19-20 PR3632: Identity, Emotions and Trauma in International Politics

As populist movements flourish across the globe, inspiring a range of policies in direct contradiction to expert advice, scholars and pundits alike have begun to realize how irrational international politics can be. Take, for instance, the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union (EU) in 2016. Polls at the time showed that approximately 9 in 10 economists viewed leaving the EU as unwise and few other social scientists could justify exiting via another ostensibly ‘rational’ explanation. Yet, on June 23, 2016, a clear majority of UK voters chose ‘Leave,’ citing frustrations with the European Union that baffled this elite consensus. The UK is not alone in turning to policies that don’t fit easily into so-called rational choice models of international politics. Populist or nationalist leaders like Donald Trump in the US, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and Vladimir Putin in Russia have all drawn on intense public anger to revive historical grievances and justify foreign policies that deviate substantially with what predominant International Relations (IR) paradigms like neorealism and neoliberalism might predict.


In the last few decades approaches within the constructivist and post-positivist traditions of IR scholarship have increasingly turned to new types of variables to explain this otherwise aberrant international political behaviour, including identity, emotions and trauma. But while these variables offer the potential of explaining many otherwise confounding international phenomena, their inclusion raises numerous questions. Can IR theory simply analogize from individual emotions to macro-level national or state emotions? Can nations and states truly be thought of as possessing identities, if so, do these identities resemble those applying to human beings? How do these identities, emotions, and trauma interact with other interests in foreign policymaking like security, wealth-maximization or drives for power?


PR3632 Identity, Emotion and Trauma is a final-year half unit that introduces students to this cutting-edge research in IR theory. This course builds on the constructivist and critical IR scholarship students will have encountered in their first two years of IR coursework and offers new approaches to topics examined in other courses on political psychology, nationalism and populism. Though most readings are primarily theoretical, they include numerous empirical applications of the theories discussed in class and class discussions will draw on contemporary politics to illustrate theoretical points. Students will leave the course not only with a deeper understanding of recent IR literature, but also a greater appreciation of the successes and limitations of more mainstream theoretical approaches.


The course will be delivered through nine weekly two-hour sessions, each of which will be organised around an approximately one-hour lecture, followed by a complementary seminar.  Students will be asked to write original essays in response to cutting-edge theory, preparing themselves for potential graduate work in political theory, IR theory or related fields, as well as professional careers in diplomacy, journalism, or government.