Tag Archives: constructivism

Teaching International Relations With Memes

I thought I had the revolutionary idea of using memes to engage with my students on the IR theory courses I teach but it turns out Dr Jack Holland has already beaten me to it!

The idea behind using memes is that they’ll be a funny way to highlight interesting theoretical points in a concise way. I’m going to roll one out in this weeks class and then set my students a task of producing a meme related to the course content  over Christmas. Because surely they’ve got nothing better to do over the holidays…

Here’s the first one I’ve come up with that ties in to this week’s class on constructivism. Conspiracy Keanu gets to grips with a bit of Wendt…

I’m a bit worried that my students won’t be quite as nerdy as me and won’t get the whole meme thing, so if anyone out there has tried teaching IR/politics using memes then it’d be good to hear how it went down!

Here’s one meme that they should all appreciate…


Update on the politics of maps and constructing the world: from Hugo Ahlenius

We had an informative comment on the previous post which is worth re-posting as a follow-up on the map discussion.

Hugo Ahlenius, who is a cartographer, notes some problems with the Africa map and with the Peters projection:

Regarding that Africa map – Kenneth Field has done a better analysis/map on that case: http://cartonerd.blogspot.se/2011/09/welcome-to-marauding-carto-nerd.html

Many of us cartographers hate the Mercator vs Gall-Peters (the proper name of the projection). The latter is often presented as the ONLY alternative, which is not correct – there are many better alternatives for an equal-area projection. The Winkel-Tripel projection, that National Geographic uses for global thematic maps is a good alternative (near equal-area). Personally, I am big fan of the Wagner VII projection:

//If anyone else has a favourite projection do send them on, and I’ll post them here too!


Constructing the world: the Mercator map vs the Peters projection

Here are some useful resources for teaching geopolitics, political geography and constructivism, using the Mercator projection (the standardised map that we’re all pretty used to) and showing how far its representation of the world distorts our understanding of that very same world.

The Economist have produced this fantastic map of Africa, with other states mapped on top, to illustrate just how much bigger it is than we think and are used to.

It uses work done by a ‘computer graphics guru’ Kai Krause in his crusade against ‘immappanacy’ (poor geographical knowledge).. (new favourite word of the month?)

Of course all 2D maps have to be somewhat distorted (as they are representing a 3D globe), but the Mercator projection is one of the worst offenders in terms of distorting the relative size of countries. Another great resource for illustrating this is the classic video clip from the West Wing, where White House press secretary CJ meets with cartographers to discuss changing the maps used in US education:

Protecting ‘national security’ in the UK: the MI5 and the difference between ‘citizens’ and human beings

As someone who studies ‘security’ in the United States and China rather than the country where I actually live, coming across the following information from the MI5 discussing how they understand ‘national security’ in the UK was particularly interesting. 

They note the lack of a clear definition of ‘national security’ in either UK or European law, while adding that this has been a deliberate and consistent practice of successive UK governments and parliaments to ensure flexibility. The discussion that follows is both thoughtful and reflexive – features academics often make careers out of claiming governments lack.

The piece also states that government policy is taking the term national security to mean ‘the security and well-being of the United Kingdom as a whole’. This is then extended to emphasise not just the survival of the physical state itself but also its ‘citizens’ – wherever they are, and the system of government itself.

The discussion shows much needed recognition that the meaning of ‘security’ remains contested and is far from clear cut or obvious. It also shows an awareness of the role of political actors in constructing security threats. Of course, as it comes from the MI5, the focus is on more traditional notions of security. While the focus on citizens is encouraging, particularly alongside the growth in critical academic work emphasising the need to move away from military security to secure human beings, it also raises a number of questions.

What does it mean to protect UK ‘citizens’ rather than human beings more broadly defined? What does this mean for the rights, security and well-being of individuals living in the UK who do not have the protection of citizenship? What about the security and well-being of migrants and asylum seekers?

And lastly, what are the moral and ethical implications of a security policy that distinguishes between the security of  ‘citizens’ and human beings?

Russell Brand: Constructivist?

Russell Brand has been waxing lyrical about revolution in his recent editorial for New Statesman. It’s worth a read and there’s a thousand and one things in there that could be a point of discussion here but it was a few paragraphs that caught my eye, particularly seeing as though Russell Brand seems to be giving IR theory a go. It seems like he’s in to a bit of constructivism.

Brand writes,

“Capitalism is not real; it is an idea. America is not real; it is an idea that someone had ages ago. Britain, Christianity, Islam, karate, Wednesdays are all just ideas that we choose to believe in and very nice ideas they are, too, when they serve a purpose. These concepts, though, cannot be served to the detriment of actual reality.”

So for Brand, ideas are important and things we take for granted as being ‘real’ are entirely made up. His assertion that these ideas are, however, separate to an ‘actual reality’ puts him in line with most ‘mainstream’ constructivists rather than more ‘radical’ constructivists like post-structuralists.

Brand goes on to state that:

“The reality is we have a spherical ecosystem, suspended in, as far as we know, infinite space upon which there are billions of carbon-based life forms, of which we presume ourselves to be the most important, and a limited amount of resources.

The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity. Not out of some woolly, bullshit tree-hugging piffle but because we live on it, currently without alternatives. This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation.”

Here he’s bringing up a couple of points about politics not only being state/nation-centric but also human-centric; arguing for a rethinking of humans as the referent of politics and security and shifting it towards the environment. His suggestion of some kind of inclusive spiritual ideology being used to do this speaks to recent debates about security cosmopolitanism.

I’ll let Brand have the last word…

“In 2013 (another made-up imaginary concept) we cannot afford to giggle, drivel and burp like giant, pube-covered babies about quaint, old-fashioned notions like nation, capitalism and consumerism simply because it’s convenient for the tiny, greedy, myopic sliver of the population that those outmoded ideas serve.”