Monday, October 27, 2008

International Relations 101 #1

I've been thinking for a long time about what a good ``Intro to IR'' class might look like.  I have experienced several, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, but I feel like there is something systematically wrong with the way that IR theory is presented to students.  It is possible that this problem is due to the way that IR scholars think about IR theory, but I will bracket this issue (perhaps for later discussion).  The immediate motivation for my current post was this post over at Worlds Apart about what he calls the `Baylis and Smith' approach to IR theory after an undergraduate textbook edited by these two scholars.
This approach treats the field of international relations as an ongoing debate between proponents of between three and a half dozen theoretical approaches (depending on how eclectic the course/tutor/academic institution is) ... [B]y pigeon-holing approaches into one of a few theoretical positions, it has intellectually and pedagogically unhealthy consequences.
What he seems to mean by this is the idea that IR theory is best understood by starting with the idea that there are a number of competing `paradigms' or theoretical traditions and then learning ``what they are'', i.e. what Realism is, what Neo-Liberal Institutionalism is, etc. etc.  Some challenges to this approach might take the position that what is really important is to add to this list of paradigms, in that it is important to include constructivism, feminism, critical theory (Marxism?) et al.  I claim that this is misguided.  The problem with teaching IR theory in the `B&S' way is not that it limits the exposure of students to theoretical viewpoints.  The problem is, or the problems are, that these paradigms are not internally coherent and so do not provide us with guidance about analyzing substantive topics of international politics, AND that the focus is then on the theories as theories, rather than on theories as ways of understanding substantive questions/phenomena.  If we put the practical application of IR theory at the forefront of the pedagogical enterprise, this should have several effects:

1) students will understand why IR theory is important 

2) students will be aware that theory is imperfect, in the sense that assumptions and simplification are inevitable and even desirable sometimes

3) students will be able to explain phenomena theoretically when they successfully complete the course, rather than only be able to delineate where Realism stops and critical theory starts (a largely fruitless enterprise and not one that is or should be at the center of a scientific discipline - solving conceptual problems is important, but not one that undergraduates should necessarily be doing on day one) or recite potted, atheoretical accounts of terrorism, humanitarian intervention or whatever.  

By `practical application' I don't mean policy oriented.  There is a place for policy prescription and it is professional MA programs, not undergraduate or doctoral programs in political science departments.  By practical application I mean the ability to take some international situation and explain it in a way that would not be possible without having learned the theories in the class; hopefully in a more sophisticated way.  This sounds all fine and dandy, but how can we go about addressing substantive questions while still maintaining theoretical emphasis?  One example will be in my next post.