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date: 26 May 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Role theory scholarship in politics and international relations (IR) seeks to understand decision-making from the perspective of the decision maker. That said, role theory scholarship has evolved over time. It has moved from an initial emphasis on the structural and institutional constraints that affect human behavior to a greater emphasis on the agency of human beings. In the past decade, role theory has re-emerged as an approach to the study of politics and IR. This new generation of scholarship places its emphasis on decision makers (or agents) while acknowledging that they are embedded in institutions (or structures). As such, role theory accepts the foundational characteristics of behavioral IR—which demands attention for the cognitive limitations of human decision makers, as well as their limited capacity to process information, and the various biases and heuristics that affect their reasoning. Role theory posits that theoretical models must simultaneously take into account the state’s material capabilities and the perceptions of decision makers, who bring their own biases and ideas (or maybe ideals) to the task of shaping foreign policy. Role theory enables scholars to model ideational factors alongside material ones and, in doing so, to improve understanding of the foreign policy decision-making of a wide range of states, including small(er) states, new states, and emerging powers.

Keywords: role theory, structural role theory, symbolic interactionism, role contestation, foreign policy analysis, small states, norm entrepreneur, state socialization, emerging powers, foreign policy change

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