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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

1 - International relations theory in an era of critical diversity

from Part I - Theories of international relations



This chapter introduces students to the range of theoretical perspectives and issues that have animated the study of international relations through the years. First, it explains why theoretical reflection is indispensable to explaining and understanding international relations. Second, it addresses unavoidable ontological and epistemological issues in the quest for theoretical understanding. Third, it traces the growth of mainstream international relations theory. Finally, it analyses the rise of diverse critical approaches to the study of international relations.

The necessity of theory

Attitudes toward ‘theory’ vary among students of International Relations (IR). Some are wary of it, some are frightened of it and some are hostile to it. Theory, it is often proclaimed, is too difficult, too abstract or irrelevant to the real world. Thankfully, these attitudes are changing as IR students in the twenty-first century embrace the theoretical challenges of IR and become aware of sophisticated debates concerning the role of theory in understanding and explaining the real world of which they speak of and in which they live. These debates illustrate that theorising is not something one can choose to avoid; rather, in the process of giving meaning to the things, people, events and controversies in the world, we are engaged in a theoretical process – explicitly or otherwise.

In particular, we cannot simply observe the everyday world of international relations without giving theoretical meaning to what we are seeing. And in this process of observation, we might well bestow different meanings on the same event, as we theorise these ‘real-world’ things in different ways. For example, when we see governments in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia ramping up their political and strategic responses to Russian ‘expansionist’ inclinations in Eastern Europe and/or similarly perceived Chinese activities in the South China Sea, how are we to make meaningful judgements of these actions? Is this a prudent and justifiable strategy in the face of an otherwise growing threat to Western global interests, or a series of shallow and short-sighted responses to historical and geostrategic complexities likely to enhance anti-Western sentiments and accelerate the very attitudes and behaviours they seek to deter?

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Burchill, Scott, Linklater, Andrew, Devetak, Richard, Donnelly, Jack, Paterson, Matthew, Reus-Smit, Christian and True, Jacqui 2013, Theories of international relations, ed., London: Palgrave. An advanced introduction to IR theory.
Dunne, Tim, Kurki, Milja and Smith, Steve (eds) 2007, International relations theories: Discipline and diversity, Oxford: Oxford University Press. An excellent introduction to IR theories.
George, Jim 1994, Discourses of global politics: A critical (re)introduction to international relations, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner. A comprehensive account of both mainstream and critical theories of IR.
Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus 2010, The conduct of inquiry in international relations: Philosophy of science and its implications for the study of world politics, London: Routledge. A lively, wide-ranging constructivist account of competing IR methods.
Waltz, Kenneth 1979, ‘Laws and theories’, in Theory of international politics, New York: Random House. An unsurpassed account of neorealism's positivist approach