Interviewed by Umut Can Adısönmez (Changing Turkey Research Associate)
Ayşe Zarakol is a University Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the University of Cambridge, with affiliations at Emmanuel College as an official fellow and the Centre for Rising Powers as a Senior Research Associate. Ayşe broadly works on East-West relations in the international system, with a focus on stigmatization and social hierarchies; problems of modernity and sovereignty; rising and declining powers; and Turkish politics in a comparative perspective (with other non-Western powers such as Russia and Japan). In addition to her book After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge UP, 2011 and in Turkish, with a new introduction, with Koç UP, 2012), she has published in journals such as International Organization, Cooperation & Conflict, International Studies Quarterly, International Theory, Review of International Studies, European Journal of International Relations, and International Relations, as well as in more policy-oriented outlets (such as the Journal of Democracy) and edited books. She is currently serving on the executive committee of The Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia); the advisory board of the State-Making and the Origins of Global Order in the Long Nineteenth Century and Beyond (STANCE) project at Lund University Sweden, as well as the journals of International Studies Review and International Relations. She is also involved in the ERC funded DIPLOFACE project led by Professor Rebecca Adler-Nissen at the University of Copenhagen. The contributions of her research have been recognised by a number of funding institutions and professional associations in the US, UK and Europe, including the designation of ‘rising star’ from the IR section of Swedish Political Science Association (SWEPSA). In 2016, Ayse was a visiting fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge, and the Nobel Institute in Oslo.
Could you please tell us about your background and previous studies?
I grew up in Istanbul. I left when I was seventeen to attend university in the United States. I went to Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in rural Vermont where I majored in Political Science and Classical Studies. When I graduated from college I thought I wanted to go to law school (in the US law is studied at the graduate level) so I worked for a year at a law firm in New York City as a legal assistant. Realising this path was not for me, I applied in the last minute for PhD programs in Political Science, and ended up going to University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was the best last minute decision I have ever made. There I had the good fortune of studying with some great scholars, especially Michael Barnett (who left for Minnesota in the middle of my studies but stayed on as my dissertation advisor). This was a great time to be a student in Madison. Upon graduation, I got a tenure-track position in a small liberal arts college in Virginia (Washington and Lee University). After several years there and one year in Washington, DC, as Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow where I worked for the US government, I was appointed to my current permanent post as a University Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. I am also a fellow at Emmanuel College.
What are the deficiencies in Turkish academic literature related to your field?
The deficiencies in Turkish IR literature mirror the deficiencies of the broader IR literature. IR is still an American dominated field. Until recently, American IR was characterised by what is called inter-paradigm debates between realism, liberalism and to some extent, constructivism. Later another major debate emerged between positivists and non-positivists, the end result of which has been an increasing divergence between American IR, which tends to be overwhelmingly positivist and European IR, which tends to be non-positivist (though not overwhelmingly so). American IR is supposed to have left “theory” behind in the sense that most recent research does not take strong paradigmatic position but is methods driven instead, to the extent of “fetishising” various statistical and experimental methods at the expense of asking big questions. European IR, on the other hand, has become very (meta)-theoretical, to the extent that it is possible to see IR scholars who are incredibly well versed in the nuances of the writings of particular continental philosophers but have no interest in what the general public would consider IR questions.
Because many Turkish IR scholars are trained abroad, either in the US or Europe, and/or have to conform to the expectations of that literature to get published in “top” journals, which are invariably located in the US or Europe, we see the problems created by the situations I have described above replicated in the Turkish IR literature as well. The quantitative trend in the American IR literature has not quite taken hold in Turkish IR, but the paradigm-speak is very much a fact. How anyone can be familiar with Turkish politics and take the rationalist approaches of neorealism or neoliberalism to be descriptive theories of international relations is beyond me. At least in Americans defence we can say that they don’t know any better! Also, in the articles I am sent to review dealing with some aspect of Turkish politics and Turkish foreign policy, I sometimes see a very utilitarian approach to theory use – some theoretical framework is superimposed on a more nuanced case study without thinking too much about the assumptions and the implications of the theory itself. On the flip side, the more “meta” European approaches to IR seem to give some Turkish scholars “critical” bona fides without having to go through the trouble of taking critical political stances with real world implications.
But I do not mean to come across as overly critical of Turkish IR; my colleagues in Turkey are working in difficult conditions, to put it mildly, and yet are still able to contribute in very significant ways to the broader IR literature. Turkish IR is taken very seriously in the broader discipline due to their efforts. Of the younger generations, I very much admire the works of Pinar Bilgin, Bahar Rumelili, Lerna Yanik, Sinan Birdal, Senem Aydin Duzgit, just to name a few names off the top of my head; I am leaving out many others who are also doing excellent work (my apologies in advance). These are scholars who could work anywhere in the world, yet choose to stay in Turkey. Their contributions to Turkish IR cannot be overestimated. There are also many Turkish scholars with positions abroad who are doing very interesting work: Nukhet Ahu Sandal, Kerem Nisancioglu and Karabekir Akkoyunlu are three recent examples that come to mind.
As these examples clearly demonstrate, Turkish IR actually has the potential to make very worthwhile contributions to the broader literature if freed from the shackles of working with imported theoretical templates that have no grounding in global history. Both American and European IR suffer greatly from the blind spots generated by the ahistoricism and Eurocentrism endemic in their approaches. Because those of us in or with links to Turkey are well-versed in both those literatures and a case study (Turkey!) that puts all of those assumptions to test, we are actually really well-positioned for constructing IR theories that better explain the world.
Could you recommend any articles or books which were recently published?
My work is more historically oriented, so the books and articles I have read recently reflect that orientation. Of recently published books, I would especially recommend: Buzan and Lawson’s The Global Transformation (CUP 2015), which deals with the significance of the nineteenth century in creating the modern international order; Branch’s The Cartographic State (CUP 2014), which deals with the overlooked role of cartography in the creation of modern states; Anievas and Nisancioglu’s How the West Came to Rule (Chicago 2015), which contextualises the “rise of the West” in a truly global account; and Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force (CUP 2015), which provides an account of the historical rise of the “social” realm. Another great book is Phillips and Sharman’s International Order in Diversity: War, Trade and Rule in the Indian Ocean (CUP 2015). All of these books also have interesting implications for those of us interested in Turkish/Ottoman history.
Could you please tell us about your recent works and these works’ findings?
I am close to finishing a multi-year collaborative project about the reconceptualisation of the discipline of IR, called “Hierarchies in World Politics”. An article from this project is coming out this month in International Organization, and I hope the book will be out within the year as well. The project brings together many high profile names working on hierarchies and we are arguing that the anarchy assumption that has dominated the field in the recent decades has closed off many avenues of interesting research to IR scholars.
I have two other forthcoming peer-reviewed articles this year: one article (forthcoming in Cooperation & Conflict) is about conceptualising and historicising “the state” as an ontological security providing and a short article providing a critical assessment of the TRIP surveys, which is my contribution to a forum on the state of constructivism in IR in PS. I have also co-authored a chapter with Zeynep Gulsah Capan in a forthcoming volume edited by Charlotte Epstein and titled Anti-Norms; our chapter criticises the uses of postcolonial critiques in Turkish academia and politics from a postcolonial perspective.
Lastly, what are your future plans in the field?
I have several items active on my research agenda at the moment. I have a long-term historical project about the politics of great power decline. I am also working on a couple of articles on non-Western experiences in state-building and conceptualisations of sovereignty. I am collaborating with Jelena Subotic on a project about the implications of nation-branding for the study of IR. I am also involved in a multi-year project led by Rebecca Adler-Nissen and funded by ERC about EU diplomacy and social media, overseeing the relations with Turkey/Russia dimension. These are some of the highlights.