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‘Disciplinary Gangs’ in Pakistani Academia

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‘Disciplinary Gangs’ in Pakistani Academia

From universities to research think tanks, academic disciplinary gangs impede interdisciplinary, creative, and aesthetic endeavors to move beyond a security- and state-centric vision of international relations.

‘Disciplinary Gangs’ in Pakistani Academia
Credit: Depositphotos

“The loyalty of academic gang members to each other and to the code of the gang is easily as fierce as that of street gangs.”
– Thomas J. Scheff

The disciplinary tradition of Pakistani social sciences academia begins and ends with a security-centric nation-state model of analyzing both domestic and international politics. Its dominance informs much of Pakistan’s social thought and practice; sovereignty appears to be the only legitimate official lens through which to respond, and its preservation becomes the overriding consideration. 

Pakistan’s current political and social space is constituted by traditional accounts of strategy, security, and sovereignty. This is true for most developing states, particularly for the newly decolonized South Asia, as Kanti Bajpai explains. The realist conceptions of sovereignty, state survival, self-interest, and security were swiftly subscribed by these states, following their independence from colonial rule. The conformity of these states to privileged realist discourse, despite its problematic character, as political, strategic and socio-economic norms, as Navnita Chadha Behera explains, fitted admirably with powerful indigenous urges for preserving national security, independence, and territorial sovereignty.   

After the country’s independence, Pakistan encountered various security, political, and socioeconomic crises. Beginning with the unequal and asymmetrical distribution of resources during the 1947 partition, Pakistan’s policy preferences were (and still are) largely security-centric due to the continual danger to the state’s very survival posed by an influential counterpart, India. Simultaneously, the state was ruled during its formative years by a military-bureaucratic oligarchy, but this equation shifted dramatically following Ayub Khan’s coup d’état in 1958 when the military establishment emerged as the dominant figure. The successive military dictatorships solidified the military’s influence and confined Pakistan, as Ahmed Waqas Waheed believes, to a “security-centered understanding of sovereignty,” a pattern that persists even today. The domestic instability fueled the flames and pushed the state into a perpetual state of paranoia, interpreting and portraying social and political resistance and dissent as foreign conspiracies.    

As a result, dissent is likewise seen through the restricted and narrow prism of security. It is manipulated in order to delegitimize multidisciplinary and alternative discourses. Clearly, the securitization of academic discourses and disciplines stems from Pakistan’s long history of reliance on security-centric neorealism, which Pakistani academics subscribed to without any sort of problematization. 

In contemporary Pakistani academia, ex-state officials are often in senior positions at universities and think tanks and thus charged with the responsibility of serving as gate-keepers of a community of knowledge producers. The top ranks are mostly, if not entirely, occupied by ex-bureaucrats and retired military officers whose knowledge of international relations and politics is centered on either the Kashmir dispute or Indian intrusion into Pakistan. For example, influential think tanks such as the Institute of Regional Studies (IRS), the Islamabad Policy and Research Institute (IPRI), the Institute of Strategic Studies, the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), and the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs are headed by incumbent and retired state officials, while others, such as the Center for Global and Strategic Studies (CGSS), the National Defense University’s think tank ISSRA, and several others are administered by retired military officials.

The state of universities, similarly, is not poles apart, where the majority of social sciences research institutes are directed by retired military officials. Their obsessive fixation on the Kashmir dispute and, more recently, Afghanistan, for example, stifles alternative avenues of inquiry into international relations and confines the discipline within hardcore conflict and security ambits. Their national conferences, research projects, and daily tea parties all concentrate on Pakistan’s relative strategic importance in relation to India, the United States, and Iran, among others. 

While of course there is (re)production of alternative knowledge, the dominant theories and hegemonic ideas of international relations have pushed alternatives to the margins; alternatives are still not constituted as appropriate knowledge in Pakistani academia. This is the most devastating effect of neorealism’s stranglehold: It renders other efforts invisible. In the words of Thomas Scheff, academic gangs marginalize and peripheralize alternative discourses and interdisciplinary dialogues as insignificant, utopian, or unfaithful to the concept of nationhood and state sovereignty. 

Therefore, in the Pakistani social sciences academy, especially in the field of international relations and other relevant disciplines, any perspective outside the understanding and knowledge of conventional disciplinary practices is faced with hostility. From universities to research think tanks, academic disciplinary gangs impede interdisciplinary, creative, and aesthetic endeavors to study the processes of international and national politics, and consequently, to confront some of the most serious political concerns of our day. 

Some examples include the role of emotions and politics in decision-making and politics, the potential of “Islamic terrorism” discourse in perpetuating Islamophobia around the world, the potential of aesthetics to enable peacebuilding efforts as well as the importance of media in constructing public opinion for political gains, like what the American media and Bush administration did to legitimize the Iraq invasion and Western media’s decontextualized reporting, misinterpretation, and misrepresentation of the Palestinian resistance.

Alternative and interdisciplinary work is essential in encouraging the growth of a more inclusive discipline, but it is not enough to simply support the incorporation of concepts from other disciplines into existing frameworks of international relations. It has to go beyond that; it can’t just criticize the problematic and confined nature of orthodox disciplinary traditions. For instance, the imaginative responses to current political crises may be found in efforts to disseminate alternative narratives about the international, decolonized from the constraints of the dominant discourse. 

Decolonizing international relations, according to Darby, means deschooling oneself from the discipline in its current dominant expressions. The objective is not to eradicate international relations theory, but to replace it with a plethora of alternative politics in a variety of settings. The task is to suggest and adopt the view that the nation-state and international relations theory are not neutral; rather, they promote categories and analyses that deny politics and other categories of the real. Most significantly for intellectuals, the international relations and nation-state paradigm constrains our knowledge of a society that increasingly defies the international relations framework. Understanding this society may begin only when we step away from our current understanding.

Furthermore, there is a need to acknowledge that international relations does not exist in a vacuum, apart from the rest of society and politics, as Roland Bleiker argues. A wide range of disciplines, as wide as neuroscience, biology, literature, and art, for example, must be brought together to provide a variety of perspectives and policy options for a multitude of issues we face today. Finally, the disciplinary gangs must be disbanded, as their primary aim is to demonstrate devotion to the gang and its code of behavior in order to grow professionally. It will be difficult to get rid of the gang that has dominated much of Pakistan’s social and political space since its formation, but the path forward is to resist and dissent in a way it encourages alternative perspectives.