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IR - One Definition a Day: International Relations (IR)


One-Definition-A-Day: International Relations (IR), (p. 274, Ref. 1)

This term is used to identify all interactions between state-based actors across state boundaries. The term can immediately be compared with, though is broader than, international politics. Indeed, the latter is subsumed as one, and certainly one of the most important, sub-fields of international relations. Thus international law is part of international relations but not international politics. Law is, after all, certainly in its customary form, created by interactions between state-based actors. Similarly international economic relations are part of international relations but not international politics. This is not to say that political calculations will not intrude into these areas, but only that they can be separated for the purposes of analysis.

International relations (IR) is thus an interdisciplinary and heterogeneous area of study. It has no unifying methodology because, taken with three examples mentioned above, international economics is an empirical social science, international law is far more normative than most social sciences while international politics is eclectic, borrowing from a number of traditions and divided in many minds into a rather unruly flock of activities. It should also be noted that the above listing is illustrative rather than exhaustive, diplomatic history, which again has its own methodology, being an obvious omission.

Despite its multidisciplinary and fragmented nature, most students of international relations view it as a sub-discipline of political science, broadly conceived. Although the main professional societies in the Anglo-American world have specifically and deliberately avoided using the term IR in order to indicate its multidisciplinary character (The International Studies Association and the British International Studies Association) the majority of members are in fact drawn from the study of politics. Indeed the domain of IR is often still referred to as 'international politics' despite the differences noted above. This terminological imprecision can also be noted in related labels such as 'world politics', 'foreign affairs', 'international affairs' and more recently 'international studies' and 'global politics'. Foreign policy analysis, security studies, International Political Economy and normative theory are the most vibrant sub-fields and these also are dominated by political scientists.

History and approaches

As a separate fields of academic inquiry distinct from International law, Political Theory and Diplomatic History, IR effectively began with the establishment of its first chair at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1919. The first general theoretical perspective was popularly labelled idealism and was characterized by a belief in progress; that the international system could be transformed into a fundamentally more peaceful and just world order.

From the start therefore IR was policy-orientated. Thereafter the subject underwent a succession of waves of theoretical activity which inspired a number of 'great debates' within the discipline. In rough chronological order (mindful that these 'schools' are not exclusive and do overlap) these are: realism, behaviorism, neo-realism, neo-liberalism, world systems theory, critical theory and postmodernism. These perspective shifts often involved bitter disputes about methodology, epistemology and ontology. However, there is now general acceptance within IR that given the range and complexity of the subject matter, a wide variety of theoretical approaches might be an asset rather than a liability. 

Most of these paradigm controversies were centred on the work of analysts in the USA and Europe (sometimes, inaccurately referred to as the 'Anglo-Amercian tradition' which tended to concentrate on great power/superpower issues. IR students in the Third World or South by and large, by-passed these debates and not unnaturally focused on particular policy problems with their states or regions. 

Overall theoretical perspectives, if developed at all, usually had their origins in Marxist/Leninist theories of imperialism in dependency theory and structuralism. With the ending of the Cold War, IR like its subject matter is in the state of flux. The two dominant perspectives are neo-realism and neo-liberalism but the general uncertainty about the continued validity of the state as the key actor in world politics, has led to doubts about the ability of IR in its present form, to survive as a separate area of academic study.

Remarks: ONE DEFINITION A DAY is a campaign by YourVietBooks.com to encourage young Vietnamese talents to practise their translation skills and learn more on Vietnam's Culture, the Land and the People. Volunteers are welcome to contribute their translated version of today's DEFINITION in the comments below.

Original Title in English: Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin (1998) by Authors Graham Evans and Jeffrey Newnham

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