Kenneth Waltz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Theory and International Politics: Conversation with Kenneth N. Waltz, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; February 10, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Ken, welcome back to Berkeley.

Nice to be back.

Where were you born and raised?

In Ann Arbor, Michigan; and I went to high school there.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Not very much. My father never went to high school, and my mother never got out of high school. So they were not people of great political interest or insight.

Did you have any teachers when you were growing up who shaped your interest in politics or your writing skills?

I had an excellent English teacher in the tenth grade who taught me everything there is to know about grammar and word usage, and that was very valuable. It was not a lot of fun at the time, but it was a very valuable semester, and I treasure it.

I went to Ann Arbor High School, which was, then, such a good high school that if one was on the college preparatory program and got a C+ average, one then was automatically admitted to the University of Michigan.

What world events occurred during your growing up years? And did any of them particularly impact you?

The prolonged and deep Depression influenced everybody. What was going on in Europe kind of passed us over; that is, was not much talked about by history or social science teachers in high school. There was only one who really made much of it, which was rather surprising. And I was not especially interested ... I was more interested in math and physics, and drama.


And rhetoric, and that sort of thing, than I was in politics or world events.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

I started at Oberlin, and I graduated from Oberlin.

What was your major?

I started as a math major, almost completed it, and then shifted to economics.

What about economics attracted you?

Well, I thought I knew two things. One is, I didn't want to have a career in which I taught. I didn't want to have a career in which I was expected to write. So I thought economics would give me a variety of choices from government to business.

Then I went to graduate school at Columbia, in economics. I could see that I was not going to be a real economist. If you're not attracted to a field enough to read beyond the requirements, just to read more because you're curious and you want to know more than is required at any given course -- if that's not the case, then you're in the wrong field. So I finally began to ask myself, what did I really enjoy most in college? And the answer was English literature and political philosophy. So I took a lot of English literature courses and loved it, but realized that I would never write a novel or a poem, and I would, therefore, be a critic -- a very honorable profession, but it didn't inspire me. So political philosophy won, and I'm very pleased it did.

Any teachers that you had at Columbia or at Oberlin that pointed you in either of these two directions?

The teacher and the wife of the teacher who influenced me most was John Lewis and his wife, Ewart Lewis.

And they were at?

They were at Oberlin

I took just two half-courses from John Lewis, one in theory and the other in American government, but I lived with the Lewises for a semester. Ewart Lewis was a highly knowledgeable person in the field of medieval thought, and published a book, a one-volume version by Knopf and two volumes published in England, called Medieval Political Ideas. We had very interesting kitchen conversations about the interpretation of Saint Augustine, for example, and I enjoyed all of that immensely. So when trying to make the final decision, my wife and I went back to Oberlin and visited the Lewises and talked about it. That confirmed, by then, a strong inclination, and I shifted from economics to political science.

Has your work been influenced by economic theory or is it merely that you were a student of economics in an earlier phase of your life?

It was influenced very much by a microeconomic theory. It really is built on a microeconomic theory, which I would say is the major influence. The second influence is anthropology, which I never studied formally as a student. But I read a great deal of anthropology, and the analogy is with segmentary lineage systems, or in Durkheim's terms, mechanical societies rather than organic societies or solidary societies. The analogy is quite close.

What about political scientists, any teachers or intellectual influences that stand out, other than, obviously, the classical literature, which we'll talk about in a minute?

I had very good professors in the field of international politics, but none of them were people who were attuned to theory in the sense that I have been talking about. Certainly, everybody dealt with those who were considered to be the major theoretically oriented people in the field, as we know, from Thucydides onward.

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