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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
You know what I think?
IR is an obsolete academic discipline that needs to be retired.
Hope that in 20, 30 years, no one will be teaching and studying IR.
“Do we need to teach the IR paradigms at all?”
No. We don’t need.
You don’t need paradigms or “theories” to understand global politics or behaviour of states.
You need HISTORY and understanding of CULTURE of the society of that state. That is what needs to be taught and studied. But IR relegates culture to irrelevance, which in my view makes IR to be complete garbage.
Two good posts (including Luke’s on FP), but as someone who teaches the IR ‘paradigms’ at both undergrad and postgrad level in the UK (as well as US Diplomatic History), I think both posts miss three important things.
First, neither posts seem to include Marxism as a theory / paradigm, which is interesting. Are you saying there is no need to help students understand the role of geopolitical economic structures in foreign policy or world politics? This seems a major gap. Assuming you don’t mean this then surely a (basic!) introduction to Marxist theory is required, not least to illustrate the evolution from productive force Marxist models to Critical Theory. It seems hard to me to teach international relations (even without the capital I and R) and not at least give some pointers towards traditional Marxism, critical theory and World Systems Theory / dependency theory.
Next, the point of ‘paradigms’ is not just (or even mostly) to be mapped to foreign policy; “policy’s don’t necessarily line up well”. Agreed! I don’t see why that’s a problem though. Specific policy may not line up to an IR theory, but those theories can still help students (especially undergrads) give the complexity in the world out there some ‘order’. Psychological theories not neatly matching *some* human behaviour does not devalue the intellectual benefit of exploring those flaws and those theories. Linked to this, in my teaching I don’t examine theory with students in a descriptive sense, but in a critical sense. The limitations of these theories are a *good* thing for students to engage with, not least as good practice to critically read ‘big names’. A final point is a variation of this one (and your point about finding core theory not that useful once you got to conferences)…
In my view there is a danger that ignoring ‘paradigms’ ignores the academic politics and power relations that exist *within* the fields in question. Who defines the ‘paradigms’ that we should cover, and why? I remain seriously unconvinced that IR Theory / foreign policy / teaching international politics, properly allows for true epistemological and ontological nuance and range. It’s not the best way, but I think a good way of allowing for that room is by examining the epistemological and ontological stances of ‘paradigms’. Peter, your statement that you would not feel comfortable being linked to Constructivism in your research on religion and world politics is a *very* interesting thing to explore and teach! My students would get a lot out of that ‘theoretical’ point! What does that argument tell us (both methodologically and philosophically)?
Putting this another way, and somewhat getting back to my first point, my own view is that IR is too concentrated around neo-positivism, so if we don’t re-examine the ‘paradigms’ we take as read too many features accepted within mainstream arguments. The (excellent) Nexon and Goddard article still lacks a full engagement with the challenges posed by post-modernism (as demonstrated by so much being wrapped in ‘constructivism’). That paper posits three broad competing positions in security studies, which is fine, but that’s the *main* positions, not them all, and there is a benefit to letting students know this. You never know, one of our undergrad or postgrads may find something new and beneficial to us all in theoretical epitaphs.