Today I had a very brief, but interesting, chat with some colleagues who teach on an introductory unit on international politics. Our discussion centred around teaching about security, terrorism, and piracy. That chat really brought home to me both how different theoretical perspectives inform teaching, and how very important political theory is across the broad spectrum of politics.I was interested, since my own research explores political violence and the issue of terrorism, on whether they did any conceptual work on terrorism. It turns out that this is not covered with the students at all, despite terrorism being a centre of discussion over several weeks.
One reason for the lack of conceptual analysis was concern that any attempt to conceptualise terrorism necessarily requires us to lay out the terms of acceptable violence. Obviously, I thought, but why would this be a bad thing? None of the people in the discussion were committed pacifists, we all thought that violence was sometimes justified and that some reasons for violence were better than others. Yes, it’s important to understand what’s at stake when doing conceptual work, but that shouldn’t make us fearful of doing it at all.
Another reason was that conceptualising terrorism made its meaning conform to the wishes of whichever dominant force was busy defining it. Better to not define the term at all (with the risk of allowing it to mean almost anything!) Again, a notion I found odd since my own work demonstrates that it’s important to define what counts as necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct ascription of the term precisely so as to prevent it being defined in accordance with a narrow political or social agenda. If a term is allowed to mean whatever an individual wants it to mean, then there really isn’t any scope for disagreement about what is or isn’t terrorism (we’re into subjectivism and the dominant power can say what it likes).
Anyway, the point I wanted to make in this post, is that teaching politics without ever discussing the features of concepts like terrorism risks students walking away without engaging in critical analysis or rigorous and examination of a topic. Do we really want students absorbing knowledge without reflecting on it or coming to a considered view of their own? Political theory – analytic political philosophy – needs to be embedded, even if only lightly, across the politics syllabus because words and concepts do have meanings, and understanding them helps us distinguish between facts and states of affairs both for our empirical research, and in order to make normative judgements about them.