Decolonizing International Relations: Confronting Erasures through Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Published date01 January 2021
Date01 January 2021
AuthorAnanya Sharma
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
58(1) 25 –40, 2021
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/0020881720981209
Research article
Decolonizing International
Relations: Confronting
Erasures through
Indigenous Knowledge
Ananya Sharma1
The discipline of international relations (IR) has often been critiqued for geo-
centric parochialism with scholars increasingly engaging with its colonial origins
and legacies. This recent engagement underscores the necessity to unravel
and disrupt the epistemic sites of hierarchized power and knowledge relations
manifested through dichotomous categorizations like ‘primitive/civilized’,
‘rational-irrational’ and ‘traditional-modern’. The concerns regarding ‘epistemic
imperialism’ stemming from the superiority granted to the modern science over
non-Western knowledges are founded on the distinction between nature and
culture that hinges upon the separation of the subject from the object. Coloniality
thus reconfigures itself through the use of scientific-rational methodology
and it is pertinent to reframe the colonial question beyond the questions of
epistemology and ontology to unpack ‘traditional knowledges’ as a source of
valid knowledge. This article offers a methodological contribution to the larger
debate on ‘coloniality of power’ by critiquing the disembodied monoculture
associated with modern scientific rationality. Drawing upon Boaventura De Sousa
Santos’s notion of ‘ecology of knowledges’, the article focuses on the issue of
‘epistemic imperialism’ and utilizes indigenous knowledge systems as an analytical
framework with emancipatory potential representing one of the possible means
of decolonizing knowledge and advancing the case for epistemological plurality
within the discipline of IR. The article proposes an epistemic re-centring within
the IR academia by posing vexatious ethical questions hidden behind issues of
epistemic inequality.
1 Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana,
Corresponding author:
Ananya Sharma, Department of International Relations, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana
131029, India
26 International Studies 58(1)
Epistemologies from the South, Boaventura De Sousa Santos, emancipatory
potential, post-positivism, ecology of knowledges
The diversity of trees must not stop us from developing a sense of the forest.
—Walter Mignolo (2001, p. 44)
The ontological starting point of mainstream international relations (IR) has been
neither ‘inter’ nor ‘relations’. Rather, it has been the ‘national’, which is often
shorthand for the Westphalian sovereign nation-state (Ling, 2014). The identity of
IR as a discipline, it seems, is being defined by its largely non-relational
nomenclature.i The discipline operates in terms of dichotomies and binaries, such
as anarchy–hierarchy, order–disorder, self–other, identity–alterity, inside–outside,
masculine–feminine, tradition–modernity and so on. This mode of thinking has
resulted into seeing, studying, analysing and theorizing world politics and various
phenomena through the prism of an either/or logic and through the condition of
separation. This binary mode of engagement has resulted in a crisis of epistemology
within the discipline which in many ways is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of
modernity and the human condition. There is a pressing necessity to engage with
an understanding of the world beyond the comprehension abilities of the Westii
highlighting the idea of ontological positioning and the constitutiveness of
normative and political connotations of knowledge claims. The colonial/modern
bifurcation of knowledge regarding the ‘international’ has dual implications
reflected in spatial and temporal sense. The geo-spatial binary of Western/non-
Western reifies the knowledge produced in a particular location (west) as being
‘legitimate’ and progressive. In terms of temporality, the division is manifested
through situating a particular side (non-west) as historically backward/traditional
and placing the ‘responsibility’ of catching up with the other side. This has resulted
in one of the foundational myths that west is the sole source of ‘authentic’
knowledge effacing a rich history of exchange in formulation of those knowledge
practices. This division also eulogizes the idea that one can objectively and
impartially depict an accurate representation of reality, thus signifying the
dichotomy between subject and object. The realization of an external reality,
which is ‘out-there’ reinforces the belief regarding knowledge as universal. This
dichotomization has led to envisioning indigenous people as objects rather than
subjects of knowledge production. There is growing literature arguing for the
need to root epistemology in the experiences of those from global South from
scholars who argue that global North and global South cannot be only conceived
as mere geographical locations with fixed or impermeable borders, rather they are
complicated and overlapping through inter-penetrating realities both historically
and contemporaneously (Acharya, 2014; Buzan & Acharya, 2010; Agathangelou
& Ling, 2009; Tickner & Blaney, 2012; Blaney & Tickner, 2017; Nayak & Selbin,

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