Theory section graduate student webinar: “Understanding the role of human nature in contemporary international thought”


7 October 2020, 0007 EDT

On September 24, the ISA Theory section was proud to host a graduate student webinar, with a specific focus on the concept of human nature, its underlying ontology and issues related to its use in IR theory.

The webinar began with presentations by two senior scholars, Professor Stefano Guzzini (Uppsala University & PUC-Rio de Janeiro) and Professor Laura Sjoberg (Royal Holloway University of London & University of Florida).

Their presentations focused on how they had previously used the concept of human nature in their own research, as well as how it can/should be criticized. Stefano discussed the roots of human nature as being tied to a fear of nature: in previous theorizing uncertainty is tied to fear and given the notion that we are rational, fear will drive conflict and a will to power. In this sense, “human nature” is a self-fulfilling prophecy depending on what we define it as. However, as Stefano argued, even realists such as Hobbes have viewed human nature as something social – the importance of glory and honor assumes that humans are at their core social beings who seek recognition, and as such, go beyond the individualist and atomistic view of what being human is. For this reason, we can potentially conceptualize human nature as intrinsically social, while not necessarily leading to conflict.

In her presentation, Laura focused on how the concept of human nature itself is problematic for multiple reasons, both because it implicitly genders what a human is, as well as assumes that we can distinguish between those that act inhumanly and those who don’t. This can legitimize unjust action against those that we deem to be inhuman, or at least not sufficiently “human”/male. In addition, Laura focused on the explicit gendering of human nature in evolutionary theory in IR. Following the two presentations, the webinar opened up for a lengthy discussion between the senior scholars and the participating PhD students.

Our thanks to Professor Guzzini and Professor Sjoberg for contributing their time to this event, and to the attendees for coming. It was a fruitful conversation and helped to foster a real sense of intellectual inquiry and stimulation amongst our graduate student membership.