Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to Make a Good IR Pop Culture Analogy

I have been challenged on what it takes to make a good pop culture analogy for International Relations type stuff by "Simlaughter" on twitter.  Of course, the easiest way to figure out what a good thing is is to consider a bad version.

A pop culture analogy to something IR-ish can be bad because:
  1. It is obscure so the reference does not clarify (which is why I don't refer to Babylon 5 even though it was very much a UN type simulation);
    1. Which means that references may have a limited shelf life as some pieces of pop culture  fade away.  References to Monty Python or Star Trek tend not to work that well, unless one is playing to an older group.  I show my classes the original Footloose tractor chicken game when I used to be able to just mention it.
    2. Some stuff has a much longer lifespan: Star Wars, Harry Potter (just a guess), ...
    3. Fragmentation of media make some things harder to use.  I have students ask me to use The Wire or Breaking Bad, but I am doubtful that many students would get those references.
    4. The best analogies can play even to people who do not really know the pop culture reference but have heard about it enough to get the connections.  As in a book I read but not a book I read myself.  That is why Shakespeare can still work--lots of folks know the stories even if they have not actually read the plays or seen them staged.  The ultimate of this is when the Reduced Shakespeare Company performs all of Shakespeare's works in 90 minutes, we get the jokes even though few of us non-English majors have read all of the plays.
  2. It has many conflicting meanings so it is hard to say what dimensions of the analogy play for the IR situation.  Saying something is like Star Trek is like saying something is like Vietnam--need to be a bit more specific.  Saying something is akin to the Kobayashi Maru scenario might not be a bad analogy but it kind of violates rule number one (although this reference is well known enough to merit an entry into the Urban Dictionary).
  3. The pop culture analogy has to speak to the IR issue.  This is usually not hard, as movies, television shows, and books are chock full of examples and exemplars of balances of power, diversionary wars (hint, the Star Wars prequels), prisoners' dilemmas, incredible commitments (of course, using third Matrix movie is just asking for analogy flopping), alliance politics, and so on.
What makes for a good analogy?  Besides potentially being funny?  That it illustrates some of the complexities of the phenomenon that is being explained.  The recent McDonald's peace twitter conversation was actually quite useful not just on twitter but then in class.  Why?  It revealed the importance of causal logics and mechanisms, not just correlations; the problems of conceptual stretching; and the problem of confirmation bias (Friedman will not notice peace between a non-McD dyad).  The one analogy bore multiple fruit, which is better than an analogy that just shows that a concept appears in both pop culture and reality.  By illustrating multiple things at once, the analogy does a lot of work for us.

That is why the Footloose video works so well.  It is not just an example of Chicken, but contains within it elements that touch on key Chicken parts*:
  • Tying one's hands (as in the shoelace and the pedal);
  • Audience costs (the friends who witness the game);
  • Signalling the loss of control (Wren's opponent fails to signal to Wren that he is high on marijuana).
  • Reputation (Wren is unknown, seen as an amateur).
 *  Yeah, that was intentional.

These are just my first thoughts about something I have been doing for about eighteen years.  I look forward to the panel at the International Studies Association meeting in April in San Diego for a discussion of using pop culture to teach IR, with Drezner on Zombies, Pat James on Lord of the Rings, Nexon on Harry Potter, Carpenter on the machines (I think), and more.  I will be chair of the panel, so give me questions that you think I should ask the panelists.  Yes, this is a bit early but blame Mr. Simlaughter.

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