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Approaches to the Study of International Relations (Pol. Sci. 180 Lecture Notes)

Posted by Brian C. Ventura on August 18, 2009

There are thirteen approaches to the study of international relations. These different approaches are shaped by the  academic traditions and cultures of countries where they are practiced and of scholars considered as main proponents or founders of the various approaches. 

These different traditions would provide different perspectives on events of

concern to international relations. For example these perspectives may offer

different and inevitably opposing perspectives on the origin and impact of

the war in Iraq to the international system or of the rise of China as an economic

and political power in the regional and global power landscape.

1. Systems approach

n     A very widespread American approach which posits the idea of an international system

n     Examines the principles of state interaction based on systemic behaviour, deduction from principles

n     How the international system of separately interacting states impacts upon each state, the whole shapes the unit

n     Morton Kaplan, System and Process in International Relations, [1957]

n     Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, [1979]

2-Scientific School

n    Almost exclusively an American approach

n    The scientific approach attempts to identify laws of behaviour in international politics

n    Reliance on mathematics and statistics, quantifies various aspects of international relations, (Ex. International transaction approach)

n    Ex. gathering a large amount of computer readable data on war, ethnic conflict and border dispute and extrapolate the factors precipitating the ending or hostility or termination of use of military option for resolution (Correlates of War Data Hosting Project, data on bilateral trade, diplomatic representations, territorial contiguity, militarized disputes)

n    Behaviourism [B. F. Skinner 1957] the measurement of observable behaviour

n    Ole Holsti, Morton Kaplan System and Process in International Politics [1957]; David Singer

n    Karl Deutsch and the cybernetics of Norbet Wiener.

n    John Vasquez and the search for a scientific theory of international relations

n    Seeks quantitative testing of all propositions

Rational choice theory- assumption that all decisions in politics and economics can be broken down into rational steps

n     Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, the expected utility model, a computerized model that can predict events

n     Seen as 90% accurate, predicted N and S Koreas entry to UN, Arafat’s concessions to Israel in 1996.

3-Policy studies

n     Strong in American International Relations graduate programs

n     Focus upon policy relevant courses

n     Debates about US policy, how to deal with Iraq?

n     Students learn to make recommendations for policy

n     Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies [SAIS] in Washington DC

4-Strategic studies

n     Strong in US, virtually unknown in Europe and Japan, [Alastair Buchan, Bernard Brodie]

n     Study of the use of military power and impact upon international politics, war, conditions for waging war

n     Nuclear weapons Ballistic missiles etc

n     The balance of power, the impact of events upon regional balances

n     Great power interests [US, China, Russia]

5-Political economy-business

n     Strong in US, international political economy only developed since 1970s

n     International business developed in US business schools

n     Examine markets, and their relationship with states

n     Globalised economic and financial forces

n     International relations departments where stress is on international business, trade and investment

6-Pure theory

n    Strong in US and Europe, everywhere where there is a philosophical tradition

n    Purely theoretical and conceptual examination of meaning and truth

n    Critical theory

n    constructivism

n    Various philosophical schools

7-The English School

Developed by Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society [1977]

Barry Buzan of the London School of Economics

n     Stress on norms and practices of state interaction

n     Study of history would uncover the norms and practices of interstate behaviour


n      A traditional British approach

n      Historiography and Leopold von Ranke [1795-1886]

n     Reliance upon primary sources

n     Strict observance of the facts, “scientific” school

n      The British tradition of moral interpretation, E.H. Carr, A.J. P. Taylor

n      A description of past events, why did WW 2 break out?

n      History is important for the study of international politics, but the past is no guide to the future

n      Historical approach leads to inaction and fatalism

8-International studies

n     Not a coherent approach

n     Interdisciplinary country studies, with history, language, sociology and economics all mixed.

n     Strong country emphasis, no global themes

n     Weakness in understanding global economic and political trends, [the internet]

n     Traditional in France, Germany and also Japan, where rigid divisions are created between country studies

9-International law

n     British, French and Spanish traditions

n     International politics as branch of international law, studied in the law faculty

n     Focus upon UN, law and conventions.

n     Formal approach to events, the “illegality” of the war in Iraq,

n     Excludes study of war and global economic developments

10-Marxist approach

n     Now dissolved, was very strong, with world wide influence[George Lukacs, Herbert Marcuse, and the Frankfurt school]

n     Theory as basis for social action

n     Theory of international capitalism

n     Free market economics as the instrument of capital accumulation

n     Influences the NGOs and their activities

11-Civil society approach

n     The “Italian” school, based on the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci [1891-1937]

n     Civil society is independent of the state and government

n     How the growth of civil society will change the world

n     The importance of NGO activity, opposition to globalisation and G-8 meetings

12-Culture and sociology

n     The “French” school, the Annales movement in French social sciences, founded 1900

n    against Anglo Saxon ideational hegemony,

n    against compartmentalised disciplines, especially economics

n     Raymond Aron [1905-1983] journalist and thinker

n     Eclectic and philosophical

n     Study of cultural and social structures and how they influence international politics

n     Opium of the Intellectuals [1955], the “tyranny of secular religion” of leftist intellectuals

n     Peace and War, a Study of International Relations, [1966]

n    Transnational relations, social, political scientific bodies which operate across state borders

n    The result would be a transnational society with common beliefs

13-Peace studies

n     Conflict prevention, preventive diplomacy

n     Conflict resolution studies, peace research, peacekeeping

n     Arms control, disarmament

n     Regionalism and regional institutions

n     International law, human rights

n     Sustainable development

n     Environmentalism

n     UN related programs

n    Negative and traditional definition the absence of war

n    Peace studies approach, positive definition,

n    Removal of the sources of conflict

n    Elimination of social injustice

n    Construction of system of social justice

n     Criticism; the absence of war may be temporary, may obscure all kinds of social injustices which may trigger conflict

n     Peace studies program operates at two levels

n    The immediate termination of conflict, establishing the conditions for removal of conflict

n    The long term reconstruction of society and politics, aim here is developmental, human security and sustainable development

n      Johan Galtung, Concept of structural violence, which is inherent in a social system,

n     Peace by Peaceful Means, Sage, 1996

n     Peace studies is the study of the condition of peace work, which is work to reduce violence by peaceful means

n    Conflict research is limited, peace research has wider aims and intend to change society

n      Stress on values, peace education will remove structural violence and promote non violence, social justice, Human rights, the UN, and women’s rights

n      Assumption that visions and ideals will change society and reality, hence the importance of cultivating ideals


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