The purpose of ‘international relations’

Water plants in the Oxford Botanical Gardens

What can international relations contribute to the understanding of science and policymaking? This is a section that needs to get written, for my introduction, and its one that involves a bit of fundamental contemplation of the discipline.

Last night, I got into a discussion with the warden of Wadham College and a trio of fellows about my lack of faith in the concept of ‘social science.’ In essence, this is a lack of faith in the possibility of approaching truth, in the study of politics and related fields. One can become convincing and powerful, but one can never be authoritatively ‘right’ when speaking about morality in warfare, the consequences of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, or the economic effects of NAFTA. Importantly, one also cannot be qualitatively as ‘right’ when answering such questions as one can when dealing with properly scientific ones.

I don’t know if it is a reflection of the kind of people the discipline attracts, or whether there is some other explanation, but it seems to me that IR is more concerned with action than with understanding. Interaction with knowledge is certainly important, but that is largely because such interaction is a necessary part of empowerment. Perhaps the reason for which we are given such impossibly long reading lists to skim is because we are just picking out those bits that will sharpen our ability to do whatever it is we wish to do in the world.

[Update: 1:30am] Perhaps I should be clear: this is one of those “use of the blog as a place for speculative thinking that might generate interesting responses” kind of post. Purposive, rather than simply analytic in itself, that is.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “The purpose of ‘international relations’”

  1. As a political theorist, I object a) to the claim that thinking about morality in warfare falls under the rubric of social science and b) the claim that there aren’t right and wrong answers available in that thinking. For example, I am not convinced that much serious empirical research, involving dependent and independent variables, or the comparative method, or formal models, needs to be done in order to say with confidence that the Einstatzgruppen in WWII were wrong, and to be right when it is said. More broadly, even if we can’t say with fully justified warrant exactly what the consequences of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire or of NAFTA were or are, we can certainly say what they weren’t. Neither NAFTA nor the breakup of the Ottoman Empire were responsible for England losing the Ashes 5-0, for example, as well as a whole load of things considerably less obviously not related. That is a start, and it’s a start that is not so far off of a lot of what gets counted as hard science. Until physicists work out whether string theory or whatever is correct, presumably there in a not dissimilar situation: they can’t explain the observed data with the existing theory (or if they can, why the hell are they wondering about string theory?)

  2. Rob,

    You may well be right on all counts. What I was pondering, in far from complete fashion, was the nature of IR, rather than whatever answers can be found in other disciplines to questions like those above.

    The distinction I was trying to identify is mostly connected to the need for information to be purposeful. Studying WWI is important because it allows us (at least potentially) to understand something about alliance systems in general, or arms races, or X power orientations.

    The answer is thus the product both of what can be credibly said about the past, and the demands that the present is making on the person doing the answering.

  3. Rob,

    I think critical commentary was exactly what he was looking for.

    I’m guessing this has something to do with the whole History Boys, Oxford, better to be clever than correct mindset.

  4. The thing with social science is that one can possibly describe the past but rarely if ever predict the future.

  5. This sea lettuce from the Botanic Gardens greenhouses (imho their best feature) is in many areas of the world a problem weed. Apparently it can spread by something stupid like a metre a day. The tank this is grown in is an original Victorian structure from when the green houses were first designed and constructed. There are no plans to update that pool because it is still ideal and in good order for its purpose.

  6. Bertrand Russell

    “When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others.”

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