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Is International Relations a Discipline? Is it Important?

International Relations is a fluid area of study, perhaps more so than many other academic subjects. It’s often referred to as a ‘discipline’, but why and how exactly is this expansive topic classified in this way?

The birth of International Relations study

In comparison with more ‘traditional’ subjects, International Relations is a relatively young field of study. European academics began to formally study the ways in which countries and states relate to each other after the First World War, when answers were sought as to what had brought about the conflict. 

During the 1920s, universities in Europe and the US started to offer degrees in International Relations. By the end of the Second World War, the subject began to develop to reflect a changing global order; in which the new superpowers of the US and the Soviet Union came to disrupt a long-established European centre of influence. 

Since then, continuous international development has redefined the parameters of International Relations as an academic subject.

So why is International Relations an academic discipline?

An academic discipline can be defined in terms of several distinct characteristics. According to Aneek Chatterjee, author of International Relations Today, “an autonomous academic discipline requires, mainly, a systematic body of theory, appropriate methodology, and a distinct subject matter.”

If these are the qualities that constitute a disclipline, how does International Relations measure up?

A body of theory that reflects multiple viewpoints 

There are multiple theories and concepts within International Relations, which can be used to contextualise and add meaning to global events and issues. 

For example, the theory of Realism in International Relations is based on the idea that individual states are autonomous, disparate and inherently self-interested, and Liberalism promotes the thinking that fundamental human rights should govern state political systems. As a newer theory within the subject, Constructivism asserts that the way people in different areas of the world perceive society is socially and ideologically constructed, and that therefore, ‘reality’ must always be interpreted.

Studying International Relations will introduce you to many of these and demonstrate how they can be used to break down and critically assess world affairs from varying perspectives.

Methodologies that illuminate a path to impactful research

In a similar way to International Relations theory, research paradigms and methodologies help to investigate the problems and debates within the subject. Paradigms can be used to give theories a reference point in a wider conceptual framework, while methodologies provide a process and set of techniques for testing an idea against a theory or paradigm.   

International Relations research can be explored through paradigms such as Positivism and Post-Positivism. The first is centred on a belief that there’s a single version of the truth, whereas Post-Positivism argues that cultural, geographical and individual experience will always affect our idea of ‘reality’.  

Using paradigms like these to study International Relations can inform the kind of methodology you use within your research. Positivist paradigms generally suit a quantitative methodology,  which relies on numerical or statistical facts and data to back up a single idea. Meanwhile, a Post-Positivist paradigm might suggest a qualitative methodology, which uses empirical, less structured sources of information, such as case studies and documents, to explore a variety of beliefs.

A distinct, yet dynamic, subject matter

When it was founded as an academic subject, International Relations had a relatively simple remit – to study the interplay between nation-states. However, as the world has changed over time, its focus has widened to include the actions of non-state actors too, such as multinational corporations and the United Nations (UN), as well as issues relating to international security, terrorism, political economy, globalisation and the environment.

Rather than making it a less distinct subject matter though, this expansion can be seen to add value to the study of International Relations, just as limiting its developing remit could hamper it. 
It may be that contemporary International Relations needs to overlap with other academic areas and subject matters in order to effectively deal with an ever-evolving global backdrop.

Reassess your worldview through the study of International Relations

Unlike other academic disciplines, an important part of studying International Relations is examining your own responses to the subject matter. 

As well as enabling you to look at global affairs from the perspective of various theories, paradigms and methodologies, a postgraduate degree in International Relations can help you unpack and objectively analyse your own ideas and perspective when it comes to understanding the world. 

Practicing critical self-reflection in this way is key to preparing for a career in International Relations, as organisations need professionals able to evaluate issues objectively and affect change in real and ethical ways. Our Online MA includes content, simulations, debates and research approaches designed to reposition the way you think about global issues.        

To find out more about what this course could help you achieve, please fill in our online form