More than 2000 years ago, that brilliant politician Julius Caesar famously launched a chronicle of contemporary international relations with the observation that "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres."
What a difference two millennia make! Today, within the modern discipline of international relations, scholars parse political scenes using new rubrics and then try to integrate them to produce a more complicated but complete picture of international affairs. The agent-structure debate stands out as among the most important of these exercises. Some political scientists think in terms of structure: in their view political structures like the distribution of power or global capitalism determine international relationships. Others think in terms of agency: for them, forces like nations' foreign policy choices, or the actions of human rights activists are more determinative. But this is not just another case of "taste great, less filling." The challenge is to imagine how these structures produce agents and also how agents produce structures. Human rights activists have changed the world, but the world has given human rights activists their platform and even defined what we mean by human rights.
The University of Minnesota's Department of Political Science has become an important venue for the debate over the relationship between agency and structure in international affairs. In April 2008, more than 20 scholars from around the globe gathered at a department-sponsored conference, "Structuralism and Its Alternatives," to reflect on the subject. They also came to pay tribute to one of the architects of the debate, Professor Raymond (Bud) Duvall, whose singular contributions helped launch, guide, and contribute to this critical discussion.
Since his arrival at the University of Minnesota in 1976, Duvall has inspired scores of graduate students as well as political science scholars around the world. He has probably been most influential in forcing scholars to think more deeply, critically, and systematically about how international life is governed, regulated, and organized.
Michael Barnett, who holds the Harold Stassen Chair of International Relations at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science, observes that although no single school of thought characterizes the department or Duvall's students--Duvall fosters independent thinking--he has left his mark in other, profound ways.
Most obviously, Barnett says, the department's international relations program is anchored in an intense interest in the structures of international relations. International relations, Duvall maintains, is more than a collection of already existing states, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations. It also involves organizing principles that help structure international life, constraining what is possible but also helping define what counts as appropriate and desirable action, and even what we think is the "good life."
Second, several of Duvall's students are devotees of extreme theory, a daring interdisciplinary way of thinking. The papers presented at the conference by his students and others he has influenced illustrate the scope and ingenuity of this model. Their topics ranged from the zoological structure of international politics to indigenous protest politics in South America to what quantum mechanics can teach international relations.
A final hallmark of Duvall's scholarship is commitment to thinking seriously about all forms of resistance. While international relations theorists tend to be obsessed with the powerful, "Great Powers and the scholars who love them," Duvall's teaching and scholarship have highlighted the weak in the world and their struggles to control their own fates. As a proponent of critical theory, Duvall is committed not to critique as criticism, but rather to unmasking the many ways that power operates in international politics; and the goal is not simply to expose the different workings of power, but also to identify those moments when the actors can articulate a different world and act toward it.
In addition to Barnett, conference organizers included Alexander Wendt, an internationally influential scholar who studied under Duvall and is now the Ralph D. Mershon Professor of International Security at Ohio State University; and Jutta Weldes, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Bristol, who has published widely on international relations theory and U.S foreign policy.
Sponsored by the Department of Political Science under John Sullivan's chairmanship, the conference received additional financial contributions from the Interdisciplinary Center for Global Change and the Stassen Chair of International Affairs. It featured the presentation of original papers, a concluding panel on ethics in international relations, and a dinner at which Duvall was celebrated, toasted, and roasted.
The dinner was a wonderful balance between serious engagement with scholarly matters and relaxed engagement with friends and colleagues, Barnett says, and thus "reflected the man it honored."