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Introduction to critical approaches to international relations

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We will deconstruct what we have learned, what is criticism a field and discipline?

Why a course on critical approaches?[edit | edit source]

International relations" is not an obvious, indisputable or even obvious object of study. Talking about international relations is like talking about different realities that seem incompatible.

International relations as fields, disciples and objects is the result of conventions, forms of definitions. There are different perspectives on what "international relations" or "international" are, delineating a different subject of study.

These different perspectives are therefore part of a "constant interplay between the real world and the world of knowledge"[Brown 2005: 1]. For Brown, the real world around us is not just something that exists independent of us and that we have a footprint on. The approaches we have allow us to have different perspectives. Analytical glasses help to ask different questions.

International relations are first of all a macro process as with States, then we begin to focus on increasingly micro processes. We look at the same complex reality from different angles.

When Brown talks about a "constant game between the real world and the world of knowledge", if we want to understand why researchers want to understand the world in a certain way, it's not a question of purpose, there are interactions that come into play. This "game" is also an issue between the different actors of "international relations" as a field or discipline.

The dominant vision of this game is naturalizing and essentializing. In other words, the world around us has its own independence to which we can only have access externally. Typically, realists only look at the objectivity of the world, they see things as they are. Studies show that in foreign policy processes, if people share the same vision, they will be caught in this pattern. Thus there is an interaction between objective truth and perceptions that are part of a game.

International relations as a field[edit | edit source]

International relations are a "moving target". What we mean by international relations depends on the issues, people, institutions and questions that arise within a field. The challenge of the field is the phenomenon known as international facts.

International relations does not define the scope of international relations, it is rather researchers and practitioners who provide such a definition"[Brown 2005: 3]. Taking Brown's definition, there is a material world, but there is a space where people seek to give meaning to events.

Pierre Bourdieu

This is a contested field of study because its object is the result of a conventional definition, there is no external referent defining in an "objective" way what "international relations" are.

« The strategies of agents and institutions that are engaged in[academic] struggles, i.e. their positions..., depend on the position they occupy in the structure of the field, i.e. in the distribution of specific symbolic capital, institutionalized or not (internal or external recognition), and which, through the mediation of the constituent provisions of their habitus, inclines them either to preserve or transform the structure of this distribution, thus perpetuating the rules of the game in force or subvert them »

— Bourdieu 1994: 71[9].

The way we perceive and think it is most relevant to talk about international relations and how individuals are positioned. We are in a "moving target" where it is not clear who is doing international relations and who is not.

There is also the idea of symbolic capital or people with more credibility to deal with international phenomena. Recognition is not only obtained for the intrinsic quality of the work itself, but also for who talks about it, how and where. These are internal power relations within a discipline.

Mearsheimer wrote in 1991 Back to the future explaining that now that the USSR is over, we are again entering a multipolar world and in Europe the Germans will take power and dominate militarily with a return of German imperialism. However, he was mistaken and his legitimacy was not questioned. Its legitimacy comes from several factors such as its notoriety, its language, the institutions in which it is part, but also from personal enmities, budget logic, etc. We are facing power effects.

The very term "international relations" is contested, but it is a definitional issue:

  • international relations ;
  • interstate relations ;
  • international studies ;
  • international politics ;
  • world politics ;
  • global politics.

International relations as a discipline[edit | edit source]

A discipline is an agreement on a theoretical core of basic proposals on a subject of study, the field delimited by this core. The question of whether international relations is a discipline was asked by Kaplan in 1961: "It is more of an intellectual question or project than an affirmation".

The question arises as to whether it is a discipline, whether international relations as a discipline makes it possible to understand specific phenomena. That is to say, it is the fact of having its own department, budgets, etc. For others it is a sub-discipline of political science, because we do not do analyses of social systems, etc., it is only one object of comparative politics. Until 2005, at the University of Geneva, international relations was not considered as a discipline in its own right.

Buazan and Little in 2001 raise the question of whether international relations is a metadiscipline. For them, the only way international relations could simplify the situation is to develop globalizing approaches in which other disciplines can draw.

If we talk about a discipline, it is because we have a vision of what it is. When we talk about a discipline, there is always a presupposition of what we expect behind it, there is no axiological neutrality. There is no agreement among researchers on the nature and purpose(s) of an international theory(s) or on the place of such theory(s) in this field of study.

Therefore, it is possible to make two observations:

  1. It is a divided and divisive discipline[Holsti 1985]
  2. Is it an international discipline? Hoffmann 1995 (1977), Wæver 1998] : American Discipline? [Tickner and Wæver 2009]

To understand how international relations are taught, for example in Korea or Japan, you have to look at who the professors who are graduates in the United States are. For a field and ways of studying the world, we have particularistic visions that lead us to try to understand the world. From this perspective, we must understand what we are missing and what we gain.

Why study critical international approaches?[edit | edit source]

There are links between field and discipline. It is the approaches that largely define our vision of these two dimensions. The way we understand things is linked to processes that lead to understanding the world in a certain way that constitutes a certain social and political reality.

These approaches lead us to select the facts in their multitude and provide them with meaning:

  • the facts do not speak for themselves;
  • establish criteria for "meaning" and "relevance";
  • "a series of facts, even if accepted as true and significant, still carry a variety of different interpretations"[Burchill and Linklater 2005: 16].

What is critical theory?

  • "recognize that the current state of the world does not exhaust all possibilities" for social action. Another world is possible, which is why there are people who revolt, new approaches. The world as it is is often not an objective link, but because it is presented in a specific way.
  • provide a "reading of the historical and cultural conditions (both social and personal) on which the intellectual activity of a[researcher] depends".
  • "a continuous review of the constituent categories and conceptual frameworks by which a[researcher] understands, including a historical construction of these frameworks". What is sovereignty? A failed state? What is the historicity of sovereignty or the state? Critical thinking is about questioning what we are talking about. It is necessary to question the theoretical agendas that are not explained.
  • a "confrontation" with hidden and unsupported theoretical assumptions that determine how the world is understood[Calhoun 1995: 35]

Annexes[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Bourdieu, Pierre (1994) Raisons pratiques. Sur la théorie de l'action. Paris: Seuil.
  • Brown, Chris with Kirsten Ainley (2005). Understanding International Relations. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd ed. revised and updated.
  • Burchill, Scott and Linklater, Andrew (2005). Introduction, in Scott Burchill et al. (eds.) Theories of International Relations. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1–28.
  • Buzan, Barry and Little, Richard (2001). Why international relations has failed as an intellectual project and what to doabout it. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30(1), 19–39.
  • Calhoun, Craig (1995). Critical Social Theory. London: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Hoffmann, Stanley (1995[1977]) An American social science: International Relations, in James Der Derian (ed.) International Theory. Critical Investigations. New York: New York University Press, 212–241.
  • Holsti K. J. (1985). The Dividing Discipline. Hegemony and Diversity in International Theory. Unwin Hyman.
  • Kaplan, M. A. (1961). Is International Relations a Discipline? The Journal of Politics, 23(3), 462–476.
  • Tickner, Arlene B. and Ole Wæver (eds.) (2009) International Relations Scholarship Around the World. London:Routledge.
  • Wæver, Ole (1998). The sociology of a not so international discipline: American and European developments ininternational relations. International Organization, 52(4), 687–727.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

Lectures[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]