What's going on in the IR field: A global survey of IR scholars

For the past few years, a group of scholars at the College of William and Mary have been conducting surveys of the international relations discipline, as part of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project. (FP has published excerpts from their reports in the past, such as this one.) Their latest results have just been released, and this year they've gone global, surveying nearly 3500 IR scholars from around the globe. You can download the whole survey -- "TRIP Around the World" -- here.

For me, the most interesting results are at the beginning, and they show that there's quite a bit of variation in how IR is taught in different parts of the world. For example, 9 percent of IR teachers in the U.S. say that they include material on Central Asia in their course, but in Turkey that number is 25 percent. 40 percent of American IR scholars include material on East Asia, the same percentage as in Australia, but in Israel the number reported was zero. In other words, there's a lot of regional bias in the content of IR courses: what you teach depends in part on where your country sits. This pattern isn't that surprising, perhaps, but it does tell you that students in different countries (and future policy professionals) aren't absorbing quite the same view of the world.

Those aren't the only differences, of course. On average, U.S. scholars report that 28 percent of their courses deal with "policy analysis" of various sorts. But in Turkey the reported average is 49 percent, and in Finland and Singapore the average is only 14 percent. And then there's the question of which authors get assigned: in the United States, IR teachers report that 71 percent of the readings are by American authors, and both Singapore and Israel report a similar number. But the percentage of American authors drops to the mid-forties in the U.K., Canada, Colombia, France, and several other countries, and those independent-minded Finns assign only 27 percent. Other TRIP results show that American academics still dominate the lists of "most influential" scholars, but what students are reading clearly varies a lot by country.

I'm also happy to report that realism appears to be alive and well in the academy, at least as measured by the self-reported content of undergraduate "Intro to IR courses." Once again, it's Finland where realism seems least widespread (only 11 percent of the course material), but none of the rival paradigms seem all that popular in Finland either).

Do these variations in basic IR teaching tell us anything about international politics and foreign policy itself? If students are being taught somewhat different views of the world (and if there's a lot of regional bias in what they are learning), then one could argue this will tend to create policy elites who don't see the world in the same way and will have more trouble finding common ground. It might be tempting to see this as a potent source of international conflict, but I'd be wary of such a facile explanation. For starters, international conflict and competition took place long before anyone started teaching undergraduate courses about it, and nation-states would still have conflicting interests even if everyone everywhere took exactly the same courses and read the same books. (Depending on which books they read, in fact, maybe reading the same ones would make things worse). Furthermore, many of the people who ultimately are in charge of foreign policy aren't relying on what they learned in some undergraduate course, and at least some of them may have escaped some of the ethnocentrism within their earlier training. Understanding how potential antagonists think can be very useful, but it hardly guarantees you'll get along.

Most importantly, the TRIP survey covered only twenty countries, and some pretty interesting possibilities weren't included. China wasn't part of the survey, for example, and neither was Iran, even though both countries have significant academic institutions and a lot of young people taking international relations courses. I wonder what they are reading, and what conclusions they are drawing from the content of their courses?

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Stephen M. Walt

In Japan

I'm in Japan at the moment to meet with some students and faculty and to give a lecture on Obama's Middle East policy (Now there's a cheerful subject!). My schedule is quite full all week, so blogging will be sparse. Here's to hoping the world remains uneventful (No tsunamis in Asia, bank runs in Europe, or loose talk in Washington, D.C.). Of those options, however, I'd be happiest with the first two, because no self-respecting realist would ever expect the third.