“Theories are like maps. Each map is made for a certain purpose and what is included in the map is based on what is necessary to direct the map’s users. All other details are left out to avoid confusion and present a clear picture.”
While preparing for a project, I have to review my understanding of International Relations (IR) theories. I was shocked to see how far the field has evolved since I studied them during my BA (1988-1993) and one of my MAs (1998-1999).
Back in the day when I was a college student, it was a time of upheaval not only for the world but for the study of IR. The unraveling of the Soviet Union started with Gorbachev´s Glasnost and Perestroika, and by the end of 1991, it dissolved, changing the face of world politics and IR.
My professors struggled, not just to keep up with the fast changes occurring, but trying to explain them to us, almost as they were happening. It was especially complicated for the professor teaching the course about the USSR’s politics and economy right after its collapse.
Fortunately for me, in my GMAP studies (see a post about my experience here), I had the opportunity to take courses where I examined the significant changes that occurred at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, with a 18-year perspective. For me, it was a revelation.
Since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, many things have changed, including the evolution explosion of IR theories. But, why do we need theories?
I like the idea that “Theories are like maps. Each map is made for a certain purpose and what is included in the map is based on what is necessary to direct the map’s users. All other details are left out to avoid confusion and present a clear picture.”[i]
Maps are appropriate for specific purposes, highlighting critical features while leaving out elements that are not necessary. Their focus and simplification give a sense of direction and location, regardless if you are moving or not.
To go beyond the headlines and have a deeper understanding of the transnational world, you need a map to underscore what is essential, and with this knowledge finding solutions to humanity's problems might be more manageable. Without knowing where we are and what direction to look, we are lost.
In the book International Relations edited by Stephen McGlinchey, there is an excellent overview of traditional, middle-ground, and critical IR theories. Back in my student days, there were but a few of them besides Realism and Liberalism and their “neo” versions.
However, the theories explored in the book are but a few of the new ways IR scholars worldwide are probing the international system, how it works, and how its actors interact.
Long are the days when the Nation-State was the only player of the international system. Nowadays, there are around 41,000 active intergovernmental and international non-governmental organizations, out of 213 in 1909.[ii]
The digital revolution and fast changes in transportation have made the world smaller, with increasing blurring of borders which “has dramatically altered the general dynamics in politics and global affairs.”[iii]
Besides, Tech companies are very different from their more traditional peers, as I explained in my post about Denmark’s Tech Ambassador to Silicon Valley. The influence they garner is unlikely any other actor in the international arena.
All these changes have impacted the theories of International Relations. To learn more about the new ways scholars are interpreting the state of global affairs, I recommend reading the book International Relations Theory, edited by Stephen McGlinchey, Rosie Walters, and Christian Scheinpflug.
The book’s second part is exciting as it includes new and different standpoints of IR theory from Green and Queer Theory to Indigenous and Global South Perspectives.
In tune with the greater use of audiovisuals and online resources, the book publishers (E-IR) have a dedicated section with some useful videos useful to better understand some of the theories described in the book.
I think that the inclusion of non-State, non-Western/European, non-male -centric perspectives in the field of International Relations is very much needed and welcomed. As the constructivism theory indicates, people construct the anarchic international system. Through changes in these beliefs, norms, and behaviors, there is a possibility of changing it to the human race's benefit. So, the inclusion of new visions and perspectives will only enrich the understanding of the system and hopefully find better ways to interact.
Adding the Global South´s perspective into International Relations, including its theories, is significant because as societies recognized their own diversity, starting with a push towards greater inclusion of women and other minorities.
In the chapter “Towards a Global IR?”, Amitav Acharya[iv] explains some of the reasons for “Western dominance in IR, [including the]…
Mexico has been working on expanding the IR vision from the Global South. An example is the publication of the book Teorías de Relaciones Internacionales en el siglo XXI: interpretaciones críticas desde México, edited by Jorge Schiavon et al., and published by the Asociación Mexicana de Estudios Internacionales (International Studies Mexican Association. A second edition had to be published after its successful launching, something uncommon for a book about theories!
Another effort towards greater inclusion is the creation of the Global South Caucus of International Studies of the International Studies Association (ISU), ten years ago, together with the association´s efforts to include higher participation of Global South members as contributors, reviewers, and editors of its seven iconic journals.
Besides, ISU is promoting more and deeper cooperation with its sister´s academic organizations and establishing in 2018 the Committee on the Status of Engagement with the Global South.
Going back to the map as theory idea, I concurred that “Embarking on the study of International Relations without an understanding of theory is like setting off on a journey without a map. You might arrive at your destination, or somewhere else very interesting, but you will have no idea where you are or how you got there.”[vi] So, let´s open our map of choice and examine the situation we want to explain using IR theory.
[i] McGlinchey, Stephen, Walters, Rosie and Gold, Dana, “Getting Started with International Relations Theory” in International Relations Theory, E-International Relations, 2017, p. 2.
[ii] Cooper, Andrew F., Heine, Jorge and Thakur, Ramesh, “Introduction: The Challenges of 21st-Century Diplomacy” in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, 2013, p. 9.
[iii] Gebhard, Carmen, “One World, Many Actors” in International Relations, E-International Relations, 2017, p. 44.
[iv] Which happens to be a highly regarded IR scholar, and the first non-Western President of the International Studies Association (2014-2015).
[v] Acharya, Amitav, “Towards a Global IR?” in International Relations Theory, E-International Relations, 2017, pp. 76-77.
[vi] McGlinchey, Stephen, Walters, Rosie and Gold, Dana, “Getting Started with International Relations Theory” in International Relations Theory, E-International Relations, 2017, p. 2.
DISCLAIMER: All views expressed on this blog are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of any other authority, agency, organization, employer or company.
Rodrigo Márquez Lartigue
Diplomat interested in the development of Consular and Public Diplomacies.