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'The Social-Psychological Approach to International Relations'

'The Social-Psychological Approach to International Relations'

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aine Nic Liam. Originally submitted for Integration, fragmentation at University College Dublin, with lecturer Tobias Theiler in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aine Nic Liam. Originally submitted for Integration, fragmentation at University College Dublin, with lecturer Tobias Theiler in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Social-Psychological Approach to International Relations
Over the last few decades more and more attention has been paid to the systematicanalysis of the psychological aspects of International Relations. Since at least theearly 1930s there has been a steady growth of empirical research on problems of international behaviour in general which has included the concerted use of  psychological and especially social-psychological concepts and methods (Kelman,1965: 4).An understanding of social-psychological approaches to international relations isimportant because in a certain sense at least, all political theory is to a degreeinformed by an attitude or an idea about human nature and human psychology(Bloom, 1990: 5).Does human nature propel people and the states that they form into an inescapableHobbesian nightmare of international relations where states are forced to pursue self-help and relative gains? Or is human nature much more malleable than this? Is thecycle of state-eat-state competition in fact escapable? Should we reject the Hobbesianoutlook in favour of the Rousseauian/Marxist view which understands human natureas essentially good but misled and thwarted by social constraints which can bechanged (Bloom, 1990: 5)? Are all of these theorists wrong and should we conceiveof human nature as being neither avaricious nor benign but somewhere in between?It is wholly rational to employ a social-psychological approach to these problems as attheir core each viewpoint contains inherent psychological assumptions about humansand their nature. It is worthwhile utilizing this approach in attempting to understand or to form theories about state actions within the international system as whatever theconfiguration of socio-economic or political realities, the psychological dimension of the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state which has the potentialto influence state action remains a constant (Bloom, 1990: 5).While much of the behaviour of nations can be traced back to the behaviours andactions of particularly influential people, individuals in government for instance, it1
can not be forgotten that these individuals work within organised social structures thatmold and influence these individuals in countless ways. While psychological analysiscan inform us about the actions of individuals, social-psychological analysis can helpus to understand and to form theories about the actions of individuals within theseorganised social structures (Kelman, 2007: 62). ‘Social-psychology provides us with auseful framework for analysing such behaviour as it focuses on phenomena at theintersection of psychological and institutional processes: social interaction and therelationship of individuals to social systems’ (Kelman, 2007: 62).A social-psychological perspective brought to the study of international relations doesnot deny the primacy of the state within the international system but rather as Kelmansays it ‘opens the ‘black box’ of the state as a unitary actor and analysis processeswithin and between societies that underlie state action’ (Kelman, 2009: 171). It doesnot attempt to make material forces obsolete but rather it seeks to contextualize themin a more complex social web of international interactions in which how actors viewthemselves and their world is of primary concern. (Vaughan, 2009: 3).It attempts to explain how the mass citizenry is linked together and linked to the stateand to explain how these millions of individuals are joined together to act as one force(Bloom, 1990: 4). It is important to gain an understanding of this relationship betweenthe masses and the state as it is these masses that on one end of the spectrum will partake in social harmony and political integration and on the other end will engage inrevolution, succession, civil war and international war (Bloom, 1990: 4).This is not to argue that all important regularities in international relations arereducible to psychological laws, indeed few would argue this (Goldgeier, 2001: 68).Psychological arguments only acquire explanatory force when they are systematicallyassimilated into political frameworks that take into account the structural, economic,and cultural conditions within which policy makers work (Goldgeier, 2001: 68). Asocial-psychological approach can be used to put already existing theories of international relations into context rather then standing alone as a new theory in itsown right. A social-psychological analysis provides us with a new perspective oninternational relations that is not as dependent on structural or strategic factors in theway that more traditional theories often are (Kelman, 2007: 62).2
As suggested previously social-psychological analysis is not a stand-alone theory butcan contribute to other theories of international relations.Within realism, those who believe they have the least need to take account of  psychological processes are the strict structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz for instance (Goldgeier, 2001: 70). Other neorealists however have to greater or lesser extent integrated social-psychological analyses into their theories. Jonathan Mercer for example uses social identity theory to bolster realism’s claims of inevitableconflict (Vaughan, 2009: 33).While there is some overlap between social-psychology and realist and other schoolsof thought, theories of international relations such as neorealism are at their core,materialist in outlook. They therefore focus much more on material concerns such ashow the distribution of material power, such as military forces and economiccapabilities, defines balances of power between states and explains the behaviour of states (Jackson, 2007: 160).While there are of course differences, the social-psychological analysis of international relations has much more in common with social constructivism as thecentral outlook of both of these places a great of emphasis on human awareness or consciousness and its place in world affairs.Constructivists would critique theories such as neorealism as being too materialist inoutlook and argue that the most important aspect of international relations is socialnot material (Jackson, 2007: 161). Both of these theories can and should strengtheneach other to provide an alternative paradigm to the dominant rationalist, objectivist,and materialist theories (Vaughan, 2009: 3).Social identity theory is one of the most important sub-strands of social-psychology ininternational relations. It provides an analysis of the role of self-conception in groupmembership, group processes and intergroup relations (Hogg, 2006: 111). Its mainunderlying assumption is that collective phenomena cannot be adequately explainedin terms of isolated individual processes or interpersonal interaction alone and that3

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