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As International Relations enters its second century as an academic discipline, leading expert Knud Erik Jørgensen provides a provocative assessment of its past, present and future.

In this book, Jørgensen traces International Relations scholarship, from its formative interwar years through to rapid growth in students and researchers in the wake of globalization. He examines the resultant widening of scholarship in the field, and the effects that this has had on the global discipline. The result is a concise and challenging appraisal of International Relations, one which both celebrates its value and maps possible future directions.

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Subject matter matters in an almost existential fashion, not least because scholars conventionally insist on using it to define the discipline. Hence disciplines are frequently defined by the subject areas they cover and perhaps for good reasons. Think about it. Within a discipline, it intuitively seems justified to expect a common understanding of what is under the microscope. Nonetheless, the subject matter in IR is one of the most hotly contested issues. In the words of Michael Cox (2005), editor of International Relations: ‘At a time when the discipline is split into ontological tribes who speak only to themselves, and in their own languages, it was refreshing to hear a scholar seeking to connect, even if the medium was “battle”’ (p. 337). Cox’s assessment is widely shared and, as Christine Sylvester (2013) adds, ‘debate, once thought of as a disciplinary sport, is now mostly confined to within-camp issues’ (p. 615).1

In the contested issue of subject matter, two main trends stand out: ‘narrowers’ versus ‘wideners’. The two first sections of the chapter examine narrow and broad understandings of the subject matter. The challenge is not only that our answers to the question ‘What’s under the microscope?’ evolve historically; that seems to apply to all scientific disciplines, and in the natural sciences it is one of the main premises of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known idea about paradigms and paradigmatic shifts. By contrast, within the scientific study of international relations, the issue triggers not successive paradigm shifts but rather fundamental disagreement about what the discipline is and what it should be about. Indeed, social scientists triggered Kuhn’s hunch about the significance of paradigms.

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The contrast could not be starker between arguing, on the one hand, that IR is ‘an American social science’ (Hoffmann, 1977; see also Grosser, 1956), thus reducing IR to no more than a distinct social science in America, and, on the other hand, that IR is a ‘craft discipline’ (Jackson, 2000) or, according to Michael Donelan (1978), that ‘the data of the human sciences are the product of thought. The study of international relations is the study of international thought’ (p. 11). Subsequent contributions demonstrate that the issue remains high on the discipline’s agenda (Alker, 1996; Brown, 2014; Neumann, 2014; D’Aoust, 2017).1

In this chapter, I argue that IR has always straddled or at least been at the boundary between the social sciences (e.g. Law, Sociology, Economics, Political Science) and the humanities (e.g. History, Anthropology, Literary Studies, Philosophy). Hence the chapter intervenes in debates about the inherent tension between the proponents of too little/too much (social) science and too much/too little humanities. Each position on the spectrum comes with important ideas about specified kinds of subject matter (see Chapter 1), as well as preferred theories and methodologies. This chapter spells out the ramifications of taking distinct positions and proposes that it is time to leave either/or options behind and instead acknowledge the human sciences as IR’s heterogeneous home, that is, the wider camp spanning the social sciences and the humanities (see Figure 2.1). Whereas the ‘social’ and the ‘human’ aspects of the disciplines seem to get along or even be synonymous, the ‘science’ part invites trouble not least because postmodern and poststructuralist scholarship has spent the last 50 years admonishing ‘science’.

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Having examined its subject matter and situated the discipline in the human sciences (i.e. in the combined environment of the social sciences and the humanities), we should address an issue that goes to the bone of this book but which is strangely avoided in much IR disciplinary self-reflection: ‘What is a discipline?’ The term ‘discipline’ might appear on every second page of any given IR book but seldom in the index, indicating that it is not handled in a focused or structured fashion. Without a solid conceptualization of ‘discipline’, whatever is claimed about it will rest on shaky ground or, at worst, be irrelevant. One factor explaining why poor conceptualization is the case may be that examinations of ‘the discipline’ have focused on the discipline as such and not on the discipline in the context of the changing role and dynamics of scientific disciplines in modern society (for an exception, see Buzan and Little, 2001). A second factor may be the typical reduction of ‘discipline’ to either its theories or various article metrics. A third factor may be that comparisons between IR and other disciplines are based on impressions about other disciplines, such as the odd idea that political science has a well-defined distinct subject matter and a core of theories and methods about which there is widespread consensus.

It follows that, to understand how the IR discipline has changed over time and how it has changed with the changing context of disciplinary knowledge, there is quite some work to do.

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This chapter traces the nature of theory, including changing conceptions of it. Given that the book is about a discipline that is defined to some degree by its theories, such a chapter seems almost obligatory. That scholars often define the discipline by its theories indicates that the significance of theory for the discipline is considerable and, moreover, that exploring the functions of theory for and in the discipline is worthwhile. This chapter is therefore not yet another chapter about the body of IR theories. Nor is it only about theory but also about theorizing, not least because, as Rosemary Shinko (2006) highlights, ‘theorizing is fun’ (p. 45) and should be taught. The chapter examines meta-theoretical issues, albeit with a view towards practical rather than hair-splitting problematiques.

In the next section I characterize the act of theorizing and outline the functions of theory in a disciplinary context, to avoid some of the potential misunderstandings that might follow from limited specification. The point of departure is to perceive IR as not a static but a dynamic discipline. From such a perspective, it follows that the functions of theory in the discipline change over time, a fact that has not received the attention it deserves. In this context, it is crucial to understand that conceptions of theory also change over time; what counted as theory in the 1930s no longer counts that much in the 1960s or the 2010s. Within IR, the first reference to theory seems to have been made in the 1930s.

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In recent decades, diversifiers have repeatedly made calls to move beyond hegemony and towards more diversity in IR. There is no apparent end to how diverse the discipline should be, nor any end to how diverse diversity can be. With its plurality of theoretical traditions, myriads of methodologies to serve the theories, a dozen subdisciplines, various regional disciplinary cultures, and its straddling of the social sciences and the humanities, IR is actually as diverse as it gets. Moreover, in reality there is no hegemony. Based on comprehensive empirical studies, Helen Turton (2015) concludes against conventional wisdom, that (American) hegemony is first and foremost an imagined state of affairs. Likewise, May Darwich et al (Darwich et al, 2020; Darwich and Kaarbo, 2020) document how IR scholars in the Arab world teach IR in a non-hegemonic fashion. Others point out that Japan has its own configuration of research traditions (Inoguchi and Bacon, 2001). Olubukola Adesina (2020) shows how scholars based in Africa offer important concepts, theories and wider perspectives that do not reflect a supposedly hegemonic ‘Centre’; indeed, she points to the observation that some of the supposedly western ideas originate in Africa.1 Hence, both the widespread prescriptions offered as well as the hegemony ‘diagnosis’ would appear to be resting on shaky foundations.

Nonetheless, diversity remains an issue, and a contested one at that. Whereas some believe the discipline to be far too diverse, counting diversity as a threat to coherence, discipline or ‘monotheism’ of sorts, others believe the discipline is much too short on diversity – at least diversity as they understand it.

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Continuing to apply concepts that scholars frequently use in passing but that merit closer examination, this chapter focuses on community. However, the community in focus is not the international community or its rhetorical or other functions. Nor is it the imagined communities of nations or the communities on Scottish or Indonesian islands (Geertz, 1973; Cohen, 1989; Anderson, 1991). Instead, the chapter focuses on what William J. Goode (1957) refers to as a ‘community within a community: the professions’; and, given our special interest in IR, the focus is particularly on the oft-mentioned but hardly analysed, little understood and not always appreciated community of IR scholars.

Community studies are often based on the conceptual triptych of self, other and boundary, which also seems to work for the purposes of this chapter. Given that boundaries exist between self and other, they deserve special attention. Kicking an article off with a rhetorical question, ‘Should we leave behind the subfield of International Relations?’, Dan Reiter (2015) weighs the pros and cons and eventually concludes that the subfield should be kept (for now), mainly because dividing the bits and pieces into more viable and worthy disciplines and fields of study would create new boundary problems. Anthony P. Cohen (1998) also makes boundaries a key feature of communities and, like other sociologists and social anthropologists, he examines communities in terms of a relational notion of identity: who are we? what do we want to be recognized for? and who are we not?

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It is intriguing, almost amusing, to watch how the disciplinary terroiriste have entered the discipline of International Relations in the last few decades, sometimes called just IR, presumably to avoid too much discipline.1 Terroir and denominazione origine are no longer a domaine réservé for wine, cheese or foie gras. For the IR terroiriste it matters, and for some matters beyond imagination, in which garden a given theory has grown and which gardener cultivated it. In short, origin matters and, it seems to me, the issue should therefore be part of disciplinary meta-studies. My previous engagements in this distinct field of study have taught me that the relatively small terroiriste community is deeply split, and the label may actually be all that is holding the community together. Given this state of affairs, it is with a mix of reluctance and persistence that I address the impact of terroir, including designations of local and global.

During the last two decades, there have been ever more vocal calls to make the discipline more ‘international’ or ‘global’. This trend builds on the curious idea that IR is a spécialité américaine (Grosser, 1956) or ‘an American social science’ (Hoffman, 1977). Some suggest that IR is under ‘Anglo-American hegemony’ (Holsti, 1985) or, more vaguely, ‘a not so international discipline’ (Wæver, 1998).2 Other observers claim that IR is a Eurocentric or western discipline (Hobson, 2012).

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What is International Relations? The previous chapters present in many ways a synthesis of an archipelago of insights about the discipline of IR, a discipline that is not always recognized or appreciated but that is practised by thousands of scholars around the world daily. I have drawn on, reproduced, reconstructed and combined a rich collection of ideas about the key parameters of disciplines in general, with an eye to the IR discipline. As highlighted on the first page of the book, it is a more than 60,000-word-long invitation to join a new understanding of IR, that is, to join a novel platform for understanding IR as a human science – as a global and diverse discipline that is ‘fully-fledged, full-blown, autonomous, intellectually legitimate and accomplished’ (Puchala, 2003: 273). What in this context is also worth repeating is Lynn Hunt’s (1994) claim – to some a provocative claim – that disciplines have virtue. The previous pages have shown numerous examples of IR’s virtue. With the seven key concepts that go into the structure of the book, the design of the platform and thus the understanding of IR as a mature discipline has seven pillars.1

It would not have been possible to reach the synthesis or to draw the following conclusions without guidance, which has been provided by four premises. The first premise I attribute to Martin Wight (1991), according to whom one of the main purposes of university education ‘is to escape from the Zeigeist’ (p. xx). Thereby, as Hedley Bull points out, Wight provided ‘an antidote to the self-importance and self-pity that underlie the belief of each generation that its own problems are unique’ (cited in Wight, 1991: xx).

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