Theorizing about theory


in Oxford, Politics, Rants

One of the curious things about studying international relations theory is the sense in which it feels like an intellectual black hole. When we studied history, I read about the Middle East in the interwar period. Now, I know more about it. I can tell you something about the establishment of the House of Saud or the determination of the borders of the League mandates. I don’t feel as though I have been engaged in a comparable process, as regards international relations theory. I’ve read a lot about the various theories, and discussed them in seminar, but I don’t feel more intellectually aware about the subject matter.

Studying theory is a matter of self-definition. It’s about finding a framework that lets you do what you want to do, protected by walls of academic and intellectual respectability. It’s also about finding ways to strike back against those whose agendas contradict your own. Little wonder, then, that it tends to become petty, vindictive, and driven by ego. Perhaps, in some profound and inaccessible sense, it deepens your understanding of international relations issues. If so, it doesn’t feel that way while it’s happening.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

B March 6, 2006 at 7:25 pm

Of course, that’s exactly how you would expect someone whose ambitions – in terms of large scale environmental reform – are broadly at odds with present structures of international organization. They are therefore also at odds with the mainstream theories that legitimate those structures.

The perspective of theory as a system of defences is probably an acceptable minimum standard. It’s knowing enough Shakespeare to get by as a member of literate society, but never taking delight in the language for its own sake. Of course, from that kind of perspective, interfacing with theory is always a matter of worrying about possible avenues of attack and constructing tiresome defences against them. It never catapults you into new and thrilling realms of thought.

Milan March 6, 2006 at 7:38 pm

There is some truth to that. There are areas of environmental protection that really don’t clash with the present order, but simply require changes within it.

Other, more profound problems could require wholesale reordering of economic and political relations. Whether that is true or not depends both on the character of the environmental problems in question – such as climate change – and the flexibility of the present international order.

Anonymous March 6, 2006 at 8:36 pm


Of course, that’s just a partial response. What about the accusation that by taking such a minimal view of the usefulness of theory, you are missing out on most of its importance?

alena March 6, 2006 at 10:42 pm

Political and economic theories, and international relations seem plausible and even exciting, until you actually test them in a real situation. One of the most important things that I learned from working at the World Bank, is that the real world rarely works the way and the problems that arise in response to even good ideas are often insurmountable. The best way to to overcome too much theory is to get experience with an organization.

Milan March 6, 2006 at 10:54 pm

One of Gramsci’s most interesting ideas is about the nature of concepts. Specifically, how the are just loose, vague things until they gain definition and precision through their application to a particular situation. It fits with his historical conception of theory and it makes me hopeful that some of the vagueness that I bemoan above will eventually evaporate.

Anonymous March 10, 2006 at 5:23 pm

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