Interview: Siddharth Mallavarapu on postcolonial approaches in International Relations and the politics of knowledge

In this episode of our interview series, Lynda Iroulo talks to Prof. Siddharth Mallavarapu from the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies at Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Listen in, as Prof. Mallavarapu shares his thoughts on the current state of International Relations, how global the discipline really is and how IR can profit from incorporating perspectives from the Global South.

[Photo: Siddharth Mallavarapu]

Find a short abridged transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Lynda Iroulo: I would like to begin by asking what brings you to the WZB today.

Siddharth Mallavarapu: There are three or four motivations. First, of course, I’ve been impressed by its general institutional reputation for excellence. Its combination, which brings together lawyers, political scientists, sociologists and economists in one place. And I think the possibility for working on intersections is particularly good in an environment like this. So that is one attractive feature of the WZB, apart from which I also thought this would be a good opportunity to acquaint myself with some of the more recent ongoing debates in Europe. And finally I thought it was also an opportunity to infuse a curiosity about the non-Eurocentric world we live in and to bring to bear some sensibilities, ideas and perspectives from contexts outside of Europe.

Iroulo: And we are happy to have you here. What drove you to explore the questions you research, and in your opinion what do you think constitutes the IR discipline today?

Mallavarapu: One area which does take a lot of my time and attention is the broader question of the politics of knowledge. And by the term politics of knowledge I really refer to the asymmetries in the manner in which knowledge is produced and what we treat as knowledge. Within the realm of the social sciences and humanities it also raises fundamental questions about the sites of theory production. How is theory then circulated and what is the nature of ideas when they transform and get into other settings – the notion of what Walter Mignolo and others have called transculturation. Some of these questions are recurring questions I think. It could be perhaps applied not just in the context of International Relations but other fields of study. Of course, my gaze very often turns to the discipline I have been socialized in, which is International Relations. IR as a discipline is notorious for its ethnocentrism of an Anglo-American variety. Today there are more voices making a claim on the term Global International Relations. But what are the things to make IR a genuinely global discipline? I would argue that the politics of knowledge becomes important, because we need to be open not only to other modes of thinking, but sometimes universal questions like political order, justice, legitimacy, and recognize that there is the possibility that different traditions also have other areas of inquiry.

My own more interesting take on recent work is to go a little beyond critique and lament, and to really begin mining intellectual inheritances in archives, which open up the possibility of reconfiguring some elements in the manner in which we think about questions in IR. I have been particularly interested in the work of scholars from Africa, the Arab world and parts of Asia to see how they have begun to rethink some matters which we otherwise took for granted within the mainstream.

Iroulo: On the question of how global the field of IR is: a lot of scholars from the Global South have criticized International Relations on this basis. Do you think the marginalization of the Global South could be overcome, and in your opinion how?

Mallavarapu: I am somewhat cautiously optimistic about the future. I do think that there is a recognition today that diversity matters, especially when it comes to thinking about knowledge structures. There is an intrinsic value to bringing in voices from other places and in listening to voices which have been submerged for various reasons in the past. Again, I would argue that the discipline will fare well if there are more scholars with a critical sensibility, who bring to bear good intellectual history along with theoretical and empirical interests and also pay attention to the axes of class, gender and race. I think these are schisms that continue to structure much of international political life. These dimensions are worth mulling over while thinking about the future trajectory of the field of IR.

Iroulo: Through your work, what gaps have postcolonial approaches strived to bridge in International Relations?

Mallavarapu: I think postcolonial approaches, within the larger family of critical approaches, bring to bear a couple of fairly important arguments about the nature of the political itself. One, of course, they have restored agency to those at the receiving end of history. Postcolonial literature tries to restore agency to the colonized and not see them merely as passive recipients of colonialism. Or think about the significance of political ontology for questions of epistemology – this whole process of being latecomers in history in some sense to the modern statehood process, while very often some of these formerly decolonized states had long civilizational histories. Third, of course, the recognition that there is no single narrative, even when it comes to the broad drivers of history like modernity or the workings of capitalism for that matter. One other contribution of postcolonial literature is to challenge the datelines and some of the amnesia of IR when it comes to questions like decolonization or for instance treating 1648 as the point of departure to understand modern statehood. And the intersectionality issue of course. Of how race, class, gender and other aspects sometimes intersect, are heaped on each other and generate particular kinds of political outcomes. For anybody interested in following up on intersectionality, please refer to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Iroulo: Just let us briefly know if there are any of your books or articles that we should look forward to.

Mallavarapu: I am happy to share with you a recently co-edited book. It is titled India, the West and International Order and is part of a multi-volume series which Kanti Bajpai, my doctoral mentor and professor at the National University of Singapore, and I have put together. The first volume is out, but there are a few more volumes to follow. The idea here really was getting back to the team of a global IR to identify intellectual resources, inheritances and ways of thinking about International Relations from the part of the world we are most familiar with. The idea is not to posit any form of methodological nationalism, but to identify how the notion of the international itself was thought through, dating back from a generation of anticolonial nationalists right up to more contemporary times.

Iroulo: It was a pleasure talking to you.

Mallavarapu: Thank you so much for this Lynda.

Share this:

One Reply to “Interview: Siddharth Mallavarapu on postcolonial approaches in International Relations and the politics of knowledge”

Leave a Reply

Feel free to comment on all the blog posts! We are happy to engage in a discussion with our readers and want to foster the dialogue with them. Any reasonable or constructive comment, including strong, but well-argued critique is welcome. To guarantee a fair and respectful discussion, we operate a propriety filter, which will route the comments to the Blog Team first. The comments will be published after they have been checked, so there might be a brief delay until your comment is posted for public view.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *