International relations, as a discipline, has its origins related to the international quest for peace due to the outbreak of World War One, and, as such, is rooted in American and European based knowledge. That creates a curriculum which reinforces the same knowledge and leaves at the margin different perspectives, such as the ones from the Global South. To change this scenario, Professor Jacqueline de Matos-Ala, from the Department of International Relations of the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg, South Africa, made efforts to construct a more knowledge inclusive International Relations Theory curriculum in Wits University, one that is relevant to the particular South African and African context of her students. In her article Making the invisible, visible: challenging the knowledge structures inherent in international Relations Theory in order to create knowledge plural curricula, published in the published in the issue 1/2017 of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (Volume 61 – N. 1), she has analyzed the possibilities of including knowledge from the Global South and from South Africa in the curriculum, especially the concept of “Ubuntu”. Professor Jacqueline de Matos-Ala gave an interview to Paulo Menechelli Filho, MA student in International Relations at the University of Brasilia.
1) In the last chapter of Non-Western International Relations Theory, Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan write: “The question of an Asian school is not one of where there can be, but whether there should be. Western IRT does not, in our view, need to be replaced (…) It needs more voices and a wider rooting not just in world history but also in informed representations of both core and peripheral perspectives within the ever-evolving global political economy”. It seems that your arguments about knowledge plural curricula go in the direction of adding more diversity, not of excluding the Western Theories. Is that correct?
That is exactly what I am arguing. Currently IR theories are predominantly based on knowledges that have been claimed by or originate in the West. These theories may be helpful in elucidating the practice of international relations in a Western context but may not be suitable beyond this. The different socio-cultural-historic contexts that are embodied in populations across the world means that in studying International Relations it would be far better to have a wide variety of analytical tools available created by embracing knowledge plurality. This can only strengthen the intellectual capacity and analytical capabilities of IR scholars and students. Knowledge plurality makes studying and utilizing theory more relevant to our students. Often my students ask why how the knowledge created by dead white men can speak to the IR of Africa. By embracing knowledge pluralism we allow new voices to contribute to perspectives that have greater relevance to context in the global South and to our students. However, I do not advocate for the eradication of Western knowledges in IR but rather a move to the inclusion of other knowledges.
2) In your article, you write about Boaventura de Sousa Santos concept of “epistemocide of knowledges of the South”, meaning that systems of colonialism and neo-colonialism eclipse the validity of the arguments of the South, and that could limit our ability to investigate and understand our world and limit creativity in terms of providing solutions for pressing global problems. Could you give us some examples of ideas or theories from the South which were “epistemocided” and could offer different perspectives for pressing global problems?
Seeing resources a communal property, instead of emphasizing individual rights to these can facilitate better solutions to environmental problems. The community not the individual is the steward of scarce resources and must preserve these for future generations. Moreover, indigenous knowledge on how to manage and preserve resources could address environmental issues more effectively than more “scientific approaches”.
3) Could you tell us a bit about the concept of “Ubuntu” and how it could be applied in South African Foreign Policy analyzes?
Ubuntu is a term used mainly by people in Southern Africa to refer to humanness. Ubuntu is encapsulated in the Xhosa, Zulu or Ndbele expression, “Umuntu ugumuntu ngabantu” – I am because we are. Ubuntu entails a moral ideal which requires that a person to achieve full humanity, a process which can only be accomplished by continually deepening the relationship with one’s community. This requires more than participation in the community but drawing one’s identity from it. Ubuntu also places a duty on one to help others, not for one’s own benefit but out of sympathy and for the other. As the South Africa government states that the country’s international relations are underpinned by this concept no analyses of South African foreign policy can be complete without taking the concept into account. However, no elaboration is given on what this commitment to the spirit of Ubuntu means in concrete terms. It prompts question such as where does this commitment to assist communities in need begin and end as well as to what extent does South Africa’s international relations live up to this ideal?
4) One of your students, when asked about the impressions of a knowledge plural IR Theory curriculum, answered: “I believe that the more theories we know, the better our understanding of these concepts will be. As such I feel that the addition of other aspects and theories of IR will help in broadening our horizons”. Is that your goal with a knowledge plural IR Theory curriculum – to broad horizons?
Yes, we are preparing students to engage with a globalized world where they will have to deal with diverse ideas, practices and points of view. Only being exposed to a narrow range of theoretical perspectives limits your ability to understand international relations in diverse contexts. The greater the knowledge plurality within a IR theory curricula the more we are able to engage with the subject in different ways gaining what I hope is a richer more nuance understanding of the subject.
Read the article
Matos-Ala, Jacqueline de. (2017). Making the invisible, visible: challenging the knowledge structures inherent in International Relations Theory in order to create knowledge plural curricula. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e021. Epub February 01, 2018.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201700122
About the authors
Paulo Roberto Tadeu Menechelli Filho – master candidate in International Relations at the University of Brasília, Brazil.
How to cite this interview