Global Epistemics: 6 Questions to Inanna Hamati-Ataya

I imagined some extra-terrestrial intelligent species visiting us and asking ‘what is the history of your kind?’ Did we have any answer to that question that would reflect the advancement of our understanding of life on earth, of our common history, of what different historical paths might have existed?

Dr Inanna Hamati-Ataya is Principal Research Associate and Principal Investigator on the ERC-funded project ARTEFACT as of March 2018, and founding director of the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (GloKnoS) since September 2017. We asked her about the project as well as the forthcoming volume The Sage Handbook of the History, Philosophy and Sociology of International Relations.


Q. Inanna, we are delighted to welcome you and your research project to the Centre. As ARTEFACT’s Principal Investigator, could you tell us about the project and how you developed it?

Thank you, I’m delighted to have joined CRASSH. It’s really the perfect place to develop ARTEFACT, which is cross-disciplinary in its design and ambitions. The basic idea I’m exploring with ARTEFACT is that the history of human knowledges provides us with an important – and probably indispensable – thread to understand the major patterns and forms of humanity’s political evolution. The project emerged at the intersection of my work in historical epistemology, the history and sociology of knowledge, science, and technology, and international relations. Looking deeper into the origins and diffusion of different forms of knowledge led me to think increasingly in terms of big anthropological transformations, in the very longue durée of humankind’s development. In parallel, within international relations scholarship, world history, and globalisation studies I could find no compelling narrative about the logic of our political evolution at what can be called a ‘global’ scale. I imagined some extra-terrestrial intelligent species visiting us and asking ‘what is the history of your kind?’ Did we have any answer to that question that would reflect the advancement of our understanding of life on earth, of our common history, of what different historical paths might have existed? When I started looking at my different concerns through this particular prism, it became clear to me that a deep history of the co-evolution of what we casually call ‘knowledge’ and ‘the global’ was the place to start, and that it had to be grounded in fundamental, anthropological processes observable throughout human history, which includes so-called ‘pre-history’ in the sense of pre-writing-technologies.

The empirics of the project focus on agriculture, which constitutes a perfect anchor to explore all the converging types of socio-historical and socio-natural processes I want to examine, and to do so in a way that is anthropologically meaningful. The project looks specifically at four major global agricultural revolutions since the Neolithic era, inscribed in four increasingly inclusive ‘world-systems’. The first three cover roughly what we are accustomed to describing in terms of ‘empires’ (Mesopotamian and Mediterranean, Arabic-Islamic, British empires) but the point is to think about these configurations in different terms, since there is no simple correlation or synchronicity between cultural innovation and epistemic ownership on the one hand, and political power on the other. The fourth one is the period of the so-called Green Agricultural Revolution, which begins in the mid-20th century and becomes quickly globalised, with its first transformative effects allegedly arising in Southeast Asia and Latin America – but the truly global story is more complicated and nuanced than that.

Additionally, we are in the process of recruiting two postdoctoral research associates, who will each also contribute to ARTEFACT, and more broadly to what I am calling Global Epistemics, through a complementary research project of their own. 

Q. In September 2017 you founded the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (GloKnoS), which is now hosted by CRASSH. Could you tell us more about it?

GloKnoS’s first mission is to foster cross-disciplinary research and training in Global Epistemics, which is concerned with understanding how different forms of knowledge are constituted, how they diffuse or not within and across different socio-cultural and historical configurations, and what they enable in terms of socio-economic, normative, and material transformations. I’m currently developing a global network of affiliated researchers and partner institutions, and the objective is soon to be able to initiate, support, and promote individual and collaborative projects and training in this field, and gradually offer a diversified range of platforms to disseminate this work to the largest possible audience.

GloKnoS’s second mission is to develop cross-sectorial engagement between academics and other knowledge producers and social institutions involved in the constitution and diffusion of epistemic norms and objects – from museums to industrial R&D departments and intellectual property legislators. The wider community of epistemic producers is, however, much more diverse and much less institutionalised. Through ARTEFACT there is an obvious interest in all the tacit and practical knowledges produced and inter-generationally transmitted by such social groups as farming communities and artisans. Most of this is not translated into the kind of textual material that forms the basis of university curricula and literary diffusion, but has survived for centuries and often for millennia. The greatest part of human knowledges – like the knowledges of all other ‘species’ – has been and will remain of this kind, and Global Epistemics is meant to give these knowledges their proper place, which has been segregated and marginalised in the academic focus on the history of science and intellectual history.  

GloKnoS’s network and full range of activities will develop gradually in the next few years. I am currently planning the Centre’s calendar of events for 2018–19 with the invaluable help of ARTEFACT’s Project Administrator, Samantha Peel. GloKnoS’s website will go live by the end of the summer, and our launching event is tentatively scheduled for October 2018, with an inaugural lecture by one of the leading historians of technology. In the meantime GloKnoS and its partner the KNOWLEDGE Centre are co-sponsoring a section on Global Epistemics at the 12th Pan-European Conference on International Relations this coming September, with 15 fantastic panels on the international politics of the production and diffusion of knowledge. 

Q. You are co-editor, with Andreas Gofas (Panteion University) and Nicholas Onuf (Florida International University), of the forthcoming volume The SAGE Handbook of the History, Philosophy and Sociology of International Relations. How did the book come about?

Andreas brought the three of us together in the summer of 2014, and the project is originally his idea. He had been organizing annual summer workshops for graduate students at the Olympia Summer Academy, the purpose of which was to provide (meta)theoretically minded graduate students advanced training in philosophical issues pertaining to the study of international politics, and how the history of International Relations (IR) as an academic and intellectual field could illuminate the way that theoretical and philosophical problems arise and are tackled by its scholars. IR is a very self-conscious field of study, and in the past few decades there has been an exponential interest in questioning the political and ethical impact on IR scholarship of international and global power relations, and an even greater concern to investigate whether and how, as scholars and educators, we are in fact not merely describing the world but potentially contributing to reproducing, normalising, and justifying what makes violence, global inequalities, etc. possible. In this context IR scholars have recently developed an interest in systematically studying IR itself through the methodologies and theories developed in the sociology of science.

Andreas captured these converging trends and invited Nick and myself to join him in reflecting on what all this meant for IR and for us as researchers and teachers. The first step was to transcend the divide between classical philosophy of science on the one hand, and the history of thought and sociology of science on the other. We started from this common purpose, which gave us a very solid basis to engage one another across, and through, our intellectual differences and positionalities. Once we agreed on what we wanted to do and the kind of volume we wanted to create, we extended the conversation to 49 of our colleagues, who helped us bring the project to life, each with their own unique voice. The result is a volume that not only provides the state of the art on the core philosophical, historiographical, and sociological dimensions of studying world politics, but also gives the pulse of the community in a very vivid and honest way. The Handbook is coming out on what is considered the (partly mythological) centenary of IR, and reflecting on its conditions of possibility, past achievements, and future paths gives us a great opportunity to make this celebration practically, not just symbolically, meaningful.

Q. It must be quite a challenge to prepare a handbook comprising 38 chapters. Around which topics or themes did you decide to structure the work? 

Yes, it was indeed a challenge to find the optimal structure of the Handbook. When we started we wanted to bring together these three different, isolated ways of interrogating the field that we have inherited from more established disciplines. This had never been done before and it naturally (and fortunately) eliminated the typical, tedious handbook shopping-list structure based on ‘isms’, concepts, and themes. The object was IR itself – what it is, how it works, what it does, what we do through it, etc. – so the chapters could not be about merely addressing problems in world politics, such as security, diplomacy, or terrorism. The challenge – and opportunity – was that we had to look at the prisms and dynamic processes through which these issues were being conceived and investigated, and others made invisible, and this added a unifying (meta) layer that no one had ever tried to conceptualise across the different metadiscourses. After several iterations, we agreed that the Handbook should tackle three essential questions that would enable all the others to fall into place without imposing artificial and unnecessary boundaries on our authors and readers.

The first thematic section of the Handbook (Imagining the International, Acknowledging the Global) addresses the way that ‘the international’ and ‘the global’ have been conceptualised in the history of the field and what socio-historical and ideological factors and processes of world history and world politics have shaped IR’s conceptual frameworks – including its erasure of alternative perspectives and voices, and its inherent biases. The second section (The Search for (an) Identity) reformulates the traditional questions about what a discipline or a social science is or should be, and what makes it hang together as a coherent and meaningful collective endeavour – its foundations, its myths of origins, specific objects, methodologies, boundaries, its ability to predict the future, to guide public policies? These questions are addressed from a range of novel perspectives that tackle, with great honesty and confidence, the sense of ‘crisis’ that the field has been experiencing for a couple of decades at least. The third section (International Relations as a Profession) opens up IR as an institution, a vocation, and a community of practice. Here the reader is invited to travel to IR’s many loci, from the classroom and its textbooks, to academic journals and the interface with political actors in the wider realm of ‘truth-making’, and from its Anglo-American ‘centre’ to the many different spaces and positions from which world politics is experienced and imagined.

Because of the consciously reflexive nature of the Handbook, we added an introductory section (The Inward Gaze: Introductory Reflections) that reflects on the very act of interrogating the scholarly gaze from the inside, and a conclusive section (Looking Ahead: The Future of Meta-Analysis) that features the reflections of three pioneers of the philosophical, historiographical, and sociological perspectives, who offer assessments of our common past trajectories and important considerations for the future.

Q. In your view, wherein lies the volume’s main contribution to the discipline?

The main contribution of the Handbook to IR itself is to present our community, and especially students who are being socialised into the field, with a comprehensive and self-critical overview of the socio-intellectual and material conditions in which we produce knowledge about the world. Many of these factors that shape our understanding remain tacit or beyond the grasp of individual researchers, and hence operate below the level of our epistemological and methodological vigilance. However conscious of one’s positionality and historicity one might be, there is no natural method for thinking outside of one’s situated self and one’s social setting, and the profession – including those practices we consider to be most ‘critical’ – socialises us even more into constraining patterns that contribute to hiding the real processes and norms at work. The multiplicity of perspectives and angles through which the study of world politics is empirically and historically interrogated in the Handbook provides an invaluable set of tools for IR scholars to become autonomous moral agents who are more conscious of the intellectual choices they make, of why they make them, and of their practical and intellectual effects.

Because this is the first volume to address IR from this perspective, the Handbook also fills a great gap in the social studies of science. IR has imported many of its theoretical and methodological instruments and frameworks, but it has a specific and rich history of critical self-reflection from which other fields can potentially learn.

Finally we think the Handbook might set a new standard for what academic handbooks can or should be expected to do. We wanted to do more than just present the state of the art, and our authors have wonderfully responded to our request that they push the boundaries of present scholarship and project our collective reflection into the future of the field and the world it studies. In our early informal conversations with colleagues who had editorial responsibilities in different academic presses it became clear that our approach was unconventional and viewed as potentially risky, because ‘unclassifiable’. SAGE, however, was very open and enthusiastic about the project and gave us carte blanche to proceed in this direction. We believe that as a result this is the kind of handbook that one will want to read from cover to cover, precisely because it was conceived in a holistic, not cumulative way. All academic fields are produced collectively even when they are fractured by antagonistic positions and dissent, and we wanted a handbook that really reflected this in both form and content.

Q. When is the book to be published, and where might one find a copy?

The Handbook is coming out in August 2018, and can be purchased from SAGE directly or via other online providers. It will also be launched officially at the European International Studies Association’s (EISA) 12th Pan-European Conference on International Relations (12–15 September 2018) in Prague, where we are organising a reception and a roundtable with some of our authors and Editorial Board members. The conference will be the first major academic event in International Relations following the Handbook’s publication, and we’re very grateful to SAGE and to the programme chairs, Dr Ayşe Zarakol (from Cambridge’s own POLIS Department) and Dr Halvard Leira, who are also among the contributors to the volume, for the opportunity to celebrate its publication with the larger community.

Bonus question (if you dare): Please summarise the book in a tweet.

In the words of one of our reviewers:

'The SAGE Handbook of the History, Philosophy & Sociology of IR is a landmark…providing a panorama of the discipline, but also embracing it as a global project…[It] opens up new horizons for IR and reshapes our understanding of the world we have made together.'
Prof Yaqing Qin 

You may also like these recent CRASSH Books Q&As:

Paper Tiger: Q&A with Nayanika Mathur
Histories of Post-Mortem Contagion: 5 Questions to Christos Lynteris and Nicholas Evans
Ethnographic Plague: Q&A with Christos Lynteris
Evolution Made to Order: 5 Questions to Helen Anne Curry
Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England: 5 Questions to Charlotte-Rose Millar
Translating Early Modern Science: 5 Questions to Sietske Fransen
Rock, Bone & Ruin: 5 Questions to Adrian Currie

Posted: Wednesday 4 April 2018

Contributor: Inanna Hamati-Ataya

Tags: artefact

Global Epistemics: 6 Questions to Inanna Hamati-Ataya