This week, reading lists for international relations courses will be distributed to students across the country. First-year students will face long lists of unfamiliar names, like Thucydides, Kenneth Waltz, Hans Morgenthau, Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, and Alexander Wendt. These authors’ works are typically clustered together under the heading “general,” “background,” or “required,” meaning that they have not been assigned as readings for any particular week. Professors include them on an “I expect you to be familiar with these” basis.
These “required” names will soon become familiar – they make the cut year after year. Even graduate students, well versed in IR’s foundational texts, can expect to see them on their seminar lists.
Professors who find affinity with one or more of IR’s still-expanding lists of schools of thought – Realism, Liberalism, Neoliberalism, Neo-realism, Constructivism, Critical Theory, Feminist Theory (and the list goes on!) – know reflexively who to put down on their lists as “required.” They could rhyme off the seminal works in IR in their sleep.
But their students may scan their lists and ask two questions: First, what about these books secured their authors reading-list tenure? Are the insights they provide truly timeless, or is it academic inertia that keeps them around? And second, given how little time students have when balancing a full course load, is it worth taking the time to read material that is not specifically assigned for a given week?
On the first question, it’s the former – and good thing, too. The IR cannon is the glue holding together a discipline that too often seems bent on tearing itself apart. The deepening of ontological and methodological divisions among scholars seems to be the inevitable fate of most bodies of knowledge. Scholars start spending more and more of their time defending their views on what constitute the most important objects of study for their field, and how to study them. IR has seen this to a greater degree than many other fields of study for two reasons.
On the one hand, IR has had to wrestle with the usual problem of interdisciplinary subjects: how to define its relationships to other disciplines, such as political science, international law, comparative government, peace and conflict studies, etc.
On the other hand, layered on top of the quest to define its identity relative to others are a series of intra-disciplinary debates. These are battles within IR over what IR is and what doing IR means. This includes the heated debate over quantitative versus qualitative approaches, or, really, statistically based analysis versus everything else.
The lengthy exchanges among scholars on these issues are typically of little interest to those outside the field. The public is generally more concerned with learning the answer to a particular question than in hearing the justification for why one approach was chosen over another.
And so are students – particularly new students, who usually start down the IR track because they think problem-solving on international issues is what IR is all about.
Perhaps this is part of why the “puzzle approach” has gained ground in recent years. This approach says that students should choose their analytical tools based on the nature of the puzzle they’re trying to solve instead of what a certain school of thought demands. On the whole, this is a promising shift. It suggests that IR scholars are seeking to bridge their divisions and engage in constructive dialogue. There is a risk, however, that a strict emphasis on finding a puzzle will lead to equally valid research questions that don’t lend themselves to this framework being set aside.
But back to those hefty “required readings” and whether busy students can, in good conscience, pass them by. The answer (frustratingly, if you’re a time-pressed first-year student) is no. These books provide critical guidance in a discipline whose borders and identity remain contested, and where, too often, one analytical approach reigns supreme.
So, when the theoretical going gets tough, students should turn to the intellectual (and often literal) heavyweights of IR – whether in hardcopy, e-book, or audiobook. Use them as a reminder that there is room in IR for making bold claims and taking the “wrong” approach – for thinking very big, very small, and everywhere in between – and that that is a large part of what makes it a great field to study and work in. Turn to those “general readings,” because there is nothing “general” about them – unique depth and breadth of perspective is what has raised them to the top of the list. And it’s often the case that in taking in the view from the top, we see a way forward through the complexity below.
A random selection of my favourite “required readings,” moving along the theoretical spectrum from classical realism to constructivism…
Hans J. Morgenthau – Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978
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