International Relations: Importance of Theoretical Diversity

In IR theory, the diversity of perspectives strengthens rather than challenges its raison d’etre, as varying opinions strengthen both policy making decisions and academic practices. A multitude of theories means IR can be applicable to a wider range of problems. From realism, to feminism to posthumanism, they all cover a separate area of importance to IR. Additionally, the interactions between various theories allows one to view situations with different lenses. Thus, the raison d’etre of IR theory is reinforced.

A diversity of perspectives is good for IR theory because there is no one ‘right way’ in an increasingly complex world. If IR was to eliminate several theories, then the discipline would suffer from oversimplification. Carol Cohn’s argument on ‘technostrategic’ language can be replicated when it comes to IR theories. If we adopt just one theory to view the world, then we “not only severely limit what we can say but we also invite the transformation…of our own thinking” (p.716). As Sabaratnam argues, each theory contains its own limits, and should learn from other theories by filling in the voids of their own perspectives. Therefore, agreement between IR theories is unnecessary. Policy makers should understand the scope of the theory which they employ so that they know what it is useful for and what it omits. This will allow them to make the best decision given various perspectives. As such, the multitude of theories in IR achieves its raison d’etre.

Another reason the proliferation of different perspectives benefits IR is because objects of study in IR vary according to time and context. For example, Waltz (1979) argued that IR should explain the laws of international politics or recurrent patterns of state behaviour. However, in the modern day the state is no longer the sole power in the international arena and as such, theories must evolve or be created to keep up to date with a new reality. Theories can reflect personal, cultural or societal biases that are tied to a particular time and place. These must be critiqued and revised to ensure that those who utilise the ideas of IR are not inherently going to adopt narratives that privilege certain standpoints. Therefore, it has been necessary for the discipline of IR to evolve past just the classical theories and ‘great debates’. This can be achieved through interrogations both within the same theory, or outside of it. For example, within neo-realism is the debate between offensive and defensive realism. On the other hand, constructivists note the importance of ideas and norms in IR. Additionally, modern critical theories such as postpositivist positions further point out the flaws in classical theories, then fill in specific intellectual holes in them. For example, feminists such as Cohn note the role of gender in IR, which operates beyond the traditional ‘state’ level. In attacking phenomenon such as ‘technostrategic’ language which dehumanises nuclear war, she challenges the predominantly masculine and militaristic view of most IR theories. Similarly, post-humanists also attempt to re-wire how scholars view IR by making intelligible an unexplored topic. For example, Audra Mitchell reconceptualises ‘security’ beyond human terms – something that the other statist and critical “radically anthropocentric” theories do not do (p.5). Such new ideas are valuable to IR because it contributes to the advancement of knowledge. Viewing security in terms of ‘worldliness’ can change how security is “conceptualised and carried out” (p.16). Differing perspectives also leads to scholars producing understanding on how theories interact with each other. The diversity of opinion in IR is therefore central to making the discipline as comprehensive as possible. It is this interrelationship between the plethora of different theories which makes IR theory so useful, because it allows academics and policy makers to understand issues from multiple lenses. This gives the user of IR theory the requisite perspectives from which to make the best decision possible. Overall, understanding the interplay between IR theories reaffirms the raison d’etre of IR in the first place. To eliminate the diversity within IR would be detrimental to the purpose of the subject’s existence.

 However, to a small extent the proliferation of IR theories challenges the discipline’s purpose. The fragmentation of ideas makes the subject more complex and harder to organise. This in turn makes it harder for policy makers and academics to use in real life. Waever points out that a criticism of IR is for it to be “less esoteric and more directly useful” (p.315). With the splintering of classical theories as well as emerging critical debates, this has not been the case. Scholars can get caught up in the intricacies of the theory rather than applying its practicality to real life. The level of disagreement can damage the level of synthesis in the field. Likewise, given every theory’s determination to be ‘right’, Burchill & Linklater note that “theorists often appear to ‘talk past’ each other rather than engage in productive dialogue that explores areas of convergence” (p.6). The multiplicity of the theories also creates further jargon to be reckoned with. In this way, with more theories the subject become more esoteric. However, despite the number of theories, there still remains order. The ‘great debates’ structures the discipline, with further perspectives flowing from and interacting with them. Viewing them as all interrelated gives such diverse theories great value, and complements the purpose of IR.

The diversity of perspectives has not challenged the raison d’etre in IR theory. A multitude of perspectives is necessary to avoid the oversimplification of the subject. Each theory has limited scope, and therefore many theories are needed to develop a comprehensive base of understanding. Likewise, reality changes over time, and so should IR theories. Consequently, for IR to be relevant it must be meticulous in interrogating the ideas and assumptions that it is made of. Having a multitude of evolving theories helps achieve this. Although the fragmentation of IR theories makes it more esoteric and complex, this is necessary to thoroughly explain the multifaceted nature of International Relations.