The Great Debates

In the pursuit of knowledge, all fields of study are susceptible to change, divisions of understanding and explanation, and always remain exposed to the possibility of sweeping transformations. International Relations is not immune to this. The discipline, since its inception, has ebbed and flowed through history with what can only be described as ‘developments’ in its contested and broad purpose. These ‘developments’ can also be labeled as the Great Debates, the variety of theoretical approaches that have shaped the discipline. The Great Debates illustrate the ability of scholars to remain ambiguous in their pursuit of knowledge with the abstract concepts that they introduce into the field, furthering the inconclusive nature in the study of International Relations.

According to Kurki and Wight, “debate” may be an embellished term, given that some theories were direct responses to certain ways of thinking, whereas other scholars possessed the ability to debate points of contention concerning their analysis and approach(Kurki and Wight 2006, 16). This is expanded by Dunne, Hansen and Wight, who clarify that it is only reasonable to acknowledge that based on the magnitude of the variety of elaborate subjects studied, there will be numerous positions(Dunne, Hansen and Wight 2013, 406).

Moreover, some of the foundational disagreements stem from the definition of a theory and subsequently its roles(Ibid). The debates are contested to be separated into 4 fragments, beginning with World War 2 and continuing to the 1980’s. To summarise briefly, the metaphysical nature of the history of the debates is as follows; the first being between idealists and realists in the 1940’s (Kurki and Wight 2006, 17).

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The second between traditionalists and behaviourists in the 1960’s(Ibid). The third and fourth sectors of IR theory focused on the interparadigm debate and the neo-neo debates(Weiss and Wilkinson 2014, 25). The statement made by R.B.J. Walker can be considered a valid interpretation and description of International Relations theories. Reason being, it is recognised to be a heterogenous study that attempts to encapsulate many perspectives to indeed reflect the world.

Despite the fact that scholars disagree on the definition of theories, and its pluralistic essence, there is at least the basic notion that theories are conceptual approaches to complex realities that embark on providing generalisations for topics under study(Dunne, Hansen and Wight 2013, 407). There have not been many attempts of methodological studies to examine the procedure for theorising, its definition or its role. However there are patterns in international events and IR theory that aim to reveal those patterns. “Explanatory theory” attempts to explain events by providing an account of cases in a temporal sequence. It is typically utilised in response to why questions(Ibid, 409). However, according to Robert Cox, this type of theory is limited in scope, whereby it only concerned analysing the world at face value and suggesting solutions with narrow parameters(Kurki and Wight 2006, 29).

Cox, identifies another theory, “critical theory”, one in which the use of critical must be used carefully in political context(Ibid, 28). It stems from the self-proclaimed objection of criticising social arrangements and outcomes, meaning the foundation of the theory examines the repressive state of affairs and institutions in the global political system. Explanatory and Critical Theory, both analyse events that have occurred or currently occurring, once a theorist moves into proposing societal constructs that do not exist, to form a greater world, it can be understood as normative theory(Ibid). “Normative theory” can be categorised in two ways, strong and weak. The weak version involves specific cases that discuss what the situation is and what the situation “should be”(Ibid). The stronger version, is parallel to a “utopian” vision, one which models how societies should function(Ibid). It opens itself within IR theoretical approaches to include questions of morality(Ibid, 37).

As mentioned above, International Relations, like any other field of study will always be subject to change, criticisms and analysis. The study has brought about a significant number of theories in which to analyse the world, the actions and consequences of agents, the predictability of events, the role and function of power amongst and between states. It is a broad enough study that attempts to tackle answering these questions, whilst being adequately specific to be recognised as theories of international relations. In light of this, I agree with Kal Holsti who has vocally stressed his concern about the expansion in theories. He stated that this focus on epistemology and metaphysics can lead theorists to lose sight on the subject matter(Smith 2013, 7).

I believe international relations theory does itself an injustice by placing so much emphasis on meta theoretical approaches, it places itself in a dizzying cycle of trying to analyse events and then being warped into an overtly philosophical debate. Although philosophy and theoretical studies are foundational necessities, IR theorists should not fail to forget, they are analysing matters affecting real people. On the other hand, I do recognise Smith’s rebuttal, by highlighting the engagement with other fields of study as well as removing dominance from specific theories. Overall the theoretical perspectives has its advantages and disadvantages for the study and its purpose may never be static, in order to always be open for transformation.

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The Great Debates. (2019, Nov 30). Retrieved from

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