Simon Rushton By: Simon Rushton
Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
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28 Mar 2020 : But is it IR?

A tweet by Maryam Deloffre draws my attention to a new blog post on the Duck of Minerva site entitled ‘Why Have IR Scholars Largely Ignored Pandemics?’. In it, the author (uncredited on the piece itself, but who later turns out to be Steve Saideman) says that “I can’t really name any scholars that come to mind that are pandemic experts.” He goes on to set out some speculative reasons as to why it might be that IR has ignored pandemics.

Given that many of my closest friends and colleagues in IR work on pandemics, and in a lot of cases have done so for many years and have produced huge amounts of impressive research, I react quite badly to this. Others do too. And to his credit, Saideman quickly concedes the point – although he and others maintain that what has been written isn’t in "the major journals”, presumably by way of explaining why it has gone unnoticed (by them). Saideman changes the title of the blog post to ‘Why Have Mainstream IR Journals Largely Ignored Pandemics?’.

Personally, I don’t much care whether “mainstream IR” (which is usually code for ‘American IR in a broadly positivist tradition’) does or does not recognise as ‘real IR’ the work that has been done on the international politics of pandemics. Global Health has itself become a vibrant field, consistently more interesting and innovative than ‘mainstream IR’. But it does make me reflect on how far Global Health has come in the last 20 years. It is now a sizable community in its own right and one that, it is true, does not conform to traditional disciplinary boundaries. It is all the better for that. Who cares about stuffy old ‘mainstream IR’?

At the same time, I know that I have the luxury of not caring what mainstream IR thinks. I have a permanent job in a department that recognises what I do as worthwhile. For early career IR scholars in North America in particular, it is probably a very different story – one made all the more acute in the US by the vagaries of the tenure system. It is for that reason that the battle for recognition is still one worth fighting. If there is anything good to come out of COVID-19, it is that it might, hopefully, make even ‘mainstream IR’ recognise this as an area worth exploring.

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