Review of John Hobson’s “Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”

By Oskari Mantere.

Conventionally, mainstream scholars of politics and international relations (IR) have believed that they pursue “scientific” and objective knowledge. What could be called “the post-structural challenge” has undermined the ostensible value-neutrality of these approaches. One of the most central ideas behind this revision was that knowledge produces discursive material of power-relations. Hence, the motive was not merely to attain more correct knowledge, but rather, it was the aspiration to reveal the power-relations that different systems of knowledge created.

Hobson’s Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010 (2012) shares the idea that knowledge is not a value-free practice, but rather a way to legitimise and exercise power. As the name of the book indicates, Hobson’s main thrust is to reveal that much of international theory is Eurocentric, universalises parochial European institutions, or justifies the international status quo dominated by Western states. However, Hobson challenges those post-colonialists who equate all forms of Eurocentrism with racism and who believe that all forms of Eurocentrism are inherently imperialist. Instead of one overarching category of Eurocentrism, Hobson proposes four ideal type metanarratives of Eurocentrism: anti-imperialist scientific racism, anti-imperialist Eurocentric institutionalism, pro-imperialist scientific racism, and pro-imperialist Eurocentrism. This division is an analytical means of revealing the power-relations that knowledge creates. If one argues that every form of Eurocentrism is racist and imperialist, it is hard to identify those types of Eurocentrism that are not racist or imperialist. Eurocentric metanarratives are not constant, and Hobson details how their constellations have changed over the last couple of centuries. By acknowledging the plurality of Eurocentrism, we can more effectively tackle and challenge Eurocentric politics and theories.

Hobson’s argument is nuanced and, in most parts, avoids simplifications. However, there is a major theoretical issue regarding Hobson’s argument and that is his emphasis on “agency.” Hobson argues that theories of world-history that omit the idea of an Eastern Agency and represent the rise of the West as an endogenous development provide “manna from heaven” to Eurocentric theories. In itself, this project is not particularly revolutionary, and many have opted for this type of intellectual pursuit in their attempt to decolonise IR and history.

Photo source.

However, the problem arises from how Hobson transfers ideas from debates regarding world-history to his argument of international theory. This, I believe, is a result of a conceptual confusion; Hobson has confused two different types of intellectual pursuit: world-history and international theory as a theory of how international system functions today. In Hobson’s book there are over 100 mentions of “international theory” but not once does he define what he means by this term. This looseness allows him to examine a vast catalogue of thinkers and traditions. In effect, it also causes his usage of “international theory” to be an amalgam where “international theory” can mean anything, from world-history to IR and international political economy. Inadvertently, Hobson imports criticism that is legitimate in one context but not as applicable to another context. As a technique of decolonising world-history, the act of stressing “agency” and the capabilities of non-Western actors provides an antidote against Eurocentric histories – even though it is possible to dispute this argument with historical and empirical evidence. However, if we aim to conduct political theory in order to orient ourselves in the world, the search for agency suffers from a crucial problem. Agency is not always as important as the lack of agency, or the limits that structures impose. The world in the 21st century is still riddled with unequal power-relations and as much as agency is a part of being human, so is the fact that sometimes we are powerless. The pursuit of agency is a gallant enterprise, but only by examining the structures that produce international inequality can we understand and challenge them.

In the scheme of things, Hobson’s book deserves high praise. Conceptual confusions are only a minor flaw in his odyssey to the dark side of the IR theory. The book covers a magnitude of thinkers – over one hundred – and an even more awe-inspiring time period – approximately two and half centuries. Furthermore, the manner in which the book is written and organised is enjoyable and easy to engage with. By reading introduction and conclusion, one gets the gist of Hobson’s argument. Other chapters discuss different manifestations of Eurocentric IR. Every chapter has in the beginning a useful chart that shows commonalities and features of certain thinkers and their system of thought. I find myself frequently returning to these charts and they truly help illustrate Hobson’s argument.

One more caveat is necessary. By highlighting Eurocentric nature of IR discipline, the book might distort important differences. Hobson argues that if we use non-Eurocentric lenses, we see that different traditions of IR are all within the same Eurocentric discourse. This might be true and there are good reasons to stress this point. However, there are also good reasons to argue that differences between, say, World-System Theory and Gramscian IR theory are more important, than their perceived Eurocentric nature. Hobson’s book is thus not a good introduction to the discipline of IR. Nonetheless, it is an excellent book to dismantle and challenge conventional narratives.

Reviewed work: Hobson, J. (2012). The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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