Hilma af Klint, “Buddha’s Standpoint in the Earthly Life”, Nr. 3a, 1920. Public domain via Wikimedia. Edited by Christian Pogies.

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Can We Trust Each Other?

The Politics of Interdisciplinarity: An Interview with Filipe dos Reis


Interdisciplinarity still seems to be the order of the day. Despite its many advantages, it tends to be a sometimes-ambivalent undertaking: demanded in academia’s bureaucracies (for funding applications, no less), there also exists competition, suspicion, and even distrust between disciplinary boundaries. Using the example of International Law and International Relations, we talked about hierarchies, containers, and translation in interdisciplinary research with Filipe dos Reis.


Dear Filipe, you have worked extensively on interdisciplinarity, and especially on the encounters between International Law (IL) and International Relations (IR). To start our conversation with a general question: is interdisciplinarity a success story?

I think there are two aspects worth mentioning here. The first one concerns the concept of interdisciplinarity itself. ‘Interdisciplinarity’, as is the case with every concept, has been defined and used differently. For example, it is part of a larger conceptual web of neighbouring, sometimes overlapping, concepts such as transdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, and multidisciplinarity. All of them link disciplines, but also academia-society relations, differently. How you link all of these relations is then tied to different sets of expectations when defining ‘success’. Interdisciplinarity also has a broader history – particularly when considering the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ itself. Some might associate it with certain forms of thinking about knowledge, such as a rather ‘neoliberal’ ideal of a university, where different forms of expert knowledge are bound together and compartmentalised through different disciplines – without overlaps and more fundamental politics of knowledge attached –, and where research is evaluated in terms of its ‘usefulness’ as ‘practical’ knowledge for governments, the industrial sector, and so on. This might sound quite negative to some, but I don’t believe that it is the only way to think about interdisciplinarity. I personally would leave the concept rather open and not predefine it but explore how it is used and, through this, how different forms of knowledge have been linked historically and are currently linked.

The second aspect concerns academic disciplines themselves and their boundaries. On an institutional level, disciplines function somehow as containers. There is a history to how the boundaries between disciplines have been drawn. In principle, these boundaries are, of course, contingent and could have been drawn differently, and sometimes they are contested. Different streams of the sociology of knowledge and academic disciplines, such as those of Pierre Bourdieu and Andrew Abbott, emphasise competition and contestedness. In these accounts, academia is not only a competition over the hegemony of knowledge, but this is interwoven with competition over other resources (public attention, funding, professorships, PhD positions, students, office space etc.). Interestingly, when describing the contestedness of disciplinary boundaries, Abbott even uses the legal metaphor of ‘jurisdictional conflicts’.


How did these boundaries emerge in the case of International Law and International Relations – and how can they perhaps be overcome?

In the history of Western academia, law had to compete with disciplines such as theology, philosophy, economics, sociology etc.; public international law with constitutional law, private law and so on. And, of course, this is intertwined with the fact that, at the same time, international law has been an extra-academic profession as well. International Relations, in turn, is often seen as a latecomer in terms of academic disciplines, and in some countries, it is part of the humanities (e.g. history), in others the social sciences (e.g. economics, sociology and, of course, political science) or even law. As disciplinary boundaries are often relatively stable, I believe that ‘talk’ about interdisciplinarity can play an important role in the (re)drawing of these boundaries. This might sometimes tighten spaces when it comes to a very managerial understanding of universities or when interdisciplinarity turns ‘imperial’ as one disciplinary lens starts to dominate other disciplines, but sometimes it might also open new spaces of intellectual collaboration and exchange. The latter might be reinforced when we think of interdisciplinarity not only in institutional and administrative terms but as something happening between individual researchers.


Your most recent co-edited book deals with the Politics of Translation in International Relations. What do you mean by ‘translation’?

The book, which I co-edited with Zeynep Gulsah Capan and Maj Grasten, is an attempt to engage with different dynamics of translation in international affairs. It is interesting to see that a conceptual, theoretical, and empirical engagement with translation has gained considerable traction in various academic fields (including International Relations) – either, literally, concerning the translation between languages or as a broader metaphor of connectivity. In the book, we try to integrate research from a variety of fields and approaches. Individual contributions are informed not only by translation studies but also, for example, by post-colonial, feminist, post-structuralist, hermeneutic, semiotic, critical constructivist, legal, and sociological (in particular, actor-network theory) approaches. At the same time, we try to systematize research on translation and argue that different notions of politics are attached to it. On the one hand, we identify approaches that conceptualize translation either as transplantation or transmission, where translation happens between two relatively static contexts – ‘source’ and ‘target’ – and where ‘politics’ happens either in the ‘source’ or ‘target’ context. On the other hand, and this is what the volume suggests, one can think of translation as a transformative endeavour. Such an understanding of translation emphasizes that translation never happens between prefixed contexts but that translation itself permanently creates these contexts. Consequently, translation always transforms, and there are different politics of translation here, as translations might sometimes exclude and sometimes include; sometimes erase and sometimes pluralize.


If we think of lawyers who became important in International Relations (like Morgenthau), and vice versa: to what extent is interdisciplinarity always a process of translation?

Yes, we can think of interdisciplinary research very much as a process of translation. Morgenthau and other so-called emigrée scholars, mainly Jewish scholars who were forced to leave Nazi Germany, are a good example. Many of them were (international) lawyers by training but became International Relations scholars in the United States, where they were influential in establishing the discipline of International Relations after the Second World War. These scholars were neither socialized in the American tradition of international law nor political science. Instead, they were trained in the ‘Weimar context’ of Staatslehre, and they could not expect that their new audience was familiar with these debates. As a result, many earlier references do not appear in Morgenthau’s American writings, but at the same time, he still tried to ‘translate’ earlier ideas into the new environment by, for example, criticizing the scientism of the American social sciences of that time and advocating a rather Weberian understanding of the social sciences. So, by engaging in multiple and simultaneous translations, Morgenthau excluded something but, at the same time, created something new.

On a more general level, translation also helps better understand different forms of disciplinary linking and their respective politics. By zooming into the process of how disciplines have been linked in particular instances and how knowledge has been translated between them, we open the black box of interdisciplinarity. This might help to make visible how projects of interdisciplinarity are embedded in different forms of hierarchizations and exclusions. I think it is first of all crucial to make these visible. Importantly, the goal should not always be to overcome those, as each discipline – legitimately – has its own cognitive interests. So, it is not about merging fields. But it helps to explore promising avenues of intellectual exchange and fruitful cooperation.


Looking at the history of the encounters between International Relations and International Law: are there phases in which cooperation or demarcation between the two disciplines dominated?

There definitely were. Phases of attraction and rejection alternated. The emergence and differentiation of disciplines certainly have a lot to do with demarcation. On the one hand, there is the legality and politics divide. But, as I have argued with Janis Grzybowski in a recent article, there is a related second divide that has often been ignored, which is the one between the state and the international. Taken together, these two divides have shaped what is possible to articulate in (international) law and politics, and this might be tied to some almost-mythical ‘founding’ figures. So, if we look at the intersection of those divides, we have four fields, which, as we suggest, have been occupied in an ideal-typical way by prominent figures such as Max Weber, Hans Kelsen, Hersch Lauterpacht, and Hans Morgenthau. Each of them presents an ideal-typical proponent of one of the fields, which are closely tied to disciplines. These boundaries remained relatively stable and resilient until the present day.

On the other hand, attempts at cooperation sometimes end up in demarcation, which might sound paradoxical to some. For example, this happened when, from the late 1980s onwards, neoliberal and institutionalist approaches began to launch a new research program that eventually led to the literature on the ‘legalization of world politics’. Many regarded it as an attempt by International Relations scholars to test their theories empirically on international law. The role of international lawyers would have been to produce empirical data, while social scientists would provide research design, theoretical frameworks, and key concepts. A clear hierarchy between the disciplines, of course. The reaction of critical international lawyers was a serious demarcation attempt in the form of ‘counterdisciplinarity’ talk and the (re)inventions of a proprium of international law. All in all, this was quite a pity since many scholars within International Relations shared similar criticisms, and there would have been stable ground for cooperation (see, for example). Something similar seems to be going on sometimes in current debates between historians ‘turning’ to international law and international lawyers ‘turning’ to history…


Indeed, this debate was also partly carried out on our blog – most recently we talked with Anne Orford about it. Now, all this doesn’t sound too optimistic. Given the many overlapping research interests between International Relations and International Law: can’t the two disciplines build trust between each other?

What I have mentioned so far does not always sound positive – hierarchies, exclusion, counterdisciplinarity… I am also not sure if there can be trust between disciplines. Disciplines might be too abstract for it and perhaps too fragmented these days. But I am very much convinced – and optimistic – that there can be trust within cooperation and exchange across disciplines – between (groups) of researchers. Then the politics of interdisciplinarity becomes one of community building, in which everyone learns something that would not be possible in their own discipline. Interdisciplinarity is then always a challenge and a process of learning because it confronts you with new ideas and the possibility of unexpected criticism coming from outside your disciplinary comfort zone. For this, trust is very much required…


We see strong overlaps of interests, concepts, and theories. Yet the Russian war against Ukraine might strengthen realist, geopolitical thinking in International Relations, which might be to the detriment of some scholars’ interest in International Law. So, as an outlook: where do you see the future of interdisciplinarity between International Relations and International Law?

I am not sure whether geopolitics and international law are opposed and exclude each other. You are correct that several scholars in the more realist and/or geopolitical camp often regarded international law as something irrelevant, an epiphenomenon of great power politics. But on the other side, many recent contributions have shown that international law also has a history of facilitating and justifying empire and conflict. I have been teaching a course called ‘Geopolitics and International Law’ for a couple of years, which very much asks questions such as how is law part of the infrastructure of geopolitics, historically and contemporary? How, for instance, does law create geopolitical spaces? What is the role of international legal expertise in drawing the line between what is legitimate violence and what is not? I believe these questions are relevant for scholars from International Law and International Relations, and could provide a starting point for fruitful interdisciplinary encounters.

Filipe dos Reis

Filipe dos Reis is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations and International Organization at the University of Groningen. His current research focuses on the history and politics of international law, Imperial Germany, and maps. He is co-editor of two recent edited volumes: The Politics of Translation in International Relations (2021, with Zeynep Gulsah Capan and Maj Grasten) and Mapping, Connectivity and the Making of European Empires (2021, with Luis Lobo-Guerrero and Laura Lo Presti).

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Hendrik Simon

Hendrik Simon is Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and Lecturer at Goethe University Frankfurt. Among his main publications is ‘The Myth of Liberum Ius ad Bellum. Justifying War in 19th-Century Legal Theory and Political Practice’, in The European Journal of International Law (2018). He is an editor at Völkerrechtsblog.

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