Critical international relations theory: Wikis


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Critical international relations theory is a set of schools of thought in international relations (IR) that have criticized the status-quo—both from positivist positions as well as postpositivist positions. Positivist critiques include Marxist and Neo-Marxist approaches and Neo-Gramscianism. Some may also consider Social Constructivism as a positivist theory. Postpositivist critiques include postmodernist, postcolonial and feminist approaches, which differ from both realism and liberalism in their epistemological and ontological premises. Critical theory is also widely deployed by scholars working in this area.

Such theories are now widely recognized and taught and researched in most universities, but are as yet less common in the United States. They are taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels in many major universities outside the US, where a major concern is that "a myopic discipline of IR might contribute to the continued development of a civil society in the U.S. that thinks, reflects and analyzes complex international events through a very narrow set of theoretical lenses"[1]


Marxist theories

Marxist and Neo-Marxist international relations theories are positivist paradigms which reject the realist/liberal view of state conflict or cooperation; instead focusing on the economic and material aspects. It makes the assumption that the economy trumps other concerns; allowing for the elevation of class as the focus of study. Marxists view the international system as an integrated capitalist system in pursuit of capital accumulation. The ultimate goal of Marxist theory is to transform the international society into a collective utopia.

Social Constructivism

Social Constructivism is an attempt at bringing some of the epistemological and ontological premise of postpositivistic theories into positivism. Its proponents claim it is a middle ground between positivist and postpositivist theories. Social Constructivism focuses on the power of ideas in defining the international system—its founder, Alexander Wendt, noted that anarchy is what states make of it, implying that the international structure is not only a constraint on state action, but in fact constitutes state action through constituting the identities and interest of state agents.



Social Constructivism is considered by many postpositivists as being positivist as the focus of analysis is the state (at the ignorance of other factors such as ethnicity, class, race or gender); and considered by many positivists as postpositivist, as it forgoes many positivist assumptions.

Postpositivist theories

Postpositivist (or reflectivist) theories of IR attempt to integrate a larger variety of security concerns. Supporters argue that if IR is the study of foreign affairs and relations, it ought to include non-state actors as well as the state. Instead of studying solely high politics of the state, IR ought to study world politics of the everyday world—which involves BOTH high and low politics. Thus, issues such as gender (often in terms of feminism which generally holds salient the subordination of women to men—though newer feminisms allow for the reverse too) and ethnicity (such as stateless actors like the Kurds or Palestinians) can be problematized and made into an international security issue—supplanting (not replacing) the traditional IR concerns of diplomacy and outright war.

The postpositivist approach can be described as incredulity towards metanarratives—in IR, this would involve rejecting all-encompassing stories that claim to explain the international system. It argues that neither realism nor liberalism could be the full story. A postpositivist approach to IR does not claim to provide universal answers but seeks to ask questions instead. A key difference is that while positivist theories such as realism and liberalism highlight how power is exercised, postpositivist theories focus on how power is experienced resulting in a focus on both different subject matters and agents.

Often, postpositivist theories explicitly promote a normative approach to IR, by considering ethics. This is something which has often been ignored under traditional IR as positivist theories make a distinction between positive facts and normative judgements—whereas postpostivists argue that discourse is constitutive of reality; in other words, that it is impossible to be truly independent and factual as power-free knowledge cannot exist. (#)

Postpositivist theories do not attempt to be scientific or a social science. Instead, they attempt to in-depth analysis of cases in order to "understand" international political phenomena by asking relevant questions to determine in what ways the status-quo promote certain power relations.


Feminist IR is a broad term given to those scholars who have sought to bring a concern with gender into the academic study of international politics. In terms of IR theory it is important to understand that feminism is derived from the school of thought known as reflectionism. One of the most influential works in feminist IR is Cynthia Enloe's Bananas, Beaches and Bases(Pandora Press 1990). This text sought to chart the many different roles that women play in international politics: as plantation sector workers, diplomatic wives, sex workers on military bases etc. The important point of this work was to emphasise how when we look at international politics from the perspective of women we are forced to reconsider what we think international politics is 'all about'. However, it would be a mistake to think that feminist IR was solely a matter of identifying how many groups of women are positioned in the international political system. From its inception, feminist IR has always shown a strong concern with thinking about men and, in particular, masculinities. Indeed, many IR feminists argue that the discipline is inherently masculine in nature. For example, in her article "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals" Signs (1988), Carol Cohn identified how a highly masculinised culture within the defense establishment contributed to the divorcing of war from human emotion.

What is evident, therefore, is that a feminist IR involves looking at how international politics effects and is affected by both men and women and also at how the core concepts that are employed within the discipline of IR (e.g. war, security etc) are themselves thoroughly gendered. It should also be noted that feminist IR has not only concerned itself with the traditional focus of IR on states, wars, diplomacy and security - feminist IR scholars have also emphasied the importance of looking at how gender shapes the current global political economy. In this sense, there is no clear cut division between feminists working in IR and those working in the area of International Political Economy (IPE).

Feminist IR emerged largely from the late 1980s onwards. The end of the Cold War and the re-evaluation of traditional IR theory during the 1990s opened up a space for gendering International Relations. Because feminist IR is linked broadly to the critical project in IR, by and large most feminist scholarship has sought to problematise the politics of knowledge construction within the discipline - often by adopting methodologies of deconstructivism associated with postmodernism/poststructuralism. The growing influence of feminist and women-centric approaches within the international policy communities (for example at the World Bank and the United Nations) is more reflective of the liberal feminist emphasis on equality of opportunity for women.


By focusing on 'traditional' women’s roles (as victims or being used by men), feminist IR may exclude those women participating as diplomats or soldiers as well as ignoring men's issue such as why it is generally men are forced to fight in wars. Furthermore, as with criticisms with feminism in general, feminism almost always treats women as the subject of analysis at the exclusion of men—whether as agents or victims. In defence, some feminisms do consider men—though it still often makes the assumption that due to patriarchy, a certain, rational man is privileged. This may result in a confirmation bias.

Two of the most well known scholars to raise criticisms of feminist IR have been Robert Keohane and Francis Fukuyama. Keohane's target was not feminist IR per se but the attachment of many feminist IR scholars to postmodernist methodologies and theories. For Keohane, feminist IR need to develop scientific testable theories—a claim that J. Ann Tickner responded to with her piece 'You Just Don't Understand!'. Fukuyama suggested that the problem with feminist IR was that it put forward the view that if women ran the world then we would live in a much more peaceful world, a claim that he disputed. In fact, few feminist IR scholars have argued this, and even those that have would put forward a much more nuanced and sophisticated argument than that suggested by Fukuyama.


Postcolonial IR challenges the eurocentrism of IR—particularly its parochial assumption that Western Enlightenment thinking is superior, progressive and universally applicable. Postcolonialists argue that this is enabled through constructing the Other as irrational and backwards.[2]

Postcolonial IR attempts to expose such parochial assumptions of IR; for example, in the construction of white versus coloured peoples. An example is the IR story of a white men's burden to educate and liberate coloured men and women, to protect coloured women from coloured men. Often this is linked to other postpositivist theories, for example, through Postcolonial feminism, which analyze issues in IR through the lenses of both gender and culture.

Examples of the parochialistic nature of IR include geographical parochialism and cultural chauvinism. For the former, the construction of the Cold War era as a time of peace ignores the reality that major conflicts continued in the developing world. Furthermore, the oft-cited history of IR is constructed in western terms (more information under history); and IR has been used to justify everything from imperialism to a playground for skirmishes between the two Cold War superpowers. For the latter, the West (through IGOs such as the IMF's quick rush to "save" Asia in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–8 could be seen as both a white men's burden to save Asia or to reformulate Asian capitalism in a Western image.[3]

Criticisms and Defence

Such IR stories are purposefully limited in scope in terms of statecentric modelling, cataloguing and predicting in formal terms; and like other postpositivist theories, they do not attempt to form an overarching theory as after all, postpositivism is defined as incredulity towards metanarratives. This is replaced by a sensitivity and openness to the unintended consequences of metanarratives and their negative impacts on the most marginalised actors in IR. In defence, postpositivists argue that metanarratives have proven unworkable. Thus, such theories, although limited in scope, provide for much greater possibilities in the normative work of developing an emancipatory politics, formulating foreign policy, understanding conflict, and making peace, which takes into account gender, ethnicity, other identity issues, culture, methodology and other common issues that have emerged from problem-solving, rationalist, reductive accounts IR.


  1. ^ Smith, Steve (2002). "The United States and the Discipline of International Relations: Hegemonic Country, Hegemonic Discipline?". International Studies Review 4 (2): 67–86. doi:10.1111/1521-9488.00255.  
  2. ^ Edward Said (1979), Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books
  3. ^ Cultural Chauvinism and the Liberal International Order - ‘West vs Rest’ in Asia’s Financial Crisis - Forthcoming in G. Chowdhry and S. Nair (eds), Power in a Postcolonial World: Race, Gender and Class in International Relations (London: Routledge)


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  • Cynthia Enloe, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (Paperback), University of California Press 2004, ISBN 0520243811
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  • Linklater, Andrew, 1997. ‘The transformation of political community: E.H.Carr, critical theory and international relations’, Review of International Studies Vol 23, 1997: 321-338.
  • Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat: Despatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Crisis in World Politics), C. Hurst & Co, 2007, ISBN 1850658439
  • Christine Sylvester, Feminist international relations: an unfinished journey. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 2002
  • Cynthia Weber, International Relations Theory. A Critical Introduction, 2nd edition, Taylor & Francis, 2004, ISBN 0415342082

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