ASTK15354U Course: Ideas in Political analysis and International Realations

Volume 2015/2016

Elective in the Specialisation "International Relations, Diplomacy and Conflict Studies"

Bachelorlevel: 10 ECTS
Masterlevel: 7,5 ECTS



This course is concerned with the explanatory power of ideas in politics and international relations. The past two decades have witnessed a growing interest in ideational approaches in political science. However, mainstream or orthodox scholarship still tends to prefer to explain political processes and outcomes via an understanding of ‘interests’ rooted in positivism, materialism and rationalism. The course explores, via numerous examples from comparative politics and international relations, the various ways in which ideational approaches have sought to challenge this orthodox position. It considers the strengths and weaknesses of such approaches and thinks about the debates between them. It also discusses some of the novel areas of enquiry that are potentially opened up by thinking about the importance of ideas. Some of the liveliest debates in contemporary social science surround the extent to which ideas are important and the ways in which they might be important. Are ideas merely the rhetorical devices to justify the pursuit of interests? Can political rhetoric genuinely shape substantive political outcomes? Do ideas better explain big social and political transformations than other variables? If they do, is it the case that ideas always matter? Or do ideas only change political outcomes in time of crisis when radical uncertainty prevails? Whose ideas matter? How do ideas travel from one political context to another? Can the articulation of an idea shape reality in the image of that idea? Do political actors really believe the ideas that they espouse? And how would we know if they did? Is it possible to measure – via quantitative methods - the influence of ideas in the political world? Why do some bad ideas continue to be influential and why do some political actors deliberately propagate bad ideas? This, it should be said, is not an exhaustive list.


The course begins with a discussion of what ‘ideas’ are, how they might be important in understanding politics and international relations, and how they have been studies (from older discussions around the concept of ‘ideology’ to more recent traditions of ideational analysis). It moves on to consider some of the different ways in which ideas can be said to reflect or embody ‘power’. The course considers political rhetoric not simply as a counterpoint to political reality, but as a central part of the political world. It then explores three broad (and overlapping) ways in which ‘ideas’ have been integrated into explanation and understanding of political phenomena: rationalism, constructivism and poststructuralism. From the discussion of these three broad traditions, the course moves on to discuss how ideas might be considered sources of change in politics. This part of the course asks when ideas matter and whether ideas have most leverage at times of crisis or ‘uncertainty’. The next issue is the question of how ideas spread and become influential. This leads to a discussion of how particular actors vested with authority or ‘expertise’ can be important sources for the distribution and widespread adoption of ideas. The course also asks about ‘bad’ ideas and why, from time to time they become influential (despite strong evidence that they are based on falsehoods, inaccuracies and perhaps deception), and how some ideas are marginalized as ‘bad’. Finally the course considers two positions in the debate about ideas having ‘reality effects’, that is changing the world in ways that are consistent with particular ideas: self-fulfilling prophesies and ‘performativity’. These topics are discussed via theoretical literature and a wealth of empirical examples covering such topics as the politics of climate change, the construction of the European Union, the continuing potency of neoliberal economic ideas, the collapse of the celebrated Asian development model,  changing Soviet foreign policy and the end of the Cold War, the radical change in the social meaning of whales, the construction of gender roles, the poor performance of expert predictions, debates about the ‘clash of civilizations’ and many others. 

Learning Outcome

On completion of this course students should (a) be able to discuss critically the main strands in ideational scholarship in political science and International Relations, (b) be able to relate conceptual thinking about the explanatory power of ideas to concrete empirical cases, (c) be able to make informed analytical evaluations of relevant pieces of scholarship and (d) be able to explore the broader analytical significance of debates about the role of ideas. 


An extensive week by week reading list, featuring core an supplementary reading for each topic will be made available in January 2015. The following list offers an illustration of some of the key texts used on the course:

Abdelal, R, Blyth, M and Parsons, C (eds) Constructing the International Economy (Cornell University Press 2010)

Beland, D and Cox, R Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Best, J ‘Ambiguity, Uncertainty and Risk: rethinking indeterminacy’, International Political Sociology 2(4), 2008, pp. 355-374

Blyth, M Great Transformations (Cambridge University Press 2002)

Campbell, J ‘Institutional Analysis and the Role of Ideas in Political Analysis’, Theory and Society 23(3), 1998, pp. 377-409.

Chwieroth, J ‘Testing and Measuring the Role of Ideas’, International Studies Quarterly 51(1), 2007, pp. 5-30.

Epstein, C The Power of Words in International Relations (MIT Press 2008)

Frankfurt, H.G On Bullshit (Princeton University Press 2005)

Gofas, A and Hay, C (eds) The Role of Ideas in Political Analysis (Routledge, 2010)

Goldstein, J and Keohane, R.O Ideas and Foreign Policy (cornell University Press 1993)

Hall, P.A ‘Policy Paradigms, Social Learning and the State’, Comparative Politics 25(3), 1993, pp. 275-296.

Hay, C and Rosamond, B ‘Globalization, European Integration and the Discursive Construction of Economic Imperatives’, Journal of European Public Policy 9(2), 2002, pp. 147-167.

Hirschmann, A.O The Rhetoric of Reaction (Harvard University Press 1991)

MacKenzie, D An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (MIT Press 2006)

Merton, R.K ‘The self-fulfilling prophesy. The Antioch Review 8(2), 1948, pp. 193-210.

Owen, j.M The Clash of Ideas in World Politics (Princeton Univeristy Press 2010)

Schmidt, V ‘Discursive Institutionalism: the Explanatory Power of Ideas and Discourse’, Annual Review of Political Science 11, 2008, pp. 303-326.


You should have a basic understanding of international relations and political science. A background in other social science fields is also valid. You should come to class having done the required reading for each session’s work and should participate fully in the various discussion and other exercises that will take place in class.
The course uses a mixture of mini-lectures, small-group problem-solving/​discussion exercises, role-plays, and plenary debates.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Course Preparation
  • 88
  • Exercises
  • 90
  • Total
  • 206
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Written assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
External censorship
Criteria for exam assesment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner