Is the contemporary crisis best understood through ‘problem solving’ or ‘critical’ international theory?

The contemporary crisis of international relations differs in accordance with its observers putting more emphasis on one issue over another due to their respective epistemological and ontological approaches. This can range from the decline of liberalism to the threat of climate change. Yet this schism can prevent an accurate understanding of the contemporary crisis and the extent of its existence. Problem solvers seek to clarify this by either ‘mixing’ or ‘separating’ the methods different schools of IR theory have towards research that have been hitherto divisive. Yet ‘critical’ theory maybe more appropriate due to it departing from the faults of structuralist theory which problem solving approaches seek to correct in vain.

Problem solvers have recognised that the biases or empiricism that affect the epistemology of academics prevents them from making conclusions that accurately reflect the contemporary crisis. As Jackson (2008, p. 130) notes, the ‘very experience of the world is inescapably mediated by the conceptual and linguistic apparatus’ that theorists use to gather and express the knowledge they have collected individually. Whilst problem solvers do not seek to remove these unconscious influences on outputs that seek to reflect international issues, they feel they can become more accountable by making the processes theorists use to reach their conclusions more transparent. Mutlu’s (2015) view is that doing so would allow ‘reproducibility’ to occur where theorists will identify their unique research methods and conclude which are most suitable – allowing the opportunity for schools of theory to exchange knowledge that may alter their own individual conclusions and erode the ‘tribalism’ that has preserved the divisions within IR theory. A consensus emerging may thus finally enable an accurate representation of contemporary crises to be established.

However, whether problem solvers support either ‘mixing’ or ‘separating’ the quantitative and qualitative approaches used by realist and liberal theorists to better understand the contemporary crisis, their proposals to do so are debatable when considering the argument put forward by critical theory. Wendt (1992, p. 392) criticises both realism’s and liberalism’s adherence to ‘rationalism’, which ‘offers a fundamentally behavioral conception of both process and institutions’ that control state behaviour, but not the ‘identities and interests’ that motivate state actions. Problem solvers’ attempts to merge both schools’ ideas together through transparency thus causes their own attempts to identify the contemporary crisis to become restricted by structuralist theory’s theoretical limitations.

This is exacerbated by structuralism being unable to understand the issues of the contemporary crisis that were hitherto unknown or neglected. The globalisation of international relations proliferated by transnational phenomena such as climate change cannot be fully interpreted through the prism of state or institutional structures. According to Wæver (1998, pp. 688-689), this is due to it being ‘behind standards developed in sociology of science and historiography’ and suffering from the sociology of ‘American dominance in the field’. This is particularly problematic when considering the separate dialectical developments in state-building and foreign policies of states that affect the conduct of international relations; Thornton (2007) noting that non-Western nations such as China do not pursue state-building through the Weberian monopoly of violence but through ‘the monopolization of legitimacy’ itself. On the contrary, critical theories such as constructivism and post-colonialism consider these elements as sources of international behaviour rather than the world structure. Structuralist theory explaining international relations through Eurocentric ontologies thus makes the attempts by problem solvers to rectify its faults not enough to help understand the contemporary crisis.

However, critical theory itself is no exception from experiencing the bias of its own theorists. As Mutlu (2015, p. 932) notes, ‘critical IR scholars should not erase their own footprints from their publications’ for they themselves suffer from epistemological experiences that can distort the reflection of the contemporary crisis. Hobson’s (2012, p. 234) defence of neo-Marxist IR theory being ‘perfectly possible to be Eurocentric while at the same time being highly critical of the West’ is but one example, for it is influenced by the same epistemology that causes structuralism’s own ontological limits. Critical theory is therefore equally insufficient as realism and liberalism in describing the contemporary crisis alone, for it still suffers from the limitations it attempts to escape; making the need for problem solving through knowledge exchange and transparency more adequate in detailing what the contemporary crisis is.

Above all, the faults of both problem solving and critical approaches reveal the limitations of relying on theory itself to help understand both contemporary and past crises. As Waltz (1996, pp. 54 and 56) admits, any theory in international relations ‘can at best limp along’, denoting them as ‘beautifully simple’ unlike reality being ‘complex and often ugly’. This is because theories use little empirical evidence in their explanations and mostly go by assumptions, thus making theories impractical as a source to realistically explain the contemporary crisis; regardless of the knowledge exchange encouraged by problem solvers. Waltz (1996, p. 56) also notes that the concepts of a theory cannot be altered ‘without transforming the theory into a different one’. This is the mistake critical theory makes through its holistic approach, because the several schools that define it can contradict one another. The abstract emphasis on the state’s internal identities and interests made by critical schools such as constructivism may thus further divide rather than help understand the contemporary crisis.

The unreliability concomitant with all international theories limits how far international studies is an actual ‘science’. To Jackson (2015, pp. 942-943), this is because of the ‘multiple incompatible understandings of the field/discipline floating around’ that hinders its credibility as a serious study into the contemporary crisis. Critical theory is not ameliorated by the limitations it possesses as a social science compared to studies within the natural sciences, which investigate the objective effects of contemporary crises such as climate change. As Mutlu (2015, p. 937) points out, social sciences – contrary to natural sciences allowing data to ‘speak for itself’ – rely on data that can ‘never be raw’. Trying to problem solve does not help either due to the ‘the philosophical considerations that drive each methodological choice in the field’ highlighted by Lacatus et al. (2015, p. 770). Because philosophy itself consists of ‘primitive propositions which are assumed as true without proof’ according to Wittgenstein (Klagge and Nordmann 2003, p. 332), international studies in general should not be treated as holding all the answers to understanding the contemporary crisis.

Problem solving and critical approaches to international theory are thus both inadequate in attempting to understand the contemporary crisis alone. Whilst critical theory is right in criticising structuralist theories for their limitations, it still suffers from the faults that afflict the epistemological and ontological premises of all international theories. Problem solvers are right to increase knowledge exchange to make representations of the contemporary crisis clearer. However, their efforts still cannot fully understand the reality of crises due to international studies’ inherent subjectivity being unavoidable.

Featured image credit: Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Disclaimer: This essay was originally written in November 2020


Hobson, J.M. (2012) The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, P.T. (2008) Foregrounding ontology: dualism, monism, and IR theory. Review of International Studies, 34 (1), pp. 129–153.

Jackson, P.T. (2015) Must International Studies Be a Science? Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43 (3), pp. 942–965.

Klagge, J.C. and Nordmann, A., eds. (2003) Ludwig Wittgenstein: Public and Private Occasions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lacatus, C., Schade, D. and Yao, Y. (2015) Quo vadis IR: Method, Methodology and Innovation. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43 (3), pp. 767-778.

Mutlu, C.E. (2015) How (Not) to Disappear Completely: Pedagogical Potential of Research Methods in International Relations. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43 (3), pp. 931-941.

Thornton, P.M. (2007) Disciplining the State: Virtue, Violence and State-Making in Modern China. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center.

Wæver, O. (1998) The Sociology of a Not So International Discipline: American and European Developments in International Relations. International Organization, 52 (4), pp. 687-727.

Waltz, K.N. (1996) International Politics is Not Foreign Policy. Security Studies, 6 (1), pp. 54-57.

Wendt, A. (1992) Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics. International Organization, 46 (2), pp. 391-425.


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