Plurality in International Relations: Weakness or Strength?

Document Type : Research Paper


Professor, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran



The history of International Relations (IR) as a discipline has been characterized by periods of more or less —but never absolute—theoretical agreement or rather “theoretical tranquility” and the periods characterized by theoretical debates representing deep gaps within the discipline. Yet what we can see in all these periods is the continuation of the plurality of theories. Even when there was no debate, consensus was not attained nor could significant theories of the time be ignored. At present, the discipline is still theoretically plural and the theories differ in meta-theoretical terms leading to various explanations and conceptualizations of the international. There are now at least eight or nine major theoretical approaches including realism, liberalism, the English school, Marxism, critical theory, feminism, postmodernism, constructivism, and sometimes, green theory within the discipline. All of these have internal divisions; hence even categorizing them in one single approach may become problematic. The question here is how this theoretical plurality can become a strong point for the discipline. According to Ree (2014), there have been five strategies in dealing with plurality in the discipline: zero-sum approach with an emphasis on the correctness of one’s approach and absolute denial of others —practically not fully followed by IR scholars, inviting all to compromise while insisting on the correctness of one’s approach, representing one’s approach as a middle-ground and, hence, more correct, “regrounding” the discipline through developing a framework for maintaining plurality, and finally celebrating plurality.
Here on the basis of the fourth, and specifically the fifth strategy, I show how plurality is inevitable and it can even be considered to be an important value. First of all, none of the existing IR theories can fully respond to —even fundamental—questions in the discipline as even their most insistent proponents admit that their theories are not flawless or complete. Thus, no single approach can be seen as privileged. Secondly, none of the theoretical approaches is dominant in the field. Many studies in recent decades have demonstrated this. My main argument here is that the plurality of theories is a fact, and that from various points of view it can be seen as favorable —or at least harmless— as far as individual scholars’ concerns, accumulation of knowledge, and policy/objective needs are concerned. Individual scholars normally see their own theoretical stance persuasive. They may have a major claim about the explanation of an important dimension of international life or see their work as complementary to the existing literature but rarely anyone claims that his/her theoretical stance explains everything in international relations. Scientific modesty is an agreed upon value in IR.
Positivists see the value of plurality within the limits of “scientific standards” that should be applicable to all. Yet, as scientific/naturalist approach is not recognized as the only or even the privileged one, it may easily lead to unjustified de-legitimization and marginalization of certain theoretical endeavors. Furthermore, as far as substantive aspects of theorization are concerned, considering complexity of international life and the fact that causal relations are not necessarily uni-directional, under-determination and over-determination are pervasive. Even positivists do not deny that reaching a single paradigm is impossible. At the same time, the way out of this dilemma is certainly not a model in which all identifiable variables are included, as such a schema cannot go beyond an analytical model which is neither parsimonious nor falsifiable and may lack consistency. As far as post-positivists and interpretivists are concerned, plurality is itself a justified value. 
One of the reasons of skepticism about theoretical plurality is practical and policy concerns. If knowledge is to be a useful instrument and be applicable in decision making, it should be “problem solving”. Yet it is most often theoretically inspired research that can be helpful in practice or policy, and one may easily show that studies based on specific theories including explanatory and constitutive one —and even most radical approaches such as post-structuralism— can shed some light on certain aspects of international life, and thus help decision-makers understand it better. Of course, as far as critical approaches are concerned, their applicability is not necessarily for states —especially great and dominant powers— but the forces that seek radical changes. Thus, dependent upon type of theory and the questions asked, theories and theory-based studies can serve various international actors in practice.
This article sees theoretical plurality as plurality of lenses or spotlights that concentrate on specific dimensions of international life and argues for a dialogical approach in which this plurality is recognized at both theoretical and meta-theoretical levels, it is valued as an expression of various experiences of the world and the knowledge produced on the basis of that reflects those experiences, and “truth” —even if partial— is seen as being attainable through dialogue. Such an approach to plurality can, on the one hand, justify plurality without relativism or exclusion of any particular theory and, on the other hand, can pave the way for the inclusion of non-Western theories in the discipline.


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