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.