Politics and International Studies: an introductory reading list

Politics and International Studies Reading list illustrated with photo by Hossam el Hamalawy Anti Nazi protest in Spandau

Your mission:  to compile an introductory reading list for Politics and International Studies.

Time allowed?  30 minutes


Quick, get a definition.

Politics is ‘The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power’… ‘The activities of governments concerning the political relations between states’… ‘The academic study of government and the state’.

International relations are ‘‘The way in which two or more nations interact with and regard each other, especially in the context of political, economic, or cultural relationships’.  (Oxford Dictionaries.com)

Web search

A web search for ‘introduction to Politics’ turns up:

Paul Kelly, The Politics Book (Dorling Kindersley, 2013).

One reader, reviewing it on a book site, writes:

Whilst pitched at a slightly younger audience, perhaps GCSE/A Level, I have found this book to be absolutely invaluable at degree level. Being thrown in at the deep end at university, books such as this one are great to help you understand the essential basics, without skipping too far ahead.

A new search, for ‘introduction to international relations’, brings up:

  • Steven C. Roach, International Relations: The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2013).

Into its third edition it contains new entries on:  Arab Spring, Responsibility to Protect, Governmentality, Postcolonialism, Neoliberalism and Global Financial Crisis.

The Shelf Test

You are standing on the ground floor of SOAS University of London library, with a subject guide in our hand.  The (selected) class marks cover 37 topics, including: media and communication, systems of government and state, pressure groups, reform movements, political and civil rights, human rights, refugees, peace promotion, military science and terrorism.

Propped up on one of the shelves, at eye level, is a copy of:

  • Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction (Palgrave MacMillan, 5thedition, 2012).

You scan its introduction for clues about the contents:  Introduction to Ideologies, Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, Anarchism, Nationalism, Fascism, Feminism, Ecologism, Religious Fundamentalism, Multiculturalism, Conclusion:  A Post-Ideological Age?  Flicking through, you stop to look at the ‘Key figures in Feminism’ (pp 244-245).  There are brief biographies for:  Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Andrea Dworkin.  A bit further on (pp 328-9) are ‘Key figures in Multiculturalism, featuring:  Isaiah Berlin, Edward Said, Charles Taylor, Bikhu Parekh, James Tully, Jeremy Waldron and Will Kymlicka.

A slim volume attracts your attention:

  • Steven Grosby, Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2005)

It covers, among other topics, democracy, totalitarianism, and human rights.  You read a random sentence towards the end of the book:

At the beginning of this millennium, nations remain one of the ways by which humanity has organized, and thereby divided and evaluated, itself.

You are picking up speed now, catching sight of the spines of books, as you pass:

  • Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin, 2001)
  • Ania Loamba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (Routledge, 2001)
  • Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2003)

A series ‘Rewriting Histories’ leaps out from the shelves:

  • Prasenjit Duara (ed.), Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then (Routledge, 2004)

Part 1 – ‘In their own words’ includes extracts by: Sun Yat-Sen, Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru, Frantz Fanon and Jalal Al-I Ahmad.

You take down another book:

  • Robert Jackson andGeorg Sørensen (eds.), International Relations: Theories and Approaches (OUP, 6thedition, 2016)

It asks, ‘Why study IR?’

The main reason why we should study IR is the fact that the entire population of the world is living in independent states.  Together, those states form a global state system.  The core values that states are expected to uphold are security, freedom, order, justice, and welfare.  Many states promote such values; some do not.

Its final section, lists ‘Key Issues in Contemporary IR’ as: ‘International Terrorism’, ‘Religion in IR: A Clash of Civilizations?’, ‘The Environment’, and ‘New Patterns of War and Peace:  Changes in Statehood’.

You spot a book on global politics:

  • Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss, Global Politics (Routledge, 2008)

but 30 minutes are up.  Time to put your introductory reading list to the final test.

An Academic’s response: Dr Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière

The study of politics is vast and the identification of a canon of key texts is itself a politically loaded act.  What titles one includes in such a list inevitably says as much about the list-maker as it does about the discipline.  Here I have chosen to leave aside many obvious texts (e.g. Plato’s Republic, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Waltz’s Man, the State, and War) that can be easily found through a web search. Instead, here are just a few important texts that I find particularly fascinating:

  • Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice
  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.  

  • Abdelmalek Sayad, The suffering of the immigrant
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:  A Study in Moral Theory 

A couple more recent items:

An excellent new book that showcases the wide range of approaches to IR from across the social sciences, with contributions from leading experts in the field:

  • Gofas, Andreas, Inanna Hamati-Ataya, and Nicholas Onuf, The Sage Handbook of the History, Philosophy and Sociology of International Relations (Sage Publications Limited, 2017).

Not a book, but an excellent online resource on the relationship between war and trade, developed by colleagues in the Politics Department here at SOAS:  Sinews of War and Trade Website

Finally, fiction is often a space in which political ideas are discussed in great depth:

Victor Troynov Battle of Borondino reenactment 2012
Photo (c) Victor Troynov: Battle of Borodino re-enactment, 2012

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a gripping and intelligent novel about the clash of social worlds, narrating Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. In the Second Epilogue at the end of the novel, Tolstoy steps back from his story to write an incredibly profound and challenging essay on the role of human agency in political history. The issues he discusses remain central the study of politics and international relations to this day.

Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart stack of books Photo master xpo
Photo (c) master xpo

In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe explores the radical changes in governance, religion, identity, and gender relations brought about by European colonialism in Africa. Much research on post-colonial politics looks at the ongoing consequences of the sort of societal transformations described in Chinua’s story.


Further information

BA Politics and International Relations

Dr Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière

Dr Rahul Rao

Degree programmes – Politics and International Relations

Staff members conduct cutting-edge research on the politics of the Global South, with expertise in nationalism, urban politics, political violence, security, migration and diaspora mobilization, Islamic political and intellectual history, transitional justice, politics of multiculturalism, international relations theory, gender, comparative political economy, human rights, and the study of ideologies.

See also, ‘Why the Universities Minister is Wrong about Decolonization’

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