We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

IR’s ‘Isms’ Are Evil. All Hail the ‘Isms’!

11 2 19

This is an excerpt from International Relations Theory – An E-IR Foundations beginner’s textbook. Available now on Amazon (USA, UK, Ca, Fra, Ger), in all good book stores, and via a free PDF download. Kindle, iBook and other e-reader versions are available via the relevant stores/apps.

Find out more about E-IR’s range of open access books here.

In this concluding chapter I want to explore some of the problems that come with classifying IR theory in the way we do. I want to open up a problem. Why is it we call theories of world politics theories and not ideologies? To answer this question I will engage in a bit of metatheory – that is, theory about theory – to expose some of the complexities and problems that emerge once we think a little more deeply about how the ‘isms’ can and ought to be used. The point of this chapter is to help you to think theoretically about how the previous chapters in this book hang together. In other words, while you might have already spotted shared characteristics of the various ‘isms’, in this chapter I want to give you the tools to understand why those commonalities exist at all. In short, the argument is that IR theories should be understood not only as theories but also as ideologies. The proximity and difference between theories and ideologies will become clearer as we progress, but the key point I want to make is that when we understand the ideological element in IR theory, we are better able to think critically about the enterprise of dividing IR up as a set of isms in the first place.

The chapter starts with a quick overview of the rise and fall of the isms in political studies and IR theory. Funnily enough, for many people we live in a post-ideological age, and the fact IR theorists talk about theories and not ideologies is manifest evidence of that. I then discuss some reasons we should reject the isms as a way of compartmentalising philosophical thinking in IR, and show how concept analysis and ideology critique are good alter- natives. But I close by arguing that we need ideologies and our isms not only to help frame explanations of world politics but also as raw material for exposing the political and moral assumptions scholars work with. Hopefully, this final chapter should encourage you to be both playful and experimental with IR theory.

An ‘ism’ is a suffix that denotes a more or less systematic set of beliefs, opinions, and/or values about the world. The suffix is added when something moves from being quite specific to encompassing more expansive or general views, beliefs and attitudes. For example, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte may have general views that are unique to him, but until he or anyone else systematises them into a coherent worldview, we are unlikely to start talking about Duterteism in the same way we would of Marxism for example.

The isms become even more expansive when more than one person contributes to or develops the initial set of views. Contemporary Marxism incorporates a vast array of ideas and theories, approaches, epistemologies and ontologies. Indeed, other isms add a large measure of Marxism to their own too, mainly to distinguish them from other sub-types. For example, there can be both orthodox or heterodox Marxism or liberal feminism and Marxist feminism, and so forth. In short, in political science the isms generally denote ideologies and their refinements.

In IR, however, we think of the isms as theories, not ideologies, which is odd. Why do we call Marxism a theory in IR, but an ideology in political science? This is not just a semantic issue. In fact it goes to the core of what IR thought of itself in the period in which it emerged as a stand-alone social science at the turn of the twentieth century. The reason IR scholars spoke of theory rather than ideology at this time was that it was generally held that international relations were not amenable to the totalising visions of the good life that we find elaborated in the architecture of the main ideologies (Wight 1966). Realists prided themselves on their ability to cut through the moral haze of world politics to the perennial problems of world politics. Realism was not an ideology, but increasingly came to be seen as a simple set of universal truths about politics.

This tendency to distinguish IR theory from ideologies was cemented at the end of the Cold War when almost everyone else also became post-ideological. This had a number of core features. The end of the Cold War galvanised a widespread consensus that liberalism was no longer an ideology, but was instead given in the structures of history, which, according to Francis Fukuyama (1989), were now coming to fruition signifying an ‘end of history’. The Soviet Union, the counter-hegemonic power that offered the only existing alternative to Western liberalism, had fallen. For many, such as Fukuyama, this meant that we were entering a post-ideological age, an age in which the dominance of liberalism and the demise of its main challengers – fascism and communism – meant there simply were no other ideologies around, making liberalism the truth revealed at the end of history. Part of this account of liberalism, however, involved a very particular conception of human rationality, one in which maximising your self-interest was........

© E-International