Should political studies specialize?

Two politics students debate the merits of creating a separate department for international relations

The creation of a separate IR department would produce an unnecessary barrier to interdisciplinary dialogue, Brandon Tozzo argues.
The creation of a separate IR department would produce an unnecessary barrier to interdisciplinary dialogue, Brandon Tozzo argues.


Omer Aziz, ArtSci '12

Queen’s professor David Haglund wasn’t surprised when his fourth-year seminar on international relations (IR) filled up almost immediately.

“The politics department should consider changing its name to the department of international relations, because that appears to be what most students are taking,” he said to me last September.

In fact, the creation of a separate international relations department would make a lot of sense — and not just because of its popularity.

A separate IR department, or at least a separate IR degree, would teach students transferable skills that will make them more employable. It will also offer students a chance to deepen their engagement with global concepts that have never been more relevant.

Other schools have embraced the benefits of one or more IR-focused degree programs to great success. The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, originally opened in 2000, offers a variety of undergraduate, masters and doctoral degree programs.

The University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs is Canada’s only bilingual school of international affairs and employs a faculty compliment of more than 30 professors.

The most common argument against creating a separate IR department or degree is one of logistics: how will Queen’s afford it?

It’s an argument worth considering. Classrooms are becoming increasingly crowded and tenure-track faculty positions are becoming more rare across all faculties.

But to simply dismiss the notion of an IR department on financial grounds seems like a cop-out. Queen’s should refocus its financial priorities, find the money and align with several other universities across North America who offer a wider range of international relations courses and, in many cases, degrees.

The implications go beyond simply the department of political studies. Many other faculties and departments would benefit from a more internationalized focus.

This isn’t a protest against a classical education. The study of ancient Rome; ideologies like Liberalism or Marxism; the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer — all are important and central to a liberal arts education.

What I’m suggesting is that we complement these teachings with a more diverse and nuanced corpus of works.

At the same time, the University must do more to attract international students while also reaching out to potential partner schools in the developing world.

I studied abroad in Paris during my third year, but after hearing stories from my friends who studied in China, I’d throw myself into an unfamiliar part of the world in an instant if given the opportunity to reselect my country choices.

A more multicultural and international study body will enrich debates on campus by adding diverse perspectives.

I look back fondly at my last four years at Queen’s. But serious changes are needed if we’re to become a global centre for ideas and ingenuity.

A department of international relations is the first step towards the future. It’s about time we take it.

Omer Aziz is a fourth-year student in the Queen’s department of political studies.



Brandon Tozzo, PhD '12

“Specialization is for insects.”

It’s a quote from Robert A. Heinlein’s 1973 novel, Time Enough for Love, but it rings true in an educational context.

In many countries, it’s not unprecedented at the undergraduate level to have separate departments for political studies and international relations, but I don’t think it makes sense for Queen’s to follow this model.

From a practical standpoint, it’s unclear whether splitting the two would provide more resources for both political studies and the hypothetical IR department. In this time of austerity at Queen’s, it seems doubtful.

As a result, it may lead to higher administrative costs and fewer overall courses for students — the opposite outcome of what’s intended.

But for me, it’s more about pedagogy than finance. I believe separating the departments would be detrimental to the study of IR and do a disservice to the intellectual development of students.

The irony of such a partition is that IR scholarship is moving in the exact opposite direction. Academics, journals and conferences are striving to be more interdisciplinary.

In the past decade, the focus for the International Studies Association Annual Conventions — one of the most prestigious conferences in IR — has been on topics that fall outside the traditional parameters of security studies, such as the North-South development divide, political theory’s relationship to policy and the construction of knowledge.

This example isn’t an exhaustive overview of the field, but it’s a recognition that IR has benefited from incorporating concepts and theories from other disciplines.

Furthermore, there are numerous instances of prominent academics borrowing ideas from outside of IR.

Robert W. Cox owes much to the Marxist tradition; Robert Keohane from economics; J. Ann Tickner developed her critiques from gender theories and deconstruction; Alexander Wendt was influenced by philosophical realism and Foucauldian thought when he popularized constructivism.

Unquestionably, IR as a whole would be much worse off without these contributions.

So why should Queen’s isolate IR when ideas from other areas have been so vital to its progress as a discipline? A department exclusively dedicated to a narrow understanding of IR promotes hyper-specialization, which conflicts with the overall trend in the field.

While establishing an IR department doesn’t eliminate interdisciplinary dialogue altogether, it produces a new, unnecessary barrier.

It’s specialization in a time when students should be broadening the interdisciplinary nature of their studies, not narrowing it.

Political studies students — or students of any discipline — would be wise to take a more holistic approach by selecting a variety of courses not just from their own department, but in other areas as well.

If the intellectual history of IR is any guide, it will make for better scholars and a better understanding of international affairs.

Brandon Tozzo is a PhD candidate in the Queen’s department of political studies.

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