One model of engagement between MES and IR: Inquiring into others’ conceptions of “security”

By Pinar Bilgin, Bilkent University

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

This paper argues that the difficult relationship between Middle East Studies (MES) and International Relations (IR) is an instance of the age-old gap between area studies and social science disciplines—a gap that may have grown wider in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, see Morten Valbjorn in this forum. The development and persistence of this gap has meant that the students of MES and IR often do not engage with each other’s work, see Stefan Stetter in this forum. In what follows, I will first identify two aspects of the gap between students of area studies and IR, discuss its implications for the study of security, and then suggest one model for communication: by giving up those assumptions of “universalism” that are actually based on observations of rather “particular” phenomena, and by paying attention to others’ conceptions of “security.” Here, I define “others” as those who happen not to be located on or near the top of hierarchies in world politics, enjoying unequal influence in shaping various dynamics, including their own portrayal in world politics.

Area studies and disciplinary IR I: why didn’t area studies fulfill its promise?

The gap between MES and IR has its origins in the division of labor between economics and politics on one hand, and social science disciplines and humanities on the other (Chomsky, 1997, Cumings, 1997, Szanton, 2004). Over the years, particular approaches to different parts of the world have been shaped by this gap insofar as some parts of the world have come under “area studies” to gather “raw data” and “test” theories (as with the Middle East); whereas dynamics in some other parts of the world were studied to “develop social scientific approaches” to world politics, as with North America and Western Europe (Valbjorn, 2004, Bilgin, 2004a).

When it was initially founded in the late 1940s, area studies promised to make the social sciences “whole” and their findings of “universal” relevance by providing data about the “Third World.” Thus, the political scientist Gabriel Almond called on his colleagues to study the “uncouth and exotic” regions of the world in order to make political science a “total science” (cited in Mitchell, 2003: 157). In time, the division of labor between the students of disciplines and areas became a hierarchical one. In a manner reminiscent of the upstairs, downstairs dynamics of a colonial household, disciplinary generalists looked down upon their area studies colleagues, who produced the “thick descriptions” that they needed to theorize grandly about the world (Agathangelou and Ling, 2004). One outcome of the realization of this hierarchical division of labor in IR has been the failure of area studies to fulfill the task of making the social sciences less parochial and more “universal.”

On one hand, parochialism may come across as “an almost inevitable and universal characteristic of IR globally” insofar as “there are ‘national’ IR disciplines and that these quite naturally tend to be concerned with their own national interests,” (Hellmann, 2011). Viewed as such, scholars in those parts of the world that are adversely affected by environmental degradation may prioritize green politics, whereas scholars who are citizens of great powers may focus on their countries’ hegemonic ambitions and those of other aspiring hegemons. On the other hand, what renders parochialism a challenge for IR is not that scholars in different parts of the world may have particular areas of interest and/or concentration, but rather when IR theorizing mistakes its theories driven from “particular” observations for the “universal.” Understood in this latter sense, parochialism pervades IR scholarship and constitutes a limitation for our theorizing about world politics (Alker and Biersteker, 1984, Jarvis, 2001, Hellmann, 2011, Biersteker, 2009).

To return to the story about the division of labor between area studies and the disciplines. The original task would have required disturbing the unquestioned dominance of assumptions of “universalism,” in time efforts were directed towards adopting and “testing” those frameworks with universalist pretentions. However, over the years, efforts came to focus almost exclusively on representing the “areas” as part of an ostensibly “universal” story told in and about the “West” (Mitchell, 2002). Perhaps, such testing could have allowed for further development of the theories at hand, thereby contributing to the project of achieving “universal” knowledge. However, the overbearing authority of the disciplines made it very difficult for area studies scholars to access, let alone challenge, the disciplines.

Area studies and disciplinary IR II: IR is not interested in the world beyond North America and Western Europe?

Disciplinary IR has not always been interested in the world beyond the great powers. “Denmark does not matter,” quipped Kenneth Waltz, highlighting the marginality of smaller states to system theorizing. This is not because those who are in the peripheries of world politics are also relegated to the peripheries of one’s thinking. It is because mainstream IR orientates its students to think of states as like units, the internal composition and dynamics of which are of relatively little consequence for world politics.

The choices made by the students of mainstream IR in favor of conducting state and great power-centric analyses have had implications for the discipline. Throughout the years, critical scholars have been documenting the implications of such methodological and epistemological choices, thereby preparing the groundwork for the project of what Amitav Acharya (2014) termed “global IR.” For, over the years, IR treatises, even as they focused on other parts of the world, have failed to be fully relevant to the concerns of people, states and societies living in those other parts of the world. This is because analyses of “sage bush wars,” “low intensity conflicts” and “guerrilla wars” focused on and thus were able to capture only the threat perceptions and interest calculations of the “West” (Korany, 1986). Put differently, the “Third World,” even when it was made the focal point of IR, was not treated as the referent object (what/who needs protection).

Consider, for example, the literature on “state failure.” On one hand, the shift in mainstream security analyses from purely military to broader “human security” concerns may be considered a “good thing.” On the other hand, state “weakness” is still portrayed as a problem by virtue of the so-called “weak” states’ inability to prevent their territories from being used as a safe harbor by terrorists—not because those states fail to deliver the necessary goods and services to their citizens, or in terms of the global system that has allowed them to “fail” (Bilgin and Morton, 2002). Consequently, the so-called “strong” states of the “Third World,” even when they fail to prioritize their citizens’ concerns, may not be considered a problem as long as they remain attentive to “First World” security interests (Bilgin and Morton, 2004). Nor are women’s and other gendered insecurities in the “First World” problematized by virtue of their “successful statehood” (Enloe, 1990, Enloe, 1997, Tickner, 1992).

To recapitulate, students of IR have not always been socialized into being curious about others’ approaches to the world but have been encouraged to explain away such dynamics by superimposing ostensibly “universal” concepts and categories. For purposes of illustration, let me focus on my own field of security studies. I suggest that students of security studies have not always been interested in the others’ conceptions of “security.”

The example of security studies

 Security studies may not be any better or worse than other sub-fields of IR. Toward the end of the Cold War, students of security studies came under criticism by the students of Soviet studies, who reminded them that the Soviet Union did not “play” the deterrence game in the way deterrence theorists assumed. Deterrence theorizing developed almost independently of inquiring into the perspectives of those who we were seeking to deter (Booth, 1979, MccGwire, 1985). In the aftermath of the Cold War, Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein (1994) declared that “We All Lost the Cold War,” based on the evidence they gathered by studying Cold War practices of deterrence by multiple nuclear powers (esp. see Janice Gross Stein in this forum). These critical inquiries into Cold War deterrence thinking and practices joined to highlight the limitations of security studies in inquiring into others’ approaches to security in general and deterrence in particular.

However, security studies scholarship did not always integrate these critical insights. Consider the following quote by Peter J. Katzenstein, from his introduction to the edited volume, Cultures of National Security, which is one of the earliest sustained attempts to bring “cultural analysis” into the study of security. Katzenstein wrote: “In the context of a bipolar, ideological struggle, the Cold War made relatively unproblematic some of the cultural factors affecting national security. Theories that abstracted from these factors offered important insights” (Katzenstein, 1996: 1). It is only with the end of the Cold War and the demise of bipolarity, argued Katzenstein, that the need for inquiring into others’ “culture” became apparent. Put differently, Katzenstein suggested that during the Cold War, superpower dynamics and the theoretical tools developed to analyze those dynamics rendered less relevant the need to know about others’ views of the world. It was after the end of the Cold War, he seemed to suggest, that those needs surfaced once again.

Contra Katzenstein, and building on McGwire (1985), Lebow and Stein’s (1994) critique of deterrence theorizing, it was not the case that the Cold War rendered others’ different ways of thinking about the world “relatively unproblematic.” Rather, it was “particular” ways of thinking about world politics, which were presumed to be “universal,” that lured security analysts into presuming that a lack of curiosity about others’ approaches to world politics was not a problem when theorizing about International Relations and security.

It was not a student of Security Studies, but an anthropologist, Hugh Gusterson (1999) who unmistakably identified the parochialism of security studies. Surveying articles published during 1986-1989 in the sub-field’s leading journal, International Security, Gusterson noted that those “readers who relied on the journal International Security alone for their understanding of world politics would have been taken more or less completely by surprise by the end of the Cold War in the fall of 1989,” (Gusterson, 1999: 319). The point Gusterson made was not about (failures in) prediction in the study of security. Rather he argued that, “authors in the journal constructed a discursive world within which the indefinite continuation of the Cold War was plausibly presumed and what we would in retrospect narrate as signs of the impending end of the Cold War were rendered dubious or invisible,” (Gusterson, 1999: 323). Put differently, Gusterson’s analysis highlighted how Anglo-American security concerns and a particular approach to these concerns had become embedded into the epistemology of security studies as reflected in the articles published in International Security. Gusterson suggested that, those scholars who relied on the journal for insight into the dynamics of world security likely became unable to even consider the possibility of the Cold War coming to an end. “The problem with the dominant discourse in security studies in the 1980s was not that its construction of the international system was wrong,” wrote Gusterson (1999: 324) “but that it so marginalized discussion of competing constructions.” What led to parochialism in the study of security, argued Gusterson, was not only the search for prediction though utilizing a particular way of thinking about world politics, but the sub-field’s failures to go outside that particular way of thinking, often without recognizing its particularity.

Students of security in the “Third World” have, for long, pointed to the limitations caused by the imposition of the superpower conflict when studying dynamics in other parts of the world. Bahgat Korany, among others, problematized the way in which “When states of the ‘periphery’ were taken into consideration at all, they were supposed to fit into the established paradigm, and assigned the role of junior partners in the power game. Otherwise, they are considered ‘trouble-makers,’ thriving on ‘nuisance power,’ fit for the exercise of techniques of ‘counter-insurgency’,” (Korany, 1986). However, even the critics of security studies, such as Korany, who highlighted the sub-field’s limitations to account for security in the global South, chose to focus on the “different” characteristics of those states but not necessarily the limitations of the notion of “security,” upon which the sub-field was built. The title of a chapter by Caroline Thomas (1989), one of the forthcoming scholars on “Third World” security, summarized the concerns of this body of scholarship: “Southern instability, security and western concepts: On an unhappy marriage and the need for a divorce.” Put differently, what students of security in the “Third World” focused on were “new” concepts suited for the “Third World” and not necessarily re-thinking existing ones that were shaped by parochialism of the sub-field.

My point being that, identifying the problem with ostensibly “universal” concepts but remaining content with the solution of offering ‘new’ concepts for the “Third World” allowed for parochialism of security studies to continue. As such, notwithstanding their significant contributions pointing to the limitations of Security Studies in accounting for insecurities experienced in the “Third World,” students of security in the global South left untouched the parochialism of security studies. Yet at the same time, this solution allowed for new parochialisms in the study of security in the “Third World” as with the more recent “state failure” literature (Bilgin and Morton, 2002).

To summarize, students of security studies remained relatively oblivious to the sub-field’s limitations stemming from parochialism. While students of security in the “Third World” were critical of those “theories that abstracted from [cultural] factors” (to use Katzenstein’s phrase), they sought to replace them with “new” concepts that drew from some other particularisms. In doing so, they missed the opportunity to point to the parochialism of mainstream IR’s concepts and the fact that those concepts were also shaped by “particular” dynamics and contexts that remained unaware of its “particularism” while claiming “universal” insight.

Being curious about others’ conceptions of security?

Let me highlight the need for inquiring into others’ conceptions of security with reference to security dynamics in the Middle East.

Steven M. Walt’s study on Middle East security, The Origins of Alliances (1987), focused on alliance politics in the Middle East. In this book, Walt pointed to a type of alliance behavior that remained unaccounted for by structural realist accounts. Whereas existing frameworks looked at power balancing, noted Walt, the dynamics of relations between Arab states pointed to balancing threats. In response to this puzzling behavior of Arab states, Walt offered a new concept: “balance of threat.”

About a decade after the publication of Walt’s study, Michael J. Barnett (1998) offered an alternative account of the dynamics of the relations between Arab states. While Walt correctly diagnosed an aspect of Arab politics that was previously unaccounted for, argued Barnett, he could not fully explain what he observed, given the limitations of the structural realist framework that he used. Instead, Barnett offered a social constructivist toolkit for analyzing Arab politics. If states seem to be balancing threats, noted Barnett, it is the relationship between identity and security policy that required investigation. As such, Barnett’s study, Dialogues in Arab Politics (1998), did not identify a new puzzle but presented an alternative theoretical framework for responding to Walt’s puzzle, that is, by studying the constructedness of identity and its relationship with security policy (also see Barnett, 1999, Telhami and Barnett, 2002).

What if we are not curious about others’ conceptions of “security?” After all, both Walt and Barnett were curious about particular instances in the behavior of Arab leaders, while they presumed that they already knew what it meant to be secure in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, etc. In other words, both authors bracketed security as they inquired into the policy behavior of the Arab leaders (Bilgin, 2004b). Walt was puzzled with the way Arab leaders were responding to “threats” and not “power” (understood in material terms). Barnett sought to understand how balancing threats works and found an answer in the Arab leadership’s (re)constructions of “Arab” identity through “dialogues in Arab politics” (the title of Barnett’s book). Neither Walt nor Barnett inquired into Arab leaders’ conceptions of “security”.

Walt and Barnett are not alone in being less-than-curious about others’ conceptions “security.” Significant aspects of IR are conditioned by these limitations. As students of IR, we presume that we understand others’ behavior (based on “our” assumptions about “their” intentions and/or capability), often without inquiring into their conceptions of “security.”


Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Arab uprisings, some students of IR admonished students of MES for not paying attention to Arabism. Following the 9/11 attacks, students of MES were criticized for not paying enough attention to radicalization in the Muslim world. After the end of the Cold War, students of MES had sought to find beginnings of democratization, in response to criticisms from disciplinary IR and Political Science, that this part of the world came across as an outlier to world dynamics (democratization, globalization, regionalization…) (Anderson, 2003). Their focus on democratization was faulted by their critics for missing the ‘facts’ about Middle East politics. The presumption being that extremism is a ‘fact’ of the Middle East and democratization mere ‘fancy’!

These are only some of the criticisms raised by the students of disciplines to their colleagues in MES. I am not citing them to signal agreement. On the contrary, many students of MES could respond to such criticism by showing how they did, in fact, point to these phenomena in their research. The problem, I suggest, lies in the two sides not engaging with each other’s work.

Those students of the disciplines who also have expertise in one part of the world or another produce valuable and insightful studies and manage to communicate with their colleagues in both the disciplines and area studies. But they are in the minority.

More often than not, students of area studies pay lip service to disciplinary concerns with theory building. Similarly, students of the disciplines utilize X or Y region of the world for “theory-testing” purposes, often devoid of the contextual and historical knowledge of that part of the world. Students of IR and MES alike need to render less parochial our concepts and categories toward better accounting for the dynamics in different parts of the world. I suggested that inquiring into others’ conceptions of “security” may be one way of doing so (Bilgin, forthcoming).

Inquiring into the conceptions of “security” in “Arab” actors during the Cold War, as I have suggested in previous work (Bilgin, 2004c, Bilgin, 2005, Bilgin, 2012), allows us to uncover a “different” way of thinking about concepts of “national security,” and “Arab national security” (Korany, 1994, Korany et al., 1993, Dessouki, 1993). Inquiring into this idea of “national security” that transcends the “nation-states” in the Arab world— and the context within which it emerged, developed, and declined— allows us to understand insecurities experienced by various state and non-state actors in the Arab world, as well as the military, economic, and societal dimensions of insecurity. For those students of MES and IR who are curious about both worlds, there is a wealth of material to engage scholars on both sides of the gap.

Pinar Bilgin is an associate professor of international relations at Bilkent University.




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