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Books for the lockdown

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BISA Chair, Mark Webber, asked a selection of academics and publishers which books they would recommend for reading during the lockdown. Here’s what they came up with and why.

Keep an eye out for the ones that have a discount!

1. Ruth Blakeley – University of Sheffield

Sally Engle Merry, The Seductions of Quantification. Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

This book offers important insights on the hidden politics and power behind the quantification of human rights abuses. A must read for anyone interested in how we grapple with human rights abuses as researchers, and the important implications these choices can make for political and public understanding.

Neil James Mitchell, Democracy’s Blameless Leaders. From Dresden to Abu Ghraib, How Leaders Evade Accountability for Abuse, Atrocity, and Killing (New York, London: New York University Press, 2012).

This book offers an important corrective to the human rights literature, which tends to assume that the presence of mechanisms for accountability are a strong indicator of states’ compliance with human rights norms. Mitchell demonstrates that, in fact, political leaders, including in established democratic states, tend to go to extraordinary lengths to evade accountability for collusion in human rights abuses, and that such mechanisms therefore tend to fail. A provocative read for those interested in better understanding the challenges of holding states to account when human rights norms are breached.

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt (New York: Tinder Press, 2020). 

This fictional account of a Mexican woman’s journey to the US, with her young son, via illicit migratory routes, is beautifully written and offers moving insights into the politics and violence of the drug cartels, and of the struggles of millions displaced by conflict and violence. I highly recommend this for anyone wanting to better understand the experiences of those making perilous journeys in the hope of a more secure life, when they have few other choices. 

2. Dominic Byatt – Oxford University Press

Christian Reus-Smit – International Relations: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2020)

In addition to providing nifty guides to a great many subjects, the very best VSIs can also have something to say to the seasoned professional. Chris Reus-Smit’s hot-off-the-press contribution is a supreme case in point. I was lucky enough to read the draft chapters as they emerged from Brisbane on an almost weekly basis: rather like a Victorian novel, and I confess I felt a bit bereft when they stopped arriving. He offers a wonderfully elegant and powerful organizing principle for the discipline, which he tricks out through the pages of the book. That alone is worth the price of admission – it certainly made me stop and think again about what IR is really all about (quite something for someone who first clapped eyes on a copy of The Anarchical Society getting on for 33 years ago). Not everyone will agree with it, but it’s a joy to read and engage with.

Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight (eds) - Diplomatic Investigations: Essays on the Theory of International Politics (Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2019)

On the subject of venerable English School institutions (Bull, not Reus-Smit), we have just reissued this rich collection, with a fascinating new introduction by Tim Dunne and Ian Hall. I suspect it’s one of those volumes more cited than read, but it really is a treasure trove of thought-provoking pieces, including a couple of corkers from the recently departed doyen of military history, Sir Michael Howard. You’ll know some, but there are real hidden gems in there.

Both BISA members and non-members can currently obtain a 30% discount on these two titles using the code ASFLYQ6.

3. Alasdair Cochrane – University of Sheffield

James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 1990).

This book asks what confronting the fact that human beings are animals like any other - not God-like superheroes - means for our moral obligations. While this is a work of moral philosophy, its implications for other disciplines are clear. Nearly all the 'great thinkers' of Politics and International Relations assume explicitly or implicitly that human beings are somehow 'made in the image of God'. So what would our discipline - and our institutions, structures and ideas - look like with a more realistic assessment of our place in the universe?

Claire Jean-Kim, Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species and Nature in a Multicultural Age (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

I am consistently intrigued by the 'species blind spot' in so much progressive thinking and activism. Why do individuals with whom I align politically on so many issues show no concern for the routine and brutal exploitation of animals in contemporary societies? Perhaps they worry that showing concern for animals somehow dilutes or even undermines attention to injustices that cut across race, gender, nationality, the environment and more. This brilliant book wonderfully reveals the necessity of tackling injustice across multiple social cleavages and is a powerful call to arms to expand our political ambitions.

BISA members receive 25% off this and all other Cambridge University Press titles! Use the code in your joining or renewal confirmation email.

4. Martin Coward – University of Manchester

Stefanie R. Fishel, The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

This book challenges the limited way in which bodies and bodies politic are conceived in IR. Starting from the experience of pneumonia, Fishel examines the way in which bodies - and by extension states - are a lively assemblage of different forms of life (blood, microbes, etc). It challenges us to think about the ways we have thought about the bounded nature of bodies and politics. Just as the human body is an imbrication of flesh, microbes, viruses  etc, so the state is not simply a bounded entity, but a complex hybrid of a variety of forms of life. Fishel’s book offers a timely challenge to rethink our assumptions about the way various forms of life are mutually co-constitutive on a global scale.

Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (London: Duke University Press, 2019)

Mbemebe's most recent book expands on the concept of necropolitics - 'contemporary forms of subjugating life to the power of death'. In doing so, he challenges the common Foucauldian idea that government is the art of governing life and instead looks at the various ways states produce death. At a time when the infrastructure of death - hospitals, mortuaries, care homes and morbidity statics - press in on our everyday lives in uncomfortable ways and we are increasingly aware of their gendered and raced character, it is a provocative challenge to think about the politics of death.

5. John Haslam – Cambridge University Press

Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

A hugely ambitious trans-disciplinary study of the relationship between war, militarism and gender. Applauded by Jane Goodall, Jane Mansbridge and Joanna Bourke, among others, and co-winner of the ISA’s Book of the Decade Award for the 2000s. Goldstein noted in his preface: ‘Recently, I discovered a list of unfinished research projects, which I had made fifteen years ago at the end of graduate school. About ten lines down is “gender and war,” with the notation “most interesting of all; will ruin career – wait until tenure.”’ Thankfully he came back to the project.

Barry Buzan and George Lawson, The Global Transformation (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

One of the most notable recent books in the BISA/Cambridge series, Cambridge Studies in International Relations. An account of global modernity drawing on literature from Political Science, Historical Sociology, world history and Economics, arguing that the nineteenth century is central to understanding modern international relations. The cover revealed an unsuspected knowledge of Steampunk art on behalf of the authors.

BISA members receive 25% off this and all other Cambridge University Press titles! Use the code in your joining or renewal confirmation email. Non-members can currently obtain a 20% discount on these two titles using the code IR2020.

6. Beatrice Heuser – University of Glasgow

Stephen Neff, War and the Law of Nations (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 

I wish I had read this before I wrote my book on the Evolution of Strategy – I would now argue that one cannot understand war in European history without understanding the ethical-legal context which this book brilliantly provides.

Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Key-young Son: Order Wars and Floating Balance. How the Rising Powers Are Reshaping Our Worldview in the Twenty-First Century (London, New York: Routledge, 2018). 

This is a book whose time has come: we shall have to reinvent the world after the COVID-19 crisis. If we need to find a way to work constructively with China and with countries putting more emphasis on collective wellbeing rather than individual freedoms, we need to understand the divergences and convergences of our positions, here explained by a Western and an Eastern philosopher.

7. Emma Hutchison – University of Queensland

Elaine Scarry,  The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)

A profound meditation on how bodily vulnerability and injuring systematically destroy the world, while also providing a blank slate to imagine our world anew in creative ways. A challenging read in these troubling times, yet arguably there has never been an occasion in contemporary political history when human pain was as pervasive. There have also been few such unique moments for political powers to stop and reflect on how pain can inspire change.

Meera Sabaratnam, Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique. (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017/2018).

A pioneering account of how hierarchies of global power and enduring legacies of colonialism underpin Western practices of aid and capacity-building in the global South. This alone makes Sabaratnam’s book a must-read for all reflecting on how to rebuild global relations in the wake of the pandemic. Yet Sabaratnam’s recommendations for how we as scholars must consider our own positionality and challenge how International Relations has been historically constituted, make her account essential as we try to find a way forward.

Andrew Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community (Cambridge: Polity, 1998).

A landmark contribution, Linklater’s Transformation of Political Community is an optimistic, emancipatory reflection on the nature of community in a world of sovereign states and how to expand ethical responsibility in times of need.  In such unsettling yet potentially transformative times as ours, Linklater’s book offers a beacon of hope – and change.

8. Seán Molloy – University of Kent

E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939. (Macmillan, 1939 [2016]).

An obvious but essential choice. One of the most cited, yet most misunderstood and controversial books in International Relations. Carr combines History, Philosophy, Sociology, and Political Economy in order to lay bare the ideological roots of the post-WW1 liberal international order’s ultimate failure. He even found time and space in the book to create a fundamental - but again, misconstrued - foundational opposition between Utopianism and Realism. Ironically, the book was overtaken by history within days of its publication, but the subtlety and sophistication of its analysis of international society remain acute. The 2016 edition contains excellent additional material written by Michael Cox that places Carr’s text in context and explores its continuing influence on International Relations. 

Richard Ned Lebow, Peer Schouten, Hidemi Suganami. The Return of the Theorists: Dialogues with Great Thinkers in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

This book is one of the more interesting and original projects in International Relations in the last couple of decades. The book has a simple premise - identify the most influential thinkers in and on – (many of the subjects are poets, philosophers, sociologists, etc.) International Relations and ask those most familiar with their work to imagine a dialogue that might ensue either between the theorist in question and a young student, the author of the piece, or another theorist. From Ned Lebow’s encounter with Homer in Hades to Caroline Kennedy-Pipe’s critical querying of Jean Bethke-Elshtain in the ruins of Baghdad, the reader cannot help but to be both entertained and informed by the imagined dialogues that reveal the tragedy, comedy, and irony of IR.

9. Ted Newman – University of Leeds

Christopher J. Finlay, Terrorism and the Right to Resist. A Theory of Just Revolutionary War (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Engaging in difficult themes across Political Theory and International Relations, this book contributes to long-standing debates in an altogether fresh manner. When is violence justified to resist oppression or occupation, and what might the rules of engagement be? Given the nature of political violence in the modern era – where distinctions between types of actors, motives, and conceptions of right and wrong are often blurred – this book has much to offer. 

BISA members receive 25% off this and all other Cambridge University Press titles! Use the code in your joining or renewal confirmation email.

Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (University of California Press, 1990).

There can be few scholars of International Relations who have not read this classic. It was truly path-breaking for its time and remains equally relevant today, exposing as it does the gendered nature of international politics and economics, and the hidden importance of invisible truths. The empirical insights are compelling, and the book is very readable and accessible.

10. Amy Niang – University of the Witwatersrand

Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018).

A great genealogy of capitalism and multilateralism and a useful perspective on the terms that are likely to inform the resumption of business in the post-coronavirus time. Quinn explains how our current international governance regime was the outcome of a relentless pursuit of the protection of property against the successive political demands of nationalism, socialism, democratisation and decolonisation.

Robert Vitalis. White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2015)

A wonderful sociological and historical account of the birth of American International Relations and a must read for any IR scholar. Vitalis shows how IR emerged as a set of ideological and institutional responses to inaugural scholars’ quest to maintain white supremacy through imperialism and racial subjugation. The dissenting alternative voices that came out of the Howard School of IR have disappeared from the annals of the discipline.

11. Patricia Owens – University of Sussex

Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire: the Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2019)

A brilliant political and intellectual history of anti-colonial thinkers and practitioners during the period of decolonisation. Beautifully written, elegant, and scholarly, this book is a model for how to do serious historical international political thought.  

Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London and New York: Verso, 2019)

Scholars have often lamented the poverty of British international thinking after World War II. Gopal’s book suggests that they were looking in the wrong place. The best international thinking (before and after 1945) was by British imperial dissidents and critics of empire, right in the metropole itself. 

12. Chris Reus-Smit – University of Queensland

Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

At a moment of global crisis, when we are desperately in need of new visions of international order, this brilliant book tells the story of how contending visions of world order shaped 20th century globalism.

Karuna Mantena, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

It is commonplace to stress how liberal narratives of civilisation hierarchy and progress licensed 19th and 20th century imperialism. This wonderful intellectual history complicates this standard narrative, showing how liberal ideas were displaced after the 1850s by a ‘new culturalism’ that denied that ‘native peoples’ could be civilised, and that promoted ‘indirect rule’ to protect empire. 

Hanna Pitkin, Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

One of my favourite accounts of Machiavelli’s thought, and a classic work on gender and politics. Pitkin exposes meticulously the structuring role that gendered assumptions play in Machiavelli’s understandings of power, the craft of politics, and the nature of the city-state. 

E.H. Carr, What is History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990).

In times of crisis, academics, policy-makers, commentators, and people in their everyday lives look to history for understanding, for analogous moments, for purported truths about the dynamics and paths of change, and to fuel narratives of immanent triumph or irreversible decline. It is important to remind ourselves, at moments such as these, what history is, how it can be used and abused, and what a complicated ally it can be. There is no better starting point than this brilliant little book. 

13. Laura Shepherd – University of Sydney

Naeem Inayatullah (ed), Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (London and New York: Routledge, 2011)

Provides invaluable tools to think with for those interested in narrative in IR scholarship, and inspiration to explore working in this way. Each essay is a gem, and together the collection lays out a space to think about how and why ‘we’ (in IR, as researchers, as humans) do what we do. I frequently return to Inayatullah’s introductory comments as an accompaniment to my thinking about how to express my I-self in my own IR world.

Marysia Zalewski, Feminist International Relations: Exquisite Corpse – (London and New York: Routledge, 2013)

The beautiful dead, the exquisite corpse, of feminist IR is embodied in Zalewski’s research practices and her analysis, in her theories, methodologies and approaches. This is challenging, to a discipline that prides itself on its scientism, but it is also challenging to a less compulsively clinical audience; it is confronting to be forced to bear in mind the blood and bone of global politics.

Sally Engle Merry The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking – (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)

An ethnography of quantification, this book is innovative and brilliant. Merry shows how quantitative data is rendered from messy, unreliable, multiple realities, and prompts us always to hold in our minds the constructedness of the data on which we draw. Further, the book surfaces the politics of quantification: ‘things that are more easily counted and more often counted tend to be those counted in the future, while those that have not been counted or are hard to quantify tend to be neglected and thus disappear from view’ (p. 219).

14. Arlene Tickner - Universidad del Rosario

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016).

I am drawn to Haraway's drawing together of distinct areas of thought and practice (feminism, biology, political ecology, cultural anthropology, art, among others) to talk about multispecies worldings and relationality.  Her invitation to ‘make trouble’ is a potent reminder of the kinds of speculative and transgressive thinking called for given our current existential crisis.  For similar reasons, but also because I am a dog lover, I enjoyed When Species Meet (University of Minnesota, 2008).

Keiichi Omura, Grant Jun Otsuki, Shiho Satsuka and Atsuro Morita (eds.), The World Multiple: The Quotidian Politics of Knowing and Generating Entangled Worlds (London and New York: Routledge, 2019).

This edited volume is exemplary in its transdisciplinary, geocultural, geographic and thematic reach, and complements current debates taking place in diverse fields of study on multiplicity, entanglement, worlding and relational ontology.  Beyond this, however, I found the balance between the distinct chapters, and the focus on the links that exist between everyday practices, world-making and power, particularly interesting.

That's all folks! Did you spot the book that appears twice?

If you're still looking for books to read after pursuing this list, don't forget we also have the BISA book series. BISA members receive a 40% discount off all titles.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash