A Self-Reflexive Rebellion: Of Universality and False Empowerment of the Global South

A Self-Reflexive Rebellion: Of Universality and False Empowerment of the Global South

[Shaimaa Abdelkarim is a lecturer at Birmingham Law School.

Farnush Ghadery is a Senior Lecturer in Law at London South Bank University.

Jay Ramasubramanyam is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science at York University, Toronto.

Rohini Sen is a PhD candidate at Warwick School of Law and an Assistant Professor at the Jindal Global Law School.

Kanad Bagchi is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg.

A note on our positionality: While some of us have completed our undergraduate legal education/worked in the Global South, we are all scholars currently based out of institutions in the Global North. We have benefited tremendously and continue to do so from the same system that keeps its doors closed to a number of our colleagues and comrades. We also acknowledge that we are able to speak and communicate in a particular language and ethos primarily, if not entirely, as a product of our privilege. We are aware that in every exercise of our social, economic, and cultural capital, we are occupying that much epistemic space to the exclusion of many others. And we hope to use our limited privilege to ask architects and structures of exclusion to be more accountable.]

Publishing is a singularly political act. What we choose to publish is intimately tied to where we locate ourselves in various social structures. What we consider as ‘good’ research, the methods we employ, the language in which we communicate as well as the literature that we cite operate primarily as frames of inclusion and exclusion. This is no different with respect to the location of our scholarship. Journals, blogs, and other academic platforms are not merely a repository of knowledge, but are crucial sites of power, politics, and influence.   

Alonso Gurmendi’s call for rebellion (‘Publish in the Global South: A Call for Rebellion’) by asking Global North scholars to contribute more to Global South journals is very welcome, urgent even, given how production and dissemination of knowledge is largely centered around journals and scholarship based out of the Global North. In an important way, this conversation is part of a larger call for de-centering the dominant modes of doing international law research – whether that be the discipline’s epistemological limitations, english-centrism, cultural flattening, or teaching, to name a few. All of these conversations point to the structural asymmetries within the discipline which claims itself to be universal and yet, erases any semblance of the ‘other’.  

It makes sense, then, as a small act of rebellion for Global North scholars to pursue conversations in a different epistemic register; one that is considerably removed from the discipline’s principal locations of influence and prestige. Yet, we believe such a proposition is not an unqualified good, but comes with its own set of predicaments and dangers. In this post, we reflect on what those might be with the intention not to dissuade, but in the spirit of further dialogue.  

Global North and the Universality of Knowledge Production

As with everything that pertains to systemic and historical patterns of hierarchy and inequality, perhaps the biggest danger lies in the fact that individual interventions, especially when accompanied by privilege and status, often end up legitimizing the very power structures they were meant to dismantle. Many journals in the Global South put a premium on associating with Global North scholars as part of their advisory committees, as external partners, as contributors, and sometimes as lead/senior editors. The reasons for this are not hard to decipher. Association with Global North scholars is a legitimizing device through which Global South journals align themselves with the institutional authority that such academics epitomize, precisely because of their location. Such association is a way to socialize into the corridors of power and hierarchy and reifies the inaccurate position that true, valuable, and rigorous scholarship and knowledge can only come from the Global North. 

When Global North scholars write for Global South journals, their association with such publication outlets further carries with it the implication of a specific kind of training and pedagogy about the nature and purpose of legal research and what that entails. This, in return, is accompanied by a set of fundamental belief systems and values about what international law is, what epistemological basis it is founded on, what kind of interests it serves, and what role it plays in enabling or contesting the present economic and social order. Given that discourse and dialogue between the Global North and Global South rarely happens on a level playing field, those very standards and modes of thinking become reference points for much of the domestic academic community. In other words, we bring with ourselves a certain ‘universality’ of knowledge creation and dissemination, oftentimes effacing the materially different ways in which particular communities perceive their own tryst with the histories and presents of international law.

This becomes complicated, especially when Global North scholars serve as part of the editorial committees, peer review panels, and advisory boards of Global South journals. At each of these different stages, gatekeeping assumes an almost unconscious exercise that limits the ambit of ‘good’ research to scholarship conforming to the epistemological and methodological standards of the Global North. But this is not all. Global North academics and practitioners also exercise an outsized influence on policy making in several Global South countries. They are often appointed on government committees, foreign ministry advisory councils, as affiliates of think-tanks, and as legal representatives before international courts and tribunals. In this context, Global South journals become yet another platform which further amplifies their voice and influence. So even as Global South platforms gain some traction, acquire visibility, perhaps even enter the ‘mainstream’, it comes at a significant cost. 

One such cost is the requirement to conform to the ideal of what entails ‘good’ scholarship according to Global North standards. Particularly through the persistence of rigid dichotomous boundaries (i.e. practice/theory, public/private, universal/particular) that are still inherent in such scholarly practices. These rigid distinctions are detrimental for any form of comprehensive engagement and deepens the hierarchy between different modes of knowledge. The preference of ‘theory’ over ‘practice,’ including the insistence on their dichotomisation, forces scholars to adhere to this disconnected conceptualisation under the false pretext of maintaining academic rigour. 

Other significant costs come in the form of the loss of alternate spaces of knowledge production to mainstream publishing trends. Publishing costs are market driven and such markets are determined by mainstream endorsements. Knowledge making spaces that do not resemble this specific form of academic rigour are marginalized to near extinction through lack of readership and extreme resource constraints. These have historically been generative spaces of counter culture thinking, creative pedagogy and engaged teaching rooted in community. Unsurprisingly, most of these spaces are located in the Global South and are the first to disappear in this race for elite journal writing and ranking. 

Elite Journals and Temporalities 

Structural elitism is most visible in the ways in which platforms for publication are likely to be picked or identified for contributions. Even when in the Global South, they will more often than not be journals run predominantly within/affiliated to institutions which already exercise considerable authority and stature. This is hardly surprising given that international law academia is largely an elite and prejudicial enterprise where the invisibilization of class, gender, race, caste, sexuality constantly pushes communities and their mediums of expression to the margins of  academic discourse. 

A simple perusal of the long list of home journals which the IL Twitter community very admirably and eagerly put together to Alonso’s twitter post only confirms our skepticism and experience. It was no surprise to note that most of them are already influential and established, are publishing in English, and are a point of reference for rigor and recognition in law scholarship domestically. These journals then, are not necessarily the ones which need, in Alonso’s words, ‘a little push’, as they already are within the power center of academic debate and policy making in their respective jurisdictions.

As for the non elite journals – International law and its scholarship inhabit different temporalities in such spaces. In keeping with international law’s trope of linear development, its scholarship is equally marked by Global North ‘world making’ ideas and the time to pontificate them as against the Global South race for survival and struggle. When produced amidst such ruins and enmeshment, scholarship (and scholars) from non elite journals of the Global South are put in an extremely tight spot of navigating existential precarity while playing ‘catch up’ with popular ideas, journals and ranking. And consequently, they are bound to ‘lose’ in a climate where publishing has become an exercise of self-glorification and survival rather than working towards a collaborative knowledge community. 

Thus, a simple spotlight on Global South journals is only going to have a stabilizing effect on the status quo within deeply unequal domestic spaces, further marginalizing those who are already at the Global South margins. Caught between ‘defending’ their positionalities, keeping up with Global North publications machinery and advocating for newer epistemologies, Global South scholars are forever struggling with living in different temporalities. A struggle that manifests in Global South politics, representation and interests in the worst possible ways.

Global South as the Site of ‘Local’ Knowledge

Torres-Garcia depicted an inverted map of the South American continent (image at the top of this blog post), declaring ‘our north is the south’. His flipping of the map provokes us to question hierarchical structures within geographies of knowledge. Hierarchies within international legal knowledge naturalize and perpetuate the divide between the Global North and Global South such that the latter is essentialized as a local site of inquiry and situated against the universal realm of international law. Global South is often seen as a geographical construct that belongs to case-studies, anthropological sites, and local practices that either conform to or disrupt the universalised function of international law. We cannot ignore this interplay between citations and geographies (borrowing from Katherine MCKittrick’s interplay Cite/Site) in publishing practices. 

International law as a governance/civilizing project then creates laboratories out of the Global South, where the ‘local’ needs to be exceptionalized, confronted, or worse, transformed into the image of the Global North and its institutions and practices. On the flipside, for Global North scholars, intervening into these localized, ‘eccentric’ practices in the Global South repositions them as ‘more inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ in their ways of thinking. Their interventions also make it much easier for hiring committees and editorial boards to have a Global North ‘resident expert’ on say ‘Africa’ or ‘Asia’ rather than having someone trained and situated in the Global South.  

Moreover, it is no secret that many Global North scholars look at Global South journals primarily as a backyard either for academic recycling, or worse, for resuscitating their failed enterprises. Many Global North scholars choose to publish only their ‘second grade’ stuff, sometimes half-baked, hurriedly pushed, incomplete pieces or their previously published blogs in Global South journals – essentially crumbs, which would otherwise not find a place in a Global North journal. Such practices further push Global South outlets to the periphery of the global ‘market’ and as repositories of old, stale, and derivative knowledge. Bluntly put, Global South journals often act as academic wastelands for Global North scholarship.

Towards a Self-Reflexive Rebellion?

None of this, however, is to suggest that Global North scholars ought to be disengaging from publishing in Global South journals, or for that matter that sustained, genuine, and searching collaborations have not transpired in the past. Yet, more engagement is not necessarily an equitable engagement. We believe that the terms, nature, and strategies of the engagement between Global North scholars and Global South academic communities needs to be mindfully deconstructed. 

Part of that has to begin with acknowledging that our professional sensibilities, our assumptions, and our biases feed into both the form and content of our scholarship. These sensibilities might be radically different in distinct parts of the world and the task is to engage with the Global South on its own (pluralistic) terms. This would mean re-thinking one’s perspectives, motives, and also the larger, systemic impact that an academic contribution from the Global North to the Global South is likely to have, especially given the imbalance of power and material inequalities that characterizes the North and South.

Sometimes this might take the shape of collaborations with Global South scholars – and not only the ones in your own department – and targeting Global South forums that are less endowed with social and economic capital. On other occasions, it would mean to actively back off, and instead, cite, read, create space, circulate, listen to, and engage with Global South scholars and their contributions published in the Global South. Not merely as ornaments for ‘alternative/additional’ perspectives hidden away in footnotes, but as standpoints for foundational, legal-doctrinal questions of international law. In other words, engagement with Global South platforms and journals ought to be about centering and pivoting the latter as equal partners in knowledge production.   

‘Backing off’ would also create a culture for slow scholarship where we come together to think about the knowledge that we are producing and what is really happening to it. In a bid to secure tenure, Research Excellence Framework (REF), and tick other such boxes, publications have become an act of survival as opposed to the doing of something we enjoy. Needless to say, it is Global South scholars and journals who are most affected by this futile, expendable race led by Global North ‘experts’. Stopping would allow us to breathe, see each other and listen to each other in a manner where old hierarchies of seniority, quality and longevity may give way to something more reparative and inclusive. 

Importantly, engagement is a two-way process. In the way that Global North scholars rarely encounter barriers to publishing in the Global South, it is imperative that voices of Global South scholars based out of the Global South are able to find collective spaces in Global North platforms. Thus far, journals in the Global North have not sufficiently opened their doors to Global South scholarship gate-keeping through the aforementioned notions of rigour and binaries. As editors, peer-reviewers, and scholars, we have first hand seen the additional burdens that are presented to scholarship that somehow finds itself outside the epistemological or linguistic parameters of the Global North. There is much more that journals and other publishing sites in the Global North can do to change this. If this means radically altering, if not entirely doing away with the form and institutional norms of what ‘good’ writing and communication entails, so be it! 

In conclusion, we want to emphasize that everything we say is from a place of recognising the entanglement and urgencies of our times. While there will always be the need to pursue knowledge for its own sake, never, in our history has there been a greater need for engaged academia and responsible scholarship as there is in the current moment. And the role of academia, scholars and scholarships is ever so important, especially in the praxis of decolonising and critique beyond acts of tokenism. 

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