Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 09:32 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 09:32 | SYDNEY

Is international relations a discipline?

16 September 2010 08:56

Matt Hill is an intern in the Lowy Institute's Global Issues program. A New Zealand Freyberg Scholar, he recently completed a Master's in Strategic Studies at the ANU.

Richard Green raises a fascinating question — how do foreign policy analysts (or, in their academic drag, international relations scholars) view their discipline'

As Richard notes, there are two clear means of differentiating and classifying the discipline. There are the functional divisions between area specialists, conventional security analysts, nuclear strategists, aid experts, and so on. Specialisation and territoriality ensure that these divisions are highly visible. Then there are crosscutting theoretical divisions. Pretty much every analysis today falls within the ambit of some form or realism, liberal-internationalism, or constructivism.

But are there fundamental assumptions that bind the discipline together' Perhaps not. Firstly, there are important ontological debates over what sorts of 'things' are the most relevant variables within the analysis of global affairs, and how they interact.

There is still a rough consensus that states are the most important global actors, but the past three decades have seen a lot more attention given to non-state, sub-state, and supra-state organisations.The causal connections between this increasingly complex mix of agents and variables are hotly debated and disputed.

Secondly, and less obviously, there are epistemic disagreements pervading the discipline. What is knowable about international relations, and how do we know it'

Structural realists argue for economic and geographic factors that deterministically shape the actions of states. Constructivists explicitly, and area studies experts implicitly, emphasise the local, particular nature of the choices made by countries, rooted in the specifics of language and culture. While the realist formulation aspires to positive laws of international interaction, constructivism suggests at best some foggy 'rules of thumb'.

So, the answer' International relations and the study of foreign policy lacks a firm consensus on its foundations. Indeed, it could reasonably serve as a poster child for Sam's category of 'abstract knowledge'.

Interestingly, these theoretical tensions within the discipline can be partially understood as the 'collateral damage' of attempts to establish economics as 'hard' social science. Following World War II, the existing historically-driven understanding of politics was challenged by concerns for objective explanatory and predictive rigour, particularly in the US.

Not only were the perceived successes of economics the inspiration for this intellectual shift, they were also a source of analytical imports. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the increased use of game theory in the analysis of nuclear deterrence. However, the influence of positivism never completely extinguished the existing historicist tendencies within the discipline — it failed to completely force a Kuhnian reconfiguration of our understanding of international relations. Instead, the study of global politics remains torn.

Photo by Flickr user j-No, used under a Creative Commons license.