In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Popular Culture and International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Methodology
  • Pedagogy

International Relations Popular Culture and International Relations
Nicholas Kiersey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0190


A growing number of scholars are studying the importance of cultural “artifacts”––popular or otherwise––and their relation to the dynamics and processes that constitute the core of the discipline of International Relations (IR). Popular culture is interesting for IR theorists for a variety of reasons, however, and there exist a diversity of approaches to its study. For some, movies, TV shows, and the like, are interesting in a pedagogical sense, insofar as they can distill for us more simply some or other highly complex facet of our world. Others prefer to look at how these artifacts function to normalize or reify the social order, modeling for consumers the expectations of social behavior upon which the dominant ideologies of foreign policy and political economy, for example, are founded. In this sense, if normalization is construed as a precondition for any social action, artifacts of popular culture can be said to have a degree of constitutive agency. There is some divergence, however, on the status of the artifact in this framing. Following the pioneering efforts of Michael Shapiro (see Methodology) over the last thirty years, much of this work within IR is premised on the idea that cultural artifacts are immanent to a general social grammar. For Shapiro, seeing as the artifact is an effect of the social, it is a worthy object of study in and of itself. Here then, the study of a popular cultural artifact is understood already as the study of a facet of the reality of our own world. There is no need to separate the world presented within the artifact from the world in which we live, for they are both part of the same general text. Here then, IR itself might plausibly be interpreted as a kind of popular culture, in its own right! For others, however, it is better to follow Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s lead in thinking about this process as an exchange of social energies—or a circulation of representations—where the social delivers the raw material out of which cultural artifacts are made, and cultural artifacts in turn act upon the social (see Neumann and Nexon 2006, cited under General Overviews). This latter group includes a diversity of scholars, from Marxist, feminist, and other critical persuasions, who insist that while the myths and unconscious ideologies of fictional universes often serve as silent, sub-textual pillars of the real, gestures of naturalization can also be accompanied by gestures of disruption (see Crawford 2003, cited under Bodies, Genders, and Posthumans). However, the question of whether a work of popular culture is supportive of the status quo or has “invariance-bursting” potential hardly exhausts the kinds of question that IR scholars ask about popular culture. Scholars of the latter group are also especially interested in assessing whether and how cultural artifacts and social life are linked, arguing that empirical work is needed to demonstrate that such linkages actually exist, and that the social habits and passionate subjective investments that make them possible in the first place need to be proven.

General Overviews

For some, like Dyson 2015, the purpose of turning to pop culture to explain International Relations (IR) is primarily pedagogical. Movies and TV shows, it is thought, are interesting insofar as they can “mirror,” or distill for us more simply, some or other highly complex facet of our world (here, see also Gregg 1998, cited under Cinema, and Ruane and James 2012, cited under Thrones, Wizards, and Rings). Others prefer a more constitutive approach, however, focusing on issues like nationalism and the formation of identity through official discourse. Indeed, cultural practices have been a focus of IR theory since the earliest published poststructural work in IR (see Shapiro 2012, cited under Methodology). Importantly, however, as Neumann and Nexon 2006 argues, such research has recently become more focused on quotidian or day-to-day sites of popular cultural production. Weber 2014, for example, analyzes representations of American foreign policy in contemporary film in order to draw our attention to the operations of that country’s geopolitical imaginary. Finally, in a short, useful primer, O’Doherty 2013 suggests that IR theorists might need to educate themselves further in the visual language of film.

  • Caso, Federica, and Caitlin Hamilton, eds. Popular Culture and World Politics Theories, Methods, Pedagogies. Bristol, UK: E-International Relations, 2015.

    This volume seeks to showcase the theoretical sophistication of IR’s engagement with pop culture. Topics addressed include possible frameworks for a research agenda in the field, how pop culture shapes political identities, and how it can also be used to disrupt familiar ways of thinking and acting in world politics.

  • Davies, Matt, Kyle Grayson, Simon Philpott, Christina Rowley, and Jutta Weldes, eds. Popular Culture and World Politics Book Series. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2010.

    This book series focuses on the diverse connections between global popular culture and the regional, local, and domestic dynamics of its production and consumption. Its publications focus on issues pertaining to the human experience of time, space, scale, identity, and mobilization while also questioning the limits of what we imagine politics to be.

  • Drezner, Daniel W. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

    First published as a popular blog post exploring how various IR theories might respond to an actual zombie uprising, this is the book that started a wave of zombie studies in the field. A second, “revived” edition of this text was published in 2014, including a new epilogue assessing the increasing presence of the zombie analogy in public discourse.

  • Dyson, Stephen Benedict. Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

    Undergrad-oriented text exploring the utility of some of the most popular TV shows among theorists who seek to hold up Science Fiction (SF) scenarios as speculative “mirrors” for testing the explanatory potential our existing theories. Covers realism, liberalism, and constructivism, but also extends into complexities of cultural difference in globalization, managing global crises, and the ethics of robotics and bioengineering.

  • Franklin, Marianne I., ed. Resounding International Relations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    Unique text examining a number of questions arising from the interface between music and IR theory. Goes beyond the idea of music as merely a “text” to offer a multifaceted appraisal of the role of sound in world politics. Covers a range of topics, including the political economy of the music industry and the significance of music as an emotional force.

  • Neumann, Iver B., and D. H. Nexon. Introduction: Harry Potter and the Study of World Politics. In Harry Potter and International Relations. By Daniel H. Nexon and Iver B. Neumann. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

    Important piece for its taxonomy of four different approaches to pop culture in IR, and its argument specifically clarifying the second-order nature of pop cultural representation (i.e., why religious beliefs themselves are not pop cultural but commercialized religious artifacts may be).

  • O’Doherty, Cahir. “Pop Culture, Huh, What Is It Good for? A Lot of Things, Actually.” E-International Relations (25 October 2013).

    Gives a brief overview of the state and stakes of pop culture studies in the discipline, focusing on post-9/11 representations of war. Explores the question of what it actually means to read artifacts, suggesting that we might do more to develop literacy in the “quasi-language of film” (i.e., the history of its genre conventions).

  • Weber, Cynthia. International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.

    A wonderful textbook for teaching IR in its own right, the author sets out in simple but provocative terms the rationale for a poststructuralist approach to the analysis of pop cultural artifacts. Features chapters on all the major IR theories, each featuring a close reading of a relevant movie.

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