Date: 15 December 2011 Speaker: Günther Hellmann, Professor of Political Science, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt/Main, Germany; Adjunct Professor of International Relations, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center Discussant: Marco Cesa, Professor of International Relations, University of Bologna and Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center, Italy Chair: Erik Jones, Director, Bologna Institute for Policy Research, Professor of European Studies, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center, Italy
“How Much – and What Type of – Theory Does a SAIS Student Need?
As Professor Erik Jones pointed out in his introductory remarks, one of the frequently discussed questions among SAIS students is how much theoretical knowledge they should acquire, especially if at the end of their studies the goal of many is to enter the field of international relations as practitioners rather than scholars. Professor Hellmann’s presentation was focused not only on how much theory, but also what type of theory students should get acquainted with and how they could later use these skills in their professional lives. Theories can help better understand the challenges and responsibilities of world leadership, improve the ability to guide policy decisions and can be applied to real-world problems. According to Hellmann, theories differ in two ways: (1) how they connect material and immaterial facts, mental states, human actions and/or events, and (2) how they can be practically applied. In Hellmann’s assessment three categories of theories can be distinguished – all of them ‘useful’ is specific ways:
I. Constitutive theories: focus on necessities and mutual dependence (e.g. the concept of
states or of an international system); provide help in orienting oneself in the real world (e.g. by understanding interdependence or the notion of Balance of Power)
II. Causal theories: focus on causes and effects (e.g. Democratic Peace Theory); identify
manipulable variables (e.g. if we support democratization, we hope to thereby promote peace)
III. Normative theories: focus on desirability or obligations (e.g. Just War Theory); give
orientation in what one should do (e.g. gives an idea of the conditions under which starting a war can be justified)
Professor Hellmann then compared and contrasted two course proposals: the core, introductory class, Theories of International Relations and IR Theory and the Practice of International Politics. The objective of both courses is to expose students to a broad range of ideas, and to potentially contradicting, but equally plausible perspectives of the world. By reading and discussing acclaimed works by leading academics, students are able to enhance their sense of underlying forces in international politics. An equally important objective of these courses is to possibly challenge students’ pre-conceived worldviews and make them discuss their positions with their peers. The presentation was followed by Professor Marco Cesa’s comments and reaction. Later, the Q&A session gave opportunity to members of the audience to join the discussion. Contributors involved a number of current students, as well as the Director of the Bologna Center, Kenneth H. Keller and Professors Erik Jones and Mark Gilbert. Among others, the predictive power of social vs natural sciences, the difference between theories and ideologies and the question whether a policy school should or could impose normative judgments were discussed. Professor Hellmann concluded by encouraging ongoing debate saying “we should never cease questioning the beliefs we hold about international politics”.
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