Teaching International Political Sociology
Summary and Keywords
Teaching international political sociology (IPS) is intellectually rewarding yet pedagogically challenging. In the conventional International Relations (IR) curriculum, IPS students have to set aside many of the premises, notions, and models they learned in introductory classes, such as assumptions of instrumental rationality and canonical standards of positivist methodology. Once problematized, these traditional starting points in IR are replaced with a number of new dispositions, some of which are counterintuitive, that allow students to take a fresh look at world politics. In the process, IPS opens many more questions than it provides clear-cut answers, making the approach look very destabilizing for students. The objective of teaching IPS is to sow the seeds of three key dispositions inside students’ minds. First, students must appreciate the fact that social life consists primarily of relations that make the whole bigger than the parts. Second, they must be aware that social action is infused with meanings upon which both cooperative and conflictual relations hinge. Third, they have to develop a degree of reflexivity in order to realize that social science is a social practice just like others, where agents enter in various relations and struggle over the meanings of the world. There are four primary methods of teaching IPS, each with its own merits and limits: induction, ontology, historiography, and classics.
Teaching international political sociology (IPS) is as intellectually rewarding as it is pedagogically challenging. In the conventional International Relations (IR) curriculum, IPS requires students to put on hold many of the premises, notions, and models learned in introductory classes, from assumptions of instrumental rationality to canonical standards of positivist methodology. Once problematized, these traditional starting points in IR are to be replaced with a number of new dispositions, some of which are counterintuitive, that allow students to take a fresh look at world politics. In the process, IPS opens many more questions than it provides clear-cut answers, further complicating issues that seemed already quite difficult. What is more, in its current state the IPS literature is often very scholarly and jargonistic and there exist few accessible and introductory readings. As such, a journey through IPS requires, on the part of both students and instructors, a great deal of intellectual involvement and effort, a bit of courage, and much patience. But the journey is well worth taking when students, after going through a bit of brain rewiring, finally reach a kind of eureka moment from which they get to grasp the thick social fabric of world politics.
This essay deals in turn with the objectives and the strategies of teaching IPS. In terms of the former, teaching IPS seeks to sow the seeds of three key dispositions inside students’ minds. First, students must become sensitive to the fact that social life consists primarily of relations that make the whole bigger than the parts. Second, students have to appreciate that social action is infused with meanings upon which both cooperative and conflictual relations hinge. Third, students ought to develop a degree of reflexivity in order to realize that social science is a social practice just like others, where agents enter in various relations and struggle over the meanings of the world. In terms of strategies, the second section of the essay surveys four main approaches to teaching IPS, assessing their respective merits and limits. As a cautionary note, this essay is concerned with issues of pedagogy and as such it does not claim to survey the whole field of IPS, nor can it do justice to the full complexity of its body of theories. What follows is not an exhaustive literature review of IPS. The more limited objective here is to explain, in simple words and with elementary examples, how a fresh mind can be introduced to the complex matters of IPS. Theoretical sophistication is expected to kick in after this early socialization process, but this advanced stage of teaching and learning falls outside the scope of this essay. For the well-trained eye, then, the simplifications below are bound to appear partial and rudimentary – readers’ discretion is advised.
The Objective: Passing On the Three Dispositions of IPS
IPS is a large tent with many campers inside. There is no overarching consensus on where precisely IPS begins and ends, that is, on what theories fall on its turf and which ones do not. Since the purpose of this essay is not gatekeeping, it seeks to strike a balance between the need for inclusiveness and the imperative of delimitation. As a starting point and contrary to what students often believe, IPS is not characterized by a particular empirical object such as the rise of a global civil society. Instead, IPS can be conceived as an approach to world politics that rests on a set of analytical dispositions. Generally speaking, IPS scholars are particularly sensitive to (1) relations, (2) meanings, and/or (3) reflexivity. To be sure, not every theory embodies these three dispositions to the same extent. Some conventional constructivists, for instance, do not pay much attention to reflexivity. A number of interpretivists, for their part, are not particularly concerned with relations. But generally speaking, the various strands that comprise IPS share at least two, and often three, of the above-mentioned dispositions – to give only a tentative list, it would include constructivism, critical theory, the English School, feminism, historical sociology, neo-Gramscism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, practice theory, reflexive sociology, relationalism, sociological institutionalism, and so on. Although these variegated theories often cohabit very uneasily, for the sake of pedagogy, in what follows the emphasis is put on the common plinth rather than its cracks.
The language of “dispositions” is meant to emphasize that IPS ultimately rests on a number of ways of going about the study of world politics that are different from, say, those of neoliberalism. Where neoliberals see individuals, IPS scholars view relations; what neoliberalism conceives as material interests, IPS grasps as intersubjective meanings; and while the neoliberal theory of IR draws a sharp distinction between scholarship and the “real world,” IPS recalls that social science is also part of reality. It is crucial to note that these inclinations are not to be taught as formal assumptions or theoretical premises. The idea is not to open the class by stating explicitly to students what dispositions they are expected to embody by the end of the term. Instead, these inclinations should be transmitted indirectly, as a form of tacit knowledge, as students familiarize themselves with the practice of IPS and discuss existing works. If we conceive of a course as a socialization experience into new modes of thinking, then becoming better aware of relations, meanings, and reflexivity in world politics is the overarching goal of teaching IPS – not its method.
That the discipline of IR should be concerned with relations strikes many students as self-evident: isn’t the subfield precisely called international relations? Correct as this observation may be, students must be brought to the realization that many IR theories, particularly of the rationalist type, tend to focus on atomized individuals or groups more than on interacting collectives. By contrast, IPS asserts the priority of the social. Ruggie (1998a) retells a personal anecdote that is particularly efficient in giving a sense to students of how dominant IR theories overlook the crucial importance of relations. Ruggie remembers his first encounter with Waltz’s use of Rousseau’s stag hunt metaphor, which is often used in IR to illustrate the difficulty of collective action among instrumentally rational beings. Recall Waltz’s (1959/2001:167) exposé:
Assume that five men who have acquired a rudimentary ability to speak and to understand each other happen to come together at a time when all of them suffer from hunger. The hunger of each will be satisfied by the fifth part of a stag, so they “agree” to cooperate in a project to trap one. But also the hunger of any one of them will be satisfied by a hare, so, as a hare comes within reach, one of them grabs it. The defector obtains the means of satisfying his hunger but in doing so permits the stag to escape. His immediate interest prevails over consideration for his fellows.
Neorealists and neoliberals alike commonly use this story to illustrate the difficulty of cooperation in world politics. Once settled in students’ minds, Rousseau’s powerful metaphor colors almost any and all of their observations. In fact, in many places in the Western world the rationalist logic that it illustrates is part of background knowledge and thus predates IR training per se. When he heard it for the first time, however, Ruggie’s mind was apparently unusually impervious to rampant rationalism:
key features of the stag hunt troubled me deeply: the five individuals just happened upon one another; they did not seem to belong to any organized social collectivity or have any ongoing social relations with each other or anyone else. They had only a rudimentary ability to speak. And they knew that they would go their separate ways again – where to? – once the project of trapping the stag was accomplished (or not, as it turned out). This, it seemed to me, was an unduly and unnecessarily undersocialized view of the world. (1998a:2)
In effect, would hunters behave as Rousseau says if they were members of the same family or kin? Could they even agree on momentary cooperation had they come from villages at war? What if the group of hunters were hierarchically structured, with elders bearing strong authority over younger (and potentially more efficient) hunters? In other words, would the metaphor stand if we were to take into account the relationships that bind the hunters, whether it is rivalry, friendship, or something else? If the hunters had a joint history of hunting together, could they be pictured as Rousseau does (with Waltz’s shoulder pat) as atomized, bordering on autistic human beings? And just how is it possible for hunters to “agree” (Waltz’s word) on certain rules of action without entering into a minimal level of interaction premised on shared reference points? Strangely enough, in the stag hunt metaphor the hunters come together, but not really – their relations are not real relations, only a momentary copresence.
Ruggie’s comments on the stag hunt metaphor have the merit of using IR students’ introductory knowledge as a stepping stone for its own problematization. Under its own terms, of course, the metaphor works quite well in pointing to one important dimension of collective action. Yet the metaphor can also be used to illuminate the very limits of an overly individualistic, that is, undersocialized view of social life. In world politics, as in almost any other social sphere, agents do not simply happen to bump into one another and then disappear. For one thing, they enter into relations based on a prior history of relations, and as they interact they also harbor expectations about future relations. For another, agents do not preexist relations but are defined – constituted (see below) – in and through interaction with other agents. Students can get an intuitive sense of what is at stake here by reflecting on the well-known dictum that the whole is bigger than the parts. In the stag hunt metaphor, only the parts are described, and they seem to stand in isolation from one another. There really is no whole, or collection of relations, at play. If, however, we focus on relations, then many new questions emerge because the very nature of individual actions depends on social ties. To use an analogy from physics, people are not freestanding atoms that momentarily collide before parting ways in opposite directions to the outer confines of the universe. Instead, social beings are interconnected (and structured) in a way similar to atoms in a molecule. They are ordered along very specific principles and rules, which determine the nature of their interconnections. (This is not even to mention that, contrary to nonreflexive molecules, social ties are endowed with meanings of which agents can become reflexively aware – more on this below.) Once interrelated along a given molecular pattern, constitutive atoms do not exhibit the same properties as when they were freestanding: atoms constitute molecules, which in turn constitute atoms’ properties for the time of their interaction as a molecule. By analogy, an understanding of the social world (including world politics) that is genuinely social cannot rest satisfied with the atomistic view of rational choice theory. Relations need to be brought back in as the constitutive force that drives agency and the structural context that makes practices possible.
Depending on the level of students, this may be the right time to introduce the mutual constitution of structures and agency, a crucial notion for IPS. Wendt’s (1987:337–8) “two truisms about social life” usually strike an intuitive chord with students: “(1) human beings and their organizations are purposeful actors whose actions help reproduce or transform the society in which they live; and (2) society is made up of social relationships, which structure the interactions between there purposeful actors. Taken together these truisms suggest that human agents and social structures are, in one way or another, theoretically interdependent or mutually implicating entities.” The stag hunt metaphor illustrates what overlooking these social processes misses – agents are only constrained but not defined by their relations. Similarly, oxygen and hydrogen constitute water molecules; yet H2O exhibits properties that differ from hydrogen’s and oxygen’s. Water freezes at 0 degree Celsius and boils at 100 – contrary to its constitutive atoms when separated. A molecule is more than a collection of atoms; it is a specific ordering of atoms. The same goes for collectives, that is, bundles of social relations. Ba and Hoffmann (2003:17) illustrate the notion with simple examples taken from students’ everyday lives: “Consider how you may act or think differently depending upon whom you are with or what situation you are in. Do you act and think differently when in a large lecture class than you do in a small discussion group? Do you assume a different identity when surrounded by friends than you do in a group of strangers or among professors?” In order to grasp this complexity, we must begin with relations, not individual parts.
At that point the more astute students may wonder: isn’t this precisely Waltz’s argument against reductionism – that what matters in the international system is less its constituent units (states) than the arrangement of its parts (the international structure)? After all, Waltz was strongly influenced by Émile Durkheim, the nineteenth century French sociologist who is at the root of holistic thought in social sciences. Yet as Wendt (1987) showed, Waltz’s positional analysis (as well as his use of the stag hunt metaphor) commit the reductionist fallacy in paying insufficient attention to the arrangement of parts: the whole of hunters is no different from the sum of hunters. In the international system, states stand in relation to one another in terms of material power; yet comparing different units in terms of their individual properties does not necessarily factor in the relations that tie them together. At the end of the day, Waltz’s laudable holistic intentions are thwarted by his insensitivity to the fact that world politics have more to do with ascribing meanings to the world than with the distribution of tanks and nuclear weapons.
Some IR theories are undersocialized not only because they fail to take relations into account, but also because they often gloss over the meaning-infused nature of social relations. After their introductory class to IR, most students come to think that what matters in world politics is material power (an evocative pun) and that social action can be explained in terms of material interests. All else is epiphenomenal, as neorealists like to say. As a result, it is not always easy for students to entertain the possibility that meanings also matter. Just why should they waste their time bothering with ideas, symbols, identities, norms, or rules if materiality is all that counts? A good starting point to begin undermining this certitude is Geertz’s (1973:3) seminal example (after Ryle): consider, the anthropologist says,
two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch: in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an I-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast […] The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company.
This example Geertz (1973:5) takes to illustrate that any human being “is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself [sic] has spun,” and that as a result we social scientists are first and foremost “in search of meaning.” Should we limit ourselves to materiality (the movement of the eyelid), we would miss the whole point of the two boys’ interaction.
Some students may resist extending Geertz’s point to IR because it is “the realm of cold calculations and power politics,” as many are trained to think during their introductory class to the discipline. There are two main answers to this skepticism. One is to recall that material facts do not speak for themselves and that their meaning in social and political life belongs to the realm of ideas. In world politics, for instance, Wendt (1995:73) explains that “500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear weapons, because the British are friends of the United States and the North Koreans are not, and amity or enmity is a function of shared understandings.” Clearly, if Washington were to act solely on the distribution of nuclear warheads, it should fear London much more than Pyongyang. Since this is not the case, “something else must be going on,” conclude most students. Second, in reaction to the common argument that “ideas may matter sometimes, but in general material facts trump them,” the way out is to emphasize that there is no insuperable contradiction between power and interests on the one hand, and ideas on the other – quite the contrary. Here again, Wendt (1999:135–6) offers a useful rejoinder:
The claim is not that ideas are more important than power and interest, or that they are autonomous from power and interest. Power and interest are just as important and determining as before. The claim is rather that power and interest have the effects they do in virtue of the ideas that make them up. Power and interest explanations presuppose ideas, and to that extent are not rivals to ideational explanations at all. […] when confronted by ostensibly “material” explanations, always inquire into the discursive conditions which make them work. When Neorealists offer multipolarity as an explanation for war, inquire into the discursive conditions that constitute the poles as enemies rather than friends. When Liberals offer economic interdependence as an explanation for peace, inquire into the discursive conditions that constitute states with identities that care about free trade and economic growth. When Marxists offer capitalism as an explanation for state forms, inquire into the discursive conditions that constitute capitalist relations of production. And so on.
Once persuaded that meanings matter, most students – being born inside a liberal discursive formation – will somehow naturally construe their effect on politics at the level of individual beliefs. Meanings, in a very strong intuitive sense, are located inside people’s heads. As a result, many students will think in terms of perceptions and misperceptions – of ideational “biases” that color social action at the individual or psychological level. Even those students who have already heard of the social construction of reality tend to conceive of the process as located between people’s earlobes. The next challenge, then, is to move from the intuitive notion of subjectivity (ideas are located inside of agents’ minds) to the much more elusive concept of intersubjectivity – the fact that many ideas exist independently of what specific people think of them. Invoking Searle’s (1995) classic example of money has the advantage of proximity to students’ daily lives. Holding a piece of paper money in their hand, instructors may ask: why (how possible) is it that certain bits of paper engraved with specific markings are consensually taken to be worth (say) $20? How can we make sense of the social magic that makes it possible for you, as you go to the grocery store, to get a basket full of food in exchange for a small, materially worthless, and often very worn bit of paper? And why don’t we ever encounter a cashier who would contest that the paper bill is really worth $20? Students should guess that one part of the answer is that people attach a specific meaning to the bit of paper – monetary value in this case. The conceptual leap here lies in the realization that this meaning does not depend on the point of view for existing. It is not only subjective but intersubjective: the meaning of money has institutionalized to the point that anybody who is part of this society takes the monetary value for granted – whatever misgivings one may harbor about capitalism, for instance. And yet, for Martians these little bits of paper would be absolutely worthless. Conventions – just like rules, norms, identities, cultures, or languages – are intersubjective structures, that is, sets of meanings that order social configurations irrespective of what the specific agents that take part in them believe. Such is also the case, for instance, of a football game: whatever specific strategies individual players may have, the rules of the game will define their interaction along ideational constraints that do not depend on the point of view to exist.
The key point is that intersubjective meanings are constitutive of reality. Institutions, rules, norms, identities, and practices are reified meanings, that is, ideas turned into things that have an existence external to human minds. Intersubjective meanings are independent of one’s volition. In world politics, Taylor provides a particularly evocative example. Imagine a gathering of statesmen or diplomats who plan to solve a mutual disagreement by means of discussion. In the course of an international negotiation, argues Taylor (1971/1977:119):
The actors may have all sorts of beliefs and attitudes which may be rightly thought of as their individual beliefs and attitudes, even if others share them; they may subscribe to certain policy goals or certain forms of theory about the polity, or feel resentment at certain things, and so on. They bring these with them into their negotiations, and strive to satisfy them. But what they do not bring into the negotiations is the set of ideas and norms constitutive of negotiation themselves. These must be the common property of the [international] society before there can be any question of anyone entering into negotiation or not. Hence they are not subjective meanings, the property of one or some individuals, but rather intersubjective meanings, which are constitutive of the social matrix in which individuals find themselves and act.
The rules and customs of international negotiation – protocol, phrasings, voting procedures, etc. – do not depend on the point of view for existing. Just like a bill of $20, they are established conventions that have become taken for granted and as a result define the “reality” of international negotiation. Their intersubjectivity, in turn, makes subjectivity possible as negotiators formulate policy differences thanks to common rules of engagement. All in all, the point is not that individuals do not formulate beliefs and preferences, or that instrumental calculations never take place. Instead, students have to understand that at a deeper level, meanings structure and indeed constitute action in the course of world politics.
The third disposition of IPS is probably the toughest one to get through because it is a frontal attack on the epistemological and methodological foundations of social science as it has traditionally been conceived in IR. Positivist social scientists typically construe their task as improving the match between the world and our knowledge about it. Progress means refining the correspondence between reality and our models, a view that seems intuitive to the postscientific revolution mind. With the shift away from (some would say beyond) modernity, however, the relationship between word and world, to use Fierke’s (2002) formulation, has become much more complex and multifaceted. To put the matter simply, and building on the former two dispositions of IPS: if social life and politics are about relations of cooperation and struggle over defining the meanings of the world, then in what ways should social science be so different? Aren’t researchers interacting precisely over what the world is and how it works?
At the most basic level, reflexivity refers to self-awareness. Applied to the scholarly enterprise, reflexivity means the critical examination of social scientific knowledge as enmeshed, just like any other social practice, in relations of struggle over the meaning of the world. If social reality is constructed through the social construction of knowledge, then this must also include social science (Guzzini 2000). To borrow Bourdieu’s (2001) apt formulation, in this context being reflexive means returning IPS’s analytical weapons against IPS itself, that is, being sensitive to the social dynamics (relations and meanings) that make the social scientific enterprise possible. A key implication is that in the actual practice of social science, validity does not simply stem from matching the world with words because words partake in constituting the world. Instead, validity is assessed by a community of scholars (relations) based on standards that are more or less shared and contested as they evolve over space and time (meanings). Embroiled in their own webs of knowledge and hierarchical structures, social scientists cannot speak to God on the phone or drink from the Fountain of Truth in order to know (see how inescapable knowledge is) whether their theories match reality or not; they can only debate among themselves. As a result, at the epistemological level IPS moves from a correspondence theory of (big-T) Truth to a consensus theory of (small-t) truths. It is imperative that instructors proceed carefully here because of the very real danger that inexperienced students take this argument to mean that anything goes, that there is no way to know anything, etc. While IPS does, indeed, relativize scientific knowledge by showing its historical and political conditions of possibility, it does not follow that any knowledge is worth the same. There may be no such thing as Universal Truth, yet social science is in the business of producing working truths. In a given context, certain knowledge claims are much more efficient at “going on” with the study (or practice) of world politics than others. Young students, whose intuitively positivistic certitudes may never have been shaken before, are particularly susceptible to misconstruing reflexivity as a form of epistemological despair or across-the-board relativism.
Reflexivity has another far-reaching consequence: social science cannot but partake in the social construction of reality. One way to help students make the link between the level of action and that of observation is to recall that theory is not external to the world, but a part of it. In other words, there is not the world first, and then our theories that come somehow to mirror facts. The arrow of causality, to speak in terms that students know, flows in both directions: the world influences our theories; but our theories also shape the world – if only because people act in and on the world on the basis of meanings and knowledge. IR theories, as a result, can become self-fulfilling prophecies if they travel from academia to the world of political practice. Contemporary world politics offers a number of prominent examples of this transfer of knowledge: Huntington’s (1993) “clash of civilizations” began as theory talk before informing Osama bin Laden’s terrorist call to arms. Similarly, over the 1990s the democratic peace theory traveled from academia to the White House, to the point of informing almost any and all foreign policy narratives under presidents Clinton and Bush. At the level of action, there are many instances of feedback loops whereby human agents, being reflexive creatures, modify their behavior once they become aware of classifications and theoretical categories. Hacking (1999) argues, for instance, that the category of “refugees,” a recent construct that received a great deal of scholarly attention, is one instance of such connections between the level of action and that of observation. An important notion here is that of “double hermeneutics” – the fact that social scientists develop interpretations of interpretations (Giddens 1984). This is a major difference with natural sciences, where rocks and atoms do not think or talk. IPS, by contrast, is a constitutive part of the web of meaning that makes up world politics.
These insights point to the performativity of language, both vernacular and scientific. To use Austin’s (1962) seminal formula, one can do things with words. A priest can create the social fact of marriage simply by saying a number of words in a specific context. From an IPS perspective, then, talk is never cheap. To the contrary, in the Foucauldian tradition discourse is constitutive of reality. In this sense, growing a disposition toward reflexivity widens one’s understanding of politics. Politics is not only about formulating, deciding, and implementing policies. It is also about common sense and the background knowledge that informs policy debates as tacit assumptions. The social construction of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is a profoundly political process (although, some would add, it is not only about politics). By implication, the capacity to impose meanings, including through scientific techniques and legitimacy, is the paragon of power. Establishing common sense – the “order of things” – is the ultimate vehicle of domination; hence the need for reflexive IPS scholars to be careful with their claims about world politics. As postmodernists correctly recall, “the assertion of an independently existing reality, which in itself cannot be proved and seems to demand no proof, works to support particular political positions and to exclude others from consideration” (Zehfuss 2002:175). As a social scientific enterprise, then, IPS is not in the business of discerning which international threats are “really real” and which are not, for instance. Instead, it should document the political technologies that make certain threats look “really real” to various publics. As a result, reflexivity also entails the study of power and history. Power is involved in structuring hierarchical relations that define the meanings of the world; and history shows up as the process from which these very structures came about. The reflexive disposition is an acute proclivity to making strange what seems obvious, to problematize the taken-for-granted, and to denaturalize alleged universal truths.
This last point provides an answer to a question that any instructor will surely get from the more down-to-earth students: why bother with metatheory? Why shovel clouds while people are dying by thousands in the real world? This very legitimate question obviously deserves a serious answer: the world does not come classified – people construct it in historically contingent and often arbitrary ways that could have been otherwise. One illustration of this logic that students find as evocative as fun is provided by Foucault (1966:7), who quotes an ancient Chinese encyclopedia: “Animals come in various categories: (a) that belong to the Emperor; (b) embalmed; (c) tame; (d) sucking pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous; (g) stray dogs; (h) included in this classification; (i) that toss and run; (j) innumerable; (k) pictured with a thin brush; and (l) etc.” That serious people in a seminal piece of work were able to think in terms that are impenetrable to students’ minds usually takes them a long way toward understanding the relativity of categories. Applying this lesson to world politics, in the relational dynamics of identity construction, for instance, any marker can be invented and later reified as a difference that legitimizes exclusion and even violence – take the Rwandan genocide, for instance. In this context, making strange (showing the arbitrariness of) the categories that people use to justify violent practices is a very concrete and practical intervention into the real world.
The Method: Four Approaches to Teaching IPS
Since the analytical proclivity to appreciate relations, meanings, and reflexivity in the study of world politics is a set of dispositions, they cannot (and should not) be taught directly through formal schemes, that is, as a deductive system of theoretical assumptions. These sensitivities are much better transmitted indirectly, in and through the practice of IPS. There are a variety of methods to plant the seeds in students’ minds and this essay cannot provide an exhaustive survey. Four approaches to teaching IPS are outlined below: induction (IPS through examples from world politics), ontology (IPS through social artifacts), historiography (IPS through IR theoretical debates), and classics (IPS through masterpieces). For each approach, components of a potential course program and reading list are outlined. To be sure, each approach has its own merits and limits. The first approach, for instance, is best suited for an undergraduate-level audience that has no prior knowledge of social theory or metatheoretical questions. The second approach works better with a beginner audience that is more knowledgeable in sociology than in IR and is looking for theoretical bridges across the two realms. The third approach is tailored for graduate students who need an overview of the discipline as they prepare for comprehensive exams. Finally, the fourth approach is probably the most efficient in transmitting the dispositions of IPS in and through practice, that is, at the elbow of masters; yet it requires a good deal of prior knowledge of IR and social theory. The “classics” approach is best suited for PhD students who intend to draw on IPS for their dissertation, and as such it could take the form of a reading course. As usual, then, context helps determine what the best approach to teaching IPS is. A combination of approaches could also yield interesting results.
Note that in what follows, no attention is paid to the founding fathers of political sociology (Durkheim, Marx, and Weber) nor to the great social theorists of the twentieth century, ranging from Elias, Simmel, and Mead to Bourdieu, Giddens, and Luhmann, through Foucault, Latour, Tilly, and many others. This is not to say that such a detour through social theory and sociological thought is not warranted or rewarding – it clearly is, especially at the graduate level. For space constraints, however, the outlines below concentrate on those IPS works that, while borrowing more or less heavily from classical and contemporary political sociology, are closely associated to the discipline of IR.
Induction: Teaching IPS through Examples from World Politics
Induction is the careful examination of the local in view of inferring the general. In the context of teaching IPS, it entails taking students through a variety of “real world” case studies with a view to drawing some lessons about what IPS does differently (and better) than other IR theories. Concretely, the inductive approach involves the comparative examination of competing theoretical explanations of the same world events. By accumulating cases, students will come to distillate the distinctiveness of IPS and gradually embody its analytical dispositions. The inductive approach is particularly useful because at the first encounter most undergraduate students will find IPS unappealingly abstract and even scholastic. Socialized into the here and now of neorealism, many undergraduates wonder: why take all these metatheoretical detours if we are to end up with a much more complex and elusive understanding of world politics? In this context, the inductive way to spark the IPS eureka is quite simple: tell a story that students think they know very well in a way that is as surprising and unexpected as it is rewarding and convincing.
Take, for example, the arms race between the US and the USSR during the Cold War – usually considered the turf of game theory and strategic studies. Ringmar provides an interesting rejoinder that points to how IPS sees world politics differently:
According to the traditional explanation of the arms race, the investment in nuclear weapons was a rational way to gain security. For the same reason it made sense to acquire foreign allies and military bases around the globe. From the alternative, identity-based perspective, however, such an explanation can only make sense for some of the period and some of the developments. It could perhaps apply to the immediate post-war period when the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but it cannot explain why the Soviet Union continued to arm itself once it had obtained a nuclear second-strike capability in the 1960s. There was no need to plan for more than a second strike and any armaments beyond this point could thus serve no feasible military purpose.
Instead, it was always the symbolic value of the nuclear weapons that really mattered. The superpowers armed themselves for the simple reason that nuclear armaments were what defined a superpower as such. If you wanted to be recognized in this capacity this was what you had to do. The arms race – in its final, total and symbolic, version – was not a utility-driven game, but instead a game of “pure prestige” – the two superpowers sought to impress each other and the world through the destruction of their own resources. The competition did not primarily concern “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), but rather what perhaps could be called “mutually assured recognition” (MAR, for short).
This example is particularly efficient because it points to a rationalistic contradiction: if all that the USSR was looking for was security from a nuclear attack through a credible second-strike capability, then it was absolutely irrational to spend so many scarce resources on building disproportionate nuclear arsenals. The marginal value of the 8,000th warhead is nil. Hopefully, Ringmar’s example can at least open students’ minds to the possibility that something else was going on here with regard to the meaning of the superpowers’ relationship.
In an excellent précis of how to introduce students to constructivism, Ba and Hoffmann (2003) discuss, in simple and straightforward language, three empirical cases that constitute puzzles for traditional IR theories: the emergence and strengthening of the European Union, American policy toward South African apartheid, and the chemical weapons ban (instructors can acquire knowledge about each case in, e.g., Christiansen et al. 2001; Klotz 1995; and Price 1997, respectively). Similarly, Katzenstein (1996) contains a number of useful studies that pay much attention to comparing IPS arguments with other IR theories – for instance Herman on the end of the Cold War, Kier on strategic culture, or Risse-Kappen on alliance-making. Finnemore (1996) also does a good job of showing how sociological institutionalism improves on dominant IR theories in explaining international organizations and their relationships with states. In order to sensitize students to the key feminist notion that IR theory is not gender-neutral and that “the personal is political,” Enloe (1989) provides a large variety of rich empirical cases, from nationalist narratives to military bases through diplomatic dinners. Depending on students’ interests, other compelling cases could include American foreign policy identity (Bukovansky 1997), the nuclear taboo (Tannenwald 2007), Russian foreign policy (Hopf 2002), EU and NATO enlargement (Schimmelfennig 2003; Gheciu 2005), decolonization (Crawford 2002), etc.
IPS can also be taught inductively by using examples that are closer to students’ personal encounter with world politics. For instance, what are the possible explanations for the 2003 war in Iraq? How would an IPS explanation be different from a neorealist or neoliberal argument? Many other examples could be used, always with the objective of both familiarizing students with what IPS does differently and increasing their awareness of relations, meanings, and reflexivity in the study of world politics.
Ontology: IPS through Social Artifacts
The ontological approach to teaching IPS begins with social artifacts instead of empirical cases. Just as strategic studies focus on war and peace, IPS is primarily concerned with one specific category of world political phenomena: social facts, that is, intersubjective realities that exist (and impact on world politics) by virtue of all relevant agents taking them for granted. These include norms, identities, rules, institutions, organizations, practices, communities, and so on. In order to grasp any of these phenomena fully, one has to pay particular attention to their relational, meaningful, and political dimensions.
A good starting point for teaching IPS through social artifacts is the history of what the English School calls the “international society” and its institutional forms. Seminal studies by Bull (1977/1995), Wight (1977), or Bull and Watson (1984) constitute some of the earlier contributions to this historical inquiry into the constitution of key international artifacts. Other interesting studies on the historical evolution of international institutions including the state are Spruyt (1994), Tilly (1994), Bartelson (1995), Biersteker and Weber (1996), Meyer et al. (1997), Hall (1999), Reus-Smit (1999), or Buzan (2004). These works also yield fundamental insights about the challenges faced in contemporary institutions of the international society. Jackson (1990), for instance, discusses the challenges that the norm of sovereignty faces in certain corners of the globe. Ruggie (1993), for his part, problematizes the very notion of territoriality in a globalizing world. Finally, Finnemore (2003) documents the evolution of the norm of humanitarian intervention.
Another key social artifact in IR is what Wendt (1999) calls “cultures of anarchy,” that is, systems of intersubjective meanings that define the nature of interstate relations from enmity to friendship through rivalry. Adler and Barnett (1998) look into the development of we-ness or collective identity inside regional groups of states. Mitzen (2006), for her part, addresses the social dimension of the security dilemma whereby states struggle not only for physical but also ontological security. These issues also lead to interesting discussions about the politics of identity at the international level. For instance, Neumann’s (1999) discussion of identity narratives in European identity formation offers key insights into political dynamics of othering and boundary policing. Jackson’s (2006) analysis of rhetorical commonplaces in the fight for legitimating historical policies, such as the formation of NATO, also yields important lessons about the manipulation of identities and narratives (see also Mattern 2005). Finally, IPS has contributed a great deal to better understanding a central practice in international politics – diplomacy. In addition to Watson’s (1982/1991) seminal study, Neumann (2002; 2005; 2007) offers microsociological studies based on ethnographic work at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More critical studies such as Ashley’s (1987) also make headways into better understanding how realist tenets become the taken for granted or background knowledge in many foreign policy circles. In a related fashion, the Copenhagen School has helped elucidate the social construction of threats through its concept of “securitization” (Buzan et al. 1998). Hansen’s (2006) poststructuralist study of the Bosnian wars, for instance, has the advantage of showing how discourse and other international practices of statecraft are closely interconnected.
Everyday world politics rests on an enormous number of social artifacts, including norms (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; see Kornprobst 2007), religion (Shakman Hurd 2007), globalization (Kornprobst et al. 2008), organizations (Barnett and Finnemore 2004), gender roles (Tickner 1992), race (Doty 1996), governmentalities (Sending and Neumann 2006), global civil society (Buzan 2004), transnational networks (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Slaughter 2004), epistemic communities (Adler and Haas 1992), human rights discourses (Risse et al. 1999), international law (Brunee and Toope 2000; Reus-Smit 2004), culture and identity (Lapid and Kratochwil 1996), foreign policy narratives (Campbell 1998), cultures of insecurity (Weldes et al. 1999; Bigo 2002), national interests (Weldes 1999), identities (McSweeney 1999), environmental regimes (Bernstein 2001; Hoffmann 2005), communities of practice (Adler 2005), economic practices (Hobson and Seabrooke 2007), borders (Walker 1993), etc. Each of these artifacts lends itself to both a theoretical and an empirical examination, facilitating the planting of the three dispositions of IPS.
Historiography: IPS through IR Theoretical Debates
The historiographical approach to teaching IPS is most efficient with students who already have a good grasp of IR theoretical debates but want to explore in more depth what contributions IPS can make. The idea is to go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s in order to show how different strands of IPS emerged almost in simultaneity. This third approach centers on “isms” and is most useful with graduate students who seek to map IR theories in preparation for doctoral exams or literature reviews.
The starting point of the IPS narrative is well known: beginning in the early 1980s and increasingly toward the 1990s, the discipline was shaken by an aggiornamento that culminated in Lapid’s (1989) call for a “third great debate” between positivist and postpositivist theories. This is not the place to delve into the details of this very complex, and to this day unfinished, debate. Suffice it to say that it opened the door to many theoretical innovations that have had a strong influence on the development of IPS. The third debate began with the rise of critical theory as promulgated by Ashley (1981) and Cox (1981). According to Rengger and Thirkell-White (2007), there are four main strands of critical theory in IR: (1) Frankfurt School critical theory, which explores the possibilities for emancipatory change in world politics (e.g., Linklater 1998); (2) neo-Gramscian theory, which looks into the economic, political, and sociocultural transformations in history so as to draw ethical and practical implications for the future (e.g., Gill 1993); (3) feminism, which includes personal experiences as central to world political narratives (e.g., Enloe 1989); and (4) poststructuralism, which makes use of deconstruction to problematize the metanarratives of our times (e.g., Der Derian 1987). The common thread across these strands of theory is an all-out search for the political where it is least thought to reside – in narratives, discourses, theories – so as to unearth hidden structures of power. The Nietzsche–Foucault connection is, in fine, crucial to all critical (and many IPS) theories.
At the turn of the 1990s, the third debate favored the emergence of constructivism in IR, starting with Onuf (1989) and Kratochwil (1989) and later Wendt (1987; 1992). With the debate between neorealism and neoliberalism stalling on the issue of relative versus absolute gains, constructivism added two new insights (e.g., Jepperson et al. 1996). First, constructivists build on structuration theory to argue that structure and agency are mutually constitutive. Agents are not freestanding, pregiven units but cultural products of the social configuration in which they happen to evolve. Reciprocally, structures are not free-floating and deterministic but the result of agents’ practices, which reproduce (and sometimes challenge) them. Agents and structures are thus interdependent; the nature of each depends on the other. As a result, and this is the key departure from rationalist IR theories, interests are not given but constituted in and through social interaction. Second, constructivism argues that ideas matter as part of the social construction of reality. Material facts do not speak for themselves; it is human beings who, in and through social interaction, come to attach variegated (and often disputed) meanings to the environment they face. These meanings are not simply individual beliefs or perceptive biases. Instead, they are intersubjective constructs that do not depend on the point of view for existing. To tie the two theoretical innovations together, meanings matter because they constitute (as intersubjective structure) agents, whose practices in turn constitute webs of meanings. Agents certainly try to foster their interests as they go on, but the latter are loaded with social (i.e., relational) meanings.
IPS has greatly evolved since its emergence in the wake of the third debate but space is lacking to provide a comprehensive review (see other entries in this compendium). It should be added, however, that while the third debate was fundamental in clearing the ground for the emergence of IPS, a few theoretical strands predate it or are only loosely connected to the positivist/postpositivist rift in IR. Four such perspectives stand out. First, the English School was established in the 1960s and can be considered, in some ways, the precursor to IPS (for a general appraisal see Linklater and Suganami 2006). Wendt’s (1999) Social Theory, to take a prominent example, is clearly indebted to earlier works by Bull and others. Second, if there exists such a thing as a French sensitivity in IR, it has long been influenced by political sociology. While Badie and Smouts (1999) study the “irruption of societies” on the world stage, Bigo (2002) focuses on the political technologies that allow security elites to produce discourses of danger. Third, historical sociology deals with the ways in which societies and their organizations evolve over time, with the historical development of the state as its primary object of analysis (see Hobden and Hobson 2002). For instance, Tilly’s (1994:5) seminal book asks the fundamental question: “What accounts for the great variation over time and space in the kinds of states that have prevailed in Europe since ad 990, and why did European states eventually converge on different variants of the national state?” Fourth and finally, sociological institutionalism has developed in sociology and reached the IR shores mostly through the works of the Stanford School (Thomas et al. 1987; Meyer et al. 1997). The Stanford School argues that world politics are driven by an expanding and deepening Western world culture, grounded in instrumental rationality, that constitutes agents and organizations. In defining the main parameters of action in the international realm, rationality creates a level of isomorphism across the globe that cannot be explained by efficiency alone.
A final note is in order. While the historiographical narrative of IPS emergence portrays it as constituted against mainstream IR, it is important to remind students that the story does not have to be told that way. There is a lot of politics going on here and othering the mainstream to consolidate the IPS enterprise has been a very popular strategy in the past two decades. Hopefully, in the near future the approach will move beyond this formative stage and engage with mainstream IR theory on its own terms. Theoretical atomization makes no sense in the longer run, especially in terms of diffusing IPS insights and inroads.
Classics: IPS through Masterpieces
The objective of the fourth approach is to give graduate students a guided tour of some of the best works so that they can evaluate and eventually emulate them. Instead of the traditional “isms,” which can easily become scholastic, the classics approach emphasizes real persons. Given how recent the approach is, it is obviously an exaggeration to talk of “masterpieces” already in IPS. In the absence of a canon, coming up with a list of classics is bound to be a subjective, arbitrary, and controversial exercise. Beyond a few consensual authors, each instructor will likely draw on different segments of the IPS literature and that is for the better. Here is, for the sake of illustration, one example of a list of IPS seminal works that graduate students would read and discuss in a weekly seminar (the volumes listed under Part III could certainly be replaced with different ones depending on the instructor’s preferences; the objective in the sample below is to touch on as many theoretical strands of IPS as possible).
1 Introduction: What is IPS?
Part I Prelude to IPS
2 Social institutions: Ruggie
3 Rules and norms: Kratochwil
Part II Wendt’s Via Media
4 Cultures of anarchy: Wendt
Reading: Wendt (1999)
5 Wendt and his critics
Readings: Copeland (2000); Review of International Studies (2000); Kratochwil (2000); Journal of International Relations and Development (2001); Mattern (2001); Zehfuss (2001); Suganami (2002); Cederman and Daase (2003); Review of International Studies (2004); or, alternatively, Guzzini and Leander (2006)
Part III Issues in IPS
6 International norms in history: Reus-Smit
Reading: Reus-Smit (1999)
7 Self/other: Neumann
Reading: Neumann (1999)
8 Discourse of securitization: Hansen
Reading: Hansen (2006)
9 International organizations: Barnett and Finnemore
Reading: Barnett and Finnemore (2004)
10 Bringing the society back in: Hopf
Reading: Hopf (2002)
11 Transnational networks: Keck and Sikkink
Reading: Keck and Sikkink (1998)
Part IV New Directions in IPS
12 Relational structures: Nexon
Reading: Nexon (2009)
13 Practices: Williams
Reading: Williams (2007)
Again, this list is meant to be neither exhaustive nor definitive, but suggestive. Many important studies were left out, as were central issues for IPS. It is up to instructors to use this as a flexible template for their own reading lists.
Final Thoughts on Teaching IPS
Fun and rewarding as it may be, teaching IPS is no easy enterprise because the approach is often very destabilizing for students. Until their minds open up to its distinctive dispositions, learning IPS can be quite a frustrating experience. As a result, even the best instructors will have to hold the hand of their students as they revisit and problematize many analytical assumptions that are often taken for granted in more mainstream IR. Of course, the challenges of teaching IPS will vary depending on local context, including prior departmental training, inherited philosophical traditions, and cultural markers.
To make the matter even trickier, IPS is plagued with a serious problem that shows no sign of abating: its language and literature are particularly jargonistic, abstract, and scholastic. There are few readings that are accessible to undergraduate students; most are written for researchers and remain impenetrable to the average beginner. Ba and Hoffmann (2003), Barnett (2005), and Klotz and Lynch (2007) are rare exceptions in putting the complex arguments of constructivism in a simple yet precise language. These efforts should be lauded and emulated. The idea is certainly not to compromise on sophistication or complexity for the sake of pedagogy. But as French thinker Nicolas Boileau put it in 1674: “What is well conceived can be expressed clearly and the words to say it flow with ease” (ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement et les mots pour le dire viennent aisément). IPS now has to match clarity of expression with the richness of its arguments. After all, if the approach is to leave a mark on the field of IR and even influence future practitioners of world politics, the onus is on IPS proponents to find efficient ways to socialize the young nonexperts that populate our classes into its distinctive ways.
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Links to Digital Materials
Checkel, Jeffrey T. (2006) Useful Readings: An Annotated Bibliography. Surveys key works in IPS. At www.prio.no/files/file48991_jeff_checkel_sip_wg_nov30_des1.pdf, accessed June 2009.
Hoffmann, Matthew (n.d.) Social Constructivism and Norms in World Politics. An example of a graduate course syllabus in IPS. At www.chass.utoronto.ca/polsci/information/graduate/syllabi/PDF/pol2206h.pdf, accessed June 2009.
Hopf, Ted (n.d.). Socializing IR Theory. An example of a course syllabus focused on constructivist theory. At http://psweb.sbs.ohio-state.edu/faculty/thopf/classes/SyllabusSocTheyIRW02.doc, accessed June 2009.
International Political Sociology Section (n.d.). International Political Sociology Section of the International Studies Association. A website with a number of interesting links related to IPS. At www.ips-isa.org, accessed June 2009.
Nexon, Daniel (2008). A three-part introductory video to constructivist theory that may complement in-class teaching. Intro to Constructivist Theory, pt. 1. At www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yQITXWgd8k, accessed June 2009. Intro to Constructivist Theory, pt. 2. At www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JMorVbl9m8, accessed June 2009. Intro to Constructivist Theory, pt. 3. At www.youtube.com/watch?v=7391isB5Nj8, accessed June 2009.
I would like to thank my former students at the University of Toronto and McGill University for teaching me how to teach IPS; and Matthew Hoffmann for useful comments on an earlier draft.