What is International or Global Studies?

"Planet Earth" by xedos4 at freedigitalphotos.net
“Planet Earth” by xedos4 at freedigitalphotos.net

One of the most common questions that faculty in International or Global Studies hear is: “What is International Studies?” In the past I used to begin to answer by talking about the history of the discipline, to explain that it is distinct from International Relations in Political Science. If I was really ambitious, I might have talked about the emergence of interdisciplinary programs in the 1960s, and how post-structuralism created spaces for diverse methodological approaches. In my experience over the last 20 years, this is not a successful way to define our discipline. So now I have a simpler answer.

International and Global Studies is about globalization in all its aspects, economic, cultural, political, social and even biological. The advantage of this approach is that -since globalization is an omnipresent phenomenon- everyone can understand this definition. The challenge is that globalization is now commonly perceived in terms of economic globalization, which people associate with neoliberalism. This narrows how people view the discipline very quickly. So I try to convey that people can study flows of people and flows of information from many different vantage points, only some of which focus on economic issues. Because of globalization’s diversity as a phenomenon, it also entails a diversity of methodologies to begin to understand this process. So International and Global Studies programs are inherently multidisciplinary. In my program, a humanities professor teaches a class on the literature of espionage, while my political scientist colleague teaches about the European Union from a Political Science perspective.

This definition implies a number of things. One is that not all things international pertain to International and Global Studies. As interdisciplinary programs we often encourage students to take courses in diverse programs. But this can lead to a lack of coherence: is a class on Korean art appropriate for an International and Global Studies major? I would argue that art, literature, music and other classes are part of the field provided that they speak to globalization in some way. So a class on Korean art in and of itself would not fit, but a class on Asian art in a larger context might. After all, think about the diverse scholars in the humanities within the Frankfurt School, who all thought about modernity in its different aspects. Similarly, this definition allows us to judge which history courses could relate to the field. Do we include a class on Northern European myth or the literature of the Renaissance? My answer that history courses are relevant to the extent that they relate to the processes of globalization. So classes on Imperialism, tropical diseases, world history, economics, and intellectual history would likely be relevant. But courses confined to a particular region or historical moment would not.

Although scholars in the field use a diversity of methodologies, this definition also leads to some common topics of interest. For example, most International and Global Studies scholars outside the humanities use commodity chains, whether examining such diverse topics as agricultural products, viral samples or business supplies. In some respects, even humanities scholars use the equivalent of commodity chains in the field when they study cultural influences, although they would not use the term. And even though our field is distinct from International Relations, I’ve come to believe that it’s impossible to escape the relevance of the nation-state in the field. So we all discuss nations in some context.

I’m curious to hear how other people think about and define the field in their work. So please use the comment feature to share your thoughts, disagreements or suggestions. And if you have a succinct definition of the field that you use, please let us know.

Prof. Smallman

22 thoughts on “What is International or Global Studies?”

  1. In addition to what you have written Shawn, I think some other dimensions also characterize the field of international studies. Grounded theory informs our explorations–we do not simply look at something potentially connected to for example a global issue, assume it is interesting, and poof–make a connection. Globalization could mean something in the present or future or something in the past. For example, S.N. Sridhar, a World Englishes scholar at Stony Brook delivered a plenary paper at a conference today looking as early as 1792 at British scholar Charles Grant’s attempt to craft Great Britain’s “civilizing mission” in India. He points out the arrogance of Macaulay (of Macaulay Minute fame in 1835) at the age of 35 determining the future of India “rooting his recommendations in contempt.” He is a linguist looking at history, contact zones with one country in a position of power and one in a position of dominance. He then uses theories about colonial contact to look at what will happen in the future as generations of parents push their children in India to become fluent in English often at the expense of another language. Is Sridhar’s work something that belongs in an international studies class? Perhaps. But the onus is on Sridhar to look at the flows of people and flows of information that Shawn has described above and to link his comments as a linguist to these patterns of contact under the big umbrella of globalization, then a smaller umbrella of historical patterns, and the theoretical grounding of the field of World Englishes. Then students can begin to make connections.

  2. Differentiating the commonality between “international” and “global” studies is helpful in exploring the question: What is International Studies? As mentioned above, International Studies was coined in the 1960’s as part of an emergence in interdisciplinary programs. This makes sense for the time period. Nations interacted with other nations; the individual was largely unaffiliated in global terms. International affairs were for diplomats and governments. International was cutting edge. This has drastically changed over the last forty years. For example, the use of cell phones and how they have become a global phenomenon- a link to and between all walks of life. Commodities that fuel our bodies and our machines bounce around the globe in every stage of the chain connecting us economically, environmentally, and culturally. For a brief moment, can we ponder global/international studies without drawing examples from the economy and the free market? The supply and demand of resources has all but widdled away every last shred of culture and uniqueness down to an online petition, internet purchase, single serving, recyclable Barbie doll that is later found in a beached whale. How dreary. To go too far down the laissez faire, neo-liberal rabbit hole you will need academia and methodology to pull you out, hopefully not to bruised.

    Just recently, Peter Bechtold spoke to Tugrul Keskin’s Intl. Studies 201 class about jobs in foreign affairs. The talk was engaging and thought provoking. How better to define something then by making a career of it. International Studies seems slightly nebulous, and there is a lack of coherence, as mentioned in the blog post. At the risk of sounding too critical of liberal arts and the humanities, there is often a fine line that measures the difference between being able to mold a degree into an actual career, and in contrast, using your expensive degree to work a “regular” job. That line might be traceable back to the class room, where definitions and theories are neatly divided into majors. The clear lines of your passion for South America, or Asia, or the Middle East, can be bogged down in theory and definitions. To quote Isaac Newton, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” Study to your hearts content, spend large amounts of time pondering the globe and travel as much as possible. Many of my peers clearly hold tight their affinity with a certain culture and land. This simplicity, without the multiplicity of methodology is Global Studies.
    IMO

  3. As a side note:
    To Shawn Smallman and Kimberly Brown

    Thank you for writing a deeply engaging and thought provoking textbook on International and Global Studies. I really am enjoying the book and the class. Professor Keskin urged us to leave a comment, and so I hope you will find mine in good taste and taken with a grain of salt. Not as academic as the previous comment, but I did think considerably on the subject., so thank you for the oppertunity.

    Kathie Beasley

    1. Kathie,
      I really appreciate the time you took for your thoughtful comment, as well as your kind words on the book. Thanks, and have a good end of term. Shawn

  4. Louis Miller III

    When looking into International Studies, the part that has always stood out to me was the term “International” as opposed to “Global” studies. With this in mind the field has always tended to give importance to the nation state, because as Professor Smallman mentioned, it cannot be totally or easily removed. This can be evidenced in a common question people ask each other upon meeting: “Where are you from?” With this, we can deduce that geography and some form of national identity are still important on some level, otherwise why would we ask? For me, looking at the relationships people share with the structures and flows orchestrated by not only their own nation state, but others through international discourse, and the people’s experience interacting with these systems (both positive and negative) comprises the field.
    To further explain, a study of this type as mentioned by Professor Smallmans’ prompt, would require an interdisciplinary approach to see the full story. To find the full story of how structures orchestrated by nation states and their interactions with other nation states harms or helps people requires cultural knowledge with both historical and social background knowledge to provide context. In addition, reactionary measures are also important, and can include extra-legal systems where people seem to “opt out” of mainstream societal economic practices and find their own way, such as common livelihoods of many in the Favelas of some major South American cities.

  5. At the risk of stating the obvious, I would suggest that definitions and borders in humanities and other inter-disciplinary fields are established by individuals, active leaders and members, who engage in discussion. They are cognitive constructs that reflect the consensus view of the group. For example, it could be argued that specific histories and cultural aspects of a nation or culture represent a more micro view of aspects of globalization. Seeing how education, family structure, health, agriculture, industrialization, gender roles, art, language, etc are affected in small communities (as well as larger population groups like nations and ethnicities) by foreign forces I feel is the meat and meaning of what makes International Studies and Globalization useful in the context of education, and understanding global interrelatedness.

  6. When I think about International Studies the first thing that pops into my head is how people how people interact among each other and how people themselves are affected by the changes or developments that are occurring around them. Some of the aspects that I find interesting about International Studies is that in order to understand why something changes in society you have to look at everything else because everything is somehow connected with each other and there isn’t really a way of changing something without affecting other areas of the world or society. An example that was brought up in my Intro to International studies class is that to reduce oil reliance of the US on oil imports from other countries, a solution could be to stop using our cars, well then this would mean that car factories would have to be closed down and then the workers would not have a job anymore, than this situation creates winner/loser situation, because the US would stop being reliant on foreign oil resources and the losers would be the automobiles factories and like professor Tugrul said there isn’t really a way of changing something without affecting something else.

  7. Personally I have always associated international and global studies as the study of how the different countries in the world react and interact with one another, along with the combined histories of those interactions and how each country has been effected. After reading this book however I see that there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s not only about how the different countries interact with each other, it’s much more. It’s how tied together every place seems to be, economically, politically and now often culturally, impacted we can be by one another. Now I believe that international studies does indeed encompass what I said earlier, however it also has a great deal to do with how each minor detail, law, or action a country makes affects the countries (and those countries’ political systems, economic systems, citizens, etc.) around them. It’s sort of like a ripple effect in the water, how one slight movement of the water can ripple out and affect the surrounding spaces.

  8. To me international and global studies are the foundations of our world today… and what we need for tomorrow.

    Not only does it range from the obvious ideas of politics and the environment and human rights, but it involves coming together, communication, and synthesis. With the power of unity as a world we have the chance to combat issues such as pollution, terrorism, and disease.

    Though the idea of a unified world of communication and developments seems somewhat childish, I feel it sums up the meaning behind all of the texts and articles we have been studying.

    There will always be new challenges and issues in our world, but with a continued interest in the cultures and lives of those around us we have a hope to get past, or maybe even conquer, what will come. 🙂

  9. Kristin Benintendi

    International studies, to me, involves the field and study of international relations, covering many dynamic issues, such as neoliberalism, globalization, the global market, education, health, food, oil, natural resources, etc. International studies is a very vast subject, and is not completely definable; it can mean different things to different individuals. International studies is my major; I plan to pursue a career as an international teacher, and hope to also work or operate an orphanage someday. I hope to gain a better understanding of the periphery and semi-periphery countries through studying international studies, as I hope to mainly work in Latin America. I feel that educating myself on the issues of global and international studies is a great start to my career path, as this major can lead to many diverse opportunities.

  10. I agree with most of your approach to defining globablization. It is true that globalization is multifaceted and the most effective way to describe it is by noting its various disciplines. I believe there is a tendency to be distracted or mislead by the economic factor when in actuality, globalization has roots which reach far beyond that sector.

    Where I disagree, however, is with the limitations placed on particular disciplines and their relevance to global studies. Specifically, I’m referring to the case you made against certain subjects, like Korean art, in your third paragraph. I understand your perspective; I can see how one might say such focused courses are too limiting. I would argue that a course on Korean art or any region of focus would only enhance one’s understanding of globalization though. Given, this particular individual would have to understand the concept of globalization and its place in international studies, but with that knowledge, he or she can only build upon his or her understanding. To continue with this same example, art in particular is rather telling of the human experience. We can learn about a society’s experience by observing its people’s interpretation. And with the regional courses and movements, we can stand to learn the effects of globalization by critically studying patterns in a particular society.

    In summation, while I do agree with your definition of globalization, I feel we are remiss to overlook the benefit “confined” studies would offer. In your book, Introduction to International and Global Studies, you state that both studies are concerned with global citizenship, a statement with which I agree. In order to reach that status, to embody those six capacities, one should study the intricacies which lie beneath global issues.

    1. Brianne,
      You make a good point, and one that my colleagues also make: if we focus too much on globalization, do we lose aspects of art, culture and history that can inform our global understanding? And does this approach undervalue the humanities? Of course literature and the arts are an aspect of cultural globalization. This is perhaps most obvious with music, but we also see it with such diverse aspects of culture as sports and dance. I love to read international novels. I have learned as much about indigenous issues in Canada from novelists like Eden Robinson and Tomson Highway as from non-fiction work. For me the challenge is knowing where to draw the line. Should a class on medieval Japanese literature belong in an International Studies program? My tendency would be to say no, but that a course on contemporary West African literature would. But I see your argument that an understanding of Japan’s cultural history would also inform our understanding of Japan today. Shawn

  11. Alexandra Calloway-Nation

    To me, International Studies is the combination of the study of other cultures, history, sociology, gender, political science, economics and many more, and their interactions and effects upon each other and the lives of people across the world. International Studies allows us to have a better understanding of those outside our own society, and come to appreciate those differences, not as something that is negative, but as something we can use to better understand each other. International Studies is also the realization that your own culture has its flaws and is not the “best culture in the world”, which is a view especially prevalent in the United States. I think International Studies is also an important field of study because it teaches tolerance through the understanding of other cultures, and minimizes harmful stereotypes like Orientalism, or even Occidentalism, which are barriers that impede communication and acceptance across the world. Overall, I think International Studies is an important subject that ought to be required at all colleges and universities at some point because our world is becoming smaller and more and more globalized. This makes it difficult for anyone to live isolated lives in an isolated country, which is a study within International Studies itself, on whether this is a good or bad thing. Personally, I find International Studies extremely fascinating, and I can’t get enough of the subject.

    1. Alexandra,
      You make a good point, and one that my colleague Kim Brown emphasizes, that one of the most important aspects of International Studies is to create a cross-cultural perspective that moves beyond such shallow views as American exceptionalism. I think that by understanding theorists such as Said we gain a new set of tool to understand global events. Thanks for a great post. Shawn

  12. The world has never changed but the system continues to change every day. This transformation reminds me of Kafka`s novel named Metamorphosis. This unhealthy condition pushes people. At this point, they believe their imaginary beliefs. To me, globalization and international studies examine this structure at all points. During the study, social science analyses people, society, community, and they observe social, cultural, psychological, and economic conditions. Therefore, global study does not mean a nation, an art , a movie. It is an unlimited study realm. In the future, global study will expand to space or oceans. I believe this transformation is unhealthy. For instance, according of the nation state a piece of land was the most importing thing. Today, some countries renounce it. This dynamism pushes global studies into various different subjects.

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  14. I’m late to comment on this post as I only recently stumbled upon this entry. The questions you raise have occupied much of my attention ever since I started teaching an undergraduate course in Global and International Studies. First of all, thank you very much for your book. It is very well-structured and I love the coverage of transnational themes such as energy, food, etc. However I tend to agree with Brianne Page’s comment above. For me, globalization is the context for studying Global and International Studies and informs much of its course content. However I wouldn’t assign it such a central place in the definition itself of the field. I’ve read other texts on the subject, e.g. ‘International Studies’ by Anderson et al., and I like their flexible standpoint defining it simply as an interdisciplinary approach to global issues and to exploring the world. Now, I see how a very broad, almost vague definition emphasizing multidisciplinarity would not be successful with many students, and how relating it to globalization in all its aspects would help characterize the field and pin it down in much crisper terms. Otherwise it could almost sound like ‘the study of everything through every means available’! Nevertheless, my personal preference, perhaps influenced by the background of my students and the general environment in which the course is conducted, is to let it be a bit nebulous in order to cover as wide a sweep as possible, encompassing regional issues as well. I would thus not overemphasize or focus excessively on globalization processes as the defining objects of study. None of this of course takes away in the least bit from the great utility to me of your book, for which I once again express the utmost appreciation and gratitude.

    1. Jay,
      Thanks for your kind words about the book. I always like to hear feedback from people who have used it in the classroom. Yes, I can see that there are a lot of advantages to a broad definition that allows for cross-disciplinary work on diverse subjects. After having thought about this post over the last few weeks, mostly based on these responses to the post, I have a number of second thoughts about the definition that I suggested. I also just came across this answer to the question, “What is International and Global Studies?” which I thought was also insightful: http://global-ejournal.org/2011/05/06/what-is-global-studies-3/ Thanks for your post. Shawn

      1. Thank you Shawn. To see such openness to feedback is humbling. Yes, the page you linked to was on an open tab in my browser for long, so often did I consult it in order to fine-tune my own working definition of the field! May I ask if you’re working on a new edition of your book, and if so, when might it be published? Thanks.

        1. Thanks Jay,
          Yes, Kim and I have been working hard on the second edition of the textbook. We’ve made extensive changes to chapters such as Political Globalization, Security, Food and Health, to reflect the feedback that we’ve heard from our colleagues, as well as the many events of the last few years. The second edition should be available for classes in January 2015. Thanks for asking! Shawn

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