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Princeton University

Paradoxes of War

Princeton University via Coursera


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The Paradoxes of War teaches us to understand that war is not only a normal part of human existence, but is arguably one of the most important factors in making us who we are. Through this course, I hope that you will come to appreciate that war is both a natural expression of common human emotions and interactions and a constitutive part of how we cohere as groups. That is, war is paradoxically an expression of our basest animal nature and the exemplar of our most vaunted and valued civilized virtues. You will learn some basic military history and sociology in this course as a lens for the more important purpose of seeing the broader social themes and issues related to war. I want you to both learn about war, but more importantly, use it as way of understanding your everyday social world. So, for example, the discussion of war and gender will serve to start you thinking about how expectations of masculinity are created and our discussion of nationalism will make clear how easy “us-them” dichotomies can be established and (ab)used. I will suggest some readings for you to complement the class and assign some activities through which you will be able to apply the theoretical insights from the course to your observations of everyday life. At the end of the course, you will start to see war everywhere and come to appreciate how much it defines our life. All the features of this course are available for free. It does not offer a certificate upon completion.


  • Introduction/Welcome
    • The basic paradoxes of war: how it builds and destroys, produces love and hate are discussed. Outline of course and general expectations.
  • The Nature of War
    • War is a product of both “natural” instincts and a social creation involving the imposition of organization and authority structures.
  • The Causes of War
    • Causes of war may be described as material, cultural, and psychological. At the heart of war is the product of us-them dynamics.
  • The Experience of War
    • In order to understand the social creation of war we need to appreciate that this is an activity VERY few would engage in with control or inducement.
  • Making Warriors
    • Warriors are taught a set of values of which duty and honor are fundamental. These are taught through the imposition of discipline.
  • The War of Armies
    • Wars are about organized violence and this part of the course traces the managerial and technological developments necessary to culminate in total wars.
  • The Progress of Battle
    • Historical overview of battle formations from phalanx to gunpowder revolution to industrialized war.
  • The War of Societies
    • Wars can also be about societal survival and we look at three examples: conquest, genocide, and strategic bombing.
  • Social Aspects of War: Nation State and Nationalism
    • Wars help build states and nationalism
  • Social Aspects of War: Democracy, Citizenship, and Social Equality
    • Wars also develop citizenship and democratic demands
  • The Rise of the Rest
    • While the West was dominant for 500 years, beginning in 1945 new forms of war have challenged the technological and organizational supremacy of old empires.
  • New Challenges
    • Wars are not fought as they were yet militaries are still organized anachronistically.
  • Final Lecture
    • Summary of the class.

Taught by

Miguel Centeno


4.4 rating, based on 12 Class Central reviews

4.6 rating at Coursera based on 678 ratings

Start your review of Paradoxes of War

  • Anonymous
    Paradoxes of War: Through the topic of war, this course presents a well-rounded sociological perspective of the social, cultural, economic, and power influences that determine the nature of war and the composition of militaries in the Western world and learn how institutions and behaviors are constructed. The material Professor Miguel Centeno has collected over 15 years is exciting and elucidating as he continually asks “why." After each video lecture, I wanted to go straight ahead to the next one.
  • Anonymous
    Great class according to its objective, to study wars from a sociological point of view. There is perhaps a need for a deeper review from the military point of view and the eastern form of conflict, but such matters are beyond the scope of the course as the teacher says. It aroused curiosity on various subjects and will certainly help me in the masters!
  • Anonymous
    I am a Vietnam Veteran and I think this class is very profound and enlightening. I am enjoying it immensely.
  • Taich
    A fascinating overview of how methods of war developed in the western hemisphere. Enthusiastic professor who kept my interest by presenting ideas concisely and coherently.
  • Denise Boal
    I completed this course a few years ago. I found the teacher to be engaging and easy to follow. I recommend this course to everyone.
  • Maile Kennaugh
  • Brennan Mccloney

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