International Studies versus Global Studies

NASA image: NASA Identifier: sts040-73-037
NASA image: NASA Identifier: sts040-73-037

I’ve just done a peer review of an outstanding article on the field of International Studies, which again raised the question of the difference between International and Global Studies. Although I’ve touched on this topic before it is worth revisiting this issue, because the differences are significant. International Studies is a field that emerged within the parent discipline of International Relations within Political Science. The field developed because scholars were dissatisfied with the heavy focus on inter-state relations, as well as a stress on quantitative methodology. It’s important to note that the positivist approach that was so powerful in the United States (especially in the fifties and sixties) was never as influential in Canada and Europe. Still, within the United States, the field of International Studies still bears signs of its birth from Political Science. Those scholars who visit the International Studies Association conference for the first time are likely to be struck not only by its sheer size, but also by the dominance of traditional social science methodology. If you read the two major journals in the field –International Studies Review and International Studies Quarterly– they are dominated by International Relations scholarship from classical Political Science. Many articles focus on Realism, Constructivism and Liberalism in IR.

While International Studies majors are common in the United States, they are predominantly made up of faculty in other programs than Political Science. For this reason, a significant number of faculty in these programs feel alienated from the major association in their field, because they do not see a methodological diversity displayed in its journals or conferences. ISA is also U.S-centric in its membership. It is very common for me to hear from people who have attended ISA once, but do not plan to attend again, because the conference did not reflect what drew them to participate in interdisciplinary programs in the first place. It is also common to say that International Studies as a discipline has an identity crisis, because it is unclear what is its object of study, and what is its shared methodology.

In contrast, Global Studies programs are perhaps more common in Canada, Europe and the Pacific region. These programs are more interdisciplinary, and tend to have a greater representation of the humanities, particularly English. While International Studies programs often have a “research methods” course as a requirement, in Global Studies it is perhaps more common to have a theory class. Global Studies programs tend to be more concerned with issues of social justice, identity and colonialism. Critical theory has been heavily influential. These programs generally take globalization as their object of study, which includes all its forms: political, economic, cultural, artistic, environmental, and biological (particularly with regard to food). Perhaps because they have clear focus of study, and a more explicitly interdisciplinary methodology, these programs typically do not perceive that they have an identity crisis. If you attend the annual Global Studies Conference in Britain, you will participate in a smaller and more international conference, which gives considerable attention to the arts, religion and cosmopolitanism. The conference has a very different feel than ISA. The presentations are more methodologically diverse, and mid-twentieth century positivism is less common, although present.

There is currently a small trend away from International Studies programs and towards Global Studies within the United States. A handful of programs are changing their names including mine, which will become International and Global Studies. It is more common now for new programs to take the name Global Studies than International Studies. It is probably the case that younger faculty identify more strongly with Global Studies, while amongst Senior faculty International Studies remains the dominant term. Senior faculty often perceive that Global Studies scholarship lacks rigor or a clear methodological focus. These faculty tend to adopt a social science methodology, and have more statistical training. Some of these faculty may be perceive some new approaches (human security and sustainable development) reflect popular demand more than intellectual quality. Younger faculty tend to believe that their elders are insufficiently critical of traditional social science methodology, and fail to appreciate the need for methodological and theoretical diversity. Younger scholars are also concerned that traditional academic approaches have tended to discourage women and non-whites from entering the field. Of course, the divisions are not so clear as I have drawn them here -and this description is likely to be controversial- but there is a significant distinction between these two terms.

Shawn Smallman, 2014


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