History and Purpose

The Centre for the Critical Study of Global Power and Politics (CSGP) in its current form was established in the spring of 2007.

What does “critical” mean?

The Canadian humourist, Stephen Leacock, once observed that while people may own up to all manner of failings, they are generally loathe to concede they lack a sense of humour – with the insistence of possessing one rising in direct proportion to its lack. By the same token, it can be argued that social scientists are similarly loathe to admit to a lack of criticality in their work – again, with insistence on a critical orientation generally standing in direct relation to its absence.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that a working definition of what constitutes criticality is often lacking. And while it is true that defining criticality is complicated by the fact that it can be constructed variably in relation to contending philosophical definitions and “operationalized” differently through various methodologies, we believe that advancing such a definition is both possible and necessary.

Three elements define a critical orientation to the study of the social world. First, critical social analysis stresses totality, understood not only as the interrelationship of economics and politics, but also as the interconnection of the various levels of human interaction, from the local, through the national, to the global. Secondly, a critical approach recognizes the importance and role of ideas and ideologies in their interplay with material circumstances, allowing us to appreciate the active and non-reductive role played by ideas/ ideologies in determining the course of public life, and the fact that dominant ideas and ideologies are not neutral , but regularly serve the interests of power and privilege. Finally, and perhaps most importantly to a critical orientation,there is a particular conception of the role to be played by intellectuals, clearly visible in the admonition to those working in the academy: that to them belonged the task of “questioning the pretensions of organized power” (Harold Innis).

Of course, intellectuals shilling for those with power and privilege is not new to the global age but a continuation of a very old tradition. We believe that intellectuals bear a special responsibility for the public good, a notion that many colleagues would reject as fictional. Of course there should be disagreements on what constitutes the public good or what makes a socially relevant research project. But we cannot abandon the question or reject it as of no importance for science without adopting an implicit position. To make such implicit positions explicit and present them for debate is one of the meanings we give to the idea of critical.

Academic freedom is the single most important right for practicing scholars. It gives them autonomy in the choice of research topics, even or especially if that work is for one reason or another politically unpopular. Though it protects no one’s results against scholarly or political criticism, it enables researchers to follow their own– intellectual and political– agenda in the first place, and to discover new and potentially politically embarrassing results. We believe academic freedom and tenure are privileges that imply responsible choices of research topics and call for a critical attitude that few other citizens have the opportunity to exercise or express in their work. The scientific work of academics in most publicly funded and some private institutions, especially those in tenured positions, is not legally or institutionally required to serve any particular interests. Yet it often does.

We are not calling into question the right of those who choose other topics or approaches than those we consider critical. But we insist on exposing those whose scholarly work – intentionally or unwittingly– serves as apologies for fundamental injustices or uncritically buys into conventional wisdom.

Should we bite the hand that feeds us? In fact, we think we must. Intellectuals, if in fact they believe in anything, hold up principles of justice, equality, and opportunity that more often than not will set them at odds with the pragmatic, power and profit-oriented principles followed by political and economic elites. It is indeed an achievement of modern liberal democratic societies to guarantee political rights, institutional positions, and intellectual space to some of its harshest critics. But we should remember that the rationale for doing so revolves around advancing the public good –by encouraging and facilitating unorthodox, non-mainstream, thinking and ideas.

Doesn't the critical approach create false or dangerous us vs. them divisions? The answer is, for the most part, no. Using nationalism to manipulate people into feeling exaggerated fear of others, for instance, means creating false and dangerous divisions. When such feelings are instrumentalized to justify sending people to war to kill and be killed, then a critical approach will oppose such positions and expose its proponents who stand to benefit economically or politically from war while making it clear who pays the costs in lives and human misery.

All emancipatory projects – from liberalism and marxism to feminism and environmentalism– challenge above all existing conceptions of what is good and reexamine and reinterpret their subject matter accordingly. This does not exempt them from criticism, nor does it necessarily allow them to generate deep and defensible knowledge. But it challenges the status quo, unless or until it becomes itself the ruling orthodoxy– as is the case with modern liberalism, especially in its neo liberal variant, or with socialism, especially in its Marxist-Leninist guise. The idea of critical associates us naturally with all truly emancipatory movements, but at the same time requires us to examine and criticize the claims of their members, especially if and when they gain power.

Isn’t the constant critique of the powerful a one-dimensional approach? The answer is yes. It is true that some unequal power arrangements are worse than others, so at times it may make sense to defend the powerful. It is also true that that the pursuit of a perfect social order is fraught with danger, and injustice and gross inequality will likely be around for an indefinite length of time. But to be critical in our sense means precisely not to conclude from this that the, or any, status quo should be accepted, or that conditions can’t be improved.

Isn’t there more to life than power? Thankfully yes, but nothing in life seems to be immune from it. So enjoy, and help others live.