Mapping IR Theory

22 May 2013, 1009 EDT

Thanks to the patience of the former EJIR editorial team, PTJ and I will have an article in the forthcoming special issue on the “End of IR Theory?” Only the first 35-40% resembles the working paper (PDF) we posted at the Duck. Even the name has changed.

We still argue in favor of thinking about international-relations theory as dealing with “scientific ontologies”: “catalog[s]–or map[s]–of the basic substances and processes that constitute world politics.” As we note in both the final version and the working paper, this includes:

  • The actors that populate world politics, such as states, international organizations, individuals, and multinational corporations;
  • The contexts and environments within which those actors find themselves;
  • Their relative significance to understanding and explaining international outcomes;
  • How they fit together, such as parts of systems, autonomous entities, occupying locations in one or more social fields, nodes in a network, and so forth;
  • What processes constitute the primary locus of scholarly analysis, e.g., decisions, actions, behaviors, relations, and practices; and
  • The inter-relationship among elements of those processes, such as preferences, interests, identities, social ties, and so on.

Contributors are prohibited from posting further revisions online. But I thought I would share what we think the current landscape of international-relations theory looks like. Or, to clarify, what kind of a topography of implicit debates satisfies the following criteria:

  • Reconstruct already existing terms of debate;
  • Deal with more fundamental—and therefore much broader—concerns of scientific ontology than did the ‘isms’; and
  • Involve gradations of disagreement rather that purport to describe self-contained theoretical aggregates.


The three clusters of basic scientific ontologies we flag are choice-theoreticexperience-near, and social-relational. The terms of contestation involve two questions.

First, “the degree that actors may be treated as autonomous from their social, cultural, and material environments—that actors are analytically distinguishable from the practices and relations that constitute them.” Choice-theoretic approaches tend to treat actors as autonomous from their environments at the moment of interaction, not so experience-near and social-relational alternatives.

Second, “the degree of thick contextualism—the commitment to theories that give analytic and explanatory primacy to specific features of the immediate spatial-temporal environment in which actors operate, with concomitant skepticism about generalizing or abstracting from particular contexts.” Experience-near approaches embrace thicker contextualism than either social-relational or choice-theoretic.

I am sure that, in the absence of the paper, this all seems pretty abstract.

In general, we see choice-theoretic approaches as including expected-utility theory, some psychological approaches to decision-making, and much of what passes for “logics of appropriateness” work in the field. Experience-near approaches include aspects of the practice turn and what might be called the “new anthropology” in the field. Social-relational approaches include social-network analysis, some aspects of the practice turn — most notably those that focus on the positional and relational implications of social fields — and some forms of post-structural analysis.

As I’ve already suggested, these clusters of theories bleed into one another. Disagreements often involve matters of degree. Regardless, I offer this preview for readers’ consideration.