One thing I have always disliked about international relations theory is the tendency to assert a view of human nature as simplistic and unchangeable. Often, I think this is more the result of short descriptions of theories becoming caricatures, rather than the product of theories that genuinely fail to appreciate how human behaviour is (a) malleable within broad limits and (b) critically influenced by context. Lots of fascinating recent psychology has been demonstrating the latter point. Malcolm Gladwell’s work is an entertaining and accessible example. So too, the work on behavioural economics that has been attracting so much attention.
I have a chart on my theory notes listing the major alternatives: Realism, Liberalism, Neoliberalism, Marxism, Feminism, and Critical Theory. In the column for ‘human nature’ the positions given are: ‘Fixed (essentially selfish)’, ‘Fixed (essentially selfish)’, ‘Fixed (essentially selfish)’, ‘Historically determined (corrupted by changeable)’, ‘Varies according to sub-model’, and ‘No fixed nature.’ Firstly, it seems like the issue of whether people generally behave selfishly or not isn’t sufficient to assert the existence of an essential human nature. Secondly, it seems like virtually all IR theories could pretty easily stretch to accommodate how people’s thinking and actions are conditioned by the environment in which they live. It seems like this is one of the major reasons for which neoliberals can continue to hope that conflictual elements of world politics will eventually give way to more cooperative ones. (Of course, we can also question whether the six traditions listed above constitute an appropriate taxonomy of IR theoretical approaches.)
The tendency to caricature I mention is another feature of IR. Because the discipline seeks to cover so much, it is often simplified to a dangerous extent. Key points are pulled out from historical situations ranging from the Peloponnesian War to the Cuban Missile Crisis, while theorists are often understood on the basis of a few quotes and bullet points. In any case, I have never found international relations theory to be a terribly useful or worthwhile enterprise. Both political theory and history have a lot more to say about the major issues involved, and both seem to have a more defensible approach to dealing with them.
PS. The sore throat and aggressive cough I picked up on the Walking Club trip is still very much with me. I hope it doesn’t distract those around me too much during the exams tomorrow.