Challenging International Relations’ Conceptual Constraints: The International and Everyday Life across Borders in Southern Africa


Karen SMITH*

One of the critiques of International Relations (IR) is that the discipline’s discursive boundaries are particularly rigid and continue to be shaped and maintained by dominant Western-centric concepts and discourses. This paper explores the apparent dichotomy between how concepts like ‘the international’ are interpreted by IR scholars and the experiences of ordinary people on which these concepts are imposed. How people engage with borders will be used as an illustration, with borders being regarded by IR scholars as constituting important boundaries that are essential to the field’s understanding of the world as consisting of neatly separated sovereign, territorial states. Two examples that highlight the arbitrary nature of national borders in Africa draw these assumptions into question and suggest that defining what does or does not constitute the international is, in reality, much more complex than suggested by the theoretical abstractions found in standard IR texts.

Keywords: The International, Africa, Borders, Everyday Life, Chewa


* Lecturer, Leiden University; Honorary Research Associate, University of Cape Town