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On the History
and Historiography of
International Relations
Brian C. Schmidt

The historiography of international relations range of topics being investigated, an ele-

(IR), that is, both the scholarship on the his- ment of suspicion was cast on the task of
tory of the field and the methodological prin- examining its history. One possible explana-
ciples involved in that research and writing, tion for the reluctance to grant legitimacy to
is more advanced today than at any time in this research task is the common notion that
the past. During the last ten years, a wealth of we already know the history. Another possi-
new literature has appeared that greatly chal- bility is that those in the mainstream are sat-
lenges much of the conventional wisdom isfied with the dominant story that is told
regarding the development of IR. In light of about the development of the field. In any
the new and sophisticated research on the event, there is no shortage of brief synoptic
historiography of IR, it is even possible to accounts of this history in introductory text-
suggest that progress is being made in under- books, state-of-the-field articles, and
standing the complex and multifaceted story International Studies Association presidential
of the emergence and maturation of IR as an addresses.
academic field of study. Scholars have also These renditions frequently retell a con-
discovered that researching the history of the ventional story of how the field has pro-
field can lead to new insights that have criti- gressed through a series of phases: idealist,
cal purchase in the present. Today, discipli- realist, behavioralist, post-behavioralist, plu-
nary history has achieved a level of recognition ralist, neorealist, rationalist, post-positivist,
and legitimacy that it formerly lacked. This is and constructivist. The image of the first
a dramatic improvement on the previously three phases has been so deeply ingrained in
existing attitudes that many expressed about the minds of students and scholars that there
disciplinary history. Despite the growing plu- almost seems to be no alternative way of
ralization of the field and the ever-expanding understanding the early history of the field.

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Hedley Bull, for example, claimed that it is literature. While it is quite evident that we do
“possible to recognize three successive waves not possess an adequate understanding of
of theoretical activity”: the “idealist” or “pro- how the field has developed, there are a
gressivist” doctrines that were dominant in number of reasons why it is crucially impor-
the 1920s and early 1930s, the “realist” or tant for contemporary students of IR to have
conservative theories that developed in the an adequate familiarity with this history.
late 1930s and 1940s, and lastly the “social First, numerous theoretical insights, of
scientific” theories that arose in the late largely forgotten scholars, have been simply
1950s and 1960s “whose origin lay in dis- erased from memory. Yet, once recalled,
satisfaction with the methodologies on which these insights can have critical purchase in
both earlier kinds of theory were based” the present. Second, the field has created its
(Bull, 1972: 33). This story of the field’s own powerful myths regarding the evolution
evolution is, in turn, often buttressed by the of the field that have obscured the actual his-
closely related account of the field evolving tory (Booth, 1996; Kahler, 1997; Wilson,
through a series of “great debates,” beginning 1998). Third, an adequate understanding of
with the discipline-defining “great debate” the history of the field is essential for explain-
between “idealists” and “realists” and extend- ing the character of many of our present
ing perhaps to the latest debate today between assumptions and ideas about the study of
“rationalists” and “reflectivists” (Banks, international politics. While current intellec-
1986; Katzenstein et al., 1999; Keohane, tual practices and theoretical positions are
1988; Lijphart, 1974a; Maghroori, 1982; often evoked as novel answers to the latest
Mitchell, 1980). This particular construction dilemmas confronting international politics,
of the field’s history tends to have the effect a more discriminating historical sense
of making the present debate a matter that all reminds us that contemporary approaches are
serious students of IR must focus on while often reincarnations of past discourses.
relegating previous debates to obscurity. Without a sufficient understanding of how
Finally, the field’s history is commonly the field has evolved, there is the constant
chronicled by reference to the external events danger of continually reinventing the wheel.
that have taken place in the realm that has There is, in fact, much evidence to support
been conventionally designated as interna- the proposition that much of what is taken to
tional politics. There is a strong conviction be new is actually deeply embedded in the
that significant developments in international discursive past of the field. Finally, a perspi-
politics such as wars or abrupt changes in cacious history of the field offers a fruitful
American foreign policy have, more funda- basis for critical reflection on the present.
mentally than any other set of factors, shaped Knowledge of the actual, as opposed to the
the development of IR. The birth of the field, mythical, history may force us to reassess
for example, often associated with the found- some of our dominant images of the field and
ing of the world’s first chair for the study result in opening up some much-needed
of international politics, in 1919 at the space in which to think about international
Department of International Politics at the politics in the new millennium.
University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, is My purpose in this chapter is not to pro-
characteristically viewed as a reaction to the vide a comprehensive history of the broadly
horror of the First World War (Porter, 1972). defined field or discipline of IR. Not only
My main intention in this chapter is to would such an endeavor be impossible in this
problematize these prevalent interpretations context, but, as I will indicate below, there is
of how the field has developed and to sufficient ambiguity concerning the proper
indicate that the history of the field is both identity of the field, with respect to its ori-
more complicated and less well known gins, institutional home, and geographical
than typically portrayed in the mainstream boundaries, that simply writing a generic

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history of IR without addressing these kinds European-born scholars, it is also the case
of issues in detail would be counterproduc- that notwithstanding the global impact of the
tive. Moreover, while much of the previous American model, there are many indigenous
work on the history of the field has not exhib- scholarly communities that have their own
ited sufficient theoretical and methodological unique disciplinary history. This is, for exam-
sophistication in approaching the task of ple, clearly the case with the English School,
providing an adequate historical account, whose contributions have only recently begun
recent work in this area is forcing scholars to be properly documented and assessed
to confront a number of historiographical (Dunne, 1998; Little, 2000). These commu-
issues. This latest wave of scholarship clearly nities have certainly been deeply impacted
recognizes the necessary link that exists by theoretical and methodological develop-
between establishing the identity of the disci- ments in the United States, but there are
pline and presenting an image of its history nevertheless differences in how the subject is
(Bell, 2009; Thies, 2002). Furthermore, the studied in different parts of the world
manner in which the history of IR is recon- (Jorgensen, 2000; Tickner and Waever, 2009;
structed has become almost as significant as Waever, 1998). The interdisciplinary charac-
the substantive account itself, and therefore it ter of the field and differences in national
becomes crucially important to address the settings sometimes lead to the conclusion
basic research question of how one should that a distinct discipline or field of IR does
approach the task of writing a history of the not really exist, but despite ambiguities
field. about disciplinary boundaries and an institu-
I will begin by briefly discussing a number tional home, IR, as an academic field of
of lingering and contentious issues concern- study, has a distinct professional identity
ing the extent to which there is a well-defined and discourse.
field of IR that has a distinct identity, as well I next focus on two historiographical
as the equally controversial question of issues: first, presentism, which involves the
whether the history of the field should be practice of writing a history of the field for
written from a cosmopolitan frame of refer- the purpose of making a point about its
ence that does not pay significant attention to present character; and second, contextualism,
distinct national and institutional differences, which assumes that exogenous events in the
or whether it is necessary to approach this realm of international politics have funda-
task from within clearly demarcated national mentally structured the historical develop-
contexts. Although it should be evident that ment of IR as an academic field of study.
IR is a discrete academic field after more I will illustrate these issues by reviewing the
than fifty to a hundred years of evolution, existing literature. The most recent literature
depending on how one dates the genesis of has cast increasing doubt on the conventional
the field, ambiguities have continually arisen images of the development of IR. My critical
regarding both the character of the subject purpose in this chapter is to challenge the
matter and the institutional boundaries of the dominant understanding of how the field has
field. Adding to the confusion surrounding progressed and to encourage more sophisti-
the identity of the field is the overwhelming cated work on the disciplinary history of IR.
and continuing dominance of the American
IR scholarly community, which sometimes
leads to the erroneous conclusion that the
history of IR is synonymous with its develop- INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AS AN
ment in the United States. While there is ACADEMIC FIELD OF STUDY
much merit in Stanley Hoffmann’s (1977)
assertion that IR is an American social The task of demarcating the disciplinary
science despite the influence of a great many boundaries of the field is an important

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prerequisite to establishing authority over its which did not fall under other separate
object of inquiry. Yet the question of whether fields” (Thompson, 1952: 433). The interdis-
a distinct field or discipline of IR exists has ciplinary character of the field and the fact
been a matter of consistent controversy that other disciplines studied various dimen-
(Gurian, 1946; Kaplan, 1961; Neal and sions of its subject matter has sometimes led
Hamlett, 1969; Olson, 1972; Olson and to the question of whether “international
Groom, 1991; Palmer, 1980; Thompson, relations is a distinctive discipline” (Kaplan,
1952; Wright, 1955). While the controversy 1961). This is an interesting and important
is, in some ways, related to the contentious question that has often been answered by
issue of the origins and geographical bounda- pointing to the field’s unique subject matter,
ries of the field, it more fundamentally typically defined in terms of politics in the
involves the question of the identity of IR as absence of central authority as well as by
a second-order discourse and the status of its adducing various epistemological and meth-
subject matter. Although it is apparent that odological grounds. Yet while the question of
this question has never been answered satis- whether IR is a distinct discipline is intrigu-
factorily, disciplinary history does provide an ing, it is important not to let this become an
insightful vantage point for viewing the obstacle to reconstructing the history of the
manner in which the field has attempted study of international politics.
to establish its own identity. Recent work These issues do, however, highlight the
has focused on the dynamics of “discipline importance of clearly identifying and focus-
formation“ and uncovered a number of previ- ing on the institutional context of the field.
ously neglected factors that contributed to The variability in institutional context is, in
the emergence of IR (Bell, 2009; Guilhot, part, responsible for the wide range of dates
2008; Long, 2006; Vitalis, 2005). that have been used to mark the birth of the
The period that precedes the point at field. It makes a large difference, for exam-
which we can discern the identity of the field ple, whether IR was institutionalized as a
as a distinct academic practice can be termed separate discipline, as was largely the case
its “prehistory”; when there was a gradual after the First World War in the United
change “from discourse to discipline” (Farr, Kingdom, where a number of independent
1990). This period is important for identify- chairs were created, or as a subfield of politi-
ing the themes and issues that would later cal science, as was the case in the United
constitute the field as it took form during the States, Germany, and France. Yet orthodox
early decades of the twentieth century (Long histories have been more inclined to empha-
and Schmidt, 2005; Schmidt, 1998b). The size the impact of significant political events
field’s antecedents included international on the development of the field than the char-
law, diplomatic history, the peace movement, acter of the institutional setting of the field. In
moral philosophy, geography, and anthropol- the case of the United States, for example, it
ogy (Olson and Groom, 1991). In The Study is impossible to write the history of IR with-
of International Relations (1955), Quincy out locating it within the disciplinary matrix
Wright identified eight “root disciplines” and of American political science (Schmidt,
six disciplines with a “world point of view” 1998a, 1998b, 2008). In addition to these
that had contributed to the development of institutional variations, there are numerous
IR. Wright, along with many others, argued differences with respect to intellectual
that the task of synthesizing these largely climate, access to information, research sup-
autonomous fields of inquiry hampered the port, links between government and academia,
effort to create a unified coherent discipline and the general structure and character of
of IR. Moreover, Kenneth Thompson the university system (Simpson, 1998).
observed that “there was nothing peculiar to The significance of institutional context is
the subject matter of international relations closely related to the issue of the national

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context of the field. Variations in institutional history of IR from within a specific country
structure are intimately related to the national such as Denmark, Italy, Japan, and Russia
setting in which IR is situated. The issue of have revealed that the history of the field is
whether the boundaries of IR should be not synonymous with its development in the
demarcated in terms of one particular coun- United States. The new comparative litera-
try or whether it should be viewed as a more ture has clearly shown both the importance
cosmopolitan endeavor without regard to of, and variation in, the institutional context
national differences complicates the task of of IR. Political culture, which has generally
writing a history of the field. Although the been neglected in accounting for the history
creation of a truly global discipline may, per- of IR in the United States, has been identified
haps, be an aspiration, studies continue to as an important factor in understanding how
indicate that the academic study of interna- and why IR has developed differently in dif-
tional politics is marked by British, and espe- ferent countries (Breitenbauch and Wivel,
cially American, parochialism (Crawford and 2004; Jorgensen and Knudsen, 2006).
Jarvis, 2001; Peterson, Tierney, and Maliniak,
2005; Waever, 1998). Ever since Stanley
Hoffmann (1977) declared that IR was an
“American Social Science,” a lively discus- THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF
sion has ensued about the extent to which the INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
American academic community dominates
the “global discipline” of IR, and about the One of the most significant problems in work
profound consequences that this dominance on the history of IR is that these histories
has for the discipline as a whole (Alker and have failed to address adequately the ques-
Biersteker, 1984; Crawford and Jarvis, 2001; tion of how one should write a history of the
Goldmann, 1996; Holsti, 1985; Jorgensen, field. The tendency has been to describe the
2003; Kahler, 1993; Krippendorf, 1987; history of IR as if a complete consensus
Smith, 1987, 2000; Waever, 1998). existed on the essential dimensions of the
Yet despite the alleged American hegem- field’s evolution. In the absence of any sig-
ony, it is a fundamental mistake to associate nificant controversy concerning how the field
the American study of international politics has developed, there has been little or no
with the “global discipline of IR.” While it is attention devoted to historiographical issues.
often the case that many national IR com- Waever has remarked that the existing litera-
munities seem to be susceptible to embracing ture on the history of the field is “usually not
American theories, trends, and debates, IR, based on systemic research or clear methods”
as Waever notes, “is quite different in differ- and that it amounts to little more than “ele-
ent places” (1998: 723). Although limitations gant restatements of ‘common knowledge’ of
of space prevent me from commenting on the our past, implicitly assuming that any good
history of IR in every country in the world, practitioner can tell the history of the disci-
and much of what follows focuses on devel- pline” (Waever, 1998: 692).Yet as a number
opments in the United States and the United of related academic disciplines such as polit-
Kingdom, it is essential to acknowledge ical science have begun to examine more
the burgeoning country-specific and com- closely their disciplinary history, several
parative studies of the development of IR theoretical and methodological controversies
(Breitenbauch and Wivel, 2004; Chan, 1994; have arisen over what in general constitutes
Friedrichs, 2001; Groom, 1994; Inoguchi proper historical analysis and, particularly,
and Bacon, 2001; Jorgensen, 2000; Jorgensen what is involved in disciplinary history (Bell,
and Knudsen, 2006; Lebedeva, 2004, 2009; Bender and Schorske, 1998; Farr et al.,
Makinda, 2000; Tickner and Waever, 2009). 1990; Gunnell, 1991; Ross, 1991; Tully,
The case studies that have examined the 1988). The historiographical concerns that

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this literature has raised have gradually begun reference to the writings of classic political
to impact those who reflect on the history of theorists in that one of the dominant assump-
IR. Duncan Bell has suggested that the latest tions for many years was that the canon of
work on the history of IR represents what he classic texts from Plato to Marx did not have
terms the “dawn of a historiographical turn.” very much to say about international politics.
According to Bell, “the intellectual history of This was the view popularized in Martin
the discipline is now taken far more seri- Wight’s polemical essay “Why is there no
ously, studied more carefully and explicitly, International Theory?” (1966), which he pre-
and plays a greater role in shaping the theo- sented in 1959 at the inaugural meeting of
retical debate, than in the past” (Bell, 2001: the British Committee on the Theory of
123). But while the lack of theoretical sophis- International Politics. Wight’s argument con-
tication is definitely rooted in the assumption tributed to the view that there was a rich and
that practitioners already know the history of well-defined tradition of political thought but
the field, additional factors are at work in an impoverished and essentially contested
reinforcing the tendency to simplify, and thus tradition of international thought. This view,
distort, that history. along with the scientific ambitions of the
behavioralists who directly challenged the
relevance of the canon, led the fields of
political theory and IR to drift apart, produc-
ing a profound sense of estrangement that
There is a general assumption that the history only recently has begun to change (Armitage,
of the field can be explained by reference to a 2004; Boucher, 1998; Brown, 2000; Schmidt,
continuous tradition that reaches back to clas- 2000; Walker, 1993). David Boucher has
sical Athens and extends forward to the present argued that one of the reasons why IR does
(Schmidt, 1994). The IR literature contains not have an established canon of classic texts
numerous references to the idea that there stems from the mistake that IR theorists
are epic traditions of international thought made when they “cut themselves adrift from
that have given rise to coherent schools or the mainstream of political theory in order to
paradigms such as realism and liberalism develop their own theories and concepts”
(Clark, 1989; Donnelly, 1995; Holsti, 1985; (1998: 10).
Kugler, 1993; Zacher and Matthew, 1995). The strained and troubled relationship
Furthermore, and more importantly for the between political theory and international
discussion at hand, there is a widespread con- relations theory has not, however, prevented
viction that these ancient traditions represent scholars from constructing numerous typolo-
an integral part of the field’s past and therefore gies and traditions for classifying the ideas
are relevant for understanding the contempo- of classic political theorists and linking them
rary identity of the field. While it is certainly to the work of contemporary students of
the case that the study of the theorists associ- international relations (Boucher, 1998;
ated with the classic canon of Western politi- Donelan, 1990; Doyle, 1997; Holsti, 1985;
cal thought constitutes an element of the Wight, 1992). While, symbolically or meta-
practice of IR, as evidenced, for example, by phorically, contemporary practitioners may
Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State and War wish to describe themselves as descendants
(1959), it is nevertheless a fundamental mis- of Thucydides or Kant, a serious conceptual
conception to presume that the work of classic mistake is made when the history of the field
political theorists such as Thucydides or Kant is written in terms of the development of an
can be construed as constitutive antecedents epic tradition beginning with classical Greece
of the literature of contemporary IR. or the Enlightenment and culminating in
There is a certain irony in the widespread the work of contemporary scholars. This
tendency of contemporary scholars to make common practice, which can be found in a

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multitude of synoptic accounts of the history The widespread tendency to write the
of the field, commits the error of confusing history of the field in terms of its participa-
an analytical with a historical tradition, tion in an ancient or classic tradition of
resulting in significant obstacles to tracing thought often serves to confer legitimacy on
the actual historical development of IR a contemporary research program. One of the
(Schmidt, 1994). Although discussions of a primary purposes of the various histories of
tradition of IR are widespread and, as Rob IR is to say something authoritative about the
Walker (1993) has noted, far from mono- field’s present character, and this often con-
lithic, they tend to refer less to actual his- tributes to the tendency to distort the history
torical traditions, that is, self-constituted of the field. In order either to advocate a new
patterns of conventional practice through direction for the field and to criticize its cur-
which ideas are conveyed within a recogniz- rent structure, or, conversely, to defend the
ably established discursive framework, than status quo, scholars often feel compelled to
to an analytical retrospective construction justify their position by referring to and char-
that largely is defined by present criteria and acterizing the general evolution of the field.
concerns. In the case of the disciplinary his- For example, histories that seek to account
tory of IR, such retrospectively constructed for the rise and subsequent dominance of
traditions as realism are presented as if they realist theory frequently feel obliged to dem-
represented an actual or self-constituted tra- onstrate the timeless insights of the realist
dition in the field, and serious problems in tradition, beginning with Thucydides or
understanding and writing the history of IR Machiavelli. And those who periodically
result when the former is mistaken for, or criticize the pluralistic character of the field
presented as, the latter. quite often make reference to an earlier
Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that such period when there was supposedly a domi-
epic renditions of the past divert attention nant paradigm or approach that united it. The
from the actual academic practices and indi- crux of the matter is that many of the attempts
viduals who have contributed to the develop- to reflect on the history of IR are undertaken
ment and current identity of the field. Instead largely for “presentist” purposes rather than
of a history that traces the genealogy of aca- with the intention of carefully and accurately
demic scholars who self-consciously and reconstructing the past.
institutionally participated in the professional “Whig” history, which Herbert Butterfield
discourse of IR, we are presented with an (1959: v) described as the tendency “to
idealized version of the past in the form of a emphasize certain principles of progress in
continuous tradition stretching from ancient the past and to produce a story which is the
times to the present. These epic accounts, ratification if not the glorification of the
which are the norm in many of the leading present,” and the problem of presentism in
undergraduate texts, serve to reinforce the general, has become a controversial issue
idea that we already know the history of the among those who are engaged in writing the
field. Attention usually is devoted to “found- history of the social sciences (Collini et al.,
ing fathers” such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, 1983; Dryzek and Leonard, 1988; Farr et al.,
and Kant, while a host of individuals who 1990). The problem with presentism is not
contributed to the institutionalized academic that historical analysis is utilized to make a
study of international politics are routinely point about the present, but that history is
neglected. While academic scholars such as distorted as it is reconstructed to legitimate
James Bryce, Frederick S. Dunn, Pitman or criticize a position that the writer has set
Potter, and Paul S. Reinsch may not be as out in advance to support or to undermine.
historically fascinating, they are much more Whig history “consists in writing history
relevant for tracing the actual development backwards,” whereby the “present theoretical
of the field. consensus of the discipline … is in effect

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taken as definitive, and the past is then recon- an older paradigm is replaced in whole or
stituted as a teleology leading up to and fully part by an incompatible new one” (Kuhn,
manifested in it” (Collini et al., 1983: 4). 1970: 92). Kuhn’s theory of paradigms and
Given the elusive but persistent goal of scientific revolutions represented a signifi-
mainstream IR in the United States to achieve cant challenge to the orthodox account of
the status of a “true” science, it is under- scientific development. The crucial point
standable why so many of the existing of Kuhn’s revisionist account of the history
accounts of the history of the field continue of science was his argument that there was no
to be Whiggish in character. Histories of the transcendental vantage point from which to
field, and images of that history, are fre- claim that the replacement of one paradigm
quently advanced for the purpose of either by another constituted “progress,” because
illustrating theoretical progress and scientific the criteria for progress was paradigm-
advance or diagnosing an obstacle that is specific. While Kuhn made a significant
preventing the field from making scientific impact on philosophers and historians of
progress (Brecher, 1999). George Stock- science, many of whom were displeased by
ing provided an early and persuasive expla- the relativistic implications of the argument
nation for why the professional social scientist that resulted in the inability to vindicate
was likely to be Whiggish. According to scientific progress, his book had an equally
Stocking, there is “a sort of implicit whiggish dramatic impact on the field of IR, especially
presentism virtually built into the history of with respect to how many scholars have
science and by extension, into the history come to understand the history of the field.
of the behavioral sciences” (Stocking, 1965: The fact that IR scholars increasingly have
213). The reigning logical positivist account turned to Kuhn and other philosophers of
of science that was offered by philosophers science, particularly Imre Lakatos (1970),
of science during the 1950s and 1960s, which who, for many, appeared to reestablish
is the medium through which most social evaluative criteria of progress, serves to
scientists acquired their understanding of sci- illustrate the point that the task of writing
ence, was one of incremental and cumulative the history of the field often has been sub-
progress whereby a greater understanding of ordinate to the more fundamental goal of
the natural world was made possible by an demonstrating progress in the field.
increasing correspondence between theory There are two principal ways in which the
and fact. Since logical positivists claimed work of Kuhn in particular, and the literature
that there was an essential unity and hierar- emanating from the philosophy and history
chy of scientific method, the history of social of science in general, has had an impact on
science was bound sooner or later to replicate the historiography of IR. First, IR scholars
the same forward advance of knowledge. quickly set out to establish their own para-
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific digms. The situation was very much the same
Revolutions (1970) challenged the logical in political science, where political scientists
positivist account of science and provided a began to use the word paradigm to denote
basic impetus for post-positivist philosophers specific schools of thought such as behavio-
and historians of science. Not only did Kuhn ralism (Almond, 1966). In IR, realism has
attack logical positivism’s central premise of been assumed by many to be the leading
the separation of theory and fact, as well as candidate for a paradigm, and scholars have
the correspondence theory of truth, but he repeatedly undertaken the task of defining
sought to replace the orthodox textbook and operationalizing the core assumptions of
account of the history of science with the the realist paradigm (Guzzini, 1998; Keohane,
idea of a discontinuous history marked by 1983; Vasquez, 1983). The frequency with
scientific revolutions, that is, “those non- which references are made to the realist para-
cumulative developmental episodes in which digm have led some to term it the “traditional

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paradigm” which, according to Arend (1974a: 12). The underlying purpose of uti-
Lijphart, “revolves around the notions of lizing analytical frameworks borrowed from
state sovereignty and its logical corollary, the philosophy and history of science largely
international anarchy” (1974b: 43). Quite has been to demonstrate that scientific
frequently references to the realist paradigm advances are being made and that the field as
are used interchangeably with references to a whole is progressing. In the quest for cog-
the “realist tradition” or the “realist school of nitive authority over the subject matter of
thought.” international politics, IR has been drawn to
Yet while realism is considered by many to philosophers of science in the belief that they
be the leading paradigm in the field, it has can provide the grounds for empirical judg-
certainly not been the only candidate for ment and evaluation. Ferguson and Mansbach,
paradigmatic status. Scholars have made ref- for example, note that the attraction of the
erence to a host of alternative paradigms Kuhnian framework for describing the his-
which are almost always defined in opposi- tory of IR is that it allowed “international
tion to the propositions of realism and whose relations scholars to see progress in their
origins are typically linked to developments field while surrounded by theoretical inco-
in international politics. A classical example herence” (Ferguson and Mansbach, 1993:
of this, even though it allegedly predates 22). Yet this is simply a misuse of Kuhn,
the realist paradigm, is the so-called idealist since he argued that his account of the devel-
paradigm of the interwar period. John opment of science was not applicable to the
Vasquez claims “that the first stage of inter- history of the social sciences, since they were
national relations inquiry was dominated by “pre-paradigmatic.” Moreover, analytical
the idealist paradigm,” which was “important constructs such as idealism and realism do
in terms of institutionalizing the field and not meet the criteria of a paradigm as Kuhn
creating the emphasis on peace and war” described it. And while Kuhn’s framework
(1998: 33–4). Some of the other rival para- has been employed to demonstrate progress,
digms to realism have included the “behavio- his basic argument was that it was not possi-
ralist paradigm” (Lijphart, 1974a), “world ble to speak of progress from a second-order
politics paradigm” (Keohane and Nye, 1972), perspective.
global society and neo-Marxist paradigms
(Holsti, 1985), a “new paradigm for global
politics” (Mansbach and Vasquez, 1981), and Contextualism
pluralism (Little, 1996).
Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm as well as The second, and equally pervasive, assump-
other concepts borrowed from the philosophy tion is that the history of the field can be
and history of science, such as Lakatos’s explained in terms of exogenous events in the
(1970) conception of a “scientific research realm of international politics. Many assume
programme,” have not only been used to pro- that it is self-evident that the field’s history
vide grounds for defining distinct “schools of from its alleged birth after the First World
thought,” but also to evaluate the overall War to the present has been events-driven;
evolution of the field as well as specific that significant changes in American foreign
approaches in the field (Elman and Elman, policy or international crises and wars are
2003; Ferguson and Mansbach, 1993; Guzzini, directly responsible for the rise and fall of
1998; Keohane, 1983; Lijphart, 1974a, 1974b; different theories, methodologies, and foci in
Smith, 1987; Tellis, 1996; Vasquez, 1998). the field (Hoffmann, 1977; Kahler, 1997;
Arend Lijphart, for example, has argued Krippendorf, 1987; Olson and Groom, 1991;
that “the development of international Smith, 1987). Hoffmann’s claim that “the
relations since the Second World War fits growth of the discipline cannot be separated
Kuhn’s description of scientific revolutions” from the American role in world affairs after

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 11 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


1945” went largely unchallenged, leading to the subject matter at any given point in time
the common view that the field’s history has can explain what happens inside the field.
been shaped by how the United States There is no direct transmission belt between
responded to various international events particular developments in the world and
(Hoffmann, 1977: 47). The popularity of what is going on in a field with respect to
external accounts can, in part, be attributed to schools of thought, methodological orienta-
the fact that they seem to be intuitively cor- tion, disciplinary debates, and even the sub-
rect. While it certainly would be difficult, if stantive focus of analysis. Thus, the
not impossible, to understand the evolution relationship between external events and the
of IR without being cognizant of the events internal disciplinary response manifested in
that have shaped international history, there conceptual or theoretical change must be
are, nevertheless, problems with accounts empirically demonstrated and not merely
that suggest that a wider historical context assumed. Despite claims to the contrary,
can explain how and why IR developed in the many contextual accounts have a difficult
manner that it did. time demonstrating such a connection.
The first problem concerns the very manner Beginning in the late 1990s, the conven-
by which one defines “context.” If the inten- tional events-driven wisdom regarding the
tion of disciplinary history is to understand evolution of IR was challenged by a new
how and why the field developed in the group of disciplinary historians (Dunne,
manner that it did, then the focus should be 1998; Jorgensen, 2000; Schmidt, 1998b,
on how academic practitioners perceived, and 2002; Thies, 2002). Rather than focusing on
the extent to which they recognized and external factors to explain the history of the
defined, “external” events. But very often in field, proponents of an internal approach
IR, it is just the reverse: context is defined argued that the most relevant context is the
retrospectively and in a broadly general immediate one of the conversation that the
manner and then assumed to be able to individuals who self-consciously viewed
account for the basic nature of the conversa- themselves as members of the field of IR
tion in the field at a particular point in time. were engaged in and the disciplinary and
Yet not only are the actual connections university setting (Schmidt, 1998b). In other
between the “outside” context and “inside” words, those advocating an internal approach
developments poorly clarified, but the empir- insist that the most appropriate context for
ical details of the putative explanatory con- investigating the history of IR is its academic
text are not always carefully demonstrated. setting and not the world at large. It has also
One person’s account of external context been suggested that an internal as compared
often differs from another’s, and the very task to an external focus can help to account for
of conceptualizing context raises a host of the distinct national differences in how the
historiographical issues. The important point field has developed. The merits of an internal
to emphasize is that the subject matter of IR approach, however, have not escaped critical
is always constructed conceptually by the scrutiny (Bell, 2001; Holden, 2002, 2006;
members in the field, and thus the relevance Kahler, 1997; Makinda, 2000). While appl-
of the “outside” is determined by how those auding the recent attention that has been
in the academy conceive of and react to it. directed to the historiography of IR, Holden
This brings us to a second problem with argues that those who have rejected a contex-
some contextual accounts, namely, the tual approach and adopted an internal discur-
manner in which external factors are held to sive approach have generally failed to
account for internal, disciplinary develop- understand the merits and potential of the
ments. The fact that IR is conceived as an former. This is especially the case for those
academic enterprise devoted to the study of like Holden and others who have associated
international politics does not automatically a contextual approach to disciplinary history
imply that exogenous events that comprise with the work of Quentin Skinner and John

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 12 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


Pocock on the history of ideas. The claim is story of the field’s development has been
that advocates of an internal approach do not framed. The story of the great debates has
understand their work very well and there- served to demonstrate either coherence or
fore inappropriately dismiss it (Holden, 2002; incoherence but, most commonly, the idea
Quirk and Vigneswaran, 2005). The basic that scientific progress is being made. The
argument of Skinner and the Cambridge widespread belief that the field’s history has
School of intellectual historians is that ideas been characterized by three successive great
have to be situated in their proper historical debates is so pervasive and dominant that, as
and linguistic context. An internal focus is Waever notes, “there is no other established
deemed to be both erroneous and impossible, means of telling the history of the discipline”
with critics contending that contextual fac- (1998: 715). The story of the field’s three
tors are conspicuously present in the work great debates is, as Steve Smith (1995) and
done by those who claim to be utilizing an Kjell Goldmann (1996) have argued, one of
internal approach (Brown, 2000; Holden, the most dominant self-images of the field.
2002; Little, 1999). This charge, however, While all academic disciplines experience
really misses the mark and makes it appear their share of disciplinary controversy, IR
that an internal approach assumes that the may be unique in that most practitioners
history of IR can be written as if it were her- believe that the history of the field has been
metically sealed from the world of interna- singularly marked by these defining debates.
tional politics. This view has been reinforced by explaining
Perhaps one way to resolve the debate the debates in terms of exogenous influences
between internal and external accounts is such as the outbreak of the Second World
simply to frame the issue in terms of what is War, the Vietnam debacle, and the end of the
the most appropriate and relevant context for Cold War. Perhaps more than any other claim
understanding the history of IR. The debate about the general history of the field, that
should not be construed in terms of whether which postulates three great debates must be
(external) context matters or not, but what is critically examined. It is not entirely clear
the most appropriate context. One does not that all of the debates actually have taken
need to be a constructivist to recognize that place, and an examination of the discursive
contexts are always constructed and do not artifacts of the field leads one to ask if the
have an objective and independent existence. field’s history has been seriously distorted by
Contexts, after all, are not logically compara- viewing it within this framework. I do not
ble to the things being contextualized, but are deny that the field has experienced numerous
constructions created and reimposed from controversies, but I question the appropriate-
the perspective of the present. And because ness of understanding them in terms of the
of the fact that IR is widely perceived as a conventional story of the field’s three great
field that studies the activity of international debates.
politics “out there” does not at all imply that
there is a singular external context that we all
could point to as shaping the history of the What were the debates about?
academic conversation about something con-
ventionally termed international relations. According to the conventional wisdom, the
first great debate, which Miles Kahler (1997)
has termed the “foundational myth of the
field,” was between the interwar “idealists”
THE GREAT DEBATES and the postwar “realists.” Almost every his-
torical account concedes that the realists won
Within the orthodox historiography of IR, it the first debate and, as a result, reoriented the
has been through the organizing device of the field in a more practical and scientific direc-
image of a series of “great debates” that the tion (Fox, 1949; Guzzini, 1998; Thompson,

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 13 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


1960; Waldo, 1954). The alleged superiority was one of the early advocates of what came
of the realist view has made it appear unnec- to be known as the “scientific approach.”
essary to consider carefully the nature of the A growing sentiment among American schol-
claims made by those writing in the field ars was that the field was losing ground in its
prior to the Second World War or even the quest to acquire the mantle of science. While
writings of many of those who are consid- realism, it was argued, served a number
ered early realists. The interwar “idealists,” of paradigmatic functions, some scholars
who are greatly disparaged, are typically claimed that its tenets, such as the a priori
depicted as a group of utopian pacifists and foundational claim that the struggle for power
legalists who focused their attention on stemmed from basic biological drives rooted
reforming international politics rather than in human nature, as well as its methodology,
on analyzing the realities of politics among which relied heavily on historical examples,
nations. The “debate,” which allegedly took were preventing the field from achieving
place as the League of Nations system broke scientific status.
down, is often described in Kuhnian terms. As in the case of political science, the
While the idealists supposedly envisioned debate became polarized between those who
ever-lasting peace, the Second World War is believed that the methods of the natural sci-
depicted as a glaring anomaly representing a ences, or at least those described by logical-
severe crisis in the idealist paradigm, which positivist philosophers of science as the
eventually resulted in its replacement by the hypothetico-deductive model, could be emu-
realist paradigm, which was superior in its lated and adopted in the study of interna-
ability to rationally explain the persistent and tional politics, versus those who argued
ubiquitous struggle for power among nations that the study of the social world was not
(Guzzini, 1998; Hollis and Smith, 1991; amenable to the strict empirical methods
Vasquez, 1998). Sometimes the idealists are of natural science (Knorr and Rosenau, 1969;
represented as alchemists who were con- Morgenthau, 1946; Nicholson, 1996; Reynolds,
cerned with “what ought to be” while the 1973; Rogowski, 1968). George Liska de-
realists are portrayed as scientists focusing scribed the period in which the debate
on “what is,” which was a prerequisite for between traditionalists and behavioralists
creating a science of politics (Carr, [1939] took place as the “heroic decade” and sug-
1964). This story of the “debate” between gested that the key division was “between
“idealists” and “realists” continues to exert a those who are primarily interested in interna-
strong influence on how the field understands tional relations and those who are primarily
its own history, and this accounts in part for committed to the elaboration of social sci-
the perpetual need to retell the tale of how IR ence” (1966: 7). The debate over the merits
was once rooted in idealism but was fortu- and adequacy of a positivistic approach
nate, after the Second World War, to have surely has not diminished, but there is, never-
embraced realism. theless, a common view that the debate
The second great debate, as characteristi- helped to foster the scientific identity of the
cally described in the literature, took place field through the widespread acceptance and
within the context of the behavioral revolu- utilization of scientific methods which aided
tion that was already deeply impacting the in the task of developing a cumulative theory
social sciences, especially political science, of international politics. Morton Kaplan’s
and which pitted “traditionalists” against (1957) systems theory; Karl Deutsch’s (1964)
“behavioralists” or “scientists.” The debate communications and cybernetics theory;
is symbolized by the intellectual exchange Thomas Schelling’s (1960) early game
between Hedley Bull (1966), who sought to theory, Richard Snyder, H.W. Bruck, and
defend what he termed the “classical Burton Sapin’s (1954, 1962) development of
approach,” and Morton Kaplan (1966), who decision-making theory; and J. David Singer

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 14 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


and Melvin Small’s (1972) data collection in the victor. Unlike the previous two “great
their correlates of war project at the University debates,” the “third debate” is, according to
of Michigan are generally viewed as contrib- Waever, “seen as a debate not to be won, but
uting to the scientific identity of the field. a pluralism to live with” (Waever, 1996:
Historical accounts of the third debate tend 155). In other words, claims about the asc-
to be more ambiguous than that of the other endancy of neorealism did not mean that
two debates, but it is commonly described as adherents of a liberal (pluralist) or Marxist
an inter-paradigm debate that took place in (globalist) approach stopped contributing to
the early 1980s among realists, pluralists, the discourse of IR, and some have even
and structuralists (Banks, 1985; Maghroori, questioned whether the three “paradigms”
1982; Olson and Groom, 1991; Waever, were ever in competition with one another
1996). The typical explanation of the origins (Smith, 1995; Wight, 1996). Adding to the
of the third debate holds that, during the confusion of understanding this period of
1970s, realism fell on some difficult times disciplinary history in terms of a “third
when events in the realm of international debate” was the emergence, during the 1980s,
politics, particularly in the economic sphere of a number of post-positivist approaches
but also regarding matters of peace and secu- that were sharply critical of all the main-
rity, appeared to contradict some of the key stream approaches in the field (Der Derian
realist assumptions about the nature of inter- and Shapiro, 1989; George and Campbell,
state politics (Smith, 1987). As a result of 1990; Peterson, 1992). According to Yosef
this apparent incongruity, it is generally Lapid, the attack by feminists, Frankfurt
believed that alternative approaches such as School critical theorists, and post-structural-
Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye’s ([1977] ists on what they perceived to be the positiv-
1989) theory of “complex interdependence,” ist epistemological foundations of the field
Immanuel Wallerstein’s (1974) “world sys- signaled the dawn of a “third debate,” which
tems theory,” John Burton’s “cobweb theory” he claimed consisted of a “disciplinary effort
(1972), and “dependency theory” (Cardoso to reassess theoretical options in a ‘post-
and Faletto, 1979) were developed and positivist’ era” (1989: 237). That the litera-
directly challenged many of the central tenets ture can simultaneously make reference to
of realism. Most fundamentally, critics of two fundamentally different controversies
realism attacked the core claims of state- under the same label of the “third debate”
centrism, the notion that independence rather should be enough to indicate that there is
than interdependence characterized the con- something seriously wrong with this under-
dition of international politics, and that a standing of the history of the field.
clear distinction could be made between
“high politics” (i.e., military and security
issues) and “low politics” (i.e., economic, What’s wrong with the self-image
environmental, and human rights issues). of the great debates?
It has been suggested that it was within
this context of a growing focus on interde- The newest cohort of disciplinary historians
pendence (Cooper, 1968; Rosecrance and have both noted the peculiarity of the field’s
Stein, 1973) that the distinct subfield of self-image being derived from the idea of a
International Political Economy emerged set of recurrent debates and pointed to some
(Katzenstein et al., 1999). of the problems that are involved in viewing
While it was argued that the publication of the history of the field in this manner (Bell,
Waltz’s Theory of International Politics 2003; Goldmann, 1996; Kahler, 1997;
(1979) gave a new lease of life to realism in Schmidt, 1998a, 1998b, 2012; Smith, 1995;
the form of neorealism, most accounts of the Waever, 1998; Wilson, 1998). There are so
third debate do not conclude that realism was many problems and difficulties involved in

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 15 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


understanding the history of the field within 1998; Schmidt, 2002, 2012; Sylvest, 2004;
the framework of the three great debates that Thies, 2002). While it is the case that many
we might be better off simply to reject dis- of the interwar scholars shared a practical
cussing this account of how the field has mission to reform the practice of interna-
developed. In the first place, when attention tional politics, this objective, I argue, does
is directed to the details of the field’s history, not in and of itself qualify the enterprise as
it is not evident that all of the three debates utopian. Apart from seriously distorting the
actually took place. This is especially the formative years of the field’s history, the ide-
case with respect to the first “great debate” alist tag has inhibited understanding some of
(Ashworth, 2002; Kahler, 1997; Quirk and the deep discursive continuities that exist
Vigneswaran, 2005; Schmidt, 2012; Thies, between the present and the past.
2002; Wilson, 1998). Second, the stylized Perhaps the most important continuity is
versions of the debates do not do justice to the concept of anarchy that has given the field
the nature of the controversies that were in of IR a distinct discursive identity. Although
fact taking place. Third, by focusing only on it might appear to those who are not familiar
the three great debates, a number of addi- with the institutional history of IR that anar-
tional and, extremely important, disciplinary chy is some newly discovered research puzzle
controversies continue to be overlooked. that lends itself to the latest tools of social
Finally, the use of the analytical framework scientific inquiry, anarchy – and the closely
of a series of great debates to account for the related concept of sovereignty – has served as
field’s history is a conservative move that the core constituent principle throughout the
gives the field a greater sense of coherence evolution of the field (Schmidt, 1998b). The
than the actual history of the field warrants. interwar scholars were keenly aware of the
One of the most significant findings to fact that their subject matter, which included
emerge from the recent scholarship on the an analysis of the causes of war and peace,
history of the field is that, contrary to popular directly dealt with issues arising from the
belief, the field was never dominated by a existence of sovereign states in a condition of
group of utopian scholars who adhered to anarchy (Dickinson, 1926). Many of those
something akin to what has been described as writing during the interwar period understood
the idealist paradigm (Ashworth, 2006; that sovereignty and anarchy were inextrica-
Baldwin, 1995; Kahler, 1997; Little, 1996; bly associated with, and mutually constitutive
Long, 1991; Long and Wilson, 1995; of, each other, and this explains why much of
Osiander, 1998; Schmidt, 1998a, 1998b, the interwar discourse focused on the concept
2002, 2012; Thies, 2002; Wilson, 1998). In of state sovereignty. The juristic theory of the
most cases, it is difficult to find a scholar who state, which during the early 1900s was the
was self-consciously and institutionally a most influential paradigm for the study of
member of the field of IR who adhered to the political science, depicted the international
tenets that are frequently associated with a milieu as one where states led an independent
construct termed “idealism” or “utopianism.” and isolated existence (Willoughby, 1918).
Many of those who have been dubbed “ideal- Proponents of juristic theory evoked the pre-
ists” turn out, upon closer inspection, to sub- contractual image of individuals living in a
scribe to a position that is quite different from state of nature to describe the external condi-
the manner in which it has been characterized tion of states and drew many of the same
in the secondary literature. On the basis of pessimistic conclusions that realists have
careful historical research, a variety of inter- made about politics conducted in the absence
war discourses have been identified that of a central authority.
together provide a very different account of Beginning in the 1920s, juristic theory
this period of the field’s history (Ashworth, was challenged by a new group of thinkers
2006; Long and Schmidt, 2005; Osiander, who collectively put forth the theory of

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 16 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


pluralism that fundamentally transformed Refuting the notion that the interwar period
the discourse of both political science and was distinguished by idealism does not, how-
IR (Gunnell, 1993; Little, 1996; Schmidt, ever, rest on denying that the field experi-
1998b, 2002). Pluralists such as Harold enced a change of emphasis after the Second
Laski (1927) and Mary Parker Follett ([1918] World War. By the early 1940s, it was appar-
1934) argued that juristic theory was entirely ent that the field was undergoing a transition,
inconsistent with the modern condition of which was best exemplified by the argument
interdependence, and this clearly indicated that the study of international politics should
that the state was no longer omnipotent and replace international organization as the cen-
immune from all other sources of authority. tral focus of the field (Fox, 1949; Kirk, 1947;
The interdependent quality of international Thompson, 1952). Those who began to enter
politics, which pluralists took to be axio- the profession under the self-proclaimed
matic, along with the existence of many “realist” identity were responsible for chang-
international public unions (Reinsch, 1911), ing the emphasis in the field, but it is impor-
raised serious doubts about the validity of tant not to exaggerate the discontinuities
the claim that each nation-state was entirely between the pre- and postwar discourse of
sovereign in relation to all other actors. IR. Like those writing before the Second
There are many similarities between the plu- World War, the aim of many of the “realists”
ralist critique of juristic theory and the was to speak truth to power. This was espe-
debate over interdependence that took place cially the case with the émigré scholars who
during the 1970s, and yet there is almost no deeply impacted the discourse of both politi-
recognition of this earlier discourse (Wilde, cal science and IR. A careful reading of the
1991). Richard Little argues that one of the texts by E.H. Carr ([1939] 1964), Hans J.
main reasons why the intellectual heritage of Morgenthau (1948), and Frederick L.
pluralism has been obscured stems from the Schuman (1933) reveals a number of conti-
“willingness of the discipline to accept the nuities with the earlier discourse which have
attachment of the idealist tag to this seminal been entirely overlooked as a consequence of
literature” (1996: 69). The “idealist tag” has viewing their work in terms of the dubious
also obscured the manner in which the inter- dichotomy between idealism and realism.
war scholars approached the study of inter- While it is the case that Morgenthau and the
national security (Baldwin, 1995) and other “realists” helped to make international
international organization. While the inter- politics the nucleus of the field, it was not the
war scholarship is most often associated case that those writing before the outbreak of
with the misfortunes of the League of the Second World War were unfamiliar with
Nations, not everyone writing during this many of the core claims of the “new” power
period assumed that the introduction of this politics model (Bryce, 1922; Reinsch, 1900).
new international organization would by The discursive artifacts of the field’s history
itself alter fundamentally the logic of inter- do not lend much support to the claim that
national politics. The most pressing theoreti- a debate, in the sense of an intellectual
cal issue for those involved in the study of exchange between opposing theoretical
international organization concerned the positions or paradigms, ever took place
manner in which various conceptions of between the interwar and the post-Second
state sovereignty could be reconciled with World War scholars.
the operation of the League of Nations. This Yet the emerging revisionist consensus on
was certainly the case for Pitman Benjamin the erroneous and mythical character of the
Potter, who was the person responsible for first great debate has been called into ques-
giving specific form to the study of interna- tion. Joel Quirk and Darshan Vigneswaran
tional organization in the United States prefer to describe the debate as a “half-truth,
(Potter, 1925). or highly distorted and overly simplistic

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caricature, rather than a complete fiction” approached the study of international politics
(2005: 91). Quirk and Vigneswaran argue from a legal, philosophical, historical, or
that a number of scholars in the 1940s and inductive point of view – lost out to what was
1950s were instrumental in creating the ide- perceived to be a scientific approach that
alist–realist divide, but that it was later schol- sought to emulate the methods of the natural
ars, particularly those involved in the third sciences. The result was that IR became more
debate of the 1980s, who are most responsi- scientific, realism lost its dominant position,
ble for creating the myth of the first great and the field was brought more in line with
debate. Despite what the revisionist histori- the other social sciences.
ans have written, Emmanuel Navon (2001) Beginning with John Vasquez’s influential
argues that compared to the so-called third book The Power of Power Politics (1983), an
debate, the first and second debates were alternative view of the “second debate”
authentic and continue to be relevant because began to emerge that argued that the contro-
they involved issues that are central to IR versy was really only a pseudo debate which
theory. Still others argue that the great debates was largely confined to methodological
framework have helped to organize the disci- issues and did not involve substantive aspects
pline and thus are “actually a part of the of the subject matter of international politics
structure of the discipline” (Waever, 2007: (Guzzini, 1998; Hollis and Smith, 1991;
291). Thus, even if the historical details are Holsti, 1985, 1998; Vasquez, 1998). Vasquez
incorrect, Waever (2007) and Lapid (2002) (1983) sought to demonstrate that the behav-
continue to defend the great-debates frame- ioralists largely worked within the realist
work for understanding the development of paradigm and merely sought to advance the
the field. methodological credentials of the field. In
Compared with the recent research on the this manner, the debate has been construed
interwar period of the field’s history, the as a “methodological debate” which took
details generally associated with the “second place “within a single [realist] theoretical
great debate” or the “traditionalism versus orientation,” and that it was “about how to
scientism debate” have not been carefully and conduct inquiry within that approach” (Hollis
systematically investigated. Consequently, and Smith, 1991: 31). One of the more sig-
this later period is not very well understood, nificant implications of this revisionist inter-
and additional research is required. Within pretation is the view that the “field has been
the existing literature on the second debate, far more coherent, systematic, and even
which typically construes it as a debate about cumulative than all the talk about contending
the scientific status of the field, two different approaches and theories implies” (Vasquez,
accounts of the nature of the controversy have 1998: 42).
been put forth. Many of the early accounts of While I concede that there is some merit in
the controversy heralded it as a “great debate” each of these accounts, neither sufficiently
that contributed to a major transformation in captures the nature of the disputes that
the field (Bull, 1972; Kaplan, 1966; Lijphart, occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. A cru-
1974a, 1974b). Lijphart, for example, claimed cial issue that informed the behavioral debate
that the “traditionalism-science debate of the was the problem of IR’s cognitive authority
1960s” was more substantive and fundamen- as a second-order discourse. It increasingly
tal than the earlier debate between idealism became the case, especially within the
and realism (1974a: 11). He argued that the American context, that science provided the
behavioral revolution in IR resulted in a new model for achieving the authority of knowl-
paradigm – “the behavioral paradigm” – that edge, and the quest during the 1950s and
was at great odds with the substantive claims 1960s, as well as before and after this period,
of the traditional realist paradigm. According was to emulate what were believed to be
to this view, the traditionalists – those who the canons of inquiry in natural science

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 18 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


(see Wight, Chapter 2 in this volume). The opposed to the system as a whole (Hollis and
commitment to achieving a body of knowledge Smith, 1991; Singer, 1969; Wight, 2006).
about international politics that was scientifi- Waltz’s (1979) attempt to construct a systems
cally credible and that could command practi- theory was based on the model of microeco-
cal authority has always been a defining goal nomics, which sought to overcome the prob-
of the field. What has changed over the course lem of reductionism that he attributed to the
of time is the content of the idea of science. earlier generation of systems thinkers. It
One of the consequences of neglecting a would appear that Buzan and Little (2000)
careful study of the history of the field has are correct to argue that the concept of an
been a failure to recognize adequately the international system is deeply contested, and
work of the members of the Chicago School I would suggest that carefully examining the
of political science. In the 1920s and 1930s, period that has been construed in terms of the
Harold Lasswell, Charles Merriam, and second debate might add clarity to the present
Quincy Wright believed that they were at the conversation.
forefront of developing a universal science of Whether or not we accept the idea that a
politics (Fox, 1975). The Chicago School’s “great debate” took place, it is important that
idea of a science of international politics was we not deemphasize the consequences that
one that viewed international relations as the increasing attachment to scientism has
merely a single subdivision of a more inclu- had for the development of the field. First, it
sive approach that focused on the role of has resulted in IR surrendering its intellectual
power across a broad range of associations autonomy to a number of cognate fields that
from the local to the global level. appeared, for whatever reason, to be more
There are a number of explanations of why scientific. Second, the commitment to sci-
the idea of science that the behavioralists ence contributed to a growing rift between
brought to the field largely centered on the the American scholarly community, which
concept of an international system (Kaplan, sought to emulate the positivist approach to
1957; Rosenau, 1969). The idea of a system knowledge, and much of the rest of the world
was central to the behavioral movement, but that remained deeply suspicious of studying
its application to IR took on a number of international politics in this manner. The
distinctive and problematic properties. Within members of the English School, Hedley Bull,
political science, the systems approach Herbert Butterfield, John Vincent, Martin
(Easton, 1953) was meant to replace the Wight, and others, were, for example, “skep-
study of the state, which the behavioralists tical of the possibility of a scientific study of
deemed to be archaic and contributing to the International Relations” (Dunne, 1998: 7).
backwardness of the discipline. Yet within They chose to focus on what they termed an
IR, where the influence of the behavioral “international society” that involved the
persuasion arrived late, the adoption of the study of history, culture, religion, and phi-
concept of a system did not supersede the losophy (Dunne, 1998; Epp, 1998; Little,
focus on the interaction of states, since it 2000). Yet their work, as well as most of the
would have risked the very identity of the scholarship from Britain, was, until recently,
field (Little, 1978). The properties accorded almost completely ignored by American
to the “international system” were largely scholars. A third consequence was a divorce
derived from a detailed, and increasingly between political theory and international
quantitative, analysis of the units (states) relations theory (Boucher, 1998). Just as the
(Buzan and Little, 2000). The systems history of political thought became a focal
approach gave rise to what has been termed point of attack by behavioralists in political
the “level of analysis problem,” which science, the idea that the study of interna-
involves the question of the relative weight tional political theory could advance the sci-
that should be attributed to the units as entific credentials of the field was rejected.

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Fourth, the bifurcation of political theory and hand, approaches such as critical theory,
international theory had the effect of margin- post-structuralism, postmodernism, and spe-
alizing normative concerns and contributed cific versions of constructivism and femi-
to what Steve Smith has termed the “forty- nism that fall under the post-positivism label
years detour” whereby it became “simply and, on the other hand, the mainstream,
old-fashioned, and very unacademic, to intro- which he argues is wedded to a rationalist
duce normative concerns into analysis unless orthodoxy. The latter is seen as resulting
they were themselves to be the objects of from what Waever (1996) terms a “neo-neo
analysis” (1992: 489). The field has only synthesis” in which, during the 1980s,
recently begun to recover from this detour neoliberalism and neorealism essentially
and has rediscovered normative international became indistinguishable on the basis of
political theory. their shared commitment to a rationalist
The limitations of utilizing the “great research program.
debates” framework for understanding the Post-positivism has sparked a considerable
history of the field is plainly apparent when amount of meta-theoretical reflection on the
we come to the 1980s and the so-called “third current identity and composition of the field.
great debate.” As the field has become increas- The activity of reflecting on the nature of
ingly pluralistic, perhaps owing, in part, to theory has come to comprise a significant
its institutional growth, there seems to be a component of the discourse in IR. As in other
plethora of debates. In addition to the two fields where the challenge to positivism has
versions of the “third debate” mentioned ear- been mounted, post-positivists in IR view the
lier, the inter-paradigm and post-positivism traditional epistemological foundations of
debates, there is the debate between neoreal- the field, often assumed to emanate from the
ism and neoliberalism (Baldwin, 1993; Enlightenment, as no longer a philosophi-
Kegley, 1995); between rationalists and cally defensible basis for making authorita-
reflectivists (Keohane, 1988; Walker, 1989); tive judgments about validity in political
and between rationalists and constructivists inquiry. In this manner, “post-positivism has
(Katzenstein et al., 1999; Wendt, 1999; see placed the scientific study of world politics
Hurrell, Chapter 3 in this volume). Yet this in a serious crisis” (Vasquez, 1995: 234).
listing only begins to scratch the surface, Many of these “alternative” or “dissident”
since there are also numerous debates within approaches seek to deconstruct the tradi-
specific approaches such as constructivism, tional positivist foundations of the field and
feminism, realism, and post-structuralism. to embrace a radical anti-foundationalism
Although it is difficult to provide an ade- that can enable multiple voices or perspec-
quate historical perspective on these more tives to be heard. This is seen by some as
recent developments, it is simply impossible leading to a major restructuring of IR, allow-
to lump all of these controversies under one ing for additional space in which to think
grand master debate. No matter what general about the issues that currently comprise the
characteristics we assign to the debate, it subject matter of the field (George and
would not help us to understand the most Campbell, 1990; Neufeld, 1995; Tickner,
recent history of the field. Waever has sug- 1997). For others, post-positivism, and post-
gested that one way to get beyond the modernism in particular, has raised fears
confusion of viewing recent developments about relativism, as the loss of an epistemo-
in terms of a singular third debate is by logical foundation is believed to undermine
acknowledging that we have entered a “fourth the authority of scholars to provide transcon-
debate” (1996). Here Waever, like several textual grounds for truth (Rosenau, 1990;
others in the field (Lapid, 1989; Smith, 2000; Vasquez, 1995).
Vasquez, 1995), suggests that we make a While there is little doubt that various
sharp differentiation between, on the one post-positivist approaches have contributed

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 20 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


to the field’s pluralistic character, generated For a field that appears to be perpetually
an expansive body of interesting literature, consumed by identity crises, careful attention
and forced the field to confront a host of new to some of the previous identities by which we
meta-theoretical questions, how large an were possessed would represent a fruitful
impact they have made on the mainstream research agenda. There is ample opportunity
core of the field is still not clear. Like previ- for the diverse approaches in the field to
ous “alternative” approaches, the main object explore their own intellectual roots and,
of the post-positivist critique has been real- thereby, to recognize some of the continuities
ism; yet realism, in one form or another, between the past and the present. By prob-
survives and continues to provide what many lematizing the conventional wisdom regarding
would argue to be the initial essential assump- the development of the field, new avenues of
tions for explaining international politics as it research are opened as are the possibilities of
has been traditionally defined by the field of discovering previously neglected figures from
IR (Walt, 2002). This can partly account for the past. Notwithstanding Christina Sylvester’s
why, of all the alternative approaches that (2002) critique that disciplinary historians
have entered the field since the early 1980s, have failed to take note of women, gender, and
Wendt’s particular conception of constructiv- feminism, disciplinary history can be a means
ism, which accepts many of the assumptions of recovering marginalized and excluded
of realism, is the approach being taken most voices, including those of women (see Tickner
seriously by the mainstream today. To the and Sjoberg, Chapter 7 in this volume) and
dismay of some of the critical scholars in African-Americans (Vitalis, 2000).
the field, Wendt (1999) claims that his ver- The research exercise of investigating the
sion of constructivism is able to entertain the history of the field has, in recent years,
role of ideas, norms, and the process of acquired a much greater level of intellectual
identity formation while at the same time respect and academic legitimacy. One of the
subscribing to a realist world-view and a defining characteristics of the historiographi-
positivist epistemology. cal turn is that much more attention has been
placed on the theoretical and methodological
assumptions that are involved in researching
the history of the field. Although the debate
CONCLUSION between “internalists” and “externalists” has
contributed to more emphasis being placed
Although there is a general sense that we on historiographical issues, it is important
already know the field’s history, I have that this controversy not become another
attempted to demonstrate that there are many enduring disciplinary dichotomy. As Bell has
problems with the conventional story about noted, “the internal/external distinction
how the field has developed. The most recent occludes as much as it illuminates,” adding
work on the history of IR has shown that “these are not the only options available”
that many of our orthodox understandings (2009: 10). One aspect missing from the
about the development of the field are simply internal/external debate is the role of ideol-
incorrect. Research on the history of the field ogy in the development of IR (Little, 1999;
is not just an exercise in antiquarianism but Oren, 2003). The role of race is also missing,
an attempt to increase our capacity to exam- which Robert Vitalis (2005) has argued fun-
ine critically the contemporary nature of the damentally shaped the early history of IR.
field by an understanding of the intellectual There are now a variety of approaches that
roots from which it has evolved. A perspica- have been successfully utilized to explore
cious history of the field might even help to various dimensions of the field’s history,
prevent the tendency for the field to proclaim including a historical sociological approach
something quite old as new. (Guzzini, 1998); a sociology of science

5769-Carlsnaes_01.indd 21 7/11/2012 5:36:19 PM


approach (Waever, 1998; Tickner and Waever, Bell, Duncan (2003) “Political Theory and the Functions
2009); a genealogical approach (Smith, of Intellectual History: A Response to Emmanuel
1995); and a cultural-institutional approach Navon,” Review of International Studies, 29 (1):
(Jorgensen and Knudsen, 2006). Each of 151–160.
Bell, Duncan (2009) “Writing the World: Disciplinary
these approaches has its own merits, and
History and Beyond,” International Affairs, 85 (1):
when successfully applied to the disciplinary 3–22.
history of IR, holds out the promise of Bender, Thomas and Schorske, Carl E. (1998) American
confirming John Gunnell’s (1991) point that Academic Culture in Transformation: Fifty Years, Four
truth is very often more convincing than Disciplines. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
fiction and carries as much critical force. Booth, Ken (1996) “75 Years On: Rewriting the Subject’s
Past – Reinventing its Future,” in Steve Smith, Ken
Booth, and Marysia Zalewski (eds.), International
Theory: Positivism and Beyond. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp. 328–339.
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