Chapter 1 Theory in Practice case studies

Introducing Global Politics


Text reference: The Emergence of Global Politics as a Field of Study

Although the formal study of International Relations (IR) as an academic discipline began in Wales in 1919, people had been thinking about related matters since ancient times. Indeed, if we date ‘history’ as ‘written history’, people have been concerned with relations between states, or proto-states, for its entirety. We have only patchy evidence for the earliest periods. Who knows what libraries have been collected and then burned or lost over the ages? By time of the ‘classical’ era in Europe, however (around 300-600BCE), there were distinct literatures in China and India, at least, as well as Europe.

As the renowned scholar Ken Booth says,

Some ancients and early moderns wrote about topics such as war as a necessity, war and ethics, war and politics, power and order, war as irrationality, justice among states, the character of peace, the duty of rulers, human nature and conflict, the causes of war, nationalism and conflict, states and their interests, military strategy, rights, just war ideals, military power, the value of territory, intervention and non-intervention, imperialism, the costs of war, the meaning and conditions of peace, the balance of power, diplomacy, cooperation and so on. (Booth 2019)

He goes on to point out that these are the same concerns that contemporary observers, scholars, and commentators address.

The establishment of the Woodrow Wilson Chair in International Relations at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales, in 1919 was and is a formal acknowledgement and delineation of an ancient field of inquiry (Leira and de Carvalho 2018). The mythology surrounding the Department itself implies that it was the beginning of a new field. However, as Booth says, this kind of thinking has been, necessarily, going on since at least the first attempts at writing, perhaps 5000 years ago.

Still, the establishment of a Department at a University, endowed with a Chair, was a step in the professionalization of what had been ‘a largely amateur pursuit’ (Bell 2009). The orthodox story of the development of IR also required some modification. It did not flower from Aberystwyth immediately into a fully-fledged discipline, but gradually developed a canonical literature, including early texts such as those of Aristotle and Thucydides. Later these would be joined by Sun Tzu, Kautilya, and ibn Khaldun. From there, more and more scholars began to contribute more and thinking, as similar Departments sprang up around the world.

Also oversimplified is the general story of the ‘great debates’: the vindication of realism over idealism by WWII; the intellectual contest of the ‘neo-neo’ debate between structural neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists; the explosion of reflectivist theory into the field from the 1990s (Bell 2009). As is often the case, these narratives have been constructed or simplified retrospectively to make complex debates comprehensible. Simplification is a standard, even necessary, move when considering subject matter as complex as global politics. The human mind cannot readily encompass such complexity, so models have to be developed and refined. Furthermore, agreed-upon orthodox histories are a binding force in a range of areas. They shouldn’t be dismissed. The more students of IR read and assimilate, the more sophisticated will their models become, and this is the aim of scholarship. This applies equally to the study of international relations as practice and of International Relations as academic discipline.

Discussion questions

What role do introductory frameworks play in the development of understanding of International Relations?

Are orthodoxies such as the story of the origins of IR and the ‘great debates’ a help or a hindrance is the pursuit of understanding? How?

Do students waste valuable time going over ancient texts when there is more analysis and theory being produced every day?

Bell, D. (2009). “Writing the World: Disciplinary History and Beyond.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 85(1): 3-22.

[In order to grasp some of the key intellectual developments and trends that shaped the global politics of twentieth century and continue to shape our own world—neo-classical economics, modernization theory, deterrence theory, the democratic peace, among others—it is necessary to explore the history of the human sciences. It is important, in other words, to examine the role of the modern research university in producing and diffusing ideas about the self, society, the economy and world order. International Relations (IR), and political science more generally, played a significant role in this story. In recent years we have seen a growth of interest in the history of IR, though it is still an underdeveloped area of research. Among other things, scholars have shown that many of the foundational myths of the discipline—the views that inform textbook understandings of the past and present—are deeply flawed. This article first surveys this recent work, highlighting its strengths and weaknesses, and then proceeds to offer some thoughts on future directions for research. It identifies a range of questions and topics that have yet to be adequately addressed, and draws on the latest methodological work in intellectual history, highlighting some new interpretative approaches that can enrich scholarship in this area.]

Booth, K. (2019). “International Relations: The Story So Far.” International Relations 33(2): 358-390.

Leira, H. and B. de Carvalho (2018). The Function of Myths in International Relations: Discipline and Identity: 222-235.

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