Stephen M. Walt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Balancing American Power in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Stephen M. Walt, Academic Dean and Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Kennedy School, Harvard University; November 15, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

Page 2 of 8

Being an International Relations Theorist

We're going to talk about your research in a little while, but first I want to ask you, what exactly does an international relations theorist do, and what does it take to do that?

That's a good question. International relations theory is the attempt to develop general propositions, valid across time and space, that explain the behavior of internationally consequential actors. You could say that would be either nation states conceivably, it could be international organizations, or international groups like, say, the Red Cross or Amnesty International, that operate in some consequential way. You could even include non-state actors like an international terrorist network, anything that operates across the globe or across national boundaries.

A theorist, though, is one who's trying to develop general propositions about that behavior rather than just explaining a particular case, just describing a particular moment in history. What it takes to do that -- opinions vary. My own view is it requires, first of all, a fair amount of familiarity with the subject matter. It's hard to be a good international relations theorist if you don't know a fair bit of international history and if you're not pretty well acquainted with the actual behavior, actual conduct. Second, I think it requires creativity, because theories are creative constructions. And third, I think it does require a certain instinct for simplicity. Theory is a simplification of reality, it's an attempt to come up with a general set of principles or laws that govern a wide variety of disparate behavior. It's not just adding up more data, adding up more variables, adding up more hypotheses; it's also looking for that radical simplification, that way of making sense out of a whole series of things that don't make much sense. So, it does require a certain capacity for abstraction or capacity to see a pattern in a set of data or set of evidence that no one has seen before and that makes sense out of that confusing picture.

Is theorizing lonely work?

I think scholarship is lonely work. Some people do a lot of work collaboratively and often work in large research teams; that's more of a model in the natural sciences than in the social sciences. I've tended to work alone because it's just the way I'm most comfortable. I've done a little bit of collaborative work from time to time. The lonely part -- first of all, some of it is just very time consuming. If you're trying to do a historical case study or assemble a quantitative database, that often just takes a lot of time to do.

Theorizing, and in fact, most scholarship is, in a sense, always about trying to get your brain to think thoughts that it does not find easy to think. If it was easy to figure out the answer, you'd have solved it already and you'd move on. But you're always wrestling with a problem that you haven't solved yet, a nut you haven't cracked, and that can be very frustrating, very lonely. It takes long hours. We all know the phenomenon of sitting and trying to write something where you just write a paragraph and delete it and write a paragraph and delete it. The reason is because you haven't figured out what you're trying to say yet. I sometimes tell graduate students that a lot of good work is like pounding your head against a wall in hope that the wall will collapse before your head does.

The one saving grace is that most scientists of any kind love the Eureka moment. There is that moment where the wall does, in fact, tumble and you get to move forward sometimes a yard, sometimes ten feet, sometimes a mile. That's a wonderful feeling, that sense of, "I've got it, I've suddenly figured it out, it all makes sense to me!"

Next page: Realism

© Copyright 2006, Regents of the University of California