Charles Lipson
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Charles Lipson

Peter B. Ritzma Professor

Political Science Department

University of Chicago

5828 S. University Ave.

Chicago, IL 60637


Hard Questions of IR Theory

Political Science 45400
Charles Lipson
University of Chicago
Syllabus for Autumn 2006

 Course meets Wednesdays, 1:30 til 3:50, Pick 506 Prof. Lipson's office is Pick 418b
 Office Hours: Tuesdays, 4-5, Wednesdays at 4  E-mail:
  Ee-mails about this course should include PS454 somewhere in subject line.
Course Description

The goal of this course is to explore a series of major questions in international relations theory, to understand the scholarly debates and the paths different researchers take to answering them. In the process, we hope to shed light on what makes for good resarch questions and fruitful approaches to them.

I have selected some questions and associated readings for the first several weeks. After that, the questions and readings will be chosen by members of the class, either individually or in small groups.

The course presumes a familiarity with IR literature and some prior courses in the field. It will build on that prior coursework.

Administrative Details
  • Books are available at UC/Barnes & Noble Bookstore and the Seminary Cooperative Bookstore.
  • All assigned books are required for purchase.
  • All materials should be available at Regenstein Reserve.
  • This seminar is exclusively for graduate students. Each will receive a letter grade unless he or she receives written permission otherwise before Week 8.
  • Because this is a seminar, enrollment is limited. Priority will go to students with strong backgrounds in international relations and social theory.
    • All interested students are welcome to attend the first class session.
    • After the first session, Mr. Lipson will decide on final class enrollment. His written permission is required to enroll.
Course Requirements

There is one short paper and one longer paper in this course.

1) The shorter paper, approximately 2-3 pages, should define one hard question in IR, saying something about why it is interesting and a good topic for inquiry. It should laying out several key readings in the subject. These readings plus your short paper will form the basis for a seminar discussion on the topic.

2) Building on your short paper, you should write a longer one, approximately 15 pages, exploring this self-defined hard question in more depth. There should also be a one-paragraph abstract. This longer paper can be one of two types, explained below.

Each paper should have a title, plus your name and e-mail address on the first page. Each should be double spaced, stapled, with numbered pages. Please give me a hard copy. You may also send me an e-mail attachment, if you wish, but I will still need a hard copy of each paper.

Shorter paper (approximately 2-3 pages):

The goal of the short paper is two fold. One is to set the stage for a fruitful class discussion. The other is to lay the groundwork for your own deeper exploration of the question, reflected in your longer paper.

Due date for shorter paper: Week 5, Tuesday, 3 pm (hard copy delivered to my office). I will make copies of these short papers and distribute them to the class the next day. We will discuss them at that class session.

For most students, the shorter paper serves as a foundation for the longer paper. That is not a rule, though. After completing the shorter paper, you may change topics for the longer paper, or refine the topic, if you wish. You do not need permission to do so.

Longer paper (approximately 15 pages):

Each student will write a 15 (double-spaced) paper, exploring a hard question in IR theory.. This paper may be either an original research paper or a comparative analysis of several authors who have delved into the topic. It's your choice.

  • Research paper: Independent research on a topic of your choice dealing with some aspect of a hard major theoretical question in IR. You may explore it mainly in theoretical terms or you may do some empirical research, including case studies, that bear on the question. You have a wide range of choices here; the only requirement is that it explore a hard theoretical question and shed some light on answering it.


  • Comparative review: A critical analysis and comparison of two or more books or articles dealing with a particular theoretical question. You should build on your short paper, but you certainly can modify the readings and shift the terms of the question a bit as you move further into it. You may focus on a debate or, if you prefer, on one side of a debate or one approach to an issue. You may use any readings you choose.

The paper should have a title and its text should be organized in sections (each with a title), just as published articles are. Fluid, tightly-edited writing is welcomed, with pleasure. If you want to learn more about good writing, take a look at William Zinsser's On Writing Well or the sections on academic writing in my book, How to Write a BA Thesis. Despite the title, it is appropriate to graduate-level writing.

Due dates for longer paper: Monday of exam week, 4 pm. Hard copy delivered to my office, plus an electronic copy, if you wish.

Each longer paper should include a brief abstract of approximately 150-200 words.

The abstract should be resemble those in International Organization, briefly summarizing your questions, methods, and findings. Do not follow the misguided model of so many abstracts, which only say only what will be done in the paper: "This paper will examine the problem of international order, using data on modern wars. Important conclusions are reached." Don't do it that way. Instead, treat the abstract as a very condensed version of the paper itself.

Here's an example of a first-rate abstract, for Virginia Page Fornta's "Scraps of Paper? Agreements and the Durability of Peace" IO 57 (Spring 2003).

In the aftermath of war, what determines whether peace lasts or fighting resumes, and what can be done to foster durable peace? Drawing on theories of cooperation, I argue that belligerents can overcome the obstacles to peace by implementing measures that alter incentives, reduce uncertainty about intentions, and manage accidents  A counterargument suggests that agreements are eipiphenomenal, merely reflecting the underlying probability of war resumption. I test hypotheses about the durability of peace using hazard analysis. Controlling for factors . . . that affect the baseline prospects for peace, I find that stronger agreements enhance the durability of peace. . . .  Agreements are not merely scraps of paper; rather, their content matters in the construction of peace that lasts.

Fortna's abstract is brief and clear. It tells readers exactly what her article concludes and how it reaches that conclusion. Use it as a model. For others, please look at the opening pages of International Organization.

Class Presentations: Each student will participate in one group presentation.

At each class session, students will present assigned materials plus some supplementary materials. These presentations will be done by small groups, based on student research interests. Students should select three potential topics (such as the English School or Realism) in order of preference. Based on these preferences, Prof. Lipson will assign each student to one group.

What are "Hard Questions in IR Theory?"


The Question of the Democratic Peace

Charles Lipson, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace.

Sebastian Rosato, "The Flawed Logic of the Democratic Peace Theory", American Political Science Review 97 (2003): 585–602.


Does International Structure Really Explain Anything?

Kenneth Waltz in Robert O. Keohane, ed., Neorealism and Its Critics, chapters 4, 5, and 11.

Chapters 4 and 5 are from Waltz' Theory of International Politics. If you have this important (but expensive) little book, please consider reading all of it. Keohane's edited volume includes several important critiques, plus Waltz' response (chapter 11).

Sections of Mearsheimer's Tragedy dealing with his structural theory.

Can States Ever Trust Each Other?

Andrew Kydd, Trust and Mistrust in International Relations.

Sections of Mearsheimer's Tragedy dealing with intentions.

Sections Lipson's Reliable Partners dealing with trust, learning, and transparency.

Supplementary readings:

James D. Fearon, “Bargaining, Enforcement and International Cooperation,” International Organization 52 (Spring 1998), 269-306.

James D. Fearon, "Rationalist Explanations for War," International Organization 49 (Summer 1995), 379-414.

David Edelstein, “Managing Uncertainty: Beliefs about Intentions and the Rise of Great Powers,” Security Studies 12 (Autumn 2002): 1-40.

What Role Do Norms and Ideas Play in International Politics?

Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, chapters 1, 5-7, and conclusion.

additional readings to come

Student research questions

All Assigned Books Are Required Purchases for This Course
Available at Seminary Coop or UC/Barnes & Noble

Robert O. Keohane, ed., Neorealism and Its Critics (Columbia University Press, 1986). ISBN  paperback: 0231063490

Andrew H. Kydd, Trust and Mistrust in International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2005). ISBN: 0691121702 (only in hardback)

Charles Lipson, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace (Princeton University Press, 2003). ISBN paperback: 0691122776

Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1999). ISBN  paperback: 0521469600

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