Pop culture and International Relations: Stop geeking out

Attention conservation notice: Semi-structured thoughts on an emerging genre of IR/political science studies.

Disclaimer: I reserve the right to distance myself from any and all ideas in this essay.

I’ve been reading stacks of books about popular culture and international relations recently. Let me grossly simplify the warrants that such pieces often provide for the time that their authors spent writing them and the time they want their readers to spend consuming them:

  • Popular culture/science fiction provides a great way to introduce students to concepts in international relations and political science.
  • Popular culture/science fiction changes the way that people think about IR/political science already, so we should understand what it is saying.
  • Popular culture/science fiction gives us greater shades of meaning about how people think about core topics in IR, like war, peace, and even the nuclear taboo.
  • Fictional universes enable scholars to engage in theorizing that gets at the core of topics related to social science, thereby potentially helping us to understand the real world.

These are strong claims, and they merit attention–if popular culture matters to a lot of people (and it does), and if popular culture tells us something about how people see the world (which seems plausible to me!), then it follows that IR and political science as a field are paying too little attention to a major part of the constitution of world politics.

Yet despite my great sympathy toward these projects, I find many of the actual engagements along these lines deeply lacking.

Among the better essays I’ve read in this pile is Peter Henne and Dan Nexon’s contribution to Battlestar Galactica and International Relations . Henne and Nexon take a much more skeptical approach to the emerging field of IR and pop culture than many such authors do. Among their more interesting points:

  • Battlestar Galactica probably never had much influence on politics.
  • Very few people ever watched Battlestar Galactica.
  • Many academics writing about the show overlooked or scorned its overtly religious messages.

Strikingly, this is among one of the only pieces Ive seen to (a) take popular culture & IR seriously that also (b) takes pop culture & IR critically. Much of the literature still seems simultaneously boosterish (everyone should study popular culture!) and defensive (this is something we should take really, really seriously, even though it seems silly). Some writers avoid these problems, notably Charli Carpenters work on killer robots , Ted Hopf’s work on Russian-Soviet identity (e.g.), and Cynthia Weber’s textbook on IR, critical theory, and film. But these and other model works do not counterbalance the overwhelming self-consciousness with which the field of popular culture and IR regards itself.

I think this is a regrettable state of affairs. Much of the blame, I think, really should be apportioned to people who don’t get it. As scholars, we should probably operate from a presumption that our colleagues have some clue about what they’re doing, and we should usually seek to support them in their endeavors. (I haven’t always done this, but I really do try these days.) Providing such support could be as minimal as not laughing in the face of scholars talking about popular culture (as Jason Dittmer recounts).

But I think that practitioners in this field also have some agency, and thus deserve some blame, for this situation. The fact that there are so few critical essays within this community suggests that a great degree of self-censoring is going on–that everyone is at some level afraid that if we criticize ourselves, then they will use it against us. (The they in this case probably includes our colleagues, critics, and deans and tenure committees.) As a result, the field over-promotes and over-protects itself, which yields a self-defeating spiral of defensiveness, cliquishness, and, ultimately, weaker and less persuasive work. Nexon once described a special issue of PS on the politics of superheroes as an undirected sampler of political scientists discussing popular cultural artifacts, and I think much the same could be said of the field as a whole.

I don’t think this is inevitable, and I don’t even think that this its conscious. I do, however, find it regrettable, because I think the systematic and comparative investigation of popular culture and politics could lead to important insights about the formation of group identities, the content of debates whose subjects are remote to participants, and the values and ethical logics that people apply to political situations. So far, however, its not clear that much progress is being made on these issues–or on the more important task of reaching out to those who are skeptical.

This post, therefore, constitutes a memo to myself and some musings to other researchers about these issues.

Stop talking (only) about science fiction

Here are some recent citations from major IR/political science journals and publishers about popular culture and political science/international relations:

do not want to say that the field shouldn’t publish on sf/fantasy and IR. But I do think that the ratio is all off. Consider NCISNCIS is a bad television show: the characters are wooden, the writing cliched, the direction plodding, and I even hate their lighting. But! NCIS is a ratings juggernaut. So is NCIS: Los Angeles. And even NCIS: New Orleans does very well. And it represents a massive corpus: there are well over 500 episodes of various NCIS series. Thats approaching the scale of Star Trek (over 700 episode across several series) and even Doctor Who (over 800 episodes). (Remember, NCIS is adding about 75 episodes per year.) It dwarfs Battlestar Galactica (75 episodes). The series deals with terrorism, the military, intelligence agencies, and all sorts of issues that constitute core topics for many IR scholars.

Here is a comprehensive list of recent IR and political science publications on NCIS:

  • .

How about 24? It was never as commercially successful as the NCIS franchise, but it did well enough to run for 9 seasons and 204 episodes. At its least-viewed, it was still about twice as popular as BSG at its most-viewed. And here is the only paper Im aware of regarding 24 and international relations/political science: Kearns & Young.

I could repeat the exercise for The Last ShipJerichoMadam SecretaryArcher, and even (apparently!) James Bond. Literatures on (most of) these properties exist in other disciplines, but not in IR. (I welcome leads to papers that deal with such shows/novels/films!)

Thats crazy. By the standards that writers have laid out for themselves, something like NCIS deserves as much or more attention than Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek. These properties don’t use metaphor for their discussion of foreign policy–they directly portray it. And if they’re a little less artful in their depiction of the ethical considerations and shades of gray in international life (Kiefer Sutherland’s only ethical criterion seems to be how fast the clock is ticking), we should remember that such debates only appeal to a narrow set of the audience for television. Most people want black-and-white presentations, and properties that reaffirm those logics will do much better–and have more scope for influence–than more subtle stories.

Be cautious in using popular culture as a teaching tool

Imagine that you’re 18 and nervous about a class. Every time you open your mouth, it feels like you’re taking a big risk. you rarely feel like you know whats going on or what anyone else is talking about. Then the professor starts talking about Game of Thrones and world politics in your intro class. You’ve never seen Game of Thrones, but a few other people have, and they love to talk about it! You’d like to talk about it, too, but what can you do?

Now imagine you’re 18 and sheltered. Your parents never let you watch Game of Thrones because they told you it was wicked and evil. Then the professor starts talking about Game of Thrones and world politics in your intro class. Maybe what they say about liberal professors is true

Now imagine you’re 18 and a feminist. You think that Game of Thrones endorses deeply problematic attitudes toward women. Then the professor starts talking about Game of Thrones and world politics in your intro class as an example of how IR theories work.

Now imagine you’re 18 and the child of refugees. The professor starts talking about Game of Thrones in your international relations class. What: does she think world politics is some sort of game?

Now imagine you just don’t like Game of Thrones. The professor and some kids start talking about it eagerly. You pull up Snapchat on your phone and check out of class.

Are these exaggerated? Yes. But in a class of any size, its likely that some of the students will fit in to some of these categories. I have been working on reducing the number of allusions and references to cultural products in my courses precisely because I found that the set of cultural properties that were all but universally shared, appropriate to the subject matter at hand, and presentable without addressing some big chunk of baggage was shrinking pretty rapidly.

In a strict sense, teaching IR through some other text will limit the universe of people that you can reach. (For my case, I just plain don’t like GoT and even avoid Twitter when people are talking about it.)  Of course, such links also do help students to make deeper connections with the material. And that trade-off can be managed quite well.

I just want to point out that there are limits to the ways in which popular culture can provide pedagogical value. In courses on popular culture and political science or IR, of course, these objections fall away–just assign the text and the interpretive materials. But in an intro course, assigning an interpretive texts about some cultural property risks requiring some people to make a choice of reading the underlying text to complete a class assignment or (more likely) forcing some students to check out of the discussion. (Ironically, as Dyson notes, in a more globalized classroom popular culture references may be more useful in establishing a common framework for discussion.)

Don’t abandon basic methodology when you do pop culture 

Don’t select on the dependent variable (or, rather, be careful when you do). An example of this would be looking at people who watch Star Trek, noting that they tend to be liberal in their foreign-policy orientation, observing that Star Trek promotes a general liberal foreign-policy orientation, and concluding that Star Trek helps make its viewers liberal-internationalist.

Don’t forget about endogeneity. If you see that novels about nuclear holocausts are becoming more prevalent, and you see that international relations is increasingly concerned with nuclear nonproliferation, its still invalid to conclude that the causal arrow runs from culture to reality without doing a lot of work.

Don’t ignore sources of variation. Often, the implicit causal model runs something like [people watch movie] -> [beliefs change]. No part of social life is ever this certain. Typically, theres N groups of people who have N^K reactions to a stimulus. Sometimes thats moderated through factors; sometimes it interacts with other factors; always, theres a lot of errors. Even if you solve endogeneity and select a representative sample, you should remember that African-Americans might react differently to Starship Troopers than whites.

There are other methods than interpretivism

Offhand, I can list a few experimental studies about IR/political science and popular culture; I can list one that uses observational quantitative methods. Its time for more people who can (as the old quant monkey insult has it) type reg in Stata to get involved with the literature–and, even more important, for people who can use automated methods to scrape, scrape, scrape Internet message boards, IMDB databases, and Twitter feeds to get us some of the basic descriptive stats we need to progress. Similarly, if you’re into qualitative methods, applying some of the canons of process tracing and other methodologies should be front-and-center; Alan M. Jacobs has a good handbook to this in the Bennett & Checkel volume. And here is a good example of such an approach.

Theory can be normative, too

Many of the justifications for IR and popular culture as a teaching tool (stories are close-ended, we can see the motivations of actors, stories are simplified compared to the real world, debates and consequences are more clearly defined) actually apply at least as forcefully to using popular culture as a tool for exposing the ethical implications of theories as to their positive dimensions. Burke knew this:

  Indeed the theatre is a better school of moral sentiments than churches, where the feelings of humanity are thus outraged. Poets who have to deal with an audience not yet graduated in the school of the rights of men, and who must apply themselves to the moral constitution of the heart, would not dare to produce such a triumph as a matter of exultation. There, where men follow their natural impulses, they would not bear the odious maxims of a Machiavellian policy, whether applied to the attainments of monarchical or democratic tyranny. They would reject them on the modern, as they once did on ancient stage, where they could not bear even the hypothetical proposition of such wickedness in the mouth of a personated tyrant, though suitable to the character he sustained. No theatric audience in Athens would bear what has been borne, in the midst of the real tragedy of this triumphal day; a principal actor weighing, as it were in scales hung in a shop of horrors,—so much actual crime against so much contingent advantage,—and after putting in and out weights, declaring that the balance was on the side of the advantages. They would not bear to see the crimes of new democracy posted as in a ledger against the crimes of old despotism, and the book-keepers of politics finding democracy still in debt, but by no means unable or unwilling to pay the balance. In the theatre, the first intuitive glance, without any elaborate process of reasoning, will show, that this method of political computation would justify every extent of crime.

As so often, we forget the wisdom of the (quasi-)ancients at our peril. Using popular culture in this way could provide a fruitful way for putting normative and positive theory in conversation directly–something all but inescapable in dramatic presentations.

You can be a fan, or you can be a social scientist

And you can be both! But you need to be clear about what you are doing in any given project. If you want to examine how Americans think about foreign policy, national security, and 9/11, will a better source of material come from a well-written show about sexy robots and human genocide or a tedious slog through a network procedural about people in the Navy police? On almost every score, the answer is probably going to be the crappy network procedural. Not on every score! But if you want anyone to take what you say seriously, your answer should be both better than but I like Galactica and NCIS sucks and publicly stated in your article.

On the other hand, if you do like Galactica and you do think NCIS sucks (it does), then you can still write about Galactica without justifying yourself (if you really cant) as long as you accept that this isn’t as serious a project as it could be. And that’s okay! Avidash Dixit wrote a great paper about Seinfeld; you can write a great post about The Avengers. Probably more people (in terms of eyeballs) will read it anyway. Don’t get defensive if people say that its fluff, though, because in this case it is fluff. (And if it isn’t fluff, but people think it is, thats all the more reason to be as precise and concrete about why it isn’t in your abstract.)