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International Relations TheoriesDiscipline and Diversity

International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity (4th edn)

Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith
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p. 1Introduction: Diversity and Disciplinarity in International Relations Theorylocked

p. 1Introduction: Diversity and Disciplinarity in International Relations Theorylocked

  • Steve Smith


This text argues that theory is central to explaining International Relations (IR) and that the discipline of IR is much more relevant to the world of international relations than it has been at any point in its history. Some chapters cover distinct IR theories ranging from realism/structural realism to liberalism/neoliberalism, the English school, constructivism, Marxism, critical theory, feminism, poststructuralism, green theory, and postcolonialism. Oher chapters explore International Relations theory and its relationship to social science, normative theory, globalization, and the discipline's identity. This introduction explains why this edition has chosen to cover these theories, reflects on international theory and its relationship to the world, and considers the kind of assumptions about theory that underlie each of the approaches.

The study of international relations has classically focused on the analysis of the causes of war and the conditions of peace. Such an agenda seemed particularly pertinent in the twentieth century in the aftermath of two World Wars. Study of the use of force continues to motivate International Relations (IR) scholars and students even now as we move well into the second decade of the twenty-first century. For example, as I prepare this fourth edition of the book, the reasons for Russian actions in Crimea and Russia’s role in activities of Donetsk rebels continue to be discussed. How should Western states and their defence organizations interpret the ongoing conflict and how should they respond to it? Various narratives exploring the motivations for and the conditioning factors leading to the conflict are put forward, as they are for many other sites of conflict. One narrative postulates hostile expansionist intentions on the part of Putin-led Russia; others point to the fact that Russia’s role in the region should be read in light of a defensive strategy. In previous editions of this book we discussed debates on intervention. In discussing interventions, some argue for universal humanitarian justifications for the use of military force in contexts such as Libya, others highlight that national interests drive such interventions.

The causes of war and the justifications for intervention are not the only questions of concern, nor the only divisive questions, in the study of international relations today. Different kinds of questions have increasingly puzzled contemporary students and researchers of international relations, questions such as:

Are there cooperative relations between competing hegemonic states, such as the USA and China?

What role can international institutions play today in altering the preferences of powerful international actors?

p. 2 How are global power relations to be identified and where, and with whom, does power lie in world politics?

What are the limits and possibilities of progress in tackling urgent world political problems, from poverty to the threat or experience of chronic insecurity, and from terrorism to climate change?

This book is explicitly aimed at helping you think through such questions—both traditional questions concerning the causes of war and wider emerging questions in world politics. But why should we concern ourselves with theory when we deal with such questions? At first sight, you might think that surely we do not need theory to answer them: we just go and ask world political actors why they do what they do, how they intend to act, and what they think will happen in the future. Thus we can dispense with academic theories.

There are at least two main problems with this position: the first, and less important one, is that such a position requires us to believe what world leaders said in reply to our questions. Maybe, for example, state leaders lie about the reasons for going to war. Or maybe American or Chinese administrations will not be entirely forthcoming in their strategic thinking. Perhaps not all international actors reveal their hand when they claim to do their utmost to tackle climate change. Therefore, we might not get to the ‘real’ reason for international behaviour simply by relying on the explanations given by leaders.

The second, and more fundamental, problem in taking the views of actors at face value is that the world is rarely so simple that people can be completely aware of why they are acting in certain ways. Perhaps George W. Bush or Tony Blair, when deciding to go to war in Iraq, were looking for evidence of a clear and present danger to justify a feeling about what was ‘right’. Perhaps those advocating decisive military action against Colonel Gaddafi genuinely thought their motivations were strictly humanitarian. Like all of us, they could not be entirely aware of the many reasons, personal and political, that triggered the particular course of action. The same goes for other state actors: not only may the USA or China not want to expose all of their reasons for specific actions in public, but also, they may not be entirely sure why they hold particular views of their adversaries, nor why particular patterns of interactions have been resorted to. Also, many international actors may be quite unaware of the ways in which their thought and policy is already shaped by particular ideological or moral commitments, thus excluding from view other ways of coming at global interactions and problems. Thus, while global corporations tackle climate change, they may do so in good faith but yet remain unconscious of the ways in which particular assumptions about market efficiency and the imperative for economic growth limits their ability to advance the kind of changes needed to tackle the problem. It seems then that we need to locate the ‘reasons’ actors have for their actions in wider contexts, ones that the actors themselves may not even recognize.

Both of these objections place us immediately in the realm of theory, since we have to make assumptions about actors’ behaviour and the extent to which they are either being truthful about their reasons or fully aware of the context within which they are acting. This position could strike some readers as a bit harsh, since they might argue that surely world political actors know exactly what they are doing. My simple response is to ask each reader to think through their own behaviour: why is it that we feel what we feel, think what we think, say what we say, and do what we do? We know that in fact we are often not sure of our reasons, and sometimes catch a glimpse of ourselves acting in accordance with what is fashionable or p. 3what is consistent with a particular rationale which we hope will be publicly acceptable. In short, in the social world it is not enough simply to base our accounts of individuals solely on the reasons they give for their actions. The social world is one in which individuals exist within powerful economic, political, social, gendered, racial, linguistic, and moral structures. We might be able to describe action fairly easily (Prime Minister Tony Blair said that he supported the US President in going to war against Iraq), but it is far more difficult to explain it (why was the action undertaken?). And, when it comes to explaining action, we are, whether we like it or not, in the realm of theory.

Theories offer accounts of why things happened, and the fact that they offer a wide range of reasons for action reflects the fact that they have very different assumptions. Hence, you will get very different answers to world political puzzles and problems from the different theories represented in this book. In fact, if you were to ask each of the authors of the chapters what they think of any global confrontation, whether it is the so-called global war on terror, or the challenge of China’s rise, or the battle against climate change, I suspect that you would get distinctly different answers from each advocate. Some of the differences would result from the fact that the authors focused on different aspects of world politics: some might focus on political economy issues; others might look at the role of international law and institutions; others might concentrate on notions of maximizing power; while others still would see world political problems as sites where unequal identities are constructed so as to reinforce power structures. Yet other differences would be because the authors saw the world in very different ways from one another: some would see a world of power and security; others would see a world of meaning and community; while others still would see a world of economic forces capturing political actors.

These differences sometimes worry students new to the discipline of IR, since they expect some kind of ‘right’ answer, and are often frustrated when teachers of the subject keep referring them back to a range of theories, each of which has a different take on the question. In my view, this is an absolutely central issue, and I hope in this introduction to show why, in the case of the social world, it is indeed interpretation all the way down. To be completely clear from the outset, I do not think that we can evaluate accounts of why people act as they do in a way that leads to one definitive story; in the social world there is always more than one story to tell.

In this introduction I want to do three main things. First I want to explain why we (the three editors) have chosen to cover the theories that we have, and to say something about our view of international theory and its relationship to the world, an important issue which features prominently in the text through the use of case study analysis. Second, I want to look at the kind of assumptions about theory that underlie each of the approaches. Finally, I want to discuss explicitly the issue of how one might make a choice between the rival theories covered in this book.

All these theories but the bodies keep piling up1

The book includes eight chapters on distinct theories of International Relations (IR), with two positions being divided across classical and neo-variants: realism/structural realism, liberalism/neoliberalism, the English school, constructivism, Marxism, critical theory, feminism, poststructuralism, green theory, and postcolonialism. These eight theoretical accounts stand p. 4alongside chapters that reflect on IR theory and its relationship to social science, normative theory, globalization, and the discipline’s identity. The existence of so many theories of IR does lead to one obvious query: why is there such a range of contending positions? In the history of the discipline of IR there have always been debates between competing theories. Kurki and Wight cover the history of these debates in Chapter 1, so I am not going to rehearse them here. Suffice it to state that from the earliest days of its existence as a discipline, the main debate has been between forms of realism and liberalism. In recent years this debate has been between versions of realism and liberalism known as neorealism and neoliberalism. Although there are clear linkages between classical and ‘neo’ variants, we allocated them separate chapters because we think that the later versions contain distinctly different assumptions about the nature of theory. Marxism has been the other main approach to studying international relations, and by the 1980s it was commonplace to speak of the three approaches (realism, liberalism, and Marxism) as constituting an ‘interparadigm debate’. This is how most of the textbooks of the 1980s and 1990s represented international theory and, as a consequence, this is how theory was taught.

From the vantage point of today, it seems that there were a number of problems with this way of thinking about IR theory. First, it exaggerated the amount of debate: what actually happened was that realism dominated the discipline, given that it claimed to explain the bipolar structure of the international system, while liberalism was able to cover secondary issues to do with institutions and trade, with Marxism being invoked to explain relative economic power and structural inequality. This notion of an interparadigm debate hinted at a kind of intellectual pluralism, whereby there was a level playing field on which the theories competed. Yet, the priority accorded to explaining the military confrontation enabled realism to assume primacy. The key point to note is the power of assumptions about ‘what’ the world of international relations consisted of in determining the explanatory power of the rival theories. Thus, since international relations was defined as being about war, the theory that would appear to be most useful in explaining it, not surprisingly, would be the one that focused on war. I am not saying that war is not a feature of world politics, only that the dominance of realism and neorealism reflected often implicit, unstated, ‘common-sense’ assumptions about the content of world politics.

But it was another problem that caused most reflection among those who felt uneasy at the notion of intellectual pluralism implied by the idea of an interparadigm debate. The phrase suggested that the three approaches were all vying for attention in terms of their ability to explain the same world. The rather unsettling worry was that the three approaches were actually focusing on rather different features of international relations, and thus they were not in debate at all; what they disagreed about was which events should be the focus of the discipline. Thus, whereas realism might focus on the Cold War, liberalism might concentrate on international economic relations between the leading capitalist economies, and Marxism might stress the patterns of world trade and investment that create divisions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. If you accept this argument, then it follows that the dominance of one theory is the result of a prior assumption about the main things in world politics that need explaining. This leads to a rather destabilizing thought, which is that something as seemingly ‘academic’ and ‘non-political’ as deciding which theory is of most help in explaining international relations might in fact be a very political act, because which theory you see as being the most useful will depend on what you want to explain, and this, in turn, will depend on your values and beliefs about what international relations is all about. Put very simply, if you live in p. 5a wealthy part of the world, where there are no apparent military threats, you might think that the key features to be explained are those concerned with the economic relations between the main wealthy powers. If you live in a conflict zone, where the survival of your society is at issue, you might well want a theory that explains conflict. Finally, if you are in a very poor part of the world, you may see the central features of world politics as those related to the creation and support of differences between national levels of wealth.

This sense of dissatisfaction with the comforting notion of an interparadigm debate led to what many have called the fourth great debate in IR, between what can broadly be called rationalist and reflectivist theories. This debate was launched by Robert Keohane in his 1988 International Studies Association (ISA) presidential debate, and referred to the tensions then emerging between rationalist approaches, such as neorealism and neoliberalism, on the one hand and reflectivist approaches, such as feminism and poststructuralism, on the other. To simplify things a bit, the chapters in this book dealing with neorealism and neoliberalism would be seen by Keohane as rationalist, whereas most of the others, with three main exceptions, would be seen by him as reflectivist; the exceptions would perhaps be constructivism, normative theory, and the English school, all of which can best be understood as overlapping the rationalist/reflectivist divide (see individual chapters for details on how). The key difference between rationalist and reflectivist approaches is that, broadly speaking, rationalist accounts are positivist, whereas reflectivist approaches oppose positivism. Again, the Kurki and Wight chapter discusses this distinction in detail; for now it is enough to note that the central differences between rationalist and reflectivist accounts are epistemological and methodological, and only secondarily about what the world is like (ontology). That is to say that the fourth debate is one about how we know what we claim to know. In this important sense, the main dividing line between the significant theories of IR for the last two decades has been their attitude towards positivist accounts of knowledge.

Since the interparadigm debate of the 1980s, there has been an explosion of theories about international relations. Most of these theories have opposed the dominance of rationalist approaches (neorealism and neoliberalism), primarily on epistemological grounds. Rationalist theories accept a notion of foundationalism, whereby there are secure grounds for making knowledge claims about a world that is separate from the theories commenting on it. Rationalist theories sometimes claim that their accounts are more accurate than others because, due to their systematic scientific approach, they can capture the essence of the way the world is in an empirically justifiable way. By way of contrast, reflectivist approaches do not share a commitment to the form of foundational positivism found in rationalist approaches. This has caused a significant problem for reflectivist approaches, because they have been dismissed by leading rationalist scholars for not being legitimate social science. Keohane made this point in his ISA presidential address: he claimed that reflectivism’s main weakness was the lack of a research programme:

Until the reflective scholars or others sympathetic to their arguments have delineated such a research program and shown in particular studies that it can illuminate important issues in world politics, they will remain on the margins of the field, largely invisible to the preponderance of empirical researchers, most of whom explicitly or implicitly accept one or another version of rationalistic premises.

p. 6What was needed, he went on to add, was for reflectivist scholars to develop ‘testable theories’ without which ‘it will be impossible to evaluate their research programme’ (1989: 173–4).

More recently, Stephen Walt, in a highly influential review of the state of IR theory, argues that although the key debate has been, and continues to be, that between realism and liberalism, there is a third approach which he sees as the main alternative to these two. But for Walt this alternative approach is not one of the main reflectivist approaches; instead it is constructivism, which concedes a great deal of philosophical ground to rationalism. But he goes further than this: Walt explicitly rejects reflectivism ‘because these scholars focused initially on criticizing the mainstream paradigms but did not offer positive alternatives to them, they remained a self-consciously dissident minority for most of the 1980s’ (1998: 32).

Walt sets out the main features of these three ‘paradigms’ (realism, liberalism, and constructivism) in a figure representing a classical Greco-Roman building with three pillars. Under the heading of constructivism he lists its ‘unit of analysis’ as ‘individuals’ and its ‘main instruments’ as ‘ideas and discourse’. Its ‘main limitation’ is that it is ‘better at describing the past than anticipating the future’. It is not just that this is a very thin account of constructivism, but also that constructivism is portrayed as the only approach that deals with ideas, discourse, and identities, which a variety of reflectivist theorists would see as their core concerns. Not only does Stephen Walt effectively silence more radical theoretical approaches, he understates the value of constructivism. This is evident in his belief that ‘the “compleat diplomat” of the future should remain cognizant of realism’s emphasis on the inescapable role of power, keep liberalism’s awareness of domestic forces in mind, and occasionally reflect on constructivism’s vision of change’ (1998: 44). By way of contrast, Walt argues that ‘realism is likely to remain the single most useful instrument in our intellectual toolbox’ (1998: 43).

The current situation is one where there is a wide range of theories of IR. It is very important to stress that while some of these are trying to explain the same features of world politics, others are focusing on very different aspects. The problem is that many of the mainstream (rationalist) theorists deny the legitimacy of both sets of alternative theories. Those that are offering competing accounts of the same phenomena are usually deemed illegitimate, as not being ‘proper’ social science, while those focusing on other features of world politics (such as poverty, gender, race, international law, the environment, etc.) are dismissed as not dealing with the most important features of world politics (usually defined as interstate war). In an important respect, the dismissal of work as illegitimate (in terms of epistemology) is in many ways more insidious than a dismissal on the grounds that the features focused on (that is to say, on grounds of ontology) are not central to international relations.

None of this means that the traditionally dominant mainstream approaches are outdated or peripheral to an explanation of international relations. Indeed, by giving each of the historically dominant traditions two chapters, we hope that we have made clear the importance that we place on these theories. In our view, they are absolutely central to explaining international relations but, equally importantly, we do not feel that they are sufficient on their own. We believe that there are other accounts that explain areas of international relations, and we feel that our job as editors is to offer as wide a range of accounts as possible in this book. We believe that the reader needs to understand both that the historically dominant approaches are vitally important for an understanding of international relations, and that these need to be complemented by other accounts that are equally legitimate.

p. 7Some established scholars in the discipline, such as Kal Holsti, regret this proliferation of theories, and the disappearance of a discrete field of inquiry. As he puts it:

It is hard to say that there is any longer a particular core to the field …. Our field should be basically concerned with the relations between states, and relations between societies and non-state actors to the extent that those relations impinge upon and affect the relations between states. When we go far beyond these domains, we get into areas of sociology, anthropology, and social psychology that are best dealt with by people in those disciplines.

He adds:

I am somewhat concerned that too many people may be spending time discussing great issues of epistemology and metaphysics …. But beyond a certain point … concern with epistemology may lead us to lose sight of the subject matter. The greatest texts of our field were written by those who were deeply immersed in the subject, and not by epistemologists.

We disagree with Holsti. We believe that the field is now much healthier because of the proliferation of theories. Not only has this resulted in a significant rethink about what the field consists of, it has also led to a questioning of the main assumptions of the ontology and epistemology of the discipline. Together we see these developments as opening up space for much more debate, and, crucially, to legitimize a wider variety of theories. On the one hand, then, the range of theories allows us to think about more aspects of international relations than before, and because they are often based on epistemological positions far removed from positivism they also allow us to reflect on just how we think about the world. This widening of theories has been achieved in part by a much closer engagement with other social sciences, so that sociological or anthropological accounts of international relations are every bit as worthy as conventional political or economic accounts. We see this situation as better than that of most of the twentieth century, when one theory (realism) dominated the discipline, and one view of knowledge construction (positivism) reigned supreme. But, of course, there is no denying that this plurality of approaches does raise some significant problems, most obviously how to choose between theories.

What do the theories share?

Despite the very significant differences between the theories dealt with in this book, it is important to note that they share three significant assumptions. First, and chief among these, is their shared commitment to the importance of theory in understanding the world. In direct contrast to those who see theory as irrelevant or optional, all the authors in this book think that theory is central to explaining international relations. We need to stress the importance of this assumption, since many continue to believe that theory merely gets in the way of understanding the world, and at worst is simply a way of making things more complicated than they really are. In our view, the option of non-theoretical accounts of the world is simply not p. 8available. All observation of international relations has to be carried out in the language of some theory or other. The choice, then, is one of whether you are aware of the assumptions you are bringing to your study of the world or not. Indeed, texts that begin by saying that they are only looking at ‘the facts’ are theoretically laden: this is because what counts as ‘the facts’ is either something that is explicitly linked to a theory, or is instead the result of powerful and unstated assumptions.

Second, all the theories have a history, though not always within the discipline of IR. These histories mean that comparing theories is not easy, since they emerge from very different intellectual traditions. Therefore many of the chapters use the word ‘theory’ in specific ways: we need to stress this to the reader, since the different usage results directly from the historical and intellectual heritage of each approach. Thus, the chapters on feminism, poststructuralism, green theory, and postcolonialism are developed from work that has mainly appeared in other academic disciplines, mostly in the last fifty years. By way of contrast, the chapters on classical realism, liberalism, Marxism and critical theory, and the English school are each referring to a long-standing approach that goes back much further, in most cases at least a century. The debates on social science and international political theory—discussed in the first two chapters—also have a long history, if not explicitly within the confines of IR theory but rather within the disciplines of philosophy or political theory and ethics. Finally, the chapters on neorealism, neoliberalism, constructivism, and the effects of globalization are all focused on the main theoretical developments in IR over the last twenty years.

Third, each of the chapters makes claims about the linkages between theory and practice, though, again, they do this in a variety of ways. Some of the chapters that follow treat theory as something akin to a toolkit, whereby the reader can, by understanding certain key concepts, apply them to the world and thereby understand it better. The four chapters on classical realism, classical liberalism, neorealism, and neoliberalism are good examples of this notion of theory. Other chapters present theory as something that critiques the existing dominant order and offers ways of emancipating individuals from that order: the chapters on green theory, Marxism, critical theory, and postcolonialism are good examples of this version of theory. Still other chapters, such as those on feminism, poststructuralism, normative theory, the English school, globalization, and constructivism, are more concerned with what gets presented as the core issues represented in the discipline, and how they relate to identity. Thus, the theories we cover in this book offer a variety of ways of approaching the relationship between theory and practice: the range varies from helpful toolkit all the way through to human emancipation, and this, again, raises the question: what is the role of theory?

For most of its history as a separate discipline, IR has been dominated by one specific answer to this question, which is that theory has the role of explaining the world. That is to say that the job of theories is to report on the world—this is very much the ‘toolkit’ model of theory. According to this view, theories are devices to explain a world that exists apart from them. Such a belief was a very strong assumption of positivism. This view of theory is known as an ‘explanatory’ view. It means that theories explain a world that is ‘out there’, and explaining it means making sense of it. But there is another view of theory which is that theories ‘constitute’ the world that they are explaining. By this we mean only that theories can never be separate from the world; they are an intrinsic part of it. Therefore, there can never be a ‘view from nowhere’, and all theories make assumptions about the world, both ontological ones (what features need explaining) and epistemological ones (what counts as explanation). The p. 9critically important point here is that whereas positivist theories claim that non-positivist theories are illegitimate because they are not neutral (i.e. they make explicit assumptions about ontology and epistemology—take for example the chapter on feminism), the problem is that positivist theories fail to recognize that they do exactly the same thing but this time by maintaining a separation between observer and observed, and between theory and the world. It is this claim that needs contesting. All theories are located in space, time, culture, and history, and, simply put, there is no possibility of the separation from these that positivism requires.

Therefore, this book starts with a chapter that introduces the major debates in the discipline of IR with regard to the philosophy of social sciences. We then have four chapters dealing with the traditional mainstream theories: classical realism, structural realism, liberalism, and neoliberalism. These are followed by chapters on English school and Marxism, approaches which have classically contended with the mainstream theories. We then address critical theory and constructivism, somewhat more recent approaches which emphasize the social construction of realities and the stakes involved in them. These are followed by other critical interventions into theorizing IR: feminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism. Chapter 13 introduces the reader to normative theory, an important sub-field of IR scholarship today and chapter 14 discusses green theory, an important new way of interrogating IR issues. We end the book with two chapters, each of which serves as a conclusion. The chapter on globalization looks at contemporary international relations and discusses whether such a thing as globalization exists and whether the assorted phenomena of globalization render traditional state-centric theories of IR redundant. The final chapter looks at the current nature of the discipline of IR and the ways in which the theories discussed in this book relate to the emerging structure of debate in the field. As you will see, these chapters have important things to say about the linkage between how the discipline has traditionally defined the subject matter of international relations and how then one might decide which theory was of most use in explaining that world.

Diversity and disciplinarity

The picture that emerges from this book is that the discipline of IR is, we believe, far more relevant to the world of international relations than it has been at any point in its history. We made this claim in the first edition and we continue to make it, despite being challenged on this since the last edition by a leading theorist who makes a twofold challenge: first, questioning the extent to which IR is genuinely characterized by theoretical pluralism, and second, casting doubt on whether pluralism per se is something to be valued (Schmidt 2008). I have defended our claims in this regard elsewhere (Smith 2008) and will not rehearse these arguments here again. Suffice it to say that IR theory is now far more pluralist than it was just thirty years ago, particularly outside of the North American mainstream. This diversity has generated different answers to perennial questions in IR about actors, issues, causes, and consequences. In light of the fact that we do not believe that political questions about justice, power, and rights, lend themselves to singular answers, we regard pluralism as being a positive development in the discipline.

Yet, the existence of this growing body of distinctly different theories has given all students of IR two main problems. The first is whether there can be said to be a discipline of IR at all after the proliferation of theories, many of which have their intellectual basis in different p. 10social sciences. The final chapter of this book deals with this question in detail, but, similarly, the penultimate chapter on globalization implies that if we start our analysis of international relations from an economic perspective we get a much altered view of what are the core features to be explained by any theory. In an important sense the editors of this book are relaxed about what the proliferation means for the identity of the discipline, since we believe that what matters most is the ability of theories to explain the world as it is seen from a variety of different cultural, economic, gendered, political, ethnic, and social locations. One problem of an insistence that the boundaries of the discipline should be clear, precise, and fixed, is that this absolutely determines what counts as acceptable scholarship. We prefer boundaries to a discipline that can alter, as our views of the political shift according both to our identity as observers and to the agenda that we wish to explain. In this light, we note that the discipline has played a role in recreating the realist world of great power dominance, simply because that is what generations of IR academics taught as ‘reality’ or the ‘real world’ to their students. In that sense, too much concern with maintaining the boundaries of an academic discipline looks dangerously like a very conservative move to privilege the existing power distribution in the world. We feel that the current diversity in the discipline offers far more in the way of opportunity to examine a variety of policy concerns and issues than has ever been the case in the discipline’s history. Taken together, the theories in this book create space for thinking about what international relations consists of and what are its most salient features. In this important sense, if the discipline is facing an identity crisis because the old certainties are no longer quite so secure, then we think that this is a positive and empowering development.

However, the second problem created by the proliferation of IR theories is much deeper. This is the question of how one chooses which theory to use. Traditionally, this has not been a problem for the discipline, since the answer was always a choice between realism and liberalism, with realism being dominant. This was largely the case because, if the subject was defined by the presence of war, then realism seemed to be the best theory to explain war. If one’s focus was international cooperation, then liberalism was appropriate; and the debate between these two theoretical strands constituted the founding debate within IR. Today, not only is there a set of well-developed and powerful alternative theories, but these theories dispute the core assumptions about the content of the field.

This situation raises the question of the grounds on which we make a choice between theories. For many new undergraduate students of IR this is a major worry, since they want to be guided to the ‘right’ answer. And, of course, this is why realism has been so powerful, because it explicitly sees itself as the best account of the persistence of interstate war and competition. We feel that there is much more at stake in answering this question. In my view, the first criterion involved in making a choice between theories has to be the issues you wish to explain. Thus, if you are interested in the future of the environment, it is likely that green theory will be as good a place to start as any. That does not mean that only green theory can offer explanations, but it does give the reader a place to start their thinking about which is the most appropriate theory. It would be tempting to leave the issue of theory choice here, since I could imply that the theories in this book are all dealing with different, discrete, aspects of the same world of international relations, and that you could adopt a kind of ‘pick-and-mix’ attitude towards theory. Accordingly you might think it sensible to use, say, green theory when discussing the environment, feminism when discussing global gender inequalities, and structural realism when looking at great power rivalry in the Asia–Pacific. But though this might p. 11seem comforting, I do not think that this move is possible. This is because the various theories are not like parts of a jigsaw that can be neatly combined together, with each explaining one part of international relations. Rather, I think that the theories in this book are like different coloured lenses: if you put one of them in front of your eyes, you will see things differently. Some aspects of the world will look the same in some senses, for example shapes, but many other features, such as light and shade of colour, will look very different, so different in fact that they seem to show alternative worlds.

In thinking about this you might like to visualize Martin Hollis’s excellent example of a mobile hanging over a child’s bed, a metaphor he regularly used in his teaching. The view that the various theories each explain part of the world of international relations is akin to the view that someone standing looking at the child’s mobile will see the same mobile as the child lying on the bed, albeit from different angles. There is nothing incommensurable about their two perspectives; simple geometric analysis can show how their different views of the mobile can be combined together—they are just different views of the same mobile. Yet Hollis always argued, persuasively in my view, that the social world is not like this. The theories we use cannot simply be combined together so as to add up to different views of the same world of international relations; instead, they actually see different worlds. Thus a Marxist writer, though they will focus on power, will see a different form of power (ultimately economic) to that seen by a classical realist (ultimately political). Similarly, a classical liberal will not see cooperation over environmental issues in anything like the same way as a green theorist will see them. Finally, think of, say, a feminist writing about the global power structure, and compare it to a neorealist account. It is not possible simply to add up these various accounts of international relations to get one overarching theory. Theories are part of the social world, they can never be separate from it, and thus they constitute the social world in which we live. Each defines the problems to be examined differently, and may well define how we know things about those problems in different ways. Thus the social location of the observer will influence which theory they see as most useful, simply because that location will predispose that observer to define some features of international relations as key and others as less relevant.

But in putting forward this view of theory we need to be clear that we are not saying that each theory is equally good at explaining everything. It is not a case of ‘anything goes’. Our view is that a variety of theories will claim to offer explanations for the same kinds of features of international relations. We believe that there are grounds for choosing between them, though we want to stress that these grounds are nothing like as restrictive as positivists claim. Thus while we do not think that theory choice is simply a matter of whatever appeals to a reader on a given day, we do think that the grounds cannot be those of one dominant view of epistemology and methodology.

All of this brings us back to where we started this chapter. There are many theories that offer explanations to real-world problems and dilemmas. You will find some of them persuasive, others less so. Our argument is not that each of these theories should be deemed equally appropriate, or helpful, or valid. Decisions over which theories are tenable and which are not should be determined, respectively, by the reader of this book or the proponent of the theory concerned. The judgement cannot be made by advocates of another theory that its rivals are either irrelevant or illegitimate. We also want to point out that there are epistemological difficulties with combining different theories, although both critical realism and the English school attempt to provide theories which are a synthesis of more than one position.

p. 12Many treatments of IR avoid the problem of incommensurability by focusing only on those theories that share an epistemological grounding (e.g. neoliberalism and neorealism). That makes ‘debates’ relatively easy. We have not chosen to deal with theories of IR in that way. Instead, we have tried to offer you a wide choice of theories and leave you with the somewhat unsettling task of having to decide which theory you find most useful in explaining and understanding international relations, and then answering the question of why that is the case. We think that this gives you a real choice, and, although at first sight it may be a little disturbing to question whether it is possible to use theory as a toolkit to answer different issues and problems, we do think the fact of theoretical diversity in IR forces readers to confront questions about how to choose between theories. Such questions are unavoidable; previously they have been overlooked because of the tendency to present only compatible theories of IR. The diversity represented in this book promises a discipline that is of more relevance to people in a variety of locations than has hitherto been the case. The editors of this book strongly believe that it is better to open up space for analysis and debate, even though that will lead to difficult ethical and philosophical questions about theory choice, than it is to close down debate and insist that the only theories that are ‘right’ are those which fit into preconceived, and often hidden, assumptions about what international relations consists of. It is our strong view that this diversity is to be celebrated rather than disciplined (as some traditionalists would prefer).

Diversity may be unsettling because it leaves the reader facing some fundamental problems about how to make a choice between rival theories; but at the very least it does make it possible to confront orthodoxy, to develop theory relevant to a wider range of humanity, and, ultimately, to accept that our choice of theories to explain the world of international relations can never be a neutral act. Theory is always socially located, always has an unavoidable relationship to power, and can never be defended by resort to one foundational account of what is ‘truth’. In this sense, our aim is not so much to provide the reader with one account of international relations but to offer a choice of IR theories that allow us to make sense of our multi-layered and culturally complex world, as well as to recognize the processes and difficulties involved in coming to understand them.

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book for lots of interesting additional material.


  • 1. This phrase could be found, at one time, on the office wall of Nicholas J. Wheeler, my former colleague in Aberystwyth.