Do we need to teach the IR paradigms at all?

15 October 2018, 0830 EDT

Over the weekend, fellow guest contributor Luke Perez had an interesting post on whether we need to include the grand paradigms of international relations  (realism, liberalism, and constructivism) in foreign policy classes. He makes some good points on how to customize courses for foreign policy students; be sure to read it if you haven’t. I’d like to go further and ask whether we need to teach these paradigms at all.

I’m coming at this from a different perspective than Perez. I teach at an undergraduate focused institution. So I’m preparing students for a broad array of potential political science careers. But the issue with the paradigms’ importance transcends any single realm of higher education.

While in graduate school, my time as a teaching assistant for intro to IR courses and my own PhD seminars in international relations let me observe several different ways to organize an intro to IR course. This gave me a few potential models when I started putting together my own syllabus.

I had a lot to work out, but I decided on one thing: I would not organize the entire course around the paradigms. It’s possible to have an “-ism-focused” course, presenting multiple sessions on each theory, complemented by related topics. For example, realism could include theory lectures ranging from classical realism to neoclassical realism, followed by lectures on the balance of power and other topics.

That didn’t fit my own understanding of international relations, however. I don’t think, for example, that power politics is necessarily a realist topic (for a systematic discussion on this, see this article by Goddard and Nexon). So I’d want power politics to be separate from realism. And as someone who studies religion and international relations, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that’s part of constructivism. That’s where it would seem to belong except for the fact that constructivism never really dealt with religion. But an -ism-focused syllabus would force me to squeeze it in with constructivism. So I cover the –isms in one unit alongside the levels of analysis, but then proceed with narrower mid-range theories and policy issues.

I don’t think this is that revolutionary, but I’ve been tempted to go further, and reduce the paradigms to one lecture then move on. There are a few reasons why:

  1. The paradigms do not “own” any topic: “Balance of power” seems realist, but involves plenty of norms and symbolic politics (the English School has plenty to say on how states maintain order). Likewise, international institutions may be neoliberals’ specialty, but they can also be a venue for power politics. If we make it seem like the paradigms are the foundation of all studies, however, students will attempt to make connections back to the paradigms on each topic. This will either flatten interesting elements of many international relations topics or lead to confusion. Minimizing the significance of the paradigms, however, can allow us to study each topic on its own merits.
  2. The paradigms don’t cover all topics (but we try to pretend they do): Students will often ask about a neoliberal explanation for war, or what constructivists say about terrorism. And some paradigm-focused textbooks try to have parallel debates on all issues across the paradigms (“on X, realism would say A, liberalism B and constructivism C”). In these situations we may try to make up paradigm-based arguments that don’t exist. I could tell you a convincing constructivist explanation for al-Qaeda, but that’s not something they focused on. At that point, we end up teaching students what the paradigms might have said or–in my case–explaining the massive gaps in what each school of thought  found important. If the paradigms were not the centerpiece of a course, we would avoid these problems.
  3. The paradigms are not relevant to today’s discipline: This is the big one. In graduate school I came up with all these ideas about how to draw on elements of realism to study religion and power politics, then got to my first academic conference and realized…no one cared. We weren’t debating the paradigms anymore. You didn’t have to ground your arguments in deep theoretical foundations. We still have theoretical debates, but they’re narrower and cross-paradigmatic. For example, debates on international hierarchy involve ideas and norms without relying on constructivism, and actually provide a forum to integrate this approach with work that would otherwise be neoliberal. So if learning about the paradigms doesn’t necessarily help future professors, is it really useful for undergraduates who may pursue international affairs careers outside of academia?

I can imagine a few counterarguments:

  1. The paradigms come up in foreign policy discussions: There are realist and liberal foreign policies, so understanding these theories may help students working in that realm. But the foreign policies don’t necessarily line up well with their academic equivalents. And there is no constructivist foreign policy, a source of endless frustration for students. We would be better served discussing these foreign policy approaches separately, such as in a grand strategy lecture.
  2. They are needed for graduate school: I’ve never sat on a graduate admissions committee, but I can imagine they want students with some familiarity with the paradigms. That is partly why I still teach them, to make sure students who want to get a PhD are prepared. But this is, as constructivists would say, a social construction. The paradigms are necessary because we think they’re necessary. PhD programs could easily rethink their requirements.

I won’t stop teaching the paradigms anytime soon, but this why I’m tempted to minimize their importance. I imagine there are counterarguments (and would love to hear them). And I didn’t really get into broader debates about whether international relations needs grand theory; in fact, I sometimes we wish were still fighting the paradigm wars. But until international relations emphasizes paradigmatic theoretical debates again, I think we need to re-evaluate their role in our courses.