Research Notes

My View of the West: Reflections from the East

By Zachary Isrow

My research is interdisciplinary engaging in philosophy, anthropology, and even with interest in cosmology. Likewise my research is global in that it crosses borders and is not confined to the West in particular. In fact, my view of the West is is themed as: Reflections of the East. In all of my research I convey the dialogue between East and West and see the modern conception of ‘West’ as part of a dialectic global exchange. My forthcoming book The Spectricity of Humanness offers critiques of contemporary western ontological perspectives – those of Harman and Meillassoux, among other speculative realists who in turn draw from tradition of Kant and Heidegger. However, my own solution to the problem of Western metaphysics is largely rooted in Eastern philosophies, most notably Daoist thought. Currently I am working on another book that considers in a more direct way the dialogue between East and West, offering a comparison between thinkers on each side which closely resemble one another, tentatively titled From East to West towards East Again.

However, my engagement with this theme of East/West dialectic is not limited to my academic work. I was also a practicing Buddhist for some time and still am a certified meditation coach, in which I engage both Eastern and Western themes which complement one another. Further, as a musician and a composer I build this dialectic into my music bringing in musical themes that are not always typical and expected that cross-genres and borders.

Generally, my view of the West is filtered through an Eastern lens – in all my engagements with the ‘West’ I harken back to the East and attempt to find the reflections from the one in the other. The goal in doing so is to focus on the similarities between the two, in order to better recognize, and appreciate the differences, and then, in turn, reflect on my own being-in-the world from this mirrored perspective.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

Zachary Isrow is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Beacon College, Leesburg, Florida.

My View of the West: The Story of a Never-Ending End

By Riccardo Bavaj

I have a background in 20th-century German intellectual history, and ‘the West’ has played an important part in the history of modern Germany. For many decades, Germans had a rather troubled relationship with ‘the West’. Obviously, German anti-Westernism soared in the First World War: ‘Western civilization’ was perceived as shallow, artificial, corrupt, and decadent, whereas ‘German culture’ was seen as innately meaningful, deep, authentic, and true to life. The outcome of the First World War did not change much in this regard. Some Germans now thought more than ever that Germany’s future should take a path very different from that of ‘the West’, and that it was good to be special – until it was not.

After 1945, the thesis of a German special path was turned on its head – the central question now was: ‘How did this happen?’ How did the Nazis come to power, and what were the causes that led to the Holocaust? People now came up with various theories about when German history had taken a wrong turn, i.e. when it had started to deviate from what was assumed to be the ‘Western’ path of normality (for instance, with supposedly ‘failed’ or ‘half-hearted’ revolutions in 1848-49 or 1918-19). The key reference point of this German soul-searching was ‘the West’, which as an idea was hardly ever really explained and instead worked like a cipher for a liberal-democratic, pluralist future – a progressive, modern society. The emerging hegemonic narrative in the Federal Republic of Germany was that in order to prevent something like this from happening again Germany had to ‘Westernize’; it had to return to the ‘Western path of normality’ that it once had left.

And so it came. Increasingly, German intellectuals would praise the ‘opening up of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West’ (Jürgen Habermas) – ‘1968’ was taken to play a key part in this – and while access to the ‘Western haven’ was still closed to Germans east of the border, after reunification the whole of Germany was said to have ‘arrived in the West’ eventually (Heinrich August Winkler). After centuries of fateful deviation from the Western norm, climaxing in Nazism’s ‘revolt against the West’, Germans were to be congratulated that they had finally arrived in the Western haven.

The great irony was that Germany seemed to have ‘arrived in the West’ at a time when – at least in academic circles – the concept of ‘the West’ was losing intellectual purchase; it was losing much of its intellectual plausibility. There was a growing uncertainty about its political contours, cultural identity, and epistemological status (is there actually such a thing as ‘the West’?), and people started to wonder whether this longed-for point of perspective – this beacon of promise that ‘the West’ had once been – was in fact a mirage.

There are various reasons behind the waning appeal of formerly unquestioned assumptions about what ‘the West’ stands for, but the end of the Cold War certainly looms large. Seemingly, the end of the Cold War had brought victory to ‘the West’, but it did much to destabilize und undermine it semantically, not least because the key antonym, Soviet Communism, was now gone. Had Germany’s vanishing point vanished? Where actually was Germany located (politically, culturally, intellectually) if it had ‘arrived in the West’? To some it seemed that, ironically, Germans had arrived in ‘the West’ only as its ‘twilight’ fell.

My own perspective on the subject of the West is very much informed by the history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte), which looks at the shifting meanings of concepts over time, both as a mirror and driver of social change. While in academia the status of the West as an ‘intelligible unit of historical study’ (Arnold Toynbee) has become increasingly contested, ‘the West’ is still a prominent point of reference in current political debate and the wider public sphere. It is most commonly used in situations of international conflicts, crises, and wars, and there has been no shortage of those in recent years. Current debates demonstrate, in fact, that the concept of ‘the West’ proves useful even, and perhaps especially, when commentators lament its ‘crisis’, ‘decline’, ‘twilight’, or ‘end’. Indeed, one could argue that the greatest threat to ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept is the lack of any threat – it does tend to be in fashion when confronted with ‘internal’ or ‘external’ threats that are considered anti-‘Western’.

I would argue that the alleged ‘twilight of the West’ (both politically and epistemologically) goes hand-in-hand with a remarkable resilience of ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept: firstly, ‘the West’ continues to be a highly popular and effective framing device, and secondly, there is a perseverance of notions of ‘the West’ that have a long tradition and reach far back in time, at least until the early nineteenth century. ‘Western hegemonies’ may have ended in various areas of life, but ‘the West’ as a rhetorical pattern is very much alive. After all, the history of ‘the West’ has always also been the story of a never-ending end.

bavaj picRiccardo Bavaj is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History. His research focuses primarily on the twentieth century and is situated at the intersection of intellectual, conceptual and spatial history. It is particularly concerned with the history of radicalism, liberalism, modernity, academia, and the idea of the West.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My view of the West: The West as a Standard of Civilization

By Henna-Riikka Pennanen

In 2014, I was finalizing my PhD in History (which you can read here), when in a brainstorming session Jukka Jouhki suggested that we should turn our gaze to “the West.” My thesis was about conceptions – and the key concept – of civilization in the writings of nineteenth-century U.S. experts on China and Japan. Unavoidably, it was also about Orientalism. But Jukka’s proposition that we should delve more deeply into Occidentalism made sense: in relation to the concept of civilization, I was already focusing inasmuch on U.S. views on “the East” as on U.S. views of “the West.” Since then, we have co-edited together a journal theme issue and a Finnish-language book on the topic. The latest addition is the edited volume with Jukka and Marko Lehti, Contestations of Liberal Order: The West in Crisis?

My research interests include representations, threat perceptions and images; conceptual and intellectual history; history of U.S.–East Asia relations; and contemporary International Relations and U.S. foreign policy. While these interests are wide and varied, there is one running theme: the West as a “standard of civilization.” Although, it should be pointed out at the outset that the notion of a standard of civilization is not the sole intellectual property of those who hail from western Europe or northern America.

In conjunction with the idea of the West, this standard can refer to the material, mental, and moral gauges with which the nineteenth-century intellectuals measured the level of civilization a given nation had attained, and then ordered those nations hierarchically. Overlapping with these hierarchies was an idea called the “family of civilized nations.” This idea – and a bundle of practices associated with it – encapsulated the nineteenth-century European international order, which was built on hegemony and asymmetrical relations. As Andrew Hurrell characterizes, it was a “world of differentiated sovereignties.” Arguably, more recent manifestations of a standard of civilization, regulating and underlying a hierarchical relationship between “the West” and everyone else, have been the (more informal) standards of liberal internationalism and liberal peace.

The West is claimed as something particular on one hand: a unique civilization, if you will. And on the other, it is claimed as something universal, an epitome of a universal, progressing civilization. It is this curious tension between these claims, that continues to pique my interest.


The author is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS). Her TIAS research project “Rising Dragon, Rising Sun: A Century of Threat Perceptions of China and Japan in the United States” analyzes U.S. elite threat perceptions of China and Japan from the turn of the 20th century to the present. The project draws from international relations studies, and contributes to U.S. diplomatic, intellectual, and cultural history.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My View of the ‘West’: Re-conceptualizing ‘Growth,’ ‘Progress,’ and ‘Development’ from a Sustainability Perspective.  

Dr. Mohamed El-Kamel Bakari

As a researcher in sustainability, globalization, environmentalism, and American studies, the ‘West’ as a geo-political and cultural construct lies at the heart of my research area. As I dig deep into the different areas of sustainability and environmental studies, the image of the ‘West’ stands out not only as the source of the Industrial Revolution, which led to an unrelenting exponential economic growth, but also as a home to multiple post-materialist social movements   and think tanks that critique and condemn the ecological harms brought about by the current socio-economic paradigm of growth. This image is, therefore, often contestable in my research mainly because  the ‘West” is both where the current unsustainable capitalist model of growth was initiated, developed, and propagated and where this growth model is constantly analyzed, criticized, and denounced by environmentalists, social activists, and thinkers. 

Though it was generally associated with positive concepts such as “modernization,” “development,” and “progress” for decades according to most post-WWII theories of development, the image of the ‘West’ is now subject to different kinds of criticism in the sustainability discourse; all the more so because new indices of post-materialist development cast a pall over this decaying image. More to the point, the image of the ‘West’ that was sold to the rest of the world as a leading pioneer in civilization, modernity, and progress has significantly been debunked by new gauges of human development such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), and the Happy Planet Index (HPI) that rank many Western countries down the list of human development and well-being. What is more, it accentuated in many of my writings that the positive image of the “West” that is based, for the most part, on the Goss Domestic Product (GDP) rates and other gauges of material wealth no longer captures the multi-dimensionality of post-industrial human development.

Above all, the image of the ‘West’ is tarnished by the spread and domination of materialistic values anchored in the ‘laissez-faire’ economics which gradually culminated in neo-liberal capitalism, unbridled open market economies, and an unstoppable process of (economic) globalization. To study and critique this domination, post-materialist as well as post-modernist approaches are often adopted in my research endeavours.  With this end in view, a great part of my academic investigation focused on what came to be known as ‘New Social Movements’ (NSMs), which have struggled to keep the torch of non-materialism, spirituality, individualism, and diversity alive in the face of homogenizing waves of economic and cultural/intellectual globalization/Westernization. When it comes to delineating an objective image of the ‘West,” my research has so far been a real struggle to find an academically sound approach in the minefield of contradictory concepts and conflicting phenomena such as globalization Vs. localization; materialism Vs. spirituality; development Vs. underdevelopment; modernization Vs. backwardness; homogeneity Vs. identity/individualism; colonialism Vs. independence; and ultimately sustainability Vs. ‘unsustainability.’ 

  A great deal of my research also touches upon the flickering image of the “West” in global politics, especially with regard to other relevant sub-issues such as global environmental politics, United Nations’ Sustainable Development Studies Goals (SDGs), Global Governance System, North-South Divide, among others. More often than not, this image changes dramatically as we cross the line from one research realm to another, depending on the political, economic, social, and cultural outlook adopted in these discussions. From a Global South’s perspective, for instance, the image of the “West” seems to be tainted with lingering thorny issues such as Northern conditional aid policies, imposed economic and political policies on the developing countries, unjust global trade measures, and the global financial institutions’ manipulation of market policies and capital flow in favour of the developed countries. Accordingly, this image is often caught in the crossfire area of the North-South divide and the changing power relations therein.

Not only is the image of the “West” a matter of debate in the North-South divide, but it is also recurrently echoed in the Man-Nature divide discussions within the Western countries that I examined in my writings. Scholarly reflections on how Man dominates, uses, and abuses Nature are essentially anchored in the different studies of the processes of industrialization and urbanization in the “West” and the consequent yawning gap between humans and their natural environment in post-industrial societies. Feeding in this Man-Nature divide that smeared the image of the “West” are other emerging issues such as the current unsustainable modes of living, the unjust distribution of environmental harms in Western societies, and the imminent global ecological dangers. Another crack in the image of the ‘West’ that is captured in my research is, therefore, brought about by the contemporary ‘environmental apartheid,’ which places disadvantages segments of society in the most polluted areas in big Western cities while the affluent people enjoy cleaner environment in other areas. My investigation of the inception, evolution, and ramifications of “environmental justice movement” sheds more light on all these issues and more.

In a nutshell, the image of the ‘West’ in my research is no longer the harbinger of modernization, progress, and development, for it also connotes other negative and environment-unfriendly concepts such as consumerism, corporatism, the abuse of indigenous culture, and the Northern hegemony over the Global South. Having said that, this image still bespeaks a faint hope in the few promising initiatives fostered by think-tanks, the United Nations, and some Western NGOs to implement sustainable development and live within the carrying capacity of the planet’s natural eco-systems. Hope also comes from the intellectual and cultural rising global awareness of the vital necessity of achieving sustainability that is spreading steadily across the “West” and gradually infiltrating into the bastion of neo-liberal capitalism. 

my photo

Dr. Mohamed El-Kamel Bakari holds a PhD in American culture studies from the University of Manouba in Tunis, Tunisia, and he is now a senior lecturer at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, KSA. He is a published author and a prolific researcher in American environmentalism, sustainability, globalization, New Social Movements (NSMs), and global environmental/Green politics. Among his numerous writings, his most recent publications are a book about the Dilemma of Sustainability in the Age of Globalization and several scholarly articles about the inception and evolution of the American Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) and its interaction with other social and political movements.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My View of The West: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of Civilizational Politics

By Gregorio Bettiza

One of the major lines of my research has been motivated by a paradox. Why, despite the nearly universal critique of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, his Foreign Affairs article and book remain among the most widely cited and read pieces of scholarly – or, better, ideological – work within the social sciences (see here for an effort at providing an explanation). Along the way, I’ve been fascinated by how Huntington’s thesis, and more broadly the view that we are in a world of multiple civilizations whose relations drive global peace and security, have not just been confined to academic books and university classrooms. But have also increasingly animated public debates and shaped international practices and institutions in novel and dramatic ways since the end of the Cold War. These developments constitute, in my view, the emergence of a particular type of politics, which I have come to define as civilizational politics.

Like most in this network, analytically I do not approach civilizations – whether it is ‘the West’ or any other civilizational entity – as objective, clearly identifiable, realities. Rather I view them as socially constructed identities. Importantly, these are not just discourses that are instrumentally deployed, but meaningful imagined communities and social imaginaries that many around the world – whether in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, Africa, or across South and East Asia – collectively hold and draw upon to interpret and define their realities. An important part of my research has been dedicated to investigating the causes and consequences of civilizational politics in our contemporary globalized international system. Over the years I’ve explored how US foreign policy has contributed to reifying – under both the Bush and Obama presidencies – the ‘Muslim world’ in international relations (here), how the Islamic State (ISIS) has represented ‘the West’ in its propaganda (here), how ideas of civilizational dialogues have reshaped international institutions (here and here), or why rising authoritarian powers like Russia and China are increasingly reconstructing their identities along civilizational lines in an effort to contest the liberal international order (here). 

Recently I’ve been intrigued by the growing contestation, emerging in the context of rising populism and far-right groups across Europe and the United States, around what constitutes the essence and boundary of ‘the West’. Namely, whether the West should be principally defined in racial terms (whiteness being its key attribute), linguistic-ethnic terms (a fragmented West of Anglophone, Germanic, Latin and possibly Slavic peoples), in cultural and religious terms (the Judeo-Christian West) or along secular ideological lines (the Liberal West). Which understanding prevails in the coming decades will have important repercussions on a host of issues, including: the transatlantic relation and membership in NATO, the future of the European Union, relations with Russia, the War on Terror, immigration policies, and many other aspects of international politics. These debates, and the scholarship unpacking them, are all finding their way in the reading list of my MA course The West, Civilizations and World Order.

My publication with David Lewis on rising powers and normative contestation is now out!

Dr Gregorio Bettiza

Photo source.

Dr Gregorio Bettiza is Senior Lecturer in International Relations. His research interests are in IR theory and in the role of ideas, norms and identities in international relations. I focus in particular on the complex interactions between liberal and non-liberal ideas, actors and practices in world politics.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.



My View of the West: Sex and Gender

Frank G. Karioris (University of Pittsburgh)

In broad terms, my research relates to the interrelated categories of gender and sexualities, looking specifically at masculinities and heteronormativity within each of those. My first monograph, published in early 2019 and in paperback in May 2020, is An Education in Sexuality & Sociality: Heteronormativity on Campus. Building off extensive ethnography in an all-male residence hall at a university in the Midwestern part of the United States, the book looks at the complicated ways that the university as institution dictates and seeks to determine the social and sexual relations happening on campus. Building on this work, Dr Sertaç Sehlikoglu and I have just co-edited The Everyday Makings of Heteronormativity: Cross-Cultural Explorations of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality. This books continues many of the conversations from both our books (including Dr Sehlikoglu’s wonderful forthcoming book Working Out Desire: Women, Sport, and Self-Making in Istanbul) as well as the previous co-edited book I was involved in, with Drs Nancy Lindisfarne and Andrea Cornwall, Masculinities Under Neoliberalism.  

Over the past two years, my research has broadened itself beyond the scope of just academic publishing to incorporate poetry and poetic practice. I have published pieces addressing structural and police violence, a remembrance for Ernesto Cardenal, and the importance (and particularity) of friendship

Each of these components further expands and (un)defines the research that I have been undertaking in the past two years, and which situates my current trajectory. This is particularly important as research (often with a capital R) is too often seen as the purview of the tenured, of the academic journals proper, and too often removed from our lives and the width and breadth of what truly undergirds all research-based endeavors. 

As the West more broadly, my recent research is both ethereal and starkly material – in both its blinding existences and that which it refuses to acknowledge. In opposition to the West (as construction and practice and lived reality), my research  seeks to tear down boundary and border walls that keep out not only new epistemologies and ontological ways of being, in the form of Disciplinary Ideologies; but aims to disinter the economic, social, and political powers that are rooted in – and root through – these Disciplines. In these ways, we must expand our view of the pur(e)view of the West to recognize, research, and re-align our scope in the face of an ever expanding globalization in a frighteningly smaller globe
Frank G. Karioris

Frank. G. Karioris  is visiting lecturer of gender, sexuality, and women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a broadly trained sociologist, whose research and teaching interests include: Higher Education, Theories of Sociality/Sexuality, Critical Sociology, Critical Pedagogy, Bodies, and Critical Studies of Men & Masculinities. 

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My View of the West: An Imagined Community Par Excellence

Jukka Jouhki

I got interested in the concept of the West while conducting anthropological fieldwork on the relationship between expatriate Europeans and local Tamil villagers in South India almost two deades ago. First, I was interested in Orientalism in the European views of India, but at some point I noticed how exotic ‘the West’ was to the local Tamil people (read my dissertation here), so I got interested in Occidentalism as well.

After my doctoral dissertation (2006), I have conducted anthropological research in several countries such as China, India, South Korea, Spain, The Gambia, and Finland, and while talking to people I have come across various kinds of conceptualizations of Western society – even if it hadn’t always been the purpose of my research. When I realized that social scientists had rarely concentrated on and problematized the concept of Western culture or Western society, I thought that the rare scholars who had, should organize. Hence, The West Network was founded by me and my colleague Dr. Henna-Riikka Pennanen who had similar interests.


Theoretically, I am nowadays interested in what I call banal Occidentalism (see e.g. this article), a combination – or extension – of Michael Billig’s banal nationalism and Edward Said’s Orientalism. I am particularly interested in how ‘the West,’ ‘Western society,’ ‘Western people’ etc. are utilized to connote a unified Western whole, and the kind of instances where ‘the West’ is evoked as a rhetorical tool. In addition to banal nationalism, I am interested in the Occidentalisms of people who do not identify as Western.

The author is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology and Docent of Ethnology in University of Jyväskylä, Finland. In addition to the West, his research interests include Finnish expats (in Spain and India), child marriage in The Gambia, and social robots – to name a few ongoing projects. Dr. Jouhki is also the Editor-in-Chief of Human Technology journal.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

Whiteness, Christianity and capitalism: Troubling the concept of Western values

By Pia Mikander

In his traditional New Year’s speech on January 1st, 2019, the Finnish president referred to democracy, equality and freedom as European values. These are often regarded not only as European values, but also as encompassing the larger, more ideological unit of ‘the West’. (See Mikander 2015 for further discussion on how Europe is also an ideological unit, not just a geographical one, but the idea of the West is primarily ideological.)

Exporting European values has changed into defending them on home ground. And are we seeing attempts to import values alien to us? We know what the opposites of democracy, equality and freedom are.  (Niinistö, 2019.)

The concept of Western values is used extensively in texts ranging from news reporting to politicians’ speeches. Finnish school textbooks, which form the object of my PhD thesis (2016a), also refer to the concept. Here, my suggestion is to discuss the idea of Western values and Western identity not from the perspective of democracy, equality and freedom but through some very different lenses: whiteness, Christianity and capitalism. I think that a way to approach the idea of the West is through the following questions: Who can claim a Western identity? Who is considered as encompassing Western values? I will propose an example:

Suppose that a penniless woman, Rohingya Muslim, who was flown from a refugee camp to Helsinki as part of the quota refugee system, would show up in Finnish language class and talk endlessly about how she believes in democracy, equality and freedom. Would she be considered to be representing Western values and a Western identity to a larger extent than her fellow Helsinkian businessman with a Lutheran background who voted for parties with anti-democratic agendas, debated against same-sex marriage and thought that the recent Danish suggestion to imprison migrants on a deserted island was a good idea? Or would he, despite opposing these examples of democracy, equality and freedom, be considered as more naturally connected to Westernness, complete with a Western identity and Western values?


Whiteness is not Westernness – but it can help us understand it

The concept of Western values can benefit from theoretical tools departing from critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness scholars analyze the hegemonic power structures that work to benefit people who are racialized as white (Ahmed, 2011; Mattson, 2004). Alastair Bonnett (2004), however, reminds us that West is not simply a euphemism for white. First of all, there is an inclusivity connected to Westernness that is not part of whiteness. The Finnish president could be said to refer to this inclusivity when mentioning the “Exporting European values”. More people can thereby come to be part of this European/Western community of values.

Perhaps it is theoretically possible for anyone to be a part of Westernness, while not anyone could identify as white. As according to Bonnett, the concept of the West includes a set of values that could theoretically be open for anyone to embrace; at the same time, however, it seems that the inclusiveness is not genuine: the whole world cannot become “Western.” The idea of Western values requires a counterpart, and without it, there would be no need for it as an identity category. The concepts of whiteness links to corporeality and embodied experiences, such as being able to pass through security gates and seeing representations of oneself in positions of power, while Westernness is considered an ideological identity. Still, they bear a certain resemblance.

Westerness and whiteness are often used in different contexts but are at least to some extent both socially constructed categories that work to include and exclude people. The distinction between the two is not a simple one. There has been and still is plenty of ideological meaning given to the embodied concept of whiteness. Mattson (2004, p. 124), for instance, considers there to be a “globally embedded imagination” including the idea that white people are connected through their ideological sameness. Whiteness would then be considered connected to more than corporeality.


This suggests that whiteness connects to an ideology of being Western. The woman in my above-mentioned example might thus have to prove her values and identity as a Westerner in ways that the man in the same example would not. People could frown upon hearing about his fascination with anti-democratic parties, but they might be less likely to question his Westernness. This, to me, is one example of how the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness between the concepts of Western and white works. Studying the concept of Western values from the perspective of whiteness helps examine the concept of the West in a less neutral light. As I argue in my PhD thesis (p. 28), concerning the socially constructed categories of whiteness and Westernness:

One major difference between the categories “white” and “Western” is the extent to which they are politicized. The concepts are perceived and used very differently. This includes mainstream media and to a lesser degree some of the academic debate, where “West,” “Westerners” and “Western values” are used extensively (Bonnett, 2004). Whether these concepts are defined, for instance, as including democracy and human rights, or simply left without definition, they mostly pass without much notice, not raising much concern. If, let’s say, democracy or human rights were referred to as “white values,” or if the news media reported about threats to the “white world” in the same ways as “Western values” or the “Western world” are mentioned today, most people would probably react with dismay. Yet there are rarely any such reactions towards the frequent references to Western values and Westernness.

The ease with which Western values are referred to, and the absolute unease the idea of white values would awake, suggests that the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness has not been completely dealt with. Few people would consider the concept of Western values problematic at all. My argument is that they perhaps should. One reason why whiteness as a concept is so much more uncomfortable than the concept of Westernness is, obviously, to be found in Europe’s long history of race theories and racism. The concept of whiteness brings this history to mind perhaps more easily than the concept of Westernness does.

Christianity as an ambiguous basis for Western values

Before European, let alone Western, was an identity, there was a notion of Christianity as an ideological unity. According to Bonnett (1998), modernity brought along the idea that there was a linkage between whiteness, Europeanness and Christianity. Christianity is an identity connected to values in a direct way, even if there is no absolute agreement over what these values stand for. Valuing democracy, equality and freedom has not always been the first priority of the church – still, politicians in Finland, like in the rest of Europe, might suggest that Finnish migrant policy should favor Christian refugees since they could easier integrate into Finnish society. This is to suggest that one key to being part of what is Western is to be a Christian.

Many have considered there to be a link between Christianity and Westernness as entities of value and identity. Others, however, would argue that Christianity is not at the heart of what is commonly understood as Western values. In fact, people who oppose furthering equality in concrete political measures, such as the freedom and rights for sexual minorities, often refer to Christianity for arguments. To this debate, it is worth considering that Bonnett (2004) sees the historical relationship between the concept of Western values and Christianity as shifting dramatically in the last century.

During the early 20th century, with rising socialist parties that denounced religion, atheism was discursively constructed as the height of Westernness. When the Soviet Union later became the antipode of the West, a Western identity went back to including religiosity in the name of Christianity. After the fall of the communist anti-West, when the religiously coded Arab or Islamic world came to be what a Western identity distanced itself mostly from, a skeptical attitude to religion became a more integral part of the discursive constructions of what it means to be Western and adhere to Western values.


There are many potential ways of approaching the relationship between Christianity and a Western identity. One is to look at the differences between the countries considered as Western and the role Christianity plays in their societal contexts, such as on different sides of the North Atlantic. Europeans might consider US political references to God as confusing. However, within Europe, too, Christianity is displayed very differently in different countries and regions. Speaking of Christianity as a fountain of European values often ignores Europe’s violent history of war between different Christian denominations and how differently Catholic and Protestant cultures have been constructed.

The significance of Christianity in society varies greatly between countries considered Western. There are several examples of this, on a structural level as well as on a more discursive level. An example of structural differences is how differently religious education is taught in schools between and even within countries. From the French policy of laïcite to Irish schools with Christianity as an integral part of primary education, and Finland where students are taught their own religions within public schools – the only pattern to be found is that of a diversity of ways of connecting the teaching of religions values within nations. Germany, and the USA, serve as examples to show that there can be plenty of variations also within nations regarding how religion is taught in schools. On a structural level, it is hard to find consistent patterns of what Christianity means to Westernness.

On a discursive level, I would suggest that there are similar distinctions between how the concept of Western values connects to values regarded as Christian. Christianity is referred to in order to make value judgments of a wide range. Consider the differences between statements such as “Being a Christian, I oppose gay marriage” and “Being a Christian, I oppose deportations”. Christian activists in Europe and the USA might base their actions on their religion whether they target abortion clinics or help undocumented migrants hide from authorities. Although Christianity is often constructed as an integral part of Westernness, it is hard to single out what it means in concrete terms today.  

Capitalism, wealth and Western values

The connection between capitalism and the concept of the West is not self-evident. The Cold War is over, many countries far away from the “West” are based on market economy, and several countries considered Western have social democratic solutions that constrain capitalist economy. One reason why the woman in my initial example might not be seen as representing Westernness to the same degree as the businessman is not simply that she would not be considered white, or having a Christian background, but also because she is completely broke.

In my analyzed Finnish school textbooks I found descriptions of Western values and what is typical for the West. In addition to the often cited democracy, equality and freedom, there were some interesting views related to wealth. A geography book suggested that part of Western culture is that people have the right to a high standard of living. Another geography book suggested that a high standard of living is typical for the European continent. (see Mikander, 2015).

Above, “culture” and “typical” have important meaning. It is not simply to state that much of the wealth of the world today is gathered in pockets of people who represent countries considered Western (most of the richest 1%, who own half of the world’s wealth still live on either side of the North Atlantic, even though the percentage of Asians in the group is growing). No, the textbooks could be considered to reflect the idea that being wealthy and having a high standard of living is more than a coincidence, it is part of what is constructed as Westernness.


Sometimes capitalism is used as an argument regarding conflicts of values. When I studied the textbook descriptions of 9/11 in New York and the following Afghanistan and Iraq wars (Mikander, 2012), I found a history textbook with the following description:

The attacks led to the death of 3,000 innocent people, people from many different countries belonging to several religions and language groups. But the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world. Within the economy, “business as usual” still rules. Even though the aerial industry suffered hard losses, stricter control made it safer to fly. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 267.)

In this history textbook for grade 8, it is suggested that the attacks might have caused the aerial industry hard losses, however, the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world, since the economy was not destroyed and business as usual could go on. Crushing the Western world would thereby first of all have meant to destroy the economy, not the idea of democracy, equality or freedom. This can be seen as a response to how the same book describes the connection between capitalism and Westernness at an earlier stage:

It was not with the help of weapons that the Western world became the winners of the Cold War. It was the Western economic system, capitalism, or the market economy, that turned out to be stronger than the communist planned economy system. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 161.)

When describing Westernness and capitalism or the accumulation of wealth, it is worth noting that social studies textbooks arbitrarily or even seldom make connections to colonialism and its ongoing legacy, even though colonialist ventures have had such a fundamental impact on the economies in Europe and the USA.

Where to look for Western values?

Nowadays, there is a simultaneous worry about population growth far away and fewer babies in many European countries, for instance. The idea often cited in nationalist discourse is that Western populations need to be stimulated by Western women having more children, not by increasing immigration. In this sense,  Western values and Westernness are seen as inherent, not acquirable. If the woman of my example above chooses to have babies in her new homeland, it is not necessarily considered a gain for Westernness, no matter how much she teaches them about freedom, equality and democracy.

Recently, I compiled a list of leaders and their political profiles in the world’s thirteen most populated countries. I realized that the majority of the leaders on the list were right-wing populist, and thereby not particularly famous for being spokespeople for freedom, democracy or equality – in the sense that all human beings are entitled to the same rights. The clearest exception on my list was the Ethiopian president who through his belief in religious dialogue had helped end the decade-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

And it struck me: during times when European and US border politics might not be characterized by democracy, freedom and equality – maybe we should lift our gaze and look for these values on a larger scale? Maybe we will keep looking for the values that the Finnish president refers to, and end up realizing they were never merely Western?

The author is a senior lecturer in history and social studies didactics at the University of Helsinki. Follow Pia on Twitter here.


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  • Bonnett, A. (1998). Who was white? The disappearance of non-European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21 (6), 1029—1055.
  • Bonnett, A. (2004). The Idea of the West. Culture, Politics and History. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mattson, K. (2004). Vit rasism. In K. Mattson & I. Lindberg (Eds.) Rasismer i Europa – kontinuitet och förändring. Rapport från forskarseminariet 5 november 2003. Stockholm: Agora, 108—141.
  • Mikander, P. (2012). Othering and the construction of West: The descriptions of two historical events in Finnish school textbooks. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices 6(1), 31—45.
  • Mikander, P. (2015). Democracy and Human Rights: A Critical Look at the Concept of Western Values in Finnish School Textbooks. In K. Hahl, P-M. Niemi, R. Johnson Longfor & F. Dervin (Eds.). Diversities and interculturality in Textbooks. Finland as an Example. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 107—124.
  • Mikander, P., (2015) Colonialist ‘discoveries’ in Finnish school textbooks, Nordidactica – Journal of humanities and social science education, (4): 48–65.
  • Mikander, P., (2016a) Westerners and others in Finnish school textbooks, Thesis (PhD), University of Helsinki.
  • Mikander, P. (2016b). Globalization as Continuing Colonialism: Critical Global Citizenship Education in an Unequal World. Journal of Social Science Education 15(2), 70—79.
  • Niinistö, S. (2019). President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s Speech on 1 January 2019.

My View of the West: the avant-garde for Russian and Ukrainian social movements

Olga Baysha

The West or, rather, the image of the West as constructed by Russian and Ukrainian social movements for democratization, occupies an important place in my research. The narrative of unidirectional progress, employed by all the social movements I have analyzed, presents the West as the avant-garde leading humanity toward the “normal” modern condition in which no cultural or historical differences matter, and where all societies ultimately look the same. Whether in Gorbachev’s USSR, Putin’s Russia, or Yanukovych’s Ukraine, the discourse of unidirectional progress always presumes an inexorable movement of humankind toward an advanced Western condition where the ultimate truth, hitherto obscured, can finally be unveiled.

In the presentation of many Ukrainian and Russian activists for social justice, whose discursive constructions I have analyzed, the West emerges as an undeniable moral force with the right to judge, pass verdicts and impose punishment. Aligning themselves with the “civilized” West, these activists present themselves as “educated people,” “people who stand for their dignity,” who are “very motivated,” “goal-seeking,” “smart,” and “responsible.” Often, they imagine their struggle for “democratization” as an attempt to jump out of the dark medieval ages – the premodern state of human development – to the era of the Enlightenment. This struggle is conceived as an attempt to breach the new iron curtain that separate Ukraine and Russia from the condition of the highest modernity as represented by the West. The social condition of the contemporary West is presented to be a norm against which those who are thought unfit could be judged.


This grand simplification of social and political realities, which are always much more complicated than the simple duality of “good/progressive vs. evil/backward,” develops into a tendency among “democratically minded” activists to see all opponents – not only those in power – as “jackals,” “the bootlickers of the regime,” “traitors,” or just “weak and demoralized people.” Because of their “inadequacy,” or “abnormality,” to put it in Michel Foucault’s terms, the opponents of democratization equated to Westernization are seen not as human beings or citizens whose opinions deserved to be taken into account: They appear as “idiots,” “sovoks” (derogative term to denote the Soviet condition), or “serfs.” The latter, in the opinion of many activists for “democratization,” have a chance “to become Human Beings”– they just needed to take their “progressive” stance.

The problem with the modernizing mission of the social movements with a West-centric imaginary is that all of them end up undermining democracy rather than promoting it, as they diminish and marginalize their presumably underdeveloped compatriots, and colonize them by excluding their voices from deliberation on important issues of societal transformations within “progressive” public spheres. As I argue in my recent book Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Ukraine, this West-centered imaginary is internally antagonistic.

Establishing a solid, impermeable barrier between activists pushing forward the agenda of universal globalization and “others” who oppose it, the discourse of democratization equated to Westernization creates the conditions for a “maximum separation,” when “no element in the system of equivalences enters into relations other than those of opposition to the elements of the other system,” as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe famously argued. It does not allow for a democratic exchange of opinions between the two antagonistic camps within a symbolically shared space.

The author (Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder) is an Assistant Professor at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (Moscow, the Russian Federation). Her research centers mainly on political and cultural aspects of globalization with an emphasis on new media and global social movements for justice and democratization. Dr. Baysha is especially interested in analyzing inherent anti-democratic tendencies of the discourses of Westernization employed by post-Soviet social movements. Dr. Baysha is the author of two books: The Mythologies of Capitalism and the End of the Soviet Project (Lexington, 2014) and Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Urkaine (Lexington, 2018).

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

The Shadowy Boundaries of East and West: Russia in the British Enlightenment Geography

By Oili Pulkkinen

Displacing East and West

We are prone to think that Russia, throughout modern European history, stood as the gate between Europe and Asia, the West and the East. Russia has represented otherness, inferiority and underdevelopment, and probably provided Europeans with a first pattern of backwardness against which they could measure their own civilizational achievements.

However, “east” and “west” (and “western”) were merely spatial concepts in eighteenth-century geography, devoid of specific political or cultural connotations. Nonetheless, it was the case for the Europeans, for whom ”Europe” and ”European” were synonymous with cultural, economic, political, technological advance and superiority, and more broadly, with the whole process called modernity. The representations of the East, by contrast, were more blurred and ambiguous. On the one hand, the East was seen as cruel, uncivilised and underdeveloped. On the other hand, it looked attractive because of its aura of mystery, and its flow of luxury items. Moreover, one must not forget that the Biblical Eden was situated in the East.

Further, the shift from a three-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa) to a four-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America) after the discovery of America has been problematic for the Enlightenment geography which was based on a division of the globe in two continents (in modern terms “tectonic plates”): the Eastern and the Western continents, that is, Europe, Asia and Africa located on the former, and America on the latter. This division corresponded to the contrast between “The Old World” and “The New World”, which was an elementary part of the new Newtonian, scientific geography. Thus, Europe, Asia and Africa were situated in the geographical “east” rather than  the geographical “west”.


The eighteenth-century globe was divided into the Eastern and Western Continents in William Guthrie A New Geographical, Historical and Commercial Grammar, 1799 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online ECCO, Gale).

The Russian Empire

Russia and the Russians were characterised and depicted through European standards. For example, the Orthodox religion was seen as the Catholic religion without the pope, while Russian workers were held to be as good as Scotsmen, strong and robust. Nonetheless, from the European perspective, Russia was not only perceived as inferior; it had rich natural sources, commercial connections with the East, and excellent water routes (rivers) for this purpose, as well as good development prospects.

Even though Russia and Europe were located on the same continent, Russia was culturally different from the other countries of the continent, especially France and Britain. One indication of this was the poor status of Russian women. The stereotypical depiction of Russians as binge vodka drinkers was a commonplace, and even the number of vodka shops were recorded in the entries on Russia in geography books of the time. Russia, and especially Russian environment and nature were described as more “Nordic” than “Eastern” part of the Continent, snowy and cold.

Compared with the other European empires (especially Britain, France and Spain), the Russian Empire was a massive landmass. Europeans subdivided it into large parts, European Russia and Asian Russia in Asia, and smaller units, like Moscovite Russia and Tartary. Before the emergence of ethnographic research in the late Enlightenment, a couple of Russian minorities were mentioned, but the distinctions between various minorities living in Russia and between these and the Russians were not explained. Usually minorities were simply named ”Tartars”.


The map of the Russian Empire in Atlas to Guthrie’s System of Geography, 1800 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, ECCO, Gale). Russia was generally pictured in two separate maps of Russia in Europe and Russia in Asia, but in this map the vast empire is pictured in one map.

Russians had not always been “Russians”. Although geography and history were distinct areas of scientific knowledge in the eighteenth-century, historical details were recorded in the geography books. Since the origin and history of nations was a crucial element of nationhood (not yet nationalism), it was important to explain the origins of geographical terms and names. For instance, several different origins, each bearing a different connotation, were attributed to the name “Europe”. Similarly, it was assumed that ‘Russia’ originated either from russus, meaning a dispersant, and a wanderer, or from the ancient Croatian Prince Russus.

According to the Russians’ historical narrative, the conquered Russians had become the conquerors. The heart of real Russia had been Moscow, and it still was, despite the fact that Peter the Great founded a new capital, St Petersburg. By contrast, official modern historical narratives tell that (Orthodox) Russia originated from Kievian Russia, but according to the eighteenth-century geography, Kiev had been, and remained, the Russia of the Cossacks, rather than the cradle of Russia.

Russia, the largest empire in the world in spatial terms in the 18th century, if it not appeared entirely strange, certainly looked very different from (other parts of) Europe according to British Enlightenment geography, on the cultural level no less than in its geographical setting.

The author has a PhD in social sciences (political science) at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her research interests include the Scottish Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century geography and the conceptual history of politics. She is currently preparing a research project on critique of democracy. This text is based on the author’s article ‘Russia and the Euro-Centric Geography During the British Enlightenment’ in the special issue on the Nordic Enlightenment  in Transcultural Studies (Brill) 2018(2), 150–170.