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?