Materialities of inequality and the epistemic potential of SEE

As we prepare to meet in person in Newcastle, we will present some of the papers and panels that the WG sponsored at our last online annual conference in 2021.  As we are aware of the visa and financial restrictions that make attendance difficult for scholars based in South East Europe, we hope that we can share new research more widely and build a broader community. 

Katarina Kušić (University of Rijeka) develops her contribution from the roundtable in a piece on the epistemic potential of SEE. Elena B. Stavrevska and Katarina Kušić convened the roundtable and served as editors for the ensuing blog posts. 

This article was written by Katarina Kušić
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When asked about how to deal with hierarchies of value and importance in knowledge production, it is crucial to delineate the many dimensions that this issue has. In this short piece, I talk about two: the practical materialities of different knowledge productions in the West and East, and the potential of South East Europe (SEE) as an epistemically generative space. In addition, I also reflect on how I strategically approached these issues in the past, and some ideas I have for the future. Specifically, I highlight the ambivalence of SEE as ‘neither North nor South’ as an epistemically generative position from which we are yet to consider international politics. 


Geographies of knowledge production


The BISA panel Within / Without: Strategies and possibilities for cultivating knowledge with the Global East itself was inspired by a geography of knowledge production and the question of ‘who matters’ in International Relations (or Social Sciences more generally). This question has been discussed for decades: it interrogates the ability of the Global North to produce knowledge that operates with a veneer of universality, while being the product of a very specific standpoint. While most of these critiques arrived from the Global South and often with post-colonial, anti-colonial, and decolonial impetus, the position of South East Europe, or East Europe (EE) more generally, is awkwardly absent. 


The problems of this absence were most succinctly captured in a relatively recent argument by Martin Müller: the Global East got lost in the division of the world between the hegemony of the Global North and the counterhegemonic projects of the Global South. And this argument has been developed further within human geographyurban studies, and food systems studies to include many nuances of different dimensions of this absence. Within IR, the recent special issue of the Journal of International Relations and Development makes a similar point: the articles in the collection speak, for example, about how EE features as a space, trope, and scholarly origin in major IR and International Security Studies journals; how the (failed) international socialisation narrative within which EE is often understood oversimplifies the diversity of positions within Central East Europe; and how we might reconstruct a more complex Balkan subjecthoodfrom existing literature that deals with international politics in SEE without being concerned primarily with subjects living there.


These discussions point to the different materialities of knowledge production. This is perhaps best illustrated in the introduction to a piece by Elena Trubina, David Gogishvili, Nadja Imhof, and Martin Müller: two are researchers working on the same topic from very different positions—one from a rich Western institution, and the other from a small state university in the location of their fieldwork and common research topic. The researchers have dramatically different access to disciplinary journals and debates, but the difference in material conditions extends to include salaries, teaching loads, language proficiencies, methods training, access to libraries and literatures, physical offices, equipment, and resources. These conditions make knowledge production in the East different, and radically less likely to be included into the mainstream of any discipline (for IR, see the breakdown of journal contributions provided by Maria Mälksoo). While the nuanced critiques of this ‘Global East’ idea are beyond my interest here (but see a great response by Tomasz Zarycki), I find it productive in two ways. First, as an empirical observation of the exclusion of EE institutions and scholars from the cores of knowledge production, and second, as an epistemological erasure whose analytical consequences we are only starting to unravel. 


Both of these dimensions, of course, directly shape our attempts to design research in more equitable ways. While most projects, including my own, have high hopes of cooperating with researchers living and working in the regions we study, these relationships are made across practical differentials that make cooperation anything but straightforward. There are different material realities at play that concern money, research time, and resources—as, for example, Nemanja Džuverović recently illustrated in a chapter on local researchers in peace studies. But there are also conceptual differences that come to the fore. What we consider to be ‘critical’ research is often not interesting to different academic communities that are invested in inclusion within theories and frameworks that our ‘critical’ training and scholarship seeks to undermine. And, while it is tempting to dismiss this as ‘Westernised parroting,’ it is more interesting to consider how peripheries function as both ‘identity crutches’ to mainstream IR and ‘captive minds’ that uphold the very structures that deny their agencies in the first place.


This material or practical dimension is incredibly important, and most of us navigate it daily in our research practice. Yet, in line with both standpoint and decolonial epistemologies, I am not interested in inclusion for the sake of inclusion or supposed ‘equality’ in access to Western European jobs, institutions, and resources. The larger question that looms over this discussion is: what are we missing about international politics by not seeing it from the standpoint of SEE/EE?


The politics of concepts and empirics 


I want to expand this discussion from geographies of knowledge production that determine what matters, to empirical and conceptual choices we make in research design. In short, research choices are determined by implicit understandings of ‘who’ matters for IR — diplomats, civil societies, and decisions makers — and ‘what’ matters — peace, war, transition, trade agreements, and foreign policy. Of course, these are crude generalisations that can be easily dismantled with examples, but I think they are especially relevant for understanding the place of SEE in IR. Any glance at a conference programme or a generalist journal tells us a story of SEE through the prism of war, post-war peacebuilding/state building/transitional justice, or Europeanisation. I say this as I am working on my own book manuscript (based on my PhD) that is on these topics, so this is not a critique of ‘other’ scholarship, but a reflection on a wider field that I am very much a part of. 


In the book manuscript, I treat international intervention (state building and peacebuilding) as what Arjun Appadurai refers to as a ‘gatekeeping concept’ steeped in allochronism—a persistent denial of coevalness between the producers of knowledge and the objects of their study. Writing in anthropology, Appadurai argues that issues such as kinship, honour and shame, or gifts become ‘privileged objects of anthropological attention.’ They are ‘concepts […] that seem to limit anthropological theorizing about the place in question, and that define the quintessential and dominant questions of interest in the region’.


In my work, I treat international intervention as a gatekeeping concept and show how it limits our understandings of subjects, structures, and processes we examine. More broadly, the question that drove the project is: what would we learn if we treated people in SEE not as local/everyday peacebuilders, but as coeval political subjects without a predefined conceptual box? What can we learn from SEE if we do not see it as determined by war, war crimes, or Europe(anisation)? This is a key strategy that I pursue: not only going to people, phenomena, and spaces that are missing from existing scholarship, but working to approach them in a way that does not confine them to my own conceptual apparatus. 


This strategy led me away from trying to understand intervention and the local/international hierarchies through which it proceeds, to far more complex translations of global hierarchies to local contexts. These translations do not only position SEE as inferior to Europe, but also work to differentiate it as superior to the Global South/East, and to naturalise the growing inequality within populations in SEE. In other words, in my fieldwork, I regularly heard balkanist and orientalist narratives used to differentiate the Balkans from those lower on the ‘civilisational slope.’ In lectures on economic development, Serbia was compared to countries in Africa for dramatic effect—there was an implicit, yet strong, understanding that such comparisons should not be made. And more broadly, a similar hierarchy was created and supported in public and private discourses that differentiated ‘successful’ subjects of transition from those left in supposedly backward poverty. 


Far from producing a straightforward position from which we can decentre knowledge production, we are faced with ambivalence. And the epistemically generative potential of SEE, I think, lies precisely in this ambivalence: the impossibility to fit SEE comfortably within the North or the South. From a decolonial perspective, Marina Gržinić, Tjaša Kancler, and Piro Rexhepi write that ‘the (post) socialist world still cannot resolve its (geo)political position of being in pact and proximity of Euro-American coloniality or its product and defying periphery.’ It is always ambivalent: invested in whiteness even when racialised; cast as backward while striving for modernity; and siding with coloniality, even when solidarities lie elsewhere. Thinking from this ambivalence and asking how it changes what we understand international politics or global hierarchies to be in the first place seems like a promising start to a different knowledge production with South East Europe.