I never knew Kenneth Waltz

14 May

International Relations theorist Kenneth Waltz has died and there have been quite a few blog and Facebook tributes to him. I did not know him (though my sympathies go to his family and those who did know him), and I don’t think I have read much of his work. I’m sure some of it was on reading lists when I was an undergraduate or MA student, but I don’t have a conscious memory of using it in my working life as an academic. What interests me is the process through which particular individuals are identified as ‘greats’ in their field and are honoured.

It strikes me that the discipline of International Relations is a fiction (certainly a construction). It relies on a cohort of people who believe that there is such a thing as the discipline of International Relations. They have a vested interest in maintaining this shared fiction and so they reinforce it by going to the same conferences, reading the same books, citing the same authors, offering courses on it, and using the same terminology. They even have their own argot and abbreviations (not least ‘IR’). This is not to undermine the seriousness and genuineness of their intellectual endeavours. It is instead, it is to point out that International Relations is something of a club. Like most clubs, there are rules and gatekeepers.

I remember being at the BISA (British International Studies Association) conference in St Andrews some years ago. The plenary speaker was some ‘big name’ in ‘the field’. Typically, I have forgotten who it was. But what I do remember was the guy who introduced him saying ‘And if you don’t know who our plenary speaker is then you shouldn’t be here.’ Needless to say, I didn’t know who the plenary speaker was, but I took away the message loud and clear: you don’t belong here, if you don’t conform and join the club, and read the same things that we read, and honour the same people that we honour. So, for me, the discipline of International Relations was about followership, of getting into camps behind leading authors, of appending the word ‘School’ onto a particular group of scholars.

The reason I don’t have much time for International Relations (despite the fact I have an MA and PhD in it, and am now a Professor of Peace and Conflict studies) is that I have not found it to be 1. very useful or 2. very welcoming. It hasn’t been very useful for understanding the sorts of conflicts I am interested in (civil wars) and it certainly hasn’t been very welcoming.

I’ve sat through a few uncomfortable seminars in which students, dutifully giving their seminar papers, have cited me: ‘As Mac Ginty says ….’. I was sitting a few feet away. The thing was, I don’t think the students agreed with what I had written. They were just saying it to please me, to keep on the right side of me. I would have preferred it if they had used their own words and thoughts; if they had have had a go at my writing or added something to it. It was followership and very depressing. It can be no accident that we call our units of study ‘disciplines’. To follow them we must be disciplined: we must get into line, agree with selected others, cite selected works etc. This followership (perhaps best expressed in the US tenure system – and wasn’t ‘tenure’ associated with slavery?) leaves little room for innovation, critique and intellectual dissent.

Over the past few years I have been working on ideas of hybridity and resistance. I have to admit to having only the scantest knowledge of the works of Bourdieu, Foucault, Spivak and de Certeau. Frankly, although their ideas are important, I find their word very difficult to read. Usually whenever I give a conference or workshop paper, my fellow panellists or audience members mention these authors. I used to feel like a fraud, hoping that they wouldn’t uncover the fact that my knowledge of these people was paper thin. But now I’m happy to be a fraud. You see, I have got myself to similar intellectual positions as Bourdieu, Foucault, Spivak and de Certeau by observing my daily life, and my very broad reading. I hasten to add that I am in no way comparing the sophistication of my thinking to the likes of Foucault! I’m still messing about with Play Dough while they were building grand temples. I’m merely reflecting that I have been able to work out that the meanings of words matter, that politics is everywhere, and that power is often hidden and takes multiple forms without wading through their work in great detail. I have read a little of it, appreciated it, but have not done the cultish thing of reading everything and obsessively citing them.

Perhaps we need to be less referential (and indeed reverential) to ‘the greats’. Obviously we need to be scholarly and cite people when we use their work. But do we have to all cite the same stuff? Where is the law (and it is followed so religiously that I’m beginning to think it is a law) that says we have to cite Nye, Morgenthau, Kaplan, Keohane etc. I’m sure they are/were extraordinarily nice people and excellent teachers and mentors. But I just find it this followership creepy. Are we doing enough in this ‘discipline’ to encourage independent thinking, critique, innovation, the breaking of traditions and boundaries? Of course not. Because that would threaten the fiction that there is such a thing as International Relations.

Roger Mac Ginty


9 Responses to “I never knew Kenneth Waltz”

  1. alanbullion 14/05/2013 at 11:53 am #

    Good article, as ever!

  2. Ali Z. Gokpinar 14/05/2013 at 6:20 pm #

    Reblogged this on Ali Gokpinar.

  3. Marcel 14/05/2013 at 6:45 pm #

    I’ve asked myself how this “International Relations club” is different of all other disciplines.

  4. Darren Atkinson 14/05/2013 at 9:34 pm #

    This is a really thoughtful post Roger and goes some why to demystifying the academic process…who would have thought that not being able to cite and quote everything “important” authors have written off the top of your head was a problem that afflicted nearly everyone? IR does seem to be afflicted with this “club” mentality for some reason but I’m pretty sure that most other disciplines have the same issues. For example if you talk about nationalism studies without showing at least a passing knowledge of Benedict Anderson then it appears to bring question marks on your work. Although, funnily enough, in Imagined Communities Anderson states that he is heavily influenced by the work of Walter Benjamin and yet he barely quotes him. It appears that he has an overarching appreciation of his work and it has influenced the “whole” without necessarily being a quote and paste job. I feel that any aspiring scholar should at least hope that they might write something more akin to IC than the numerous journal articles that have come afterwards. Surely its better to aim high and miss than never aim at all?

    • rogermacginty 14/05/2013 at 10:50 pm #

      Thanks Darren. Yes, that is good advice. I think we probably have one good book in us all rather than 30 good journal articles.
      Without being too Oprah about it, I think we should also listen to the voices inside us: our own sentiments, sensibilities, ethics rather than quoting from people because we feel we have to.
      Hope all is well in NZ. Look out for my colleague Jen Peterson who is visiting the National Peace Centre.

      • Darren Atkinson 15/05/2013 at 1:10 am #

        One book? What about “impact” Roger? I’m not in the “family” so to speak and yet I already despair at the ceaseless attempts to destroy education as an end in itself.

        I went to Jen’s talk the other week but didn’t get the chance to say hello. I’ll look out for her at the next NPC event.

  5. Ruxandra Stoicescu 15/05/2013 at 7:56 am #

    Maybe it’s a question of intellectual memory, rather than citing. These are important authors and thinkers, we can build on them, as long as we don’t repeat in a servile manner. It is ironic and telling that they got to be giants because they weren’t! However, There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, either.

  6. A PhD student interested in peace and confloct 12/01/2017 at 6:07 pm #

    This is very inspiring. I have always felt a sense of being isolated and incompetent in a seemingly elitist academia It is a revelation for me (quite shockingly) that you also get the same observations. I don’t pretend that I know all the big names and their work and instead I say that I’m a constant learner. Thank you for this.


  1. Weekly Round up: May 17, 2013 | uni(di)versity - 17/05/2013

    […] theorist Kenneth Waltz led University of Manchester professor Roger MacGinty to meditate on the role of ‘the greats’ in academia – and consider that perhaps, in the interests of a more diverse discourse, we […]

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