OverviewWhenever we make a statement about international affairs, we rely on certain (often implicit) theoretical assumptions: about power, interests, identities, norms and how they relate to the behaviour of international actors. Whether we like it or not, we are ‘doomed’ to rely on theories. The starting-point of this course is not that theories are the only possible and all-encompassing approach to the study of international affairs, but that they are helpful to understand, compare and critically evaluate interpretations of international issues: if we all use theoretical assumptions, we better make them explicit and understood, to make sure what exactly we are claiming.
International Relations theories are not approached as strict categories with clear boundaries, but rather as a continuously evolving debate. The course does not attempt to give an encyclopedic overview of all theories of International Relations, but rather to confront different views. The main objective is to understand the core differences between different theoretical approaches.
The course starts by discussing the nature of theorizing in international relations, pointing out how ‘theories do not simply explain or predict, they tell us what possibilities exist for human action and intervention, they define not merely our explanatory possibilities, but also our ethical and practical horizons (Smith, 1996: 113). Some of the core dividing lines underlying theoretical debates (explaining/understanding, positivism/post-positivism, rationalism/constructivism, etc.) are also introduced..
After that, different theories are studied in depth.
The course proceeds through successive phases of IR theory. The first phase, that of liberal internationalism (also referred to as ‘inter-war idealism’ emerged in the aftermath of WW1. We will engage with the leading authors of that tradition and find in their works the foundations of our modern world: international law, economic interdependence and international organization. In the third week we turn to the second phase of IR Theory, ‘classical’ Realism, who responded to the failure of inter-war idealism by reasserting the nature of the political in IR as being predicated on clashing interests. The English School, who focus on the idea of International Society, are the focus of the fourth week. In week 5 and 6 we move to the first epistemological break in IR, with both Neorealism and Neoliberalism breaking decisively away from the ‘classical approach’ championed by Hedley Bull. Running in parallel with ‘mainstream’ IR, Marxist theorists were also developing Methods designed to adapt and apply Marxism to global politics, their work is examined in week 7. In week 8 we encounter another epistemological break: this time between positivism and post-positivism, a debate about the nature and limits of theory that continues to shape the discipline. In week 9, Critical Theory’s focus on human emancipation is brought to the fore. In week 10, the leading challenger to Neorealism and Neoliberalism, social constructivism, will be examined. In week 11, the classes will revolve around two major ethical positions in IR, cosmopolitanism and Realism. The course will conclude in week 12 with a revision session.
This module appears in:
11 two-hour lecture/seminars
Method of assessment
100% coursework (two 3,000 word essays).
Booth, K & Smith, S. (eds.) International Relations Theory Today
Burchill, S. et al Theories of International Relations
Brown, C.J. Understanding International Relations
Der Derian, J. (ed.) International Theory: Critical Investigations
Dunne, Kurki and Smith (eds) International Relations Theories
Smith, S. et al International Theory: Post Positivism and Beyond
On successful completion of the module, students will be able to:-
- Have a critical awareness of the discipline's history.
- Awareness of the key debates.
- Ability to critically identify key debates in the discipline.
- Understanding of key concepts in IR.
- Understand connections between IR theory, political theory and philosophy.
- Show awareness of methodological and epistemological implications of theoretical positions.