Commonwealth studies are for the good of all

August 14, 1998

Pat Caplan says the Association for Commonwealth Studies will not be a club but a way of fostering understanding in many fields

Why choose 1998 to launch an Association for Commonwealth Studies and what is it for? First the Commonwealth is very much in existence, and like any other entity, it may be subjected to critical academic analysis from a variety of disciplines. It exists in numerous forms, which vary and have varied according to historical moment and to geographical and situational contexts. Evolving from the British empire, its members are linked by use of a common language, and, in many instances, similar political and legal systems. In the decades after decolonisation, the Commonwealth was seen by many as an embarrassment and expected to wither away. This has not happened; as it approaches its 50th anniversary, it is alive and kicking in a variety of ways, as was seen at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Edinburgh last year.

The Commonwealth is at one and the same time an idea, an ideal, an organisation and a network. In the context of the first, it is well to remember that the term derives from common weal - it is about the good of all, not of some more than others. These ideals have been echoed in numerous Commonwealth declarations, such as the Harare Declaration on Human Rights.

If they are to live up to the rhetoric, nations that choose to join or remain in the Commonwealth of Nations should seek not only to foster their own interests, but to ensure that those of others are also advanced. In today's globalised economic order, this could mean that those states with greater economic and political leverage do not use their power to the disadvantage of the smaller and weaker ones, but rather they seek mutual benefits. Within states, it could mean that the well-being of the many, rather than the few, is the aim. How this rhetoric may be translated into reality could well be on the research agenda of those interested in development, political science, economics, international relations and public policy.

Second, the Commonwealth is a corporate entity: a body with members, a central secretariat, and a regular schedule of meetings. How and why such a heterogeneous collection of nations operates in terms of foreign and domestic policies, what issues are discussed, agreed or disagreed upon, and what actions are taken are all of interest and import to members and non-members - this also should be the object of research.

Third, the Commonwealth is a network, or rather a series of networks, operating in a variety of spheres ranging from economic development, technical cooperation and human rights to professional interchange. In this context, the nodes in the network are made up of a vast array of Commonwealth-focused organisations and non-governmental organisations, a number of which had representatives on the working party that helped set up the launch meeting for the Association for Commonwealth Studies held on June 1 at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies. Attending the launch were, among others, representatives of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth Institute, the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Royal Commonwealth Society.

Some Commonwealth organisations are based upon professional activities, such as journalism, law, nursing, or teaching. A quick look in the London telephone directory reveals more than 25 such organisations based in this capital alone. How such organisations operate, where they get funding, how they define their aims are all questions for the field of Commonwealth studies.

In the context of higher education, which is largely discipline-based, Commonwealth studies can be about an examination of any of the above at a number of levels: that of the Commonwealth as a whole, that of any of its regions (Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, South Asia, South-east Asia and Australasia), at the level of its constituent nation-states, and at the levels of areas within nation-states ranging from the domestic group upwards. Further, they can and do include a comparative dimension between Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth because the former is not an all-encompassing and exclusive entity: at the political level it coexists with organisations such as the United Nations and various regional groupings. Thus interest in issues relating to the Commonwealth does not preclude interest in other areas. On the contrary, comparison may well be edifying.

Commonwealth studies encompass a broad range of disciplines: history in all its multifarious forms (colonial, imperial, political, subaltern, written and oral); literature (which includes both a vast array of new writings in English and a set of theories on post-coloniality); and the social sciences, among which may be numbered political science, international relations, economics (macro and micro), sociology, social policy and social anthropology, as well as law and area studies. It may also foster inter- and multidisciplinary studies.

Academics who work in these disciplines, and whose research focuses on specific areas of the globe that happen to be within the Commonwealth do not, of course, necessarily define themselves first and foremost as doing "Commonwealth studies": they think of themselves as, for example, Africanist historians, political scientists of South Asia or economists of South-east Asia and they have discipline-based organisations, including a number that are Commonwealth-wide. But this does not preclude identification with Commonwealth studies more broadly defined, which can facilitate more networking and knowledge-sharing.

At a school level, Commonwealth studies can be a way to learning in a positive way about other cultures, other nations, other ways of life. Commonwealth countries such as Britain, Canada, South Africa and Australia are now largely multicultural, with citizens whose roots spread around the globe. For the citizens of such states, the Commonwealth is not just "out there" but also "at home". Teaching and learning about the Commonwealth can be a good way of combating racism and countering the more chauvinistic versions of ethnicity.

It would be all too easy to conceive of an Association for Commonwealth Studies as a cosy club, but that is not what is envisaged. Its members, like the 100 who attended the launch meeting, will be people working at all levels of education who seek to examine rigorously the activities of the Commonwealth as an organisation and a network, to understand its past, its present and the potentialities of its future. They will further these aims through conferences, workshops and publications of many kinds, and, as distance matters little in today's world, they will frequently communicate with each other by electronic means. In this respect, the association will be a device to enable academic networking in all senses and the exchange of knowledge and people in the interests of better scholarship, as well as to ensure that the Commonwealth and its constituent parts are the objects of legitimate academic inquiry.

Pat Caplan is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.

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