Tuesday, November 4, 2008

International Relations 101 #2

As an example of the effective integration of theory and substantive questions, I would like to submit the example  of Ruth Lane from American University, who wrote an article (gated) in the latest (Oct 08) PS: Political Science and Politics.  She  writes about teaching a class in comparative politics, rather than IR, so her substantive conclusions and reading list are not relevant.  But, the general approach seems to hit the target that I outlined in my previous post.  Her major point is that introducing game theory as an organizing principle enables a theoretically sophisticated way to analyze international phenomena.  At this point I can hear the mental red flags going up in anyone within political science.  The point here is not that science isn't science without multivariable calculus being involved.  Rather, Lane's use of game theoretic concepts helps students focus on the ``players, goals, strategies, and outcomes'' as well as the interdependence or independence of action.  This, she claims, has beneficial effects.  When students find out about a policy they often simply say that it has been put into effect.  In Lane's class

``they are then challenged to redefine such opaque reports with game theory's sharp questions: who exactly were the players (who proposed the policy, who opposed it), what were their goals (stated and unstated), why did the interaction result in this particular outcome (how did the players see the payoffs and choose their strategies?)?  This makes an important pedagogical point, that events do not just happen but are part of an ongoing battle between social forces of various types.  Game theory provides essential tools to undertake what might otherwise be an unguided journey.''

But game theory is the complete antithesis of a focus on substantive phenomena!  Lane complements the use of game theoretic concepts with what she calls idiographic studies that are `interesting' and `make learning a pleasure'.  I wonder what kind of idiographic studies we have in IR.  Maybe this would include a history book on the Cuban Missile Crisis or some  contemporary foreign policy, like Dennis Ross's Statecraft.  I think that this concept could be taken further though.  Lane uses some books that are chosen more for their accessibility and wow factor than their scholarly rigor.  She even assigns a travel book for the material on China.  I can see the immediate criticism here (to echo someone I was speaking to recently about teaching), i.e., ``It's not supposed to be fun, it's supposed to be informative!''  The response here is that choosing readable material, rather than a textbook (for god's sake, this isn't chemistry), is aimed at effective pedagogy, not infotainment.  If a non-theoretical book is assigned, with the aim of providing accessible information on a substantive empirical topic, and then the events are analyzed using either game-theoretic concepts or constructivist theories, then I don't see how this can be dismissed as `fun'.  I do think that there might be a problem with finding accessible accounts of international phenomena, or maybe it is just that those are not the books that I am reading at the moment.  
Next, I'll cannibalize another article for concrete ways to teach game theory to IR undergrads.

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