Do British international relations scholars question British foreign policy enough?

An interview with Eric Herring, professor of world politics, on how academic IR can confront power.

Ian Sinclair
12 May 2016

By Users AK7, William M. Connolley on en.wikipedia - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Recently I came across a 2006 article that Eric Herring published in the Journal of International Studies titled ‘Remaking the mainstream: the case for activist IR scholarship’. In the article Herring argues that “British IR [International Relations] academics… produce very little primarily empirical work which documents the record of the British state in creating human misery abroad”. In addition he goes onto note “British IR academics engage in very little research exposing the deceptions and self-deceptions deployed by the British state to deny its responsibility for that human misery”.

A rare self-critical admission from an academic about his own work and that of his profession, Herring’s argument struck me as very important and deserving of a wider audience. Currently a Professor of World Politics and Research Director in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, I asked Herring about his 2006 article and whether anything had changed ten years later.

Ian Sinclair: In the article you argue there has been “almost complete silence on major acts of oppression abroad carried out or supported by the British state” from British International Relations academics. This claim will seem counterintuitive to many people as the dominant view of scholars and universities is of highly intelligent people, generally on the political Left, thinking critically about society and the world. How can you make such an argument? Can you provide any concrete examples to back up your thesis? 

Eric Herring: The example I used in the article in 2006 was on British IR academia's record of empirical research exposing Britain's role in the horrendous economic sanctions on Iraq that had a devastating impact on the civilian population. I pointed out that from 1990 to 2003 (the period of the sanctions), “there was a total of three articles in British IR journals on the sanctions – mine, one (by US scholars) which I had commissioned as editor of a special issue, and one assessing them in relation to their gendered implications.” (p. 109). That is the sort of near silence you would expect from a near totalitarian state. No-one told academia not to research this topic. It was formally free to do so, but it occurred to almost no-one among the British academic left to research it. So, sure British IR academia had a somewhat leftist self-image and there is plenty of evidence of the critical thinking that you mentioned, but focused heavily on theory. It was not even a decision to avoid researching the sanctions – it seemed to not even arise as a question. 

The article summarised the work of Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkin, showing that this is a more general problem: "The coverage of the Third World/South in leading British and US IR journals, textbooks and monograph series between 1998 and 2003 was assessed by Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkins. They concluded that the coverage of the South was dominated by analyses which framed the South as a problem for, and threat to, the North. As they argue, this reflects the near-monopoly of US and UK based scholars in writing these analyses and the dominance of state-centric realism and liberalism, with imperialism and colonialism treated as subordinate issues if they are mentioned at all." (p. 106).

I wrote "Despite this, there is a substantial amount of progressive IR scholarship in US and British universities" but also that "progressive IR scholarship generally tends to be under-empiricised. This is not an anti-theoretical line of argument: the point is that the progressive force of theory is severely limited if IR academics do not complement it with extensive empirical work focused specifically on the contemporary actions of the state and which provides the raw material with which to assess whether what it is doing is normatively acceptable and whether it has the right to act as it does" (p. 107).

I would turn the argument around: where was all the empirical scholarship about the acts of oppression carried out by or supported by the British state abroad? Did I miss it? I hope I did but I doubt it? I would welcome an annotated bibliography of it.

IS: Your article was published in 2006. Has much changed ten years later?

EH: There have been some positive changes that have generated a greater amount of critical empirical scholarship in British IR academia, though nothing that would look like a much wider mobilisation. The combination of the George W. Bush administration and Blair's New Labour was so egregiously and visibly revolting with deception about Iraq and WMD plus the occupation of Iraq, Guantanamo, torture, rendition and the 'war on terror' (actually a war of terror in many respects) that academics felt much more impelled to challenge all these practices as a matter of principle (as opposed to policies that don't work and would have been acceptable if they had worked). This easy visibility matters a great deal. A crucial role has been played by the growth of the hardware of the internet, the software of the World Wide Web and the staggeringly effective (if far from unproblematic) Google search engine. A major aspect of empirical research has been so much easier. These tools have allowed journalists and activists beyond academia to serve up so much data - images as well as words - that it created easy opportunities for academics to write about them and also reduced the sense that you were out there on your own in writing about them. In other words, in a way that I did not anticipate, the transformed global information environment has to some degree remade the British IR academic mainstream. 

IS: Why do you think British International Relations academics, on the whole, do not focus on the international crimes and misdemeanours of the British state?

EH: I set out an argument with Piers Robinson on this in general terms in ‘Too Polemical or Too Critical? Chomsky on the Study of the News Media and US Foreign Policy’, Review of International Studies, 29:4 (2003), pp. 553-68:

"Noam Chomsky argues that, while the US news media are adversarial towards the US government on foreign policy, institutional filters operate to ensure that the criticisms made generally stay within narrow bounds set by the US political elite. Chomsky’s research in this area is largely ignored even by academics who agree with this conclusion. The institutional tendency to filter out anti-elite perspectives applies not only to the news media but also to academia. Consequently, Chomsky’s work is marginalised due to its emphasis on corporate power, principled opposition to US foreign policy and the role of academia in buttressing elite power." (p. 553).

In locally specific ways of course, the propaganda model's corporate, advertising, sourcing, flak and ideological filters all operate in British IR academia, though with the advertising filter least prominent (see pp. 561-566 of that article – focused on the US but the parallels with Britain wouldn't be particularly difficult to work out).

IS: What was the response to your article and broader argument from your fellow academics? I ask because your article surely brings into question the very core of many IR academics’ image of themselves as independent freethinkers and troublemakers?

EH: The response was overwhelmingly one of silence. There were negative ones that activism is unscholarly and advice that I should drop the commitment to activism as it would be damaging for my career. There were also positive responses of relief and recognition. There is nothing special about my case in terms of the silence and I would not want to portray myself as some kind of martyr – my article with Piers mentioned above points out that the same thing happened regarding [Edward] Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model. 


IS: What can academics do to protect themselves from the pressures that lead them to steer clear of critical work on British foreign policy?

EH: The ones I argued for in the article are still ones I would stand by: always adhere to the highest scholarly standards in research and teaching, organise with non-academic activists, assess your scholarship in relation to its contribution to collective struggles against oppression and measure the worth of your work by the extent to which it serves your own values not those of the institutions which employ and monitor you. This is individual and collective intellectual self-defence. 
Furthermore, the 'impact' agenda is now a major opportunity for activist scholarship. Activist scholarship was frowned upon but impact is rewarded, so repackage what you do as impact when you are connecting your research to social change, in terms of informing it or in terms of being directly part of it. My work now has two strands. The first – with Piers Robinson and now also Vian Bakir and David Miller – is research on propaganda as organised persuasive communication, with an empirical focus thus far on British Government deception in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. See:

The second strand, not yet written up for publication, is the Somali First initiative. The purpose of the Somali First is to promote Somali-led development through impartial facilitation, research and education. Somali First is a joint initiative of the University of Bristol and Somali-led company Transparency Solutions. The Somali First team are mostly not delivering development directly: instead, we facilitate numerous Somali-led projects and processes to deliver it. We are aiming to transform the process of development itself so that it is Somali-led by integrating our approach across issues and through levels of governance. Our approach involves the following sequence of steps: find good people, agree commitment to a Somali-led approach, build strong relationships and then assist cooperation to identify needs, design projects, secure funding and deliver those projects. 

The approach to development seen far too often is that foreign organisations generate project ideas and appoint consultancy teams at arm’s length and short notice, with limited chance of leaving a positive longer-term legacy. In that flawed approach, Somalis are kept in subordinate positions and are defined as lacking capacity that has to be provided by outsiders. In contrast, Somali-led development encourages self-help and builds on local capacities. It is more cost effective, more relevant to local needs and more sustainable. It is more respectful of the dignity of the Somali people. Somali First received the University of Bristol Engagement Award 2014-15. See our 5 minute film.

Our approach is exemplified by our new project to support Somali-led social science research. The Somalia First team and Somalia’s Observatory of Conflict and Violence Prevention (OCVP) has been awarded $698,000 by the internationally-funded Somalia Stability Fund to train two cohorts of thirty Somali mid-career social science researchers over the next two years beginning August 2015. This is an innovative integrated programme of research training followed by internship on a Somali-led research team and then individual fieldwork leading to publication with mentoring throughout. At the end of two years there will be 60 trained Somali researchers and 60 publications, proof of the programme’s success. These Somali researchers will then be able to take up a range of leadership positions. 

Organising with Somalis committed to transforming the process of development, using the opportunities provided by the new global information environment and packaging what we do as impact rather than activism have been vital.

The major change for me since I wrote that article in 2006 is that I place much more weight on creating positive alternatives while not losing sight of the critique. I find that is much better for my morale and attracts lots of positive energy. It shows that there is significant potential space to work for positive alternatives and I would emphasise working to expand that space more than I did in the past.

IS: In your 2006 article you refer to Activist Scholars (as opposed to Mainstream Academics). What is an Activist Scholar?

EH: In general terms, an Activist Scholar is one who, through their scholarship, exposes the deceptions and self-deceptions deployed by elites to deny their responsibility for the human misery they create, and who challenges the right of elites to act in these ways.

IS: Which IR academics do you think are doing the best critical work on British foreign policy today?

EH: The two who stand out for me are Ruth Blakeley (Kent) and Sam Raphael (Westminster) for their stunning Rendition Project on the globalisation of rendition and secret detention. It is a stunning achievement which meets every criterion I have set out: superb scholarship, taking the argument into the mainstream, using the resources provided by the global information revolution, organising with non-academic activists, packaging it as impact and so on. Their work shows just how good activist scholarship can get.

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