The Duck of Minerva

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Why it sucks to study political psychology in international relations

April 2, 2011

So this is my first foray into this brave new world of blogging, at the invitation of Charli and others at the Duck of Minerva. I think my main credential is having called Dan Drezner something profane at a workshop in Montreal, which is to say, my outspoken personality. What I exactly said to him said escapes me, but I suppose that same limited memory speaks for my potential as a blogger as well. For the record, I do not even own a cell phone that can text and I just learned what an RSS feed is, or at least I think I did. And Charli taught me how to hyperlink, which I am very excited about, so much so that I am going to hyperlink the word hyperlink.

It seems that people blog what they know, and since the audience for the Duck includes a lot of international relations academics, I seized on the topic of why it is so hard to study political psychology in international relations. By hard, I don’t mean that it is difficult to master the important concepts, apply them, etc. Instead I am talking about why people who do it are so marginalized in the discipline, with the few exceptions like Jervis or Tetlock. Below I offer some of my hunches about why this is. I’d like to hear others’ takes as well.

First, it is Kenneth Waltz’s fault, or at least how others who came after have come to interpret Waltz. Psychology tells us much about foreign policy, goes this argument, but foreign policy is not international relations. Structure trumps agency, and since psychology is best suited to explaining foreign policy decision-making, we can safely ignore it. It does not really matter what people think if they have no real choices given systemic constraints.

I would respond in two ways. First, this is not what Waltz really said. As Dan Nexon and Stacie Goddard first pointed out in their wonderful EJIR article, a strand I picked up in a later Security Studies piece, his Theory of International Politics does not say that there is no state agency, only that the system punishes those agents when they depart too far from what the system rewards. The point at which that breaking point is reached is not theorized in the slightest. Neoclassical realists have been smart enough not to misinterpret Waltz and demonstrate how when statesmen (or women) fail to objectively recognize their constraints due to ideology or parochial politics, bad things happen. But they typically focus on the most glaring errors – the appeasement of Hitler, the accumulation of adversaries by Wilhelmine Germany. Otherwise it seems there is a lot of room for state choice. And this is what psychology helps explain.

One might respond – yes, but this is still foreign policy, not international relations. True, but the foreign policies of some key state or statesmen can completely reorient the nature of world politics. I have just finished a book on the origins of American multilateralism (some of which is already in print here) which I attribute to the unique outlook of predominantly liberal Democrats after WWI and WWII. Does anyone want to say that the actions of the United States have had no impact on the character of international relations and its structure after WWII? Second, psychology tells us all kinds of things about international relations. See below.

The second reason for the marginalization of political psychology is the rationalist revolution in international relations theorizing. Rationalists do not generally offer objections to the individual level of analysis used in psychological arguments, as realists do. Rather they assume that everyone with the same interests with the same information in the same structural position will do the same thing. This is essentially structuralism without systemicism. In my view, this is demonstrably false. Even with the same goals, people interpret their environment in very different ways. And those differences are often systematic in nature — that is we can develop mid-range theories about them. By doing this, we can avoid the criticism often leveled at psychological theories – that they are too individualistic and idiosyncratic. We don’t have to know whether Theodore Roosevelt wet his bed or whether Harry Truman’s mom spared the rod to say something about their decision-making. My personal preference is to look at the inclinations of political parties. This allows us to say something both contingent and generalizable. Party A tends to do X, Party B does Y. But there are obviously other ways.

In my view, psychological perspectives offer the key challenge to rationalism, which I think is obviously the central approach in North American political science today. Psychologists take strategic interaction between state dyads very seriously, yet offer very different hypotheses. Rationalists and constructivists, in contrast, tend to talk past one another with each claiming to subsume one another. Rationalists claim they can incorporate norms or identity or whatnot in a utility function, constructivists that strategic interaction is itself a socially constructed mode of state interaction. Because of this more direct dialogue, I tend to find rationalists great interlocutors, but at that the end of the day, economists have a hard time agreeing with and learning from psychologists. I still think psychologists are on stronger ground. Experimental labs inhibit external validity, but not as much as a game matrix. I hope that the behavioral revolution, which has been going on for a long time, will start to filter into international relations and make rationalism less formal and stylized.

Third, psychology gets marginalized by constructivists because of its focus on individuals and small groups. I was surprised by this one. When I wrote my first book, on the role of party ideology in foreign policy decision-making, I really expected that constructivists would be my core audience. Psychology and sociology are both sympathetic to phenomenological approaches that problematize perception. But constructivists didn’t seem to bite. I attribute this to two features of constructivist thinking. First, they really believe in social wholes – large collectivities like nations, states, or even international systems. Psychologists (or at least, I) tend to think in terms of individuals or small groups and their different perceptions of how those actors relate to those broader collectivities. That is the social in social psychology. Second, constructivists are much more interested in the longue duree – they have big research questions about how gigantic social constructions, like the system of sovereign states, come to be constituted. The micro-outcomes that psychologists get leverage on are simply too small. Constructivists must think what we do is simply adorable.

My response to those critiques is that social collectivities are made of people, and often a small group can have a lasting impact, through processes of path dependence at critical junctures for instance. Constructivists often anthropomorphize the state. As I see it, states are people in the same way that Soylent Green is people. They are made out of people! They’re people! Although in this case, they are live people. This is the central cleavage between psychology and sociology.

Fourth, people who study psychology in international relations are often their own worst enemy. They marginalize themselves by defining a separate field for themselves of foreign policy analysis, with its own acronym (FPA). They wonder why no one wants to talk to them even as they avoid the big questions in the field, ones that they have a unique perspective on. Why do crises in financial confidence begin? What are the psychological sources of international cooperation?

The combination of all of this means that psychology falls through the cracks. It is too micro-oriented for the constructivists and not economistic enough for the rationalists. So what to do? I can simply spread the gospel of psychology in international relations. I don’t think of myself as a prophet (my graduate students might disagree), but rather as an apostle, or maybe a Jehovah’s witness, going door to door to spread the good word. My aim is for psychology to be as respected as sociological or economistic approaches in the field, a goal that I know that I will not achieve. So join me on my quixotic quest!

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Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.