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ISF Future of Global Relations: The Relational Turn in IR Meets Concepts from Chinese Tradition

Project: Funded ProjectResearch

31/01/17 → …

The relational turn in IR has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Much of the debate has taken off from the publication of Jackson and Nexon’s 1999 article ‘Relations before states: substance, process and the study of world politics’, which argued for an ontological approach to IR which privileges ‘relations’ over ‘things’. Their arguments, and subsequent publications that build on them, principally draw on debates between collocutors located in Western institutions and in English language, which hark back to Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy developed in 1940-50’s United States. Alongside this Deweysian inspiration, feminist and queer theoretical discussions of IR have continued to focus on relationality, particularly through discussions of the performativity of sexgender, the inequality of power relations, and the ethics of care. Despite significant efforts to explore intersectionality in these literatures, influential contributions have emerged from and have remained focused on the Global West. In the same time period, scholars from the Global East have been increasingly vocal in proposing a ‘Chinese school’ of IR theory, which many argue relies on a ‘Chinese ontology, the ontology of relations, instead of the western ontology of things’. This line of thought understands relationality as the core of a Chinese contribution to theorizing world politics, and looks for its expression in concepts drawn from Chinese tradition, such as ‘All-under heaven’ (Tianxia), ‘friendship/relations’ (guanxi), ‘harmony’ (hexie), and a ‘Daoist dialectic’ (Zhongyong/yin-yang dialectic).

These two strands of thought appear to share key interests and aims, yet dialogue between the two has been sparse to date. The first line of debate, drawing on Jackson and Nexon and feminist contributions, rarely acknowledges or takes serious stock of contributions from China (or other traditions beyond the West). The second line of debate, drawing on Chinese concepts, rarely acknowledges that Western traditions (or other traditions beyond the West) also have an intellectual history which seeks to foreground relationality.

It is high time, therefore, that these two geographically situated clusters of discussion are brought into conversation. This workshop takes a big leap in such a direction by bringing together key interlocutors from the two debates. Key advocates and critics of both discussions are invited to take stock of discussion to date, and to draw out areas for mutual reinforcement, contradiction and contention. The aim is to thereby nourish future relational thinking that is more aware and inclusive with regards to relations between diverging (or converging) global epistemologies and ontologies.