How Realism Was Saved

The best account I have seen of why Kenneth Waltz was such an important figure:

In the 1960s and 70s, the classical realists were hounded by behaviouralists, systems analysts, game theorists, neo-functionalists and institutionalists, and pushed out of the theoretical mainstream. Thinkers like Morton Kaplan, Anatol Rapoport, Ernst Haas, Joseph Nye and Robert O. Keohane came to the fore, displacing the realists and shifting the core concerns of the field away from issues of human nature and power politics.

What Waltz did in this context was remarkable: almost single-handedly, he resuscitated realism, amputating those parts that were clearly dysfunctional, giving it the transfusions of new thinking that it needed, and returning it, revivified, to the fray.

Some complained he threw baby out with the bathwater.

Theory of International Politics shifted realism away from metaphysical speculation on human nature and onto firmer ground by removing any need for a philosophical anthropology to explain why international relations are as they are. Instead of a contentious account of ‘man’, Waltz substituted a structural account of the international system that borrowed heavily from the theory of the firm in classical economics.

There is another way of thinking about human nature: not metaphysical speculation or philosophical anthropology, but the evolutionary sciences.

Waltz’s structural realism attracted criticism from the start, and continues to do so today, almost twenty-five years after Theory of International Politics was published. But it is impossible not to acknowledge that it decisively shifted the terms of debate in international theory, returning realism to the mainstream, where it has remained ever since. In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the field was defined by a series of arguments between the realists and their critics, as first the neo-liberal institutionalists and then various bands of constructivists, feminists, postmodernists and critical theorists lined up to attack Waltz and his students.

Without Waltz and without structural realism, we would have seen no ‘offensive’ and ‘neo-classical’ realism, no ‘agent-structure’ debate, and no ‘anarchy is what states make of it’. Whatever one thinks about his revival of realism, and about the many responses to it, it is impossible to imagine what IR would have looked like without Theory of International Politics, as well as Waltz’s many other works. For that reason alone, he will be remembered as one of the great thinkers of the field.

It is by Ian Hall in e-ir.

What would have happened in a Waltzless world? I am inclined to think that the trajectory of IR would have been similar without Waltz. There would have been the rise of economistic liberalism (rationalism), and of cultural liberalism (constructivism), institutionalism, and the various kinds of critical theory – all are found beyond IR. What would have happened to realism? Would it really have been forced out of the mainstream? I think that is quite likely since realism has been marginalized in non-American IR. If so, then Waltz saved realism.


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The Puzzle of Polygamy

Actually there are several puzzles about African polygamy:

  1. Why is it relatively high in tropical Africa? Oddly, Madagascar is the great exception: tropical, near Africa, but little or no polygamy. This makes me think that polygamy has deep roots, since Madagascar was settled by a separate population of Austronesians.
  2. There is a belt of high polygamy from West Africa to Tanzania, elsewhere in Africa it is present but at lower levels. Why does it vary? A paper by James Fenske* tests several hypotheses.
    • Inequality among men. It turns out that current inequalities among men are not predictive, but historical indicators of inequality on the eve of colonial rule (taken from the Ethnographic Atlas) do predict polygamy today.
    • Women supporting themselves by farming? It seems that polygamy is least common in those parts of Africa where women have historically been most important in agriculture. But I would add, even if it does not explain variation in Africa, this surely has to be part of the reason Africa as a whole has much polygamy compared to Eurasia.
    • The slave trade, taking men away, leaving more women. Correlation with the slave trade is not robust. Angola sent many slaves but has lowish polygamy.
  3. Polygamy has declined over the past half century. Why? Fenske tests several hypotheses and concludes that falling child mortality explains much of the decline in polygamy across sub-Saharan Africa. The mechanism I suppose is that now women are more confident they can successfully raise children in a monogamous marriage. But is this cause or consequence? Monogamy means more paternal investment, which should lessen child mortality.

The puzzles multiply.

James Fenske, “African polygamy: past and present” (pdf here)

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Burkina Faso Wins! (Polygamy Edition)

Emmanuel Todd has gathered some interesting data on polygamy (actually polygyny) rates.

The world champion is Burkina Faso! Over half of its married women have co-wives. (What do all the leftover men do?)

Arab and African Polygamy Rates

(% of married women with co-wife)


Jordan 2002 6.8
Yemen 1997 7.1
Morocco 2003-04 4.7


Sudan 1978-79 20.2
Sudan   (North) 9.3
Sudan   (Darfur) 37.9
Mauretania 2000-01 11.6


Chad 1996-97 39.2
Chad   Muslims 35.6
Chad   Catholics 46.8
Chad   Animists 51.4
Mali 1996-97 44.3
Burkina   Faso 1998-99 54.7
Ivory   Coast 1994 36.6
Ivory   Coast Catholics 24.7
Ivory   Coast Muslims 44.5
Ivory   Coast Animists 47.2




In Arab countries 5-10% of women are in polygamous marriages. In black Africa, 30-55% of women. The highest levels are in interior West Africa.

Another difference: Arab-style marriage of parallel cousins [father’s brother’s daughter] is uncommon in Africa. Instead cross-cousin [between the children of brother and sister] or exogamous marriage is the norm.


Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies (Columbia UP, 2011) p. 44.


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Myths of Evo-Politics

Evo-Politics appears to be growing, but it still attracts lots of misunderstandings and myths. John Hibbing has a Top Ten List of misconceptions about evolutionary political science (aka biopolitics, genopolitics, or evo-politics):

  1. Biology is genetics (biology also includes epigenetic, in utero, and developmental influences)
  2. Biology is deterministic
  3. Biology is reductionist
  4. It is useless to peer inside the body
  5. Political culture is too idiosyncratic to succumb to biology
  6. The study of biology and politics has a conservative bias
  7. The study of biology and politics has a liberal bias
  8. The study of biology and politics seeks to replace traditional political science
  9. The study of biology and politics is devoid of policy implications
  10. Political scientists are incapable of utilizing biological techniques and of appreciating problems with these techniques

I would add that there are other ones too. I hypothesize that such myths arise (at least partly) from ignorance and antipathy.


John R. Hibbing (2013). Ten Misconceptions Concerning Neurobiology and Politics. Perspectives on Politics, 11, pp 475-489. doi:10.1017/S1537592713000923.

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Is Islamic Endogamy a Good Thing?

T. Greer calls Emmanuel Todd “the most under-rated “big idea” thinker in the field of world history.” Well, I thought I’d better take a look. Turns out that Todd is not the typical Parisian intellectual: he has a streak of Anglo empiricism. That’s all to the good.

His book A Convergence of Civilizations is mainly about how fertility rates in many Muslim countries are converging with Western and East Asian levels.

Endogamy, though, remains peculiar to many Islamic lands. Todd finds something good to say about it: a woman comes into the husband’s family as kin, not a stranger, hence she’s less likely to be tyrannized by the mother-in-law. The father does not control who the son marries, since the son has a right to his cousin.

But Todd does not mention the negatives of endogamy: the rule of cousins (cousinocracy), plus clannism (clanocracy). Oh, and the inbreeding depression.

The book has a useful table (p. 33):

Rates of Endogamy

(Muslim counries at the beginning of the 1990s)

Sudan 57

Pakistan 50

Mauretania 40

Tunisia 36

Saudi Arabia 36

Syria 35

Jordan 33

Oman 33

Yemen 31

Qatar 30

Kuwait 30

Algeria 27

Egypt 25

Morocco 25

UAE 25

Iran 25

Bahrain 23

Turkey 15

Bangladesh 10


Why these variations exist is a puzzle. Why is Pakistan high, but Bangladesh low?


Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies (Columbia UP, 2011).

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The Costco Lesson: Don’t Hire from Business Schools

Why is Costco is not only successful, but also decent?

It is decent to its customers. Almost everything is marked up 14-15 % or less over cost. Most of its profit comes from membership fees, so if you like buying in bulk you save. (I don’t, so I never go to Costco, but I see the attraction.)

And it is decent to its employees. Unlike the retail industry norm, the workers are well paid, with decent benefits. So they have low turnover, good morale, high productivity. Presumably this makes them helpful and cheerful with customers.

What’s the secret? I would nominate this remarkable fact as a clue to Costco: Managers work their way up from the warehouse floor. Costco does not hire business school graduates.

(From a BusinessWeek profile of the company, via The Browser).

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Dennett’s Tips for Better Thinking

Daniel Dennett has a how-to list on better thinking in The Guardian. One thing about advice lists: they may be interesting to peruse, but I doubt they actually prompt sustained changes in how one behaves. In any case, here are some of Dennett’s tips that I found particularly interesting:

Try to acquire the weird practice of savouring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray.

It is hard to admit mistakes, so I am not sure this advice is ever going to be widely followed.

When criticizing others, do it charitably.

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

This I think may be possible. But I would also like to see the art of polemical critique hang on.

Don’t waste your time on the mediocre

Sturgeon’s law is usually expressed thus: 90% of everything is crap. … A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone.

Sturgeon’s law should be better expressed statistically: most of everything is not crap: it is average (the bulge of the bell curve); a bit is crap (the left tail); and a bit is very good (the right tail). So, focus on the right tail.

Dennett also recommends using Occam’s Razor (parsimony), being wary of “deepities” (they sound deep but mean nothing), answering rhetorical questions, and more.

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