The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Zombie Objections


August 19, 2011

Rodger’s post about the commercial success of Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies joins a long line of fellow Ducks’ quacking about this book. I’ve been a part of the conversation, too, but I can write about the book from a perspective that I think is unique: I’ve just finished teaching an introductory course where I assigned the book. (Hence my complete lack of posting over the past several weeks.) In other words, not only have I read it, I’ve seen whether undergrads get anything from it.

The verdict is clear: Zombies is a great complement for any introductory course, and many of the book’s purported weaknesses or omissions are in fact its strengths.

Granted, this wasn’t a randomized experiment. I’m drawing this tentative conclusion based on the experience of one class, which was itself relatively small. But the response to the book was so positive that I’m actually considering replacing the textbook I used this time and using Zombies as a primary text for teaching the “isms” (realism, liberalism, and constructivism) next time–supplemented, of course, by more traditional articles.

I’m bullish on Drezner for two reasons. The first, and this is not often appreciated, is that most expositions of the grand theories are simultaneously deathly dull and completely incomprehensible to 17- and 18-year-olds. This is only partly the fault of students’ failing to put in enough time. It is largely because the inductive approach that many texts, and many more lecturers, use to illuminate the paradigms is badly designed to demonstrate how highly abstract theories can throw light on generalizable situations. If you use “realism” to explain the outbreak of the First World War and “liberalism” to explain the mechanisms by which the League of Nations was supposed to work, then all the typical freshman will take away is an unintended and hazy version of analytic eclecticism.

Because Drezner is dealing with fantasy, however, he is completely unbound by the messiness of real-world examples. (I’m not sure what it says about IR theory that I find it easier to teach, and to understand, when applied to fantasy instead of reality.) And this makes Drezner a useful teaching tool and textbook. As a teaching tool, it is nice to have one cogent, unified running example to use throughout discussions of all three of the major approaches. As a textbook, Drezner is meticulous in spelling out his understanding of the principal issues and assumptions related to each paradigm. In fact, although I haven’t measured this, my impression is that he spends more time laying out the theoretical core of each approach than most textbooks I’ve read (er, skimmed).

That’s why criticisms that Drezner spends too much time “inside the box” ring hollow to me. I really want a book that does a sound job at using unusual examples to teach canonical arguments well. Most of the more sober books I know use normal examples and teach poorly.

My second claim–that the book’s apparent faults can actually be its strengths–requires me to make a claim not unlike cereal manufacturers’ claim that Reese’s Puffs is part of a complete breakfast. When balanced by a suitably engaged professor, the omissions or smooth assumptions in Drezner’s book can become a useful foil. Charli, in a comment to an earlier post, puts this argument best: “[Drezner’s book] doesn’t work to describe what critical theory might say about zombies, but it does work as a representation of the caricature of a field that systematically marginalizes critical theory. And it then allows students to do the thinking around how a critical theoretical view of zombies might look.”

I don’t teach critical theory in my courses–I smuggle in a lot of contemporary constructivism, but I foreground IPE issues and theories to redress their usual marginalization–but I agree with Charli that this is exactly the right way to use Drezner. And that’s why it’s a very good thing that Drezner does not include these approaches in his book. His handling of constructivism is a notable weak point; nowhere is his fondness for cheap jokes on greater display than in his caricatures of activists standing up for undead rights. When Drezner is using unusual examples to teach standard theory, he is at his most deeply funny and his most useful; but the more outre the theory becomes, the shallower his exposition.

I argue this is not a result of any limitation Drezner might possess, but is rather an inherent limitation of the genre. Standard theory is ripe for parody precisely because of its broad, simplifying assumptions; but one cannot use zombies to illuminate critical theory because the historical and specific relations that such theory would seek to uncover don’t exist. Interrogating specific texts in order to bring out such power structures would merely be tedious. Moreover, it is pedagogically valuable to start with the standard and move to more critical positions; after all, what those positions are criticizing is exactly the standard family of theories, and failing to understand those theories will leave the critical positions either unfairly rejected or incorrectly adopted.

Much like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Zombies deserves wide adoption first because it is cheaper than standard texts and second because it teaches undergraduates a key lesson about IR theory: “don’t panic.”

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