Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Junk the theories, keep the history

Ok, ok, I'm not really in favor of junking theories. But this post by PM about the syllabus for an introductory International Relations course does prompt me to say that without knowing some history it's impossible to understand "the contemporary condition" (to steal the title of another blog). There is a passage at the beginning of Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes (which I have quoted previously on this blog) in which he notes the date on which François Mitterand chose to visit Sarajevo when it was under siege during the Balkan wars of the 1990s: June 28, 1992. (Google "Mitterand visit to Sarajevo" and you can find the New York Times article by John Burns, published the following day, which indicates that Mitterand's visit to a city under continuous artillery and mortar fire, as Sarajevo then was, entailed some personal risk; he flew 100 miles in a helicopter over mountainous terrain from the Croatian port of Split.)

But to the point: Why did Mitterand choose to deliver his "message of hope" to the inhabitants of Sarajevo on June 28? Because the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. However, as Hobsbawm points out, virtually no one caught the reference, apart from professional historians and some elderly people (probably mostly Europeans) with long memories. So here's a proposal for the nonce: no student should leave an introductory International Relations course without knowing a little about WWI, including the date on which Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Ideally, they should learn a few other dates too, such as, for example, the date WW2 in Europe started (Sept. 1, 1939), the date it ended (May 8, 1945), and the date on which the Cold War officially ended with the Charter of Paris (gulp, without looking it up I don't know that precise date myself). And I'm sure one could suggest a number of other dates, but I won't drag this out. Isn't this hopelessly old-fashioned, having students learn dates? Of course, but old-fashioned isn't always bad. I'd much rather that a 19-year-old be able to tell me when Franz Ferdinand was killed and why it mattered than that he or she be able to give a little disquisition on the different versions of realism, liberalism, and constructivism. There's nothing wrong with the "isms" but you have to be able to connect them to something (how else can I say this?) real.


hwh said...

"Ah la belle chose que de savoir quelque chose"

LFC said...

Molière a eu raison. Je l'avais oublié. Merci, hwh (et Google aussi).

Kindred Winecoff said...

Just so there's no mystery: LFC is also an acronym for Liverpool Football Club (soccer team in England), whose quasi-official theme song is "You'll Never Walk Alone" by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Hence, YNWA.

Paul T. Levin said...

I don't know, LFC, a grasp of history is important for an understanding of IR, but having memorized three dates...? But I'm with you on not skimping on the history part of an introductory IR syllabus (and I would add, not skimping on the critical and pomo stuff either).

LFC said...

Kindred: Thanks for the explanation. (To anyone else reading this: it refers to our exchange on the recent Crooked Timber comment thread attached to J. Quiggin's post "Trans-Atlantic Plane Wars".)

Paul: Obviously I'm not saying students should memorize three dates or thirty dates and consider that that is sufficient for historical understanding. That would be absurd. But I do think it is useful to have a sense of what happened when. A rough sense of chronology is probably more important than specific dates, and the chronology can be arranged along different time scales; there are some historians (well, one or two in particular I'm aware of) who do "deep" history, i.e. the history of population mvts and climate changes and etc over the last 10,000 or so years. But in an IR course the chronology doesn't have to be on quite such a long scale. I do think however it should start before the quasi-mythical date of 1648. This could be a longer discussion, obviously.

Bro said...

I know 2 dates: 7/1/1863 (start of battle of Gettysburg) and 7/1/1919 (start of battle of Somme). Which means my wife and I, who share a July 1st birthday, were born on the bloodiest day of the calendar. Which means...?

Paul T. Levin said...

@bro: That I wouldn't want to get involved in one of your fights...

@LFC: I knew that. It was a bit of a cheap shot, and in fact, while I have the memory of a ... something with very bad memory, I have begun realizing the importance of having a few set dates (beyond wedding anniversaries...) drilled in as well as a general sense of chronology.

About not stopping at 1648, I have a book coming out which spans AD 632-2010 so I'm with you on going beyond the Westphalian date fetish (I got carried away...). At least go back to Augsburg 1555 for a little perspective.

hwh said...

Looking forward to buying a copy of the book you have coming out. Remembering the clarity of an essay by you(it was on boundaries) we are very eager to get hold of your book.

LFC said...

@bro: The Battle of the Somme started in 1916, not 1919 (as WW1 was over in Nov.1918). I'll chalk this up to an early morning typo. :)
But thanks for sharing 'the bloody bond' between you and your spouse.

hwh: Please note that it is Paul T. Levin, not I, who has the book coming out.

My 'professional' publications are limited to book reviews not books. I cannot even claim to have published a journal article; however, I'll stop here since I don't want to get too self-deprecating on my own blog. :)

hank_F_M said...


One of the first courses I took as an undergraduate was a social science survey/methodology course which reviewed numerous “isms” over the previous 100 years or so. Proponents of “ism”s should remember that there work will, in 50 years or so, be 15 minutes of lecture and two questions on the final.

A big mythology question back then was how do you test your theories. Aside from impossibility, it would certainly be unethical to set up a bunch of real life worlds with H-bomb tipped ICBM’s and a controlled difference in variables‘. The ones that went boom would have real people in them. Historical analogy is still on of the most available, if imperfect, ways to test.

LFC said...

Historical case studies are certainly one common way to try to test (or to do
'plausibility probes' on) theories.

I think it's fair to say, however, that the
'grand theories' in IR -- realism, liberalism, constructivism, world-systems analysis, critical theory, post-colonialism, post-modernism, etc. -- are more like sets of assumptions or worldviews than collections of testable, falsifiable propositions. (As others have pointed out, students may need to know something
about these general perspectives in order to understand the mid-range theories that are more susceptible, at least sometimes, to being tested.) And it's standard to teach these isms, or some of them, in an intro IR course, though there are other ways of teaching the intro course.

LFC said...

Incidentally, I recently happened to discover that the Mitterand visit to Sarajevo is referred to by Zizek in one of his books, The Plague of Fantasies. It can be seen via Google Books, around p.17 if I recall correctly. (This reference at the indicated page, unlike much of what surrounds it, is readily comprehensible, which is not to say I necessarily agree with what he writes there.)

Anonymous said...

I have not been on your blog for a while but I am slowly coming back. Two very quick thoughts on theory and history:
a) For me, theories are not timeless propositions but ways in which particular people have wrestled with particular problems at particular time periods. I am not into testing but rather use theories as conversation partners to think with, and against. Of course, there are ground rules for how to do this, so that one does not end up with a bunch of incoherent stuff.

b) I think if you know a lot of history, much of standard IR will not hold too much appeal. By history, I don't mean just dates/chronology. In my freshman class, I have repeatedly witnessed something depressing but unsurprising: students who are fairly well versed in political theory, history, and especially global history, tend to gravitate away from IR. I am speaking here about the standard IR theories since that is what the original post was about.

LFC said...

Thanks for these. I guess it makes sense that students who know a lot of global history might be turned off by the rather Eurocentric perspective of the standard IR theories.

Your point (a) is interesting. Will try to come back to it later. A bit pressed for time now. I'm sure you can relate to that :).