IR theory and human nature

2007-06-10

in Daily updates, Oxford, Politics, Psychology

Magdalen College, Oxford

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.

Aside: Richard Rorty, American philosopher and inventor of the concept of ‘ironic liberalism,’ died today.

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan June 10, 2007 at 1:26 pm

Lots of Richard Rorty work can be found through Google Scholar.

Milan June 10, 2007 at 2:18 pm

Kerrie just put up a post about fish and development theories.

Antonian June 10, 2007 at 3:44 pm

It should be interesting to see what kind of theory implicitly or explicitly guides Canadian policy.

Anon June 10, 2007 at 8:58 pm

Where did your IR theory chart come from? Did some of the core seminar instructors distribute them?

Milan June 10, 2007 at 9:00 pm

If you’ve had a cough for a week it may be time to go see a doctor. If you got infected on the minibus trip think how many you could be infecting now.

I am aware of this, and concerned. There is no hope of seeing a doctor during the weekend here, unless bits of your brain are falling out from holes in your head. Next week, once exams finish, I will go to see someone if the problems persist.

Incidentally, Co-Op brand ‘Dry, Tickly Cough Mixture’ is as nasty tasting as it is ineffective.

Where did your IR theory chart come from? Did some of the core seminar instructors distribute them?

The chart is from my time at the University of British Columbia. I got it from Dr. Robert Crawford as part of the IR theory course he taught.

Ben June 10, 2007 at 9:20 pm

Out of hours GP (weekends included)
http://www.oxamb.nhs.uk/services/1113833935.html

But if it’s only a minor inconvenience, you may as well just plow through those exams first…

Good luck!

Milan June 10, 2007 at 9:59 pm

Ben,

You’re quite right about it being smarter to wait until after exams. That said, two people on the Lakes trip had sufficiently bad respiratory infections that they had been prescribed steroidal inhalers.

The Wadham College doctors usually give me an appointment a week or so after I show up. Perhaps I should abandon them and go to doctors elsewhere on the rare occasions when I seem ill enough to warrant it.

R.K. June 10, 2007 at 6:08 pm

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.

If you’ve had a cough for a week it may be time to go see a doctor. If you got infected on the minibus trip think how many you could be infecting now.

Anon @ Wadh June 11, 2007 at 1:52 pm

‘Dirty snow’ warming Earth, study finds

Canada urged to lead international cleanup
Randy Boswell, CanWest News Service
Published: Sunday, June 10, 2007

A team of U.S. scientists has found that “dirty snow” is a surprisingly significant contributor to global warming, and is urging Canada – as “custodian” of a vast, snowbound nation – to lead an international cleanup effort.

The researchers have measured, in the first comprehensive study of its kind, how snowy landscapes tainted by carbon particles from inefficiently burned fuels and forest fires are absorbing more of the sun’s heat than the less sooty snow cover of centuries past.

“Snow becomes dirty when soot from tailpipes, smokestacks and forest fires enters the atmosphere and falls to the ground,” the team explains. “Soot-infused snow is darker than natural snow. Dark surfaces absorb sunlight and cause warming, while bright surfaces reflect heat back into space and cause cooling.”

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