Is IR scholarship too bloodless?

Ahsan Butt of George Mason University wonders if scholars of international politics should spend more time thinking about what war really looks like: The other thing I would say about this is that war and violence is, for lack of a better word, highly sanitized – at least in the IR (and Comparative) scholarship I ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
MUJAHED MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images
MUJAHED MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images
MUJAHED MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

Ahsan Butt of George Mason University wonders if scholars of international politics should spend more time thinking about what war really looks like:

The other thing I would say about this is that war and violence is, for lack of a better word, highly sanitized - at least in the IR (and Comparative) scholarship I am most familiar with. There's just not that much blood and gore. The stuff I'm reading about Japanese conduct in Nanking in Beevor's book probably would not make it to very many mainstream IR courses.

Maybe this is a functionalist explanation, but I wonder if this has something to do with modern social science's aversion to moral considerations. At least in political science, moral questions seem to be consigned solely to political theorists (at least from my vantage point). I understand and accept the need for distance and analytic neutrality, but I do wonder if we've gone too far.

Ahsan Butt of George Mason University wonders if scholars of international politics should spend more time thinking about what war really looks like:

The other thing I would say about this is that war and violence is, for lack of a better word, highly sanitized – at least in the IR (and Comparative) scholarship I am most familiar with. There’s just not that much blood and gore. The stuff I’m reading about Japanese conduct in Nanking in Beevor’s book probably would not make it to very many mainstream IR courses.

Maybe this is a functionalist explanation, but I wonder if this has something to do with modern social science’s aversion to moral considerations. At least in political science, moral questions seem to be consigned solely to political theorists (at least from my vantage point). I understand and accept the need for distance and analytic neutrality, but I do wonder if we’ve gone too far.

This idea has occurred to me as well in some of the research I’ve written about recently on the causes and characteristics of war. There’s a lot to be gained from quantitative approaches to international affairs, but it’s hard to get a sense of the horror of war from a dataset, no matter how detailed.

HT: Duck of Minerva

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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