chapter  1
11 Pages

Introduction

My curiosity about International Relations (IR) textbooks began as a frustration with my undergraduate textbook (Baylis and Smith 2001). I was frustrated because I found little outside the reflectivist and constructivist approaches chapter elaborating on these theories. I felt the book distracted me from the most interesting questions and I wondered if I just was not interested in the ‘real’ IR. Near the end of my degree I realized it was not that I did not like the ‘real’ IR, but that there were different stories about IR and I needed to find stories challenging ‘the mainstream’. I sought advice on where I might find such a postgraduate programme, and determined I should go where the stories told me I should go: Aberystwyth. Aberystwyth, the story said, was the discipline’s birthplace and site of its rebirth in the Third Debate.1 I later realized my attempts to question ‘mainstream’ IR stories were also shaped by oversimplified stories of IR. My subsequent teaching experience showed me that my frustration with textbooks was not unique. Other textbooks I encountered told similar stories, and although my students had different questions, some were similarly frustrated. I later discovered a rich literature on the Third Debate, feminism and postcolonialism. The question I found most compelling was not what was missing from my introduction but why and how it was missing, given the diversity of literature beyond that at the introductory level. It seemed significant that the stories I found most compelling were about starting points and foundational assumptions, but these conversations were sparse in my introductory textbook. It seemed as if these conversations were reserved until I was familiar with particular histories, voices and aims for the discipline – namely of a discipline born and formed in response to interstate wars. If Third Debate stories held the negotiation of disciplinary boundaries as such an important task, then why was this conversation not the most significant conversation in textbooks? I felt this conversation should guide me in making choices about IR, rather than adding to my picture of IR after these choices were already made on my behalf. While attempting to develop my frustrations into a research project it became clear my concern was not just which stories textbooks told, but how textbooks told stories and how these stories impact on the discipline’s construction. I was less concerned about the story’s content and the (contested) veracity of that content than I was with the ‘how’ of how textbooks presented that story because

I wanted to know how one story, even one widely contested, could still be treated as the story even by authors who contested that story elsewhere. This led me to fairy tales. My leisure reading of contemporary folklorists (e.g. Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter) influenced my understanding of how reiterated stories can shape the content of the story, how we think about what it means to tell a story, and what constitutes a story. These authors’ stories were about the politics of retelling and defining, and it was this political conversation I found missing from textbooks. In exploring folklorist work, I became more acquainted with the concept of the canon as something that is constantly changing, negotiating which stories get to count. This idea of negotiating the canon, and the idea that the content of the stories we tell may be constrained by how we are allowed to tell those stories, struck me as pertinent to IR textbooks. IR has many stories about its birth, history and evolution. Furthermore, IR has a well-documented history of revisiting and (re)writing these stories. The theme of ‘social science’ has played an integral role in these stories, especially stories about IR’s evolution via ‘Great Debates’. To formulate a question about my frustrations above, I came to focus on the recurring theme of ‘social science’ in IR’s stories, and in particular the ways in which it had been self-consciously asserted as a defining principle and simultaneously questioned as a series of unexplicated assumptions constraining how it was possible to define the discipline. ‘Social science’ seemed to haunt IR stories. I thus set out to answer the question: To what extent does the idea of ‘social science’ persist in constructing IR textbooks in our contemporary context? This question addresses textbooks with the contested construction of the discipline as a ‘social science’ in mind. While there have been textbook studies, none have been explicitly concerned with the politics of how textbooks define IR and the role of ‘social science’. This question takes seriously the degree to which the discipline is constructed as a ‘social science’ in introductory textbooks, often the first encounter a student may have with the discipline. Indeed, some of the most far-reaching IR literature is likely to be textbooks, tasked with introducing IR, and beginning the process of producing the next generation of scholars. As Moore and Shepherd have argued, the ritualizing myths textbooks reiterate tell us what IR is about and silence our scepticism that IR is not just about being realistic about war (2010, 300). While textbooks are only one part of producing scholars, they are significant because of their role as the bearers of introductory stories and their power as canonical texts. This question thus takes seriously the notion that textbooks are a unique part of the discipline’s canon, not only participating in defining and delimiting what counts as the discipline, but doing so with a distinct bearing on the continued delimitation of the discipline for future scholars. The influence of textbooks cannot be divorced from the context in which they are used. Their recommendation or requirement on course reading lists, and at times their influence on the structure and content of courses, is significant. This significance has been taken up in several ways, including the diversity of paradigms on reading lists (Hagmann and Biersteker 2014), the parochial and Amer ican/

Anglo-centric location, both of reading lists and the construction of the ‘centre’ of the discipline (Jones 2003; Tickner and Wæver 2009) and the significance of teaching theory in IR (Guzzini 2001; Matthews and Callaway 2015). A number of undergraduate textbooks have been written by instructors who cite a frustration with their teaching, particularly with their ‘well-worn’ ways of introducing the discipline, as Weber (2010, 3) phrased it. The unease of these instructors leaves them attempting to renegotiate those ‘well-worn’ stories. Meanwhile, student movements questioning the parochialism of curriculums, lack of diversity in instructors and legacies of colonialism in campus iconography continue to grow. This signals that instructors and students are concerned with the politics of pedagogy and textbooks and their marginalizing practices. At the undergraduate level, particularly in introductory survey courses in the UK and North America, textbooks may form the bulk of ‘required’ readings, sometimes even providing the structure of a course’s narrative and the terms on which the topics are engaged. While the literature above does indicate some concern with these texts, it is notable that dissatisfaction persists, not just cited in recent textbooks (Edkins and Zehfuss 2014), but in conversations at conferences. It is these unpublished informal conversations I want to ponder for a moment. While there is the familiar refrain that many course instructors doubt students read their carefully selected ‘further reading’ lists designed to augment core textbooks, another claim is that requests to change core textbooks are met with resistance from students and universities alike, often on grounds of cost and the difficulty of editing long-approved course descriptions that match existing texts. Textbooks on undergraduate courses influence the narrative of courses, even to the extent that they may dictate which terminology or theory is used in the syllabus to ‘match’ the textbook. The reluctance to change a text can thus have significant bearing on what is taught. Nonetheless, I hear numerous reasons why ‘the problem’ of textbooks persists: publishers print what sells, re-printing updated editions is cost-effective, the biggest markets (North America and the UK) dictate textbook content. These are all-important issues, and they are partially why this book will not be a ‘textbook review’. Attempting to determine what (if anything) makes a ‘good’ textbook is far more complicated than textbook content. The first step, in my view, is to understand the role textbooks play in the IR canon, to explore them as sites of the discipline’s construction. This allows us to think more extensively about the role of textbooks, their use in the classroom, and the significant policing of textbook boundaries by treating textbooks as political sites. However, considering these wider questions about the use of textbooks must include the variety of contexts in which they are used. I return to this theme in Chapter 7.