“Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility.”

2006-01-17

in Daily updates, Oxford, Politics

My workspace

Realism and neorealism

With a litre of dark coffee beside me and tables heaped with books, I can tell that the term has begun. During my core seminar tomorrow morning, there’s a one in seven chance that I will need to present for fifteen minutes on the differences between realism and neorealism. One approach, I suppose, would be to take Waltz’s conception of ‘thought’ as compared to ‘theory’ and build a presentation out of examining it. By a lucky coincidence, I have a copy of a take home exam for Robert Crawford’s international relations theory course written on that precise topic. You can get a sense of Crawford’s hostility to Waltz from the question itself:

In an obviously self-serving argument, Kenneth Waltz distinguishes between “thought” and “theory” in international relations. What is the basis for this distinction, and to what extent does it further, or undermine, the pursuit of knowledge in world politics?

I don’t know anything about David Williams, but I am pretty sure Jennifer Welsh is no neorealist. Come to think of it, she probably knows Robert Crawford.

I am decreasingly of the opinion that Waltz is ‘wrong’ in the sense normally applied to the word. It’s more that he has quite an unusual project. Waltz identifies theory as “a means of dealing with complexity” and goes on to say that “in making assumptions about men’s (or states’) motivations, the world must be drastically simplified; subtleties must be rudely pushed aside, and reality must be grossly distorted.” What he is doing is fundamentally more artificial than a straightforward attempt at getting a sense of how world politics works and how we might hope to change it. Indeed, that kind of unstructured approach is exactly what Waltz would categorize as “mere thought.” Hoffman says that: “Waltz’s own attempt at laying the groundwork for theory is conceptually so rigorous as to leave out much of the reality which he wants to account for.”

The danger arises when Waltz makes the same move as many sleazy economists. They build theories strongly abstracted from reality (high school dropouts have perfect understanding of the advanced mathematics involved in generating net present values, and other ludicrous assumptions) in the hope of developing a parsimonious explanation of a good part of the phenomena being observed. The devious step is when they come to love their models too well and carry on, by sheer momentum, applying them in situations where their own assumptions make them entirely invalid. Especially when making normative judgements or advocating policy, all those bits of real-world complexity that were deliberately forgotten need to be considered again. Likewise, there is the need for an awareness of how theory itself impacts the world. Otherwise, theory becomes nothing more than “an anti-political apology for brute force and cynicism” as Kalevi Holsti pointedly described neorealism.

Given the passions that tend to get inflamed both within supporters and opponents of neorealism when the subject gets debated, tomorrow’s seminar promises to be an interesting discussion. Indeed, among IR scholars, the position you take with regards to IR theory is one that goes a long way towards defining your personal and intellectual identity. As Robert Walker identified in 1986, theory is never a neutral thing: “Theory is always for someone, for some group, for some purpose.”

In the end, I would contend that ideas pertaining to vital questions about world politics are necessarily ‘thought’ as opposed to ‘theory’ as defined by Waltz. While he would probably agree, using the cover that theory can never be comprehensive, I don’t think that’s an adequate response: at least not if people are going to go around identifying themselves as neorealists. If neorealism is a partial explanation, it cannot comprise our whole intellectual outlook.

Richard Dawkins

Apparently, on Monday February 13th, there will be a lecture in London presented by Richard Dawkins. It’s entitled: “Darwin’s meme: or the origin of culture by means of natural selection” and I would be interested in going if I can find at least one other person who would also be so inclined. It is happening at the Darwin Lecture Theatre, Darwin Building, UCL, Gower Street, London at 6:30pm.

On a related note, Louise apparently knows Professor Dawkins’ daughter Juliet. Regrettably, I did not get the chance to meet either her or her father before Louise made the journey back to Lancaster. Along with Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins is probably the Oxford resident who I would most like to meet.


To do in the next few days:

  • Prepare realism v. neorealism presentation (ASAP)
  • Opt out of another term of college meals in hall (ASAP)
  • Merifield application (Wednesday)
  • Complete ORS application, submit directly to University Offices (Friday)
  • Pay Hilary term fees and battels (Friday)

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 16, 2006 at 8:06 pm

One piece of unsolicited advice to everyone: when iTunes randomly comes up with a 40 minute track of Ginsberg recitation, skip it before you become inclined to listen to the whole thing. It’s nearly impossible to think about anything complex while such a thing is playing: at least, any one complex thing.

Makes me think of Holden, that self-described angel-headed hipster…

B January 16, 2006 at 9:11 pm

You realize, I am sure, that the wide variety of content on this blog works against you in many ways. While you certainly aren’t an expert in any, you are interested in many fields. Being confronted by something really unknown is an alienating experience for most people and, as such, you do a lot to drive away those without the intellectual confidence to approach new areas or the willingness to simply bracket them.

Unlike single issue blogs, which are selling a single comprehensible item, you are selling something much more complex: yourself, or at least a stage managed version of it. That may work for close family and friends, but it permanently limits your readership and maintains the anomaly of a slick and professional looking blog that is nonetheless too personal to be mainstream.

Milan January 16, 2006 at 9:28 pm

Good points, but not particularly relevant ones. This blog has never been meant for the mainstream and will not be any time soon.

I regret if I make anyone feel uncomfortable through the discussion of disparate topics, though I do try to include helpful links for learning about anything obscure.

The blog is partly an educational project: meant to deepen the understanding of both myself and people reading it. If that can happen in diverse areas of inquiry, all the better.

Tristan January 16, 2006 at 9:46 pm

First, on the distinction between “thought” and “theory”, I think any “theory” which relegates thought to a non-ultimate position, runs the risk of approaching un-thought, which is a fair description of what is practiced by the sleazy economists you refer to. The possibility of any “theory” in international relations, I believe, would need to concern and attempt to explicate first and foremost the presuppositions of thought, both one’s own and one’s idols. This is why philosophy is relavent whenever an inquiry into thought (and an inquiry into the world of humans is nothing less than this) is requested.

On B’s comment. I’m a little confused as to this comment and to your response. B seems to assume that you are “selling something”, and that these sales are hurt by your, might we say, “product”, which is “much more complex”. I did not believe that blogs, livejournals and the like were a product in the economic sense. (They are certainly a product in the sense of a thing which is produced, the author is no doubt the producer of his/her works).

Your response to the comment, however, doesn’t make this rebuttle, although your statement of the blog as “educational project” could be read as a similar form of answer, just less antagonistic.

I also take personal offense at B’s comment that, “you certainly arn’t an expert in any”. Not that I believe it to be untrue; I would agree with the statement that no one under the age of 50 is an expert, especially no one who refraines from pigeonholding themselves into a single discipline. However, in the common sense of the term, I would say that your knowledge concerning many things that you choose to study and write about, and grace us with on your blog, easily reaches the rank of “expert”, which in common parlance means nothing other than being versed well above the mean in a subject.

Milan January 16, 2006 at 9:56 pm

Tristan,

Starting with the matter of products: I think this is a reasonable way to think about blogs, as long as you realize that the currency in question is time. The ‘price’ of reading this, or any, blog is the time that it takes to do so. In a sense, I am selling my time (spent thinking, writing, coding, etc) in exchange for the time of others. Like economic transfers, this has the potential to be mutually beneficial. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be overly much incentive to do it.

Regarding expertise, I think the point is more about specialization than about knowledge overall. Most bloggers opt to focus their entries and discussions on a single area or a narrow range thereof. This concentrates knowledge both in the writer and the community of readers and it often serves a useful purpose. A case in point, for me, is the usefulness of Bruce Schneier’s security focused blog. By that conception of expertise, the blog is definitely lacking, though it meddles in a number of subject areas.

As for me personally, I don’t know enough about anything in particular to call myself an ‘expert.’ Maybe once I finish my M.Phil or PhD thesis. Until then, I am just a devotee of many disciplines, and a fairly avid reader.

Lastly, about ‘thought’ and ‘theory,’ I don’t buy Waltz’s definitions either. At the same time, I can understand what he means. What he is trying to do is actually quite philosophical. He doesn’t just want to take the way we look at international relations as given, but wants to come up with an understanding of it before moving on to look at other things. While I don’t think he generally succeeds at this, I do admire the energy behind the attempt.

Anonymous January 16, 2006 at 11:10 pm

We all know that the standard for internet publication isn’t anything close to expertise: it’s non-total-crackpottery. We just can’t expect all that much better than that.

I hereby officially certify you Not a Crackpot.

For whatever an anonymous certification is worth.

Milan January 16, 2006 at 11:15 pm

Now, that I do take issue with. Sure, there is a lot of dodgy stuff on the internet, but plenty of scandals have demonstrated severe lapses on the part of the mainstream media. It’s arguably worse: partly because people automatically trust ‘legitimate’ media providers more readily and partly because the commercial media often has economic incentive to be misleading. Big media and big business are closely intertwined and connected, in turn, with politicians whose agendas can be far from pure.

There is a huge amount of excellent information available on the internet and it is a uniquely democratic and accessible medium. I think there are relatively few areas of human endeavour that will not ultimately be touched by the importance of nearly free, nearly ubiquitous communication and the increased accumulation and organization of data.

To dismiss people creating high quality on the internet as mere ‘non-crackpots’ is to adopt an unfair and backward-looking attitude quite at odds with the pursuit of knowledge of the dissemination of truth.

Oh, and an anonymous certification is, by its very definition, completely worthless.

Anonymous January 17, 2006 at 4:50 am

Some thoughts on Waltz:

Waltz seeks an explanation of the causes of great power war, not an understanding of world politics in any broad sense. In Waltz’s view, a theory is not a means of dealing with complexity but, at a deeper level, an explanation of the relationship between variables (Theory of Intenrational Politics). Waltz is seeking the variables at the heart of the casue of great power war. International politics being so complex, theoretical parsimony is necessarily called for if one is seeking to explain the causes of war in any coherent or ultimately controllable way. To Waltz, theory need not reflect reality in any way. It is useful for its explanatory and not its descriptive power.

If you’re going to critique Waltz, you have to do it on his ground. Does his parsimonious theory adequately explain great power war over the long term? Do shifts in the distribution of power across the system lead to conflict? Waltz never intended his theory to be used as a normative tool or to make everyday foreign policy decisions.

I think you can attack him in a few ways. First you have to agree that theory is meant to explain and not describe. Second you can take a look at his assumptions. If non-state actors or domestic level processes have independent effects on outcomes then Waltz’s blackbox states as the only units are in deep trouble. Do states seek more than power? Of course, but does that have a notable effect on outcomes?

Giving old Waltz the deathblow is the IR theory crown, but you can’t do it confronting him on ground he had no intention of standing on.

hilary January 17, 2006 at 5:53 am

yes please do pay me your term fees and battels. I take cash, cheque or direct deposit. I will reimburse you in part by sending you gifts by post.

jo_jo January 17, 2006 at 6:01 pm

On b’s comment – that’s the whole reason I read Milan’s blog. I love to learn about unknown things. He’s part of my virtual role-call of interesting people. I know absolutely nothing about IR, but he educates me in the gentlest way – by sharing his passion for the topic.

I don’t believe people need to be older or have degrees from universities in order to be knowledgeable. In my opinion being effective is more important, anyway. But as I don’t have the piece of paper qualifying me to say that, I guess one can safely ignore me!

Angel Headed Hipster March 6, 2006 at 8:40 pm

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to thestarry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water fiats ‘doating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

Anonymous March 20, 2006 at 2:24 pm

I think: “an anti-political apology for brute force and cynicism” is a Rob Walker quote, not one from Kalevi Holsti.

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