International Relations Theory 101: The Fourth Great Debate in IR Theories


The field of International Relations (IR), although relatively young in comparison to other social sciences, has developed rapidly, bringing to the table complex theoretical frameworks to analyze international phenomena. This unfolding of theories has inevitably led to what is known as the ‘great debates’ within the theories of IR, showcasing the trends and dissonances among IR scholars.

In this series, the ‘Fourth Great Debate’ (rationalism vs reflectivism) in IR is addressed. The focus is placed on the reflectivist theories, because it is a loose umbrella term that comprises different theories. The aim is to give a basic understanding of how these theories are used in the field of International Relations.

The series is divided into the following six chapters:

1. International Relations Theory 101: The Fourth Great Debate in IR Theories

2. International Relations Theory 101: Constructivism

3. International Relations Theory 101: Feminism

4. International Relations Theory 101: Post-structuralism

5. International Relations Theory 101: Critical Theory

6. International Relations Theory 101: Post-colonialism

The field of International Relations has had an interesting development when it comes to theories. The analysis of international phenomena had brought a diverse pool of perspectives, that often collide in certain aspects with one another. The ‘Great Debates’ in International Relations precisely point out four distinct periods characterized by different schools of thought that discussed issues from different angles.

But as with any strict categorization, there have been studies that criticize the idea of these 'Great Debates'. For example, there were multiple discussions that occurred at the same time during the first Great Debate in World War II (Ashworth, 2002), making it more complex rather than a simplified dualism. Plus, it does not seem that there were coherent schools of thought for either realism or idealism(Lake, 2013).

Figure 2. Books representing theoretical development

Contextualizing the first three ‘Great Debates’

Even when the sole idea of ‘Great Debates’ has been debated in return, there is no denying that it can help people picture how the theoretical developments in the field occurred, and roughly group the dissonances between them. Casting aside the contentious nature of the debates, they can be understood in the following order, according to Lake (2013, pp. 569-570):

The first 'Great Debate' developed around World War II, and it encompasses the discussions between realism and idealism, where the latter prevailed in an early stage before its dominance was taken over by the former. The second 'Great Debate' consisted of the dichotomy of traditionalism vs behaviorism that took place in the 1960s, where the former addressed the complex nature of world politics and the latter emphasized the observation of patterns shared across similar events. The third 'Great Debate', on the other hand, is harder to pinpoint because it overlaps with the fourth debate. It is generally agreed that it occurred in the 1970s and consists of a discussion between liberalism, realism, and radicalism. The first two theories are the precursor of rationalist theories, whereas radicalism influenced reflectivist theories, which would be, later on, at the center of the fourth 'Great Debate'.

Figure 3. Debates in academia

Contextualizing the fourth ‘Great Debate’

The divisions between the third and the fourth 'Great Debates' are often blurry and depend on the perspective of the authors. However, the fourth 'Great Debate' usually depicts the contenders as rationalism or positivism vs reflectivism or post-positivism (Schmidt, 2013).

Accordingly, the rationalist perspective comprises the neo-liberalist and neo-realist points of view, which share their positivist approach to the field even when having different foci. On the other hand, reflectivist theories try to disengage and deconstruct the epistemological traditions that stem from the Enlightenment era. (Schmidt, 2013) In other words, rationalist theories analyze the causality behind international phenomena, and reflectivist endeavors deconstruct the mainstream understanding of said events.

Figure 4. Debating ideas


The rationalist tradition is referred to as such, because of the way it analyzes subjects and their agency. “Rationalism treats individuals as rational actors, and ignores some other characteristics of them, not merely because they believe in this assumption but for the purpose of parsimony and generating predictions” (Luleci & Sula, 2016, p. 45). Along those lines, Novelli (2018) affirms that using rationality as a threat in the behavior of actors is valid when they behave as a "cohesive unit". In that regard, rationalists’ goal is to find patterns of causality, and in the generation of knowledge through the observation of events and deduction of causes and consequences (Luleci & Sula, 2016).

Neorealism, being one of the main rationalist theories, focuses on inter-state relations, minimizes the role of international organizations in world politics, and stresses the incapability of the existence of sound cooperation endeavors due to the persistent anarchy in international dynamics. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, criticizes the neorealist take on cooperation and argues that it is feasible. Simultaneously, it emphasizes the role of international organizations in global power dynamics (Powell, 1994).

Figure 5. Australian House of Representatives. Visual representation of the focus of rationalist theories


In contrast to the rationalist paradigm, the reflectivist scholarship is better perceived as a meta-theoretical approach. In other words, it aims to deconstruct the more traditional perspectives in the field. It is also said that “rather than establishing a distinctly defined research program, reflective scholarship’s ‘task’ is to reflect on political and normative aspects of world politics as well as academic writing” (Luleci & Sula, 2016, p. 49). Hence, the name to which this paradigm is often referred.

As pointed out by scholars (Luleci & Sula, 2016; Lake, 2013), this umbrella term is very vague and the theoretical endeavors do not share many similarities. Their critique of positivism is the only clear trait that they all share. Therefore, the theories that are grouped here include constructivism, feminism, post-structuralism/post-modernism, and critical theory (Luleci & Sula, 2016). Nonetheless, due to its relation with the reflectivist theories, and the influence it has had in the discipline of International Relations (Wilkens, 2017), post-colonial theory is also included in this group.

Figure 6. The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin.

The Five Reflectivist Theories

In an attempt to bring some light to why they are considered reflectivist theories, a brief and general explanation of the five theories is necessary, for in later instances of this series they will be analyzed in depth. First, constructivism defies the rationalist approach by focusing on the construction of knowledge and meaning, although assuming the existence of an a priori reality (Zehfuss, 2002).

Feminism, on the other hand, analyzes international power dynamics by approaching gender and its relevance in the construction of social reality, and how the prevalent gender constructs have influenced the execution of political projects against women (Locher & Prügl, 2001).

Figure 7. Feminist protest in Mexico City

Post-structuralism is considered reflectivist because it parts ways from the positivist perspective, and instead of focusing on unveiling causal relations, it centers its studies around “representations, discourses and practices, as well as their social and political consequences” (Luleci & Sula, 2016, p. 50).

Critical theory has as a starting point the observation that all knowledge and research are inevitably articulated in political and ideological terms. As such, this recognition marks a difference between it and rationalism, because it no longer accepts an objective approach to social dynamics (Luleci & Sula, 2016; Devetak, 2005).

Lastly, post-colonialism addresses the relations of power between hegemons and subalterns as a result of European colonialism. Moreover, it studies the relationship of the Western powers with the actors from the rest of the world (Wilkens, 2017). By doing so, it rejects the traditional Eurocentric conceptions in International Relations, and in return challenges the positivist perspective in the field.

Figure 8. Signs and poster from Black Lives Matter protests


Overall, this chapter aims to present briefly yet clearly the basic formulations in the current theoretical landscape of International Relations, and their dissonant voices, setting up the path for the in-depth analysis of the reflectivist theories. All the theories presented here are just some of the most relevant in each category, and aim to respond to the challenges that are present in the current international context. In particular, the focus of the series is on the wide range of reflectivist theories, because it offers a plethora of perspectives to analyze phenomena in ways that may reveal further intricacies often overlooked by mainstream rationalist theories.

Bibliographical References

Ashworth, L. M. (2002). Did the realist-idealist great debate really happen? A revisionist history of international relations. International Relations, 16(1), 33-51.

Devetak, R. (2005). Critical Theory. Theories of International Relations, 3, 162-186.

Lake, D. A. (2013). Theory is dead, long live theory: The end of the Great Debates and the rise of eclecticism in International Relations. European Journal of International Relations, 19(3), 567-587.

Locher, B., & Prügl, E. (2001). Feminism and constructivism: worlds apart or sharing the middle ground?. International Studies Quarterly, 45(1), 111-129.

Luleci, C., & Sula, I. E. (2016). Survival ‘Beyond Positivism?’: The Debate on Rationalism and Reflectivism in International Relations Theory. Politikon: The IAPSS Journal of Political Science, 30, 43-55.

Novelli, D. H. (2018). Rationalism in international relations: concepts, theoretical limits and criticism. Revista Interação, Versão on line, 9(1), 115-131.

Powell, R. (1994). Anarchy in international relations theory: the neorealist-neoliberal debate. International organization, 48(2), 313-344.

Schmidt, B. C. (2002). On the history and historiography of international relations. Handbook of international relations, 1, 3-28.

Wilkens, J. (2017). Postcolonialism in International Relations. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies, 1-24.

Zehfuss, M. (2004). Introduction. In M. Zehfuss, Constructivism in International Relations. The politics of reality, 83, 1-37. Cambridge University Press.

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Rodrigo Bielma Silva

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