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date: 17 April 2021

Six Wishes for A More Relevant Discipline of International Relations

Abstract and Keywords

This article looks at how the discipline of international relations should develop over the next twenty years. It argues that international relations needs to be pluralistic, in the strong sense of valuing different intellectual approaches; not pluralistic in a weaker sense of ‘anything goes’. International relations should move toward being a truly international field, rather than being a field for one, dominant, part of humanity. It should reject simple dichotomies such as domestic/international, economics/politics, and public/private, and not accept that humanity is moving toward common identities and politics. It needs to understand the world of the powerless as well as the powerful, and be self-reflective as to the relationship between our scholarship, our stated ethical standards, and our location as scholars.

Keywords: international relations, pluralism, scholarship, intellectual approaches, common identities

This chapter looks at how the discipline of international relations should develop over the next twenty years. I start by saying something about the main features of the discipline in the last twenty years. I have previously written on this topic and do not wish to repeat that analysis (see Smith 2000; 2002; 2004; 2007). I follow Ole Wæver’s (2007) view of the development of international relations; like him, and following Stanley Hoffmann (1977), I see international relations as an American discipline that dominates by having the largest and best-funded academic community, having the dominant journals, and being able to ignore the work of scholars outside the United States (Wæver 2007, 296). Within international relations, the key journals are almost all US based, and prefer theory testing to the development of new theory (Wæver 2007, (p. 777) 297). This results in a field that prioritizes publishing in the leading journals, for promotion and status reasons, and leads to a focus on testing and modifying dominant theories rather than confronting them in debates. Despite this generalization, most of the theoretical developments in international relations have come from academics based in the United States; partly this reflects the relative size of the US academic community, but the US community is a varied and diverse one that leads to most innovation in the discipline. Nonetheless, the vast majority of work in the United States focuses on developing existing research paradigms, and the major innovations tend not to come from academics based in the main departments of international politics.

Despite the discipline’s fondness for so-called great debates, there have been few; in the main, the differing positions have simply ignored one another. This does not mean that there have not been strong opposing positions within the discipline. Therefore, in this weak sense of the word “debate,” there has indeed been a rivalry between competing theoretical frameworks; what there have not been are debates in the strong sense of the word (whereby contrasting positions indicate their superiority over rival positions through explicit debates).

In the period between the late 1980s and the late 1990s the discipline was marked by two key features: first, a coming-together (not debate) of neorealist and neoliberal approaches into a neo-neo synthesis; second, a more general dispute (again, not a debate) between this rationalist core of the field and a group of approaches (feminist, post-structuralist, critical theory, postcolonial, and green theory), collectively known as reflectivism. But these approaches have not debated with rationalism nor have they together constituted a coherent alternative. The contemporary scene is one in which there is a set of debates within broad theoretical positions, and no great debate defining the field. In this sense, the field has a set of powerful theories that almost never touch or confront one another in the major journals. Either the core conversations in international relations are debates within these theoretical positions (for example between offensive and defensive realism, or between the group of theories that comprise neolib-eralism), or they are developments of specific aspects of the main theoretical positions.

Importantly, the often-cited concern about theories being divorced from empirical material (the claim that international relations theory is not interested in “real-world” problems) seems not to be the case. Whether the approach is a mainstream one or a reflectivist one, the most common article is one that examines a discrete empirical field through the lens of a specific theory; this is as true of post-structural and gender work as it is of neorealism, neoliberalism, or constructivism. The field, therefore, is not preoccupied with metatheoretical debates, but instead attempts to link theory and empirical domains. Just as the extent of debate involved in the previous four “great debates” has been exaggerated, so it is difficult to find any notion of a fifth “great debate” in the current literature.

(p. 778) 1 How should International Relations Develop over the Next Twenty Years?

  1. 1. All approaches should be seen as having normative commitments.

    Since this is an explicit position taken by this volume’s editors, I need say little here. International relations is unavoidably normative for two related reasons: first there can be no simple separation between “fact” and “values;” second, international relations is a practical discipline, concerned with how we should act. From the inception of international relations as a distinct discipline, neither of these reasons has been commonly accepted; indeed, the opposite positions have dominated international relations. These were particularly powerful when positivism was the dominant methodology. But accepting that all theories contain normative commitments does not necessarily create a more level playing field, since some normative commitments can be seen as more “natural” or acceptable than others. This could be because some practical prescriptions will be seen as more “accurately” fitting the commonsense reality of world politics. Or it could be because of the dominance of statements about the need to separate “facts” from “values” in analysis; this, of course, assumes that such a distinction is indeed possible, whereas I believe that, following Foucault, disciplines and theories constitute the criteria through which we access the “facts” of the social world. Just as there can never be a theory-neutral account of “reality,” so there cannot be a theoretical account that does not have normative commitments and assumptions. Particularly good examples of this problem are contained in two recent articles: first, Stefan Elbe’s analysis (2006) of whether HIV/AIDS should be securitized. This is a disease that every day kills three times the death toll from the events of 11 September 2001. Elbe shows that, although there might be advantages of securitizing the discourse—for example, by raising awareness and thereby increasing the resources devoted to dealing with the pandemic—there are also ethical dangers; those living with HIV/AIDS could be seen as the problem, and civil society’s role could be increasingly taken over by the military and intelligence services. Similarly, Piki Ish-Shalom (2006) has shown how international relations theories play a political, normative role by shaping the reality that they study, since theorists have agency and therefore automatically have a moral responsibility. For Ish-Shalom this moral ethic should replace the dominant academic ethic of objectivity. All theories have normative assumptions flowing through them, and these are never more powerful than when they are hidden, denied, or eschewed.

  2. 2. International relations has to become less of an American discipline.

    Any academic discipline will take particular interest in the policy concerns of its major subjects, but in international relations the US policy agenda, and its dominant methodology, has been so influential that other voices have been either ignored or placed in a position whereby they are of interest or relevance only insofar as they relate to the dominant agenda. US academic journals set the agenda for the discipline and the US policy agenda constructs the world that international relations theory (p. 779) “sees.” While this does not mean that the discipline has been uncritical of US foreign policy (indeed many of the key journals are major sites for the criticism of US foreign policy), this has meant that international relations has been unable to deal with the policy issues that preoccupy the vast majority of the world’s people. Dealing with this will require more academics outside the United States building their own academic communities and places of publication; but this will be pointless unless the US academic community is prepared to read material in other languages and publish in journals other than the handful that dominate the promotion process in leading universities. If international relations remains a narrow American social science, then the dangers are that it will be irrelevant to the concerns of large parts of the world’s population, and more problematically it may become increasingly part of the process of US hegemony.

  3. 3. International relations has to reject its current, and historic, privileging of a specific, and culturally entailed, social scientific approach.

    International relations has been overwhelmingly focused on one version of social science for the last fifty years. Positivism has legitimized international relations, and has served as the benchmark for what counts as acceptable work. This can be contrasted with the much more eclectic intellectual environment in most other academic communities around the world; but, because international relations is an American discipline, this has meant that only a very specific set of answers to questions of method and knowledge generation have been seen as scientifically legitimate. On the other hand, there has been precious little in the way of accepting the deficiencies and limitations of positivism. Recent papers by Friedrich Kratochwil (2006), Milja Kurki (2006), and Colin Wight (2007) have each shown just how limited and historically specific are the core assumptions underlying positivism. Yet the bulk of the papers in the key US academic journals continue to work within this paradigm without an awareness either of the existence of alternative social scientific approaches, or of the major limitations of positivism. It is as if the entire post-positivist movement never happened. Unless the discipline accepts that there is a wide set of legitimate approaches to studying world politics, then it will become more and more restricted in its ability to relate to other disciplines and it will become a besieged academic fortress validated and legitimized only internally.

  4. 4. International relations academics need to reflect on their relation to power and on their social location.

    I raised this issue in my 2003 Presidential Address to the International Studies Association (Smith 2004). More recently the issue has been discussed in a special section in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 35 (2006). In their introduction, Karena Shaw and R. B. J. Walker (2006) ask fundamental questions about the relationship between the academic’s research and teaching roles and their political responsibility. Merely teaching the received wisdom of the history of the discipline of international relations is certainly not a neutral act, since it predisposes students to accept the categories of debate as natural or given. Therefore, what we research and teach are (p. 780) choices we make as academics; these choices can be explained as simply studying the “main features” of world politics, but this merely covers up what are at base political and ethical choices. When we research or teach, we either explicitly or implicitly give that topic a status and we also locate it within a view of the world that reflects our cultural/social/economic and political location. Unless we question the assumptions we make when we teach and research, then we will simply be reinforcing the existing distribution of power, and reinforcing the agenda of the powerful.

  5. 5. International relations needs to focus on the relationship between the material and the ideational.

    Because the linkages between ideational and material structures are so complex, international relations needs to develop theories that focus on accounts of the linkages. Whereas rationalism assumes that interests construct identity, reflectivists assume the opposite (yet the idea of them existing as separate realms is problematic). One route would be for the return of more materialist accounts to international relations, albeit with more developed accounts of the relationship between the material and the ideational than such accounts have tended to have (since they assumed that the ideational was a function of the material). As Chris Brown (2007) argues, Marxism has been much missed in international relations over the last twenty years; it was a theoretical position that had a clear, if contested, view of how material and ideational worlds interrelated. Critical realism is one such account, although that has tended to be discussed in international relations in relation to questions of epistemology.

  6. 6. International relations should not take the core concerns of the most powerful as the dominant issues for the discipline.

    International relations has historically ignored large sections of humanity. This is most obvious when it focuses on US policy interests, but it also follows from the definition of international relations that the discipline works within. International relations has privileged deaths by politics over deaths by economics (ten times as many children die each day from poverty and easily preventable diseases as died in total in the 11 September attacks). Similarly, women have largely been ignored, and, as Alison Watson (2006) has recently noted, so have children. This is a direct result of the core assumptions of the discipline, which determine what we see and what we think international relations has to explain. In a recent article, Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey (2006) claim that security studies is Eurocentric, and is thus unable to develop adequate understandings of the security concerns of the postcolonial world. It contains, they argue, a “taken-for-granted” politics that effectively sides with the strong over the weak. Thus a security studies that was really relevant to postcolonial states would account for how the strong exploit the weak, and would focus on the politics of resistance. Unless international relations is able to deal with agendas outside those of the dominant powers, then it will be completely unable to account for the motivations of all those who fundamentally reject the Western models of development, human rights, and civil society.

(p. 781) Let me summarize my arguments by directly considering the four questions that the editors asked those writing these concluding sections to consider.

2 Where should the Field be Going?

The field should be going in no particular direction, since that would assume that there is one thing called international relations. Rather, international relations needs to be pluralistic, in the strong sense of valuing different intellectual approaches; not pluralistic in a weaker sense of “anything goes.” International relations should move toward being a truly international field, rather than being a field for one, dominant, part of humanity. It should reject simple dichotomies such as domestic/international, economics/politics, and public/private, and not accept that humanity is moving toward common identities and politics.

  1. 1. What should international relations be about?

    International relations should be about the patterns of international and domestic power, and not assume that those patterns most relevant to dominant powers are those that matter to the rest of the world. International relations should aid the understanding of politics from any social location, and any identity, and not be a discipline written from an Archimedean point of neutrality. It has to be a discipline located in the real lives of real people.

  2. 2. What are the big questions that should animate our scholarship?

    These relate to: identity and how it relates to material interests; how identities are constructed; how they relate to patterns of political, economic, and social power, both between and within societies. How do we categorize our thinking? How do we construct the inside and the outside, or the public and the private realms, and therefore how do we develop the categories within which we “do” international relations?

  3. 3. What are the implications of these questions for how we do research?

    International relations should focus on understanding rather than on assuming a common human identity that can be explained by interest-based models of choice. It needs to understand the world of the powerless as well as the powerful, and be self-reflective as to the relationship between our scholarship, our stated ethical standards, and our location as scholars. Put simply, could our scholarship be part of a pattern of dominance of one set of interests over another, all carried out in the name of academia and scholarship?

    Taken together, these comments lead to a simple conclusion: International relations runs the danger of becoming a discourse applicable only to one part of the world, organized by powerful theories, legitimized by a specific and flawed epistemology, (p. 782) and “disciplined” by the structures of the discipline itself. In place of this, international relations needs to become more applicable to politics outside the world of the dominant power, more interested in the security concerns of the powerless, and better able to account for why we focus on some politics rather than others. When we study international relations, we make choices: Throughout most of its history, international relations has chosen to study the politics of the great powers. Yet these are not the “natural” or “given” focal points; they are choices. In the next twenty years the discipline should opt for choices that will make it a truly international relations.


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——2002. The United States and the discipline of international relations: “hegemonic country, hegemonic discipline.” International Studies Review, 4: 67–86.Find this resource:

——2004. Singing our world into existence: international relations theory and September 11. International Studies Quarterly, 48: 499–515.Find this resource:

——2007. Introduction: diversity and disciplinarity in international relations theory. Pp. 1–12 in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, ed. T. Dunne, M. Kurki, and S. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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Wight, C. 2007. A manifesto for scientific realism in IR: assuming the can-opener won’t work! Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 35: 379–98.Find this resource:


(*) I would like to thank Jodie Anstee for her research assistance on this chapter.