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Interview with Henry Hale and Marlene Laruelle

September 14, 2021

In their State of the Field article “A New Wave of Research on Civilizational Politics,” Professors Henry Hale and Marlene Laruelle examine a growing body of work on civilizational identity. Below, the authors talk with ASN about how their research challenges Huntington’s model, why civilizational rhetoric resurges in globalization narratives, and where the field can go in the future.

Hale and Laruelle
Henry Hale and Marlene Laruelle

ASN: The concept of civilizational identity was made famous by Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis in the early 1990s. Why revisit the concept now?

HH & ML: While the notion of civilizational identity was not invented by Huntington, his “clash” thesis effectively sucked all the intellectual air out of the concept’s discussion room for more than a decade. To study civilizations was to study Huntington or to be rather marginal. And after his clash theory was disconfirmed by most systematic research devoted to testing it, scholarly interest in the subject almost completely dried up. That is, with the exception of just a few scholars who thought it unwise to throw the baby of “civilization studies” out with the Huntingtonian bathwater. And indeed, as we note in the article, at the same time scholars were largely ignoring the concept, politicians themselves were using it quite prominently in their own rhetoric. In the last few years, civilizational rhetoric has become an increasingly visible part of narratives advanced by authoritarians or populist leaders who have sometimes upended politics in countries around the world, including the United States. For these reasons, the concept of civilizational identity is quite timely now, and it is more important than ever to de-link it from Huntington’s thesis, even as we must simultaneously problematize why this thesis has had so much appeal for populist and other politicians.

ASN: You use civilization and civilizational identity interchangeably. What key conceptual factors should we keep in mind when defining and using these terms?

HH & ML: Well, we do not want to imply that these terms are fully interchangeable. Of course, civilizational identity presupposes some notion of a civilization to identify with, notions that we have argued are socially constructed as one set of personal points reference people can use to understand how they relate to other peoples in the world. But the term “civilization” also has other meanings, as in the distinction between “civilized” people and “barbarians.” This notion has strong normative connotations and, especially in contexts of colonial or post-colonial relations, can mask racism or other ideas that would establish the superiority of one set of peoples over another. For example, as we note in our article, some historians implicitly hold up the West as something of a yardstick for judging relative degrees of “civilization.” Our approach rejects such treatments.

ASN: As a form of macro identity, does civilizational identity resonate with concepts of transnationalism and globalism?

HH & ML: Yes, we can hypothesize that the “return” of civilizational narratives in the public space is a way to deal with globalization processes. It can be a way for politicians to situate their country into a supranational, regional entity. Civilizational narratives are often used in regionalist discourses, for instance in Russia to promote Eurasian integration, or in Asia around pan-Asian values or more pragmatic institutions such as ASEAN. As is known, a regionalization of the world, especially economically, has accompanied globalization. Civilizational references are also used by populist leaders and racist groups to advance arguments involving protection or closure against globalized phenomena such as migration or transnational corporations and elites. It is a very loose way to express feelings that the nation-state is too small an entity to deal with globalization trends and that a mid-level identity category is necessary.

ASN: Are there geographical and cultural specifics to academic discourses on civilizations?

HH & ML:That’s a great question and we don’t think we have systematic research on that. What emerges from our preliminary study seems to be that research done in the “Global South” tends more to emphasize the colonial past of civilizational narratives—and its uses and abuses to justify domination—while the topic in Western academia tends to focus on the populist use of the concept of civilization. If this impression is confirmed, it would anchor scholarship on civilization more in the field of postcolonialism, and that would be a fascinating contribution of the scholarship from the “Global South.”

ASN: If you could eliminate one public misconception about civilizational identity, what would it be?

HH & ML: The main public misconception is probably that civilization is a primordialist entity that has existed since time immemorial and that has to be protected or defended. If something close to a civilizational identity exists, it is a socially constructed product that is above all situational and contextualized.

ASN: Your article maps out pathways for future research and calls for interdisciplinary approaches to help solve puzzles around civilizational identity. What kind of studies on civilizational identity would you be most excited to see?

HH & ML: In general, we believe that civilizational identity should be studied much the way that nationalism is, with all the exciting new approaches that this would entail. What we have already is a growing set of insightful theory-building and ethnographic studies of how notions of civilization figure in political discourse. This work is pioneering; there is much more that remains to be done that these studies uncover. Where there is a gaping hole in scholarship, however, is in the realm of quantitative and experimental social science. These methods will help us go beyond establishing how and when politicians develop and use civilizational narratives to better understanding and documenting what “work” these narratives are actually doing in politics. Or perhaps we will find that they are not doing much work at all, which would be a surprise both to those leaders who invoke such rhetoric and to those who fear civilizational discourse is dangerous. Early research along these lines, it seems to us, is suggesting that civilizational identity is not particularly effective at accentuating (much less causing) conflict, but that it may be most impactful in more surprising ways. For example, illiberal leaders may be able to reduce opposition to their own illiberalism by invoking certain forms of civilizational identity, whereas mass identification with some civilizational categories may constrain illiberal leaders. Civilizational identity may thus be more important in domestic politics than international relations.

Follow this link to read their article "A New Wave of Research on Civilizational Politics", Nationalities Papers, Volume 49, Issue 4: Special Issue on 1918 and the Ambiguities of “Old-New Europe”, July 2021, pp. 597 - 608