The Curious Case of 'Schools' of IR: From the Sociology to the Geopolitics of Knowledge

Yongjin Zhang, Peter Marcus Kristensen

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Why are theoretical knowledge produced outside the United States are often called ‘schools’ of thought, whereas those produced at the American core are labelled theories, such as realism, neoliberalism and constructivism? Why should such ‘schools’ of thought often be named with institutional and geographical labels? Why does school labelling matter? This paper interrogates these three questions evoked by the curious case of ‘schools of thought in IR through the twin perspectives of the sociology of knowledge and geopolitics of knowledge. Drawing inspirations from the tradition of the sociology of IR pioneered by E. H. Carr, the paper first explores how geo-epistemic diversity can help understand the sociologically problematic nature of IR knowledge production in the existing discipline. Taking cues from Randall Collins’s sociology of philosophies, the paper moves to identify four clusters of sociological conditions and dynamics that, we argue, facilitate the formation and sustain the operation of schools of thought in IR. Taking seriously recent insight from geopolitics of knowledge, the paper then looks at why and how school labelling constitutes a battleground for contestation and legitimation. While the ‘core’ uses the school label to create a parallel, and explicitly inferior, universe of knowledge production to localize theoretical noises from the peripheries, the school label, we argue, has been proactively appropriated by those at peripheries and semi-peripheries for three strategic purposes: to engage in a purposely contentious politics, to question the claim of the American ‘core’ as the creator, depositor and distributor of universal knowledge, and to unveil the geo-historical linkage between the political and the epistemic. School labelling matters, we argue, because it has become a site of contestation of geopolitics of knowledge and its perils in our collective pursuit of constructing a truly global IR.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)429-454
Number of pages25
JournalChinese Journal of International Politics
Issue number4
Early online date9 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


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