In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Role Theory in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Role Theory in Sociology

International Relations Role Theory in International Relations
Sebastian Harnisch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0226


In the past two decades, role theory has gained importance as a cross-disciplinary approach for understanding agent, particularly state, behavior in global politics. With roots in psychology, social psychology, and sociology, scholars have identified common patterns of agents performing “roles” in social groupings. As analytical concepts, roles tie agential behavioral patterns to social structures, thereby bridging the theoretical divide between foreign policy analysis (FPA) and international relations theory (IRT). Despite considerable interest in the sociological roots of the concept, political scientists have not systematically imported insights from there, but rather used different terms, theoretical templates, and phrases in their role studies). This article provides a general overview of past and current developments in the theoretical and methodological conceptualization of the term as well as its application in FPA and IRT.

General Overviews

For excellent general overviews see: Thies 2010, Breuning 2017, Jönsson and Westerlund 1982, and Walker 1987. Given its origins in sociology and social psychology, the role theoretical literature has benefited greatly from a number of scholarly works in these and neighboring disciplines (see in particular Walker 1992, cited under Role Theory in Sociology).

  • Breuning, M. “Role Theory in Foreign Policy.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.334

    This article presents a cutting-edge overview of recent theoretical and methodological developments in the field, focusing on North America.

  • Harnisch, Sebastian, Cornelia Frank, and Hans W. Maull. Role Theory in International Relations: Approaches and analyses. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    The first comprehensive theoretical treatment of role theory since Walker 1987, this edited volume brings together conceptual chapters, for example, on communicative action and identity theory, as well as on foreign policy roles and international institutions and US hegemony.

  • Jönsson, C., and U. Westerlund. “Role Theory and Foreign Policy.” In Cognitive Dynamics and International Politics. Edited by Christer Jönsson, 122–157. London: Frances Pinter, 1982.

    A first good overview of the role theoretical literature applied to foreign policy analysis in the early 1980s.

  • Thies, C. G. “Role Theory and Foreign Policy.” In The International Studies Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. Edited by R. Denmark, 6335–6356. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    An authoritative literature review, which takes stock of advances in theory, methodology, and application in the last thirty years.

  • Walker, S. G. “Role Theory and the Origins of Foreign Policy.” In New Directions in the Study of Foreign Policy. Edited by Charles F. Hermann, Charles W. Kegley, and James N. Rosenau, 269–284. London: HarperCollins, 1987.

    This edited volume traces and evaluates systematically the first two decades of role theory studies as based on Kalevi Holsti’s framework.

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