470), himself, in later

reflections, notes that “dependency theory died out more

from neglect than frontal criticism.”

The construction of dependency theory as beyond the

pale of acceptable knowledge production and policy relevance

reveals a crucial feature of IR: the suppression of

alternative and competing themes opposed to the standard

theory of modern progress. The political and ethical

possibilities of modern life rest on a tension between

wholes and parts within the theory of progress. On the one

hand, political and economic development is seen as

isomorphic with the extension of modern Western civilization

to encompass the entire global cultural space. On the other

hand, since the early modern failure of the project to

universalize a common blueprint within Europe, political and

economic development is also linked to sovereignty, a

principle putatively allowing each state to find its own

version of meaningful development. IR theory “proper”

conventionally navigates this tension by embracing a monadic

vision, by positing that the promise of modernity (i.e.


political and economic development) is possible only within

states. IR’s self-limiting understanding acts to suppress

the larger social theory within which this monadic vision


Dependency theorists, by contrast, revive the tension

between wholes and parts and between IR and its larger

context by exploring the strains between the imperatives of

sovereignty and those of global capitalism.6 By emphasizing

the relations of domination central to the global logic of

capitalism, they reveal the lie: that development is a set

of separable, national projects. Rather, development

proceeds within the processes of the global system,

enriching some and marginalizing others. Dependency theory

thereby is a powerful form of immanent criticism, rooted in

a description of current global political and economic

arrangements. The spotlight on the ambitions of various

Third World states and peoples for development and self-

determination should not obscure its deeper insight: the

conditions of the periphery are expressions of internal

6Blaney (1996).


tensions within the values and visions of modern

international society itself.

Cardoso (1977, 9-10) himself argued that dependency

studies were not something new, either methodologically or

in terms of their critical purpose. Rather, they

“constitute part of this constantly renewed effort to

reestablish a tradition of analysis of economic structures

and structures of domination.” The difference in this case

is that “a current which was already old in Latin American

thought managed to make itself heard in the discussions that

were taking place in institutions normally closed to it,”

including various official agencies and “the North American

academic community.” Here, Cardoso stresses more than the

Latin American phase of critical thinking; he places this

work in a long history of radical responses to modernity

(Cardoso 1977, 8-9). He implies that theories of dependency

revive a recessive current of thought within modern

understandings of social and political life. If so, then

despite dependency theory’s rightful place as internal to

traditions from “above,” it is shunted aside, constructed as


outside of the process of knowledge production and rational

political practice.

Nonetheless, residues of the dependency analysis keep

emerging. We find one example in the claim that the

position of the ‘Third World’ necessitates a shift in our

understandings of international security. For Ayoob (1989,

1995), the violent incorporation of these areas into

international society gives Third World states an intruder

status, but it also constructs modern state-building as the

main task of Third World political elites. The challenge of

modernization thereby appears to leaders as a central

security issue. Thus, we can read the ‘economic’ demands of

the Third World coalition during its heyday in the 1960s and

70s as also concerned with securing the state and the

position of the elites within it (Ayoob 1995, 2; Murphy

1984). The Third World coalition eventually was forced into

submission, and IR in its realist and liberal versions could

return, respectively, to the machinations of great powers,

pushing the “internal” problems of Third World states to the

margins, or to the building of a liberal global order,


constructing these areas as objects of progressive

modernization. But we then miss much about the nature of

the conflict and insecurity intrinsic to the very structures

of international society. Following the underlying insight

of dependency theory, we might push deeper. Barkawi and

Laffey (2006, 333, 344-52) attribute the failure of security

studies to an inability to “study the weak and the strong

together, as jointly responsible for making history.” An

ontological individualism, rooted in a state of nature

mythology or an analogy to neoclassical economics, leads

security studies to diagnose conflict originating in the

non-West as a lack, as due to the absence of modernization.

What is missed is the “mutually constitutive character of

world politics” and the insight that the sources of

contemporary conflict can be found, not in the “separate

objects” that IR imagines, but in the “relations” between

West and non-West.

Constitutive Otherness


If dependency theory focuses our attention on the

differential experience of Third World spaces within the

international system, this difference is nevertheless

expressed within narrow, often modernist limits. As

Chakrabarty (2000a: 41) puts it: “European imperialism and

third-world nationalisms” together achieved “the

universalization of the nation-state as the most desirable

form of political community.” In its embrace of national

autonomy, dependency theory obscures the multiplicity of

identities and spaces that express and shape varying

experiences of domination and alternative representations of

social experience (Slater 2004, chapter 6; Manzo 1991, 8-9).

A search for a “politics in different guises” was also the

result of the eclipse of North-South relations from the

agenda of world politics and the sense that the political

economy issues raised by dependency theorists had now been

‘resolved’ through the engineering of a liberal ‘consensus’

about free trade and good governance (Darby 2004, 2, 5-6).

Though a postcolonial movement expressing an interest in

identity and difference had grown up within social theory by


the late 1970s, Darby and Paolini (1994) would later note

that its impact on IR was relatively meager. Chowdhry and

Nair (2002, 1) later confirmed that postcolonial work

remains largely marginal to IR.

Proponents of a postcolonial stance often see their

work as a frontal assault on the basic conceptions and

methods of IR. 7 Paolini (1999, 5) argues that the

discipline’s fixation on states and sovereignty leads

scholars to overlook questions about “identity,

subjectivity, and modernity” as they apply across global

space. He intimates that IR fails to dig into the

“elementary human realm of culture and identity” because it

is in that realm, not in its status as science, that its

privileged vantage point actually lies. In this respect,

the concerns of postcolonial scholars dovetail with

deconstructionist work emerging in IR. For example,

Campbell (1996, 164-65) suggests that IR is constituted by a

discourse of the state that “settles” questions of identity;

the centrality of the state is treated as “simply reflecting

7Just as postcolonial thought more broadly provides a challenge to Western modes of representation. See Gandhi (1998) and Mongia (1996).


a reality” that can be objectively apprehended, not as an

assertion of authority that obscures other possibilities.

Perhaps closer to the spirit of postcolonial scholarship,

Doty (1996, 3, 8) calls our attention to the “imperial

encounters” at the heart of IR: “asymmetrical encounters in

which one entity has been able to construct ‘realities’ that

were taken seriously and acted upon and the other entity has

been denied equal degrees or kinds of agency.” Here IR,

even in its critical moment, appears as a set of

“representational practices” in which the imperial West has

constructed the other, fixing the categories of identity in

which people and scholars “make sense.”

The task of a “post-colonial analytical sensibility,”

with its focus on “difference, agency, subjectivity, and

resistance,” follows from this: it fundamentally challenges

these “Western discourses of . . . progress, civilization,

modernization, development and globalization” (Slater 2004,

163-4). For Tickner (2003, 302-7) disrupting the

universalist and unilinear conceptions central to IR

recovers knowledge lodged in different cultural spaces and


times, something IR has failed to do thus far. Put more

sharply perhaps, Chakrabarty (2000a, 29) claims that what

passes for social science “has been produced in relative,

and sometimes absolute, ignorance of the majority of

humankind—that is, those living in non-Western countries.”

IR lives in, as Muppidi (2004, 3) implies, a state of global

illiteracy. Thus, postcolonial scholarship represents an

oppositional “frame of reference in [its] mapping of

identity in, through, and beyond the colonial encounter”; it

celebrates “the particular and the marginal” and hopes to

see “peoples of the Third World carving out independent

identities in a de-Europeanized space of recovery and

difference” (Paolini 1999, 6) This process has been spoken

of as a “decolonization of the imagination” and a

“revalorization of cultural plurality” (Pieterse and Parekh

1995, 4 and 14).

However, Chowdhry and Nair (2002:1) claim that a

postcolonial stance requires more. Postcoloniality

highlights the “workings of power” that elide “the

racialized, gendered, and class processes that underwrite


global hierarchies,” focusing our attention more

convincingly on questions of “global inequality and

justice.”8 Similarly Krishna (1999, xviii) calls for a

“politics of postcolonial engagement,” moving us beyond the

process of denaturalizing “all identities (national, ethnic,

linguistic, religious)” to joining the struggle, not so much

to transcend identity, but to “fight for justice and

fairness in the world we do inhabit.” With the move to the

postcolonial, we join, says Slater (2004, 199-200), a

struggle over the very definition of the global (see also

Muppidi, 2004), the uneven consequences of globalization

(see also Biswas, 2002), and contemporary definitions of

security imperatives (see also Barkawi and Laffey, 2006). A

post-colonial IR perhaps includes but also moves beyond the

concerns of dependency thinkers.

However, postcolonial IR (as well as other critical

approaches, like certain feminisms or poststructuralism,

that challenges the modern) receives nary a mention in

8 The role of gender in the constitution of global structures has a somewhat longer legacy in IR. The role of race has arisen mostly alongside of and within postcolonial IR (see Persaud and Walker 2001; Manzo 1996).


accounts of the state of the discipline (Walt 1998; Snyder

2004). This is not surprising since, as Keohane (1989, 162,

173) argues, a reflexive emphasis on epistemological and

ontological questions merely diverts scholars from the real

task of studying “world politics”; without adopting the

model of a proper “research program,” critical versions of

IR “will remain on the margins of the field, largely

invisible to the preponderance of empirical researchers.”

This notion of the profession leaves little space for those

who decline the orthodoxy.

Recognizing this, Darby and Paolini (1994, 371) call

for a “bridging” of the “diplomatic isolation” of IR from a

postcolonial “IR from below.” The bridging metaphor may not

be apt, however, since the oppositional stance of the

postcolonial is both outside and inside “IR from above.”

More precisely, the representational practices and the

processes of identity construction central to the

postcolonial are constitutive of IR itself: a proper IR

‘research program’ is an effect of a prior assertion of

colonial power. We suggested above that dependency analysts


shift our vision, insisting that we more fully recognize how

the parts, namely states, are determined by the whole of the

states system and the capitalist division of labor (and it

imperial history) and therefore are always already inside

the whole. Postcolonial analysis calls for a similar shift

but, crucially, holds on to the excluded status of

otherness. That is, postcolonial visions also call for a

broader social theoretical scope that brings our attention

to how actors and identities ‘from below’ are determined by

larger systems of westernization and modernity. Unlike

dependency theory, the postcolonial turn, drawing on a

poststructuralist rhythm of argument (Young 2001, 418), sees

the non-Western and non-modern not merely as outside, but

also as the excluded other against which the West and the

modern are defined. Mitchell (2000; 4-5, 12-13) refers to

this status as the “constitutive outside.” He argues that a

distinct European identity is a product of the colonial

management of difference—forged in relation to “distinctions

of race, sexuality, culture and class.” Modernity, for


Mitchell, “depends upon, even as it refuses to recognize,

forbears and forces that escape its control.”

This refusal to recognize how the non-West and non-

modern are already integrated as constitutive forces within

the West and the modern is precisely how the colonial comes

to be externalized. Much of the work of postcolonial

theorists is, as it was for dependency thinkers, immanent,

revealing the suppression of this other within IR. In

contrast with the dependency theorists’ demands that

modernity’s promises be fulfilled, the positive aspect of

postcolonial critiques is the hope that these revelations of

suppressed others help us locate alternative resources for

imagining our world (Chakrabarty 2002, xx, chapter 3). For

example, Escobar (1995) claims that denaturalizing the

discourse of development opens space for suppressed, often

localized, imaginations of social life. However, it is not

clear that a postcolonial stance itself immediately

identifies such alternatives. For IR, it may require

turning to sources beyond the usual fare, like consulting

the anthropological or historical archives for accounts of


ways of life and organizations of complex intercultural

relations previously suppressed or now treated as irrelevant

(see Manzo 1999; Euben 2002).

We can read IR, then, through its refusal to recognize

the denial of its own constitution.9 The binary of

‘modernity/anarchy’ is pivotal in this suppression: anarchic

disorder acts as the urgent ‘problem’ to which the

‘solution’ of modernization, with its civilizing logic,

appears as the sole antidote. Therefore, systemic anarchy

increasingly is seen as that which must be tamed via the

modernization of global relations: international economic

interdependence, the community of liberal polities, and

global civil society. In this way, an ‘IR from above,’

including seemingly critical approaches that rely on claims

of the progressive unfolding of modernity, locates itself on

an imagined boundary between the modern and the

savage/barbarian. In contrast, ‘IR from below,’ because it

attempts to represent, cultivate, and retrieve the voice of

the savage/barbarian, appears both as something beyond IR

9 Inayatullah and Blaney (2004, especially Part I).


and something central to its very constitution. To extend

Darby and Paolini’s metaphor, what we need is not a bridge,

but an excavation; a mining of the culture of IR in order to

reveal the representational practices that hide what is

central to its constitution and through which we may find

the resources for IR’s re-imagination.

The Recovery and Critique of Political Economy

Despite its claims to confront global structures of

power, the postcolonial turn to cultural analysis has not

adequately engaged the domain of political economy. Darby

(2004, 16-7) laments this surprising neglect by postcolonial

thinkers within IR, suggesting that it is part of a general

culture of complacency that assumes there is no alternative

to globalization. Paolini (1999, 204) notes a general

tendency of postcolonial thought to float “above the fray of

material circumstances.” Both sense something significant

in this neglect.


“Economy,” claims Mitchell (1998, 84), is thought to

refer to a “realm with an existence prior to and separate

from its representations, and thus to stand in opposition to

the more discursive constructs of social theory.” The

economy is associated with the natural—fixed laws, unfolding

across homogenous time. The postcolonial, in contrast,

operates in the domain of human culture(s); it is about

revealing that which has been dehistoricized and

denaturalized. As Thrift (2000, 692, 698-9) warns, this

emphasis on culture has led many thinkers to take

“remarkably little . . . note of economics.” Or, suggesting

that this opposition is constitutive of the cultural turn

itself, he notes that “[c]ulture was culture because it had

been purified of the taint of the economic.” Recent

histories of the subaltern movement hint that this

separation has been constitutive of cultural studies

(Chaturvedi 2000; Chakrabarty 2000b). Sarkar (2000, 304-5)

explains that fears of falling into an economic reductionism

led postcolonial scholars to the “bifurcation” of a socio-

economic world of “domination” from a spiritual world of


“autonomy.” Dirlik (1994, 331) has been more pointed:

Postcolonial critics have relieved themselves of the

necessity of facing their own role in “contemporary

capitalism” by “repudiating a foundational role of

capitalism in history.”

But there is little reason to limit postcolonial

studies in this way. Like Mitchell above, Dirlik (1994,

350) argues that Eurocentrism is “built into the very

structure of…capitalist culture;” thus, it is difficult to

imagine any serious de-centering or provincializing of the

West that does not directly confront political economy.

What this suggests is less combining the economic insights

of dependency theory with the cultural tools of

postcolonialism and more doing to economics and political

economy what postcolonial thinkers have already done to ‘IR

from above.’ If capitalism, economics, and political

economy are constituted by otherness in the manner of ‘IR

from above,’ then an ‘IR from below can move towards

revealing how its own status as ‘constitutive other’

contains alternative cultures of political economy.



‘IR from below’ reminds us that conventional IR–

whether structural realist, liberal institutionalist, or

constructivist – treats states or groups as parts that are

logically independent of the larger systems of capitalism or

modernity and that this methodological device serves

political purposes. In the guise of ‘science,’ ontological

individualism works to deflect our attention from the co-

constitution of times and places. While one hand severs

holistic threads in order to present states as monadic

entities, the other hand pedagogically asserts that the

present of the advanced states is the model for those that

lag behind. In revealing this sleight of hand, ‘IR from

below’ suggests that contemporary IR is an expression of the

Western theory of progress. It brings our attention to the

relation between wholes and parts—to whether development

occurs within the boundaries of states or for the system as

a whole, and to the unproductive separation between


economics and the analysis of capitalism, on the one side,

and representational strategies and cultural analysis on the

other. In so doing, it takes advantage of its status as

‘constitutive other’ to foreground IR’s potential as that

aspect of social theory that dedicates itself to studying

relations of self and other. And it offers us resources for

imagining the future beyond those offered by both

conventional and critical ‘IR from above.’


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