In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Relations as a Social Science

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Claims to “Science” in IR
  • Unity of Science in IR Scholarship
  • New Pluralist Approaches to IR Social Science
  • Impact of IR Scholarship
  • Global IR Social Science

International Relations International Relations as a Social Science
Lucas G. Freire, Marjo Koivisto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0118


The idea of international relations (IR) as a social science is represented in many ways in IR literature. The definition of “science” is highly contested in its application to the discipline. Another issue of contention is whether there is any intrinsic distinction between natural and social sciences. The issue has recently been studied by various communities of IR scholars around the world, and the field is becoming more pluralistic in regard to this question. In this bibliography, we provide an overview of the historical background of claims to science in IR scholarship, of different assumptions about the nature of theory and appropriate research questions and methods, and of the impact of scientific IR scholarship in the production of international politics writ large.

Historical Background

The British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow remarked in his 1959 Rude Lecture at Cambridge that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society—the sciences and the humanities—was the major hindrance to solving the world’s problems in postwar transatlantic exchanges. Snow’s concern echoes the dividing line between two different kinds of study of international relations across the Atlantic since the postwar period. The emergence of behaviorism (Knorr and Rosenau 1969) led the field in America to seek the authoritative status of political “science.” British scholars resisted formalistic or “mathematical” studies of world politics. In a seminal statement on the British classical approach, Bull 1966 advocated humanities, international law, and history as a foundation for the study of international relations. Despite adopting a position that some (Sayer 2005, for example) would find questionable, both behaviorists and classicists shared the view that science is logically separated from values or ethics (Curtis and Koivisto 2010); that facts and values are logically separate, scientific or positive thought is “world-guided,” and normative thought is “world-guiding.” The debate on what kind of social science IR is, or should be, has now diversified (Kurki and Wight 2010). In theory, not only behaviorism but also interpretivism and scientific and critical realism can provide a philosophical basis for social scientific IR (Jackson 2011). In practice, doing IR social science does not necessarily consist in large-n hypothesis testing, but qualitative methods such as textual analysis of policy rhetoric are by now considered to yield equally valid results. This transformation and pluralization of IR social science resulted from heated disciplinary metatheoretical debates about IR’s social scientific status. They have important consequences also for what we now think is IR social science’s contribution to society (Chernoff 2007).

  • Bull, Hedley. “International Theory: The Case for a Classical Approach.” World Politics 18.3 (1966): 361–377.

    DOI: 10.2307/2009761

    Bull argues, especially to his British colleagues, that the “scientistic” approach could not advance IR theory, and that formal modeling cannot contribute to our understanding of a quintessentially interpretive subject matter. Because scholars’ frameworks are always imbued with value assumptions, such “mathematical” approaches fare poorly in illuminating the nature of world politics.

  • Chernoff, Fred. Theory and Metatheory in International Relations: Concepts and Contending Accounts. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230606883

    Provides an introduction to the classical positions in the philosophy of science and their respective adaptation into IR. Argues for several uses of metatheoretical research on the issue, including the practical issue of deciding on rival policy options based on contending theories of international politics.

  • Curtis, Simon, and Marjo Koivisto. “Towards a Second ‘Second Debate’? Rethinking the Relationship between Science and History in International Theory.” International Relations 24.4 (2010): 433–455.

    DOI: 10.1177/0047117810386071

    Argues that the “second debate” of the 1960s should be viewed as a revolving around positivist methods, and not the general status of scientific methodology in IR. Shows that philosophy of science positions preferred by current IR scholars challenge the debate’s acceptance of incommensurability between scientific and historical approaches.

  • Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics. London: Routledge, 2011.

    Introduces a new, fourfold typology of philosophy of science approaches in IR. Fundamentally challenges the predominant assumption that there is only one way of doing scientific IR, and offers a clear layout of neo-positivist, critical realist, analyticist, and reflectivist metatheoretical frameworks of research.

  • Knorr, Klaus, and James N. Rosenau, eds. Contending Approaches to International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

    Contains key texts of the debate between behaviorists and traditionalists, including the classic statements of Hedley Bull and Morton A. Kaplan on IR as a science.

  • Kurki, Milja, and Colin Wight. “International Relations and Social Science.” In International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Edited by Timothy Dunne, Milja Kurki, and S. Smith, 14–35. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Accounts for the historical formation of the social science debates in IR. Includes a discussion of the impact of different metatheoretical positions in research and deals with the tensions between explanation and understanding, rationalism and reflectivism, and positivism and postpositivism. Philosophical issues are often implicit in IR theory.

  • Sayer, R. Andrew. The Moral Significance of Class. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488863

    Deploys philosophical realism to moral issues in society. Whereas most of the recent studies on class have used Bourdieu’s concepts, Sayer emphasizes the importance of virtues, vices, kindness, and selfishness. Lays out an argument against splitting scientific and other forms of valuation in social science.

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