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Blood, gore, and pedagogy in International Relations

Blood, gore, and pedagogy in International Relations

I am currently on a nice, relaxing vacation in Canada, and have brought along with me this reading material:

I’ve only gotten through the first sixth of the book thus far (it’s long — very long), but I’m enjoying it thoroughly. More than anything, what I’m enjoying is the intimate description of the blood, gore, and violence that took place. Obviously I was aware that states did horrible things in World War II, but the depth of detail in here is really new to me.

More pertinently, I know I am not alone. In grad school, I knew a couple students who had a super impressive command of world history, but they tended to be the exception. The fact is: graduate school training in International Relations is, depending on where you are, either dominated by methodology-heavy stuff or theory-heavy stuff (or some balance between the two).

Left out of the discussion are basic empirical matters: what happened where and when. I guess the thinking goes that students writing theses will figure out the empirics on their own as they pursue their research. In part, this is due to trade-offs: more event- or region-based courses necessarily means fewer method- and theory-based courses. But the results are often not pretty. I don’t know how many times, in a job talk or seminar, I have heard something to the effect of “Well, I don’t know anything about [event/topic/region/country] X, but…[question about presentation on X]?”

And what about how one studies for qualifying exams?


The other thing I would say about this is that war and violence is, for lack of a better word, highly sanitized — at least in the IR (and Comparative) scholarship I am most familiar with. There’s just not that much blood and gore. The stuff I’m reading about Japanese conduct in Nanking in Beevor’s book probably would not make it to very many mainstream IR courses.

Maybe this is a functionalist explanation, but I wonder if this has something to do with modern social science’s aversion to moral considerations. At least in political science, moral questions seem to be consigned solely to political theorists (at least from my vantage point). I understand and accept the need for distance and analytic neutrality, but I do wonder if we’ve gone too far.

Personally, I do envision, at some point, teaching a grad course on war and violence that would be exclusively empirical. A week on World War I and a week on World War II and a week on the Chinese civil war and a week on political violence in Karachi and a week on gang violence in Chicago and a week on insurgent violence in Colombia (or something). I know I’d have fun, and I suspect students would too.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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