Four Ways to Improve IR Theory

There is some dissatisfaction with the current state of International Relations Theory (here, here, and here). Certainly, the current roster of -isms, paradigms, or perspectives that make up IR Theory is looking a bit old and tired. Little new intellectual blood has been admitted of late.

So, here are four suggestions for improving IR Theory

  • Multiple scales of theory are needed.

All disciplines need a spectrum from micro- through meso- to macro-theory, or from specific theories, to mid-range theories to general (or grand) theories. That is because there is a spectrum of questions or problems from the specific to the mid-range to the general. I like macro- or general theory, but I recognize that many grand theories have been useless, vacuous, and sometimes pernicious. It would be unwise to jettison any one of these levels or scales of analysis.

  • Both explanatory and normative theory is needed.

The reason is simple: people ask both explanatory and evaluative questions. IR Theory should try to address both kinds of question. Theory is nothing other than answering questions, and so there is no good reason to downplay certain kinds of question.

  • More political balance, please.

Many of today’s typical IR Theory textbooks devotes space to numerous Left perspectives (feminism, ecology, social constructivism, marxism, critical theory, postmodernism, postcolonialism, anarchism). But Right perspectives are notably absent. I don’t know if that reflects the courses. If it does, to balance all these Left-isms, there should be more Right-isms.

  • New theoretical blood is needed.

The current -isms are a bit stale. The main thing that is currently lacking is a Darwinian or BioIR or EvoIR. There is no genopolitics in geopolitics. Many disciplines have an evolutionary component – literary Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, genopolitics, biological anthropology, and so on. But IR does not. There are of course a few evolutionary works in IR, but that is not the same as a recognized perspective.

Craig Parsons* has a useful way of classifying four kinds of explanatory argument in political science: structural (how structures of power and wealth influence us), institutional (how conventions influence us), ideational (how beliefs influence us), and genetic or psychological (how innate dispositions influence us). The first three are common in IR Theorizing. But the fourth is vanishingly rare.

*Craig Parsons, How To Map Arguments in Political Science (Oxford UP, 2007).

Related thoughts here.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Four Ways to Improve IR Theory

  1. I think Darwinian/evpsych approaches would be resisted in IR because of the prevailing opposition to ‘reductionist’ theories in the discipline. This is one of the few things most of the main theoretical perspectives are agreed upon. Neo-realism, often regarded as deeply conservative in its assumptions, is as opposed to reductionist explanations as the radical perspectives you list (rational choice perspectives, meanwhile, assert their own account of human nature without bothering to provide any empirical evidence or argument).

    Personally, I’d be interested in reading something that combined evpsych/sociobiology with a sophisticated engagement with historical sociology – I don’t know if such a thing exists. There’s good environmental history and demographic history that does this though.

    • “Personally, I’d be interested in reading something that combined evpsych/sociobiology with a sophisticated engagement with historical sociology”
      +1
      “I don’t know if such a thing exists”
      One example might be Azar Gat’s War and Human Civilization

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