Renounce Spoonfeeding!; Or, What’s Wrong With International Relations Textbooks Anyway?

Term is upon us, and with it new cohorts of students eager for the accumulated wisdom of IR condensed into textbook form. e-IR recently promoted two such texts, and I took gentle exception.

But what’s so wrong with textbooks anyway? It’s not so much the simplification itself. All theory (including some much-lauded high theory) does that. Nor is it any particular problem with the qualifications of the authors (the contributors to Baylis, Smith and Owens, for example, are pretty well the dominant names in their respective sub-fields).

Still, textbooks do seem to take on a strange epistemic authority, at least in undergraduate study. Confused by the relationship between ethics and self-interest in Morgenthau? Settle it with some bullet-points! IR is a young discipline, and none of its canonical texts approach the difficulty of, say, political, social or cultural theory proper. Any competence is going to come from understanding those texts, so why not do it sooner rather than later? Moreover, the relentless simplifications of the ‘paradigms’ debates (can we drop the mutilation of Kuhn yet?) provide an easy tool for obliterating complexity. This is not unrelated to a patronising attitude towards students, gently shepherded through the early years before being told harsher truths.

Textbooks, especially ones recommended at the start of courses as the intellectual crutches of choice, reinforce those dynamics. But it gets worse. Textbooks also lie.

This, at least, is what de Carvalho, Leira and Hobson argue in a recent Millennium article (early ungated version here).[1] Focusing on the roles of ‘1648’ and ‘1919’ in standard IR, they survey the most successful introductory textbooks, and find that they remain wedded to long-discredited foundations. Advanced study in the discipline (the stuff that is supposed to be pushing at the borders of knowledge) has pretty comprehensively established that the state system did not spring, fully-fledged, into being after Westphalia, and that ‘International Relations’ wasn’t born as an idealistic response to the horrors of war. But these contributions do not filter through to inform what the vast majority of IR students are actually taught about sovereignty, war and scholarly practice.

The intellectual stakes are not inconsiderable:

The myth of 1648 is detrimental because it provides a distorted view of how the modern sovereign state and states-system came into being – and thus of the naturalness and quality of the basic units that IR takes for granted, the result of which is to produce a rigid statist ontology that is ill-equipped to handle the challenges of global governance, suzerainty, empire and international hierarchy. The myth of 1919 is detrimental in at least four fundamental ways: firstly, because it presents the discipline as an ahistorical extrapolation backwards of current developments and concerns in international relations; secondly, because it allows for a reading of the historiography of the discipline where certain theoretical perspectives win out due to their ability to best explain the so-called ‘real world’; thirdly, because it glosses over the Eurocentric and racist foundations of the discipline by providing a Whiggish reading of the discipline’s birth on the one hand, while, on the other, providing an empiricist epistemology that is ill-equipped to handle the many-faceted and constantly changing challenges that confront the discipline today; and, fourthly, and following on directly from the third, is the problematic assumption that IR underwent a miraculous virgin birth that occurred almost overnight in 1919 following a gruelling 48-month gestation period on the blood-drenched battlefields of Europe.

The prevailing attitude appears to be that these are matters only for graduate study.[2] Which is pretty extraordinary. Perpetuating untruths (or tenuous interpretations) of the ‘ontological big bang’ of 1648 and the ‘miraculous virgin birth’ of 1919 on a mass scale whilst preserving and deferring the real engagement with history and theory for an esoteric sub-set of would-be academics.

This is where people get the idea of IR as a kind of conceited journalism from.

[1] Full disclosure: I was one of the Editors for the volume in which this appeared. But, and Dan Nexon can be reassured on this point, the peer reviews for this piece were among the most unabashedly enthusiastic I have ever seen, and from figures with the requisite intellectual authority to say so.

[2] An anecdotal point: I’m teaching a technically non-IR undergraduate course this year which deals comprehensively with the question of Westphalia within the first weeks, drawing on Teschke, Mann, and Tilly. I do not expect heads to explode.


8 thoughts on “Renounce Spoonfeeding!; Or, What’s Wrong With International Relations Textbooks Anyway?

  1. Do you think that this may be due to lack of time as well? With out first year IR student’s we are expected to teach them realism, liberalism, constructivism, world systems theory, feminist IR, Marxism and other critical theory in three classes and lectures. In a context like that Baylis et al is (unfortunately) about all we can squeeze in.

    Maybe with a full year course, or even a full semester on IR theory we could give them a chance to read Politics Among Nations and beyond.


    • Badly designed courses are something to do with it, I’m sure. The idea that you can express seven complicated themes in IR theory in 3 classes is pretty ridiculous. That said, reading a chapter of Carr or whoever hardly takes longer than reading a chapter summarising them. A bit longer, but not much. Its always seemed to me that it also focuses the discussion better – a particular thinker and set of claims rather than some over-broad generalisations. In any case, the answer still seems to be to work on how we explain the history and ideas of global politics, rather than depending ever more on simplifications.


  2. A plague on Baylis, Smith et al and the tyranny of the grey, shady “example” box inserted three or four times into EVERY CHAPTER.

    Quite right though, the idea that IR can be neatly packaged up and taught in isolation from political theory/history/philosophy is definitely part of the problem. Glad to hear you’re teaching Teschke’s book (which I think should, and hopefully will) become required reading on all IR courses in the years ahead.


  3. You should check out Global Politics: A New Introduction (edited by Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss) – it’s still a textbook (and yes, there are examples in boxes), but it asks the right questions and provides some unusual answers. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a chapter in it, but I also use it to teach my Intro to International Politics class and it has challenged me to do so differently. So here’s my challenge to you: Get away from teaching a litany of approaches that have little relevance beyond the tired old debates of the discipline. Pick those that help the students explore interesting questions and get on with it.


    • Thanks Annick. I concur with your approach, and will certainly try and avoid litanies if I ever get to the stage of running a course myself. The courses I do teach (shout-out to LSE) are in fact very good on readings and on framing and avoid textbooks altogether.

      My point was less about my own teaching experience, and more about how the discipline is taught in general. If we concur with the de Carvalho, Leira and Hobson analysis (and it seems to me that we should), there’s a much broader issue at play in relation to the transmission of more challenging research into most IR undergraduate’s experience, and something to think about in terms of the temptation to recycle easy stories.


  4. Besides the epistemic authority issue involved in IR textbooks — just like in every field of study, the textbook is supposed to sum up the core wisdom of IR as a whole, when actually it merely claims and in fact helps to construct the very certainty to which it purports to refer — there’s a related, parallel problem: the tendency to teach intro IR as a set of vignettes, either potted stories like 1648/1919/1945/1989, or oversimplified representations of theoretical schools. As though somehow learning about IR meant memorizing those vignettes and representations. But theory is what we think with, so I would say that what we are supposed to do in teaching is to help our students figure out how to do that for themselves. And for my money, original philosophical sources work best for that, which is why my intro IR students read Machiavelli to begin with, and my IR theory students spend 2/3rds of the semester reading political philosophy before we turn to any contemporary IR work.


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