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Bridging the theory/meta-theory gap in international relations

  • Alexander Wendt


The field of international relations (IR) theory is something of a misnomer; since it is constituted by two distinct, though not unrelated, scholarly enterprises. Its core consists of first order theorizing about the structure and dynamics of the international system, and as such it attempts to contribute directly to our understanding of world politics in the form of substantive theories like realism, liberalism, and so on. The proliferation of such theories in recent years, however, has been a cause for some disciplinary concern (or celebration as the case may be), not least because the substantive disagreements between them are as often over what kinds of questions and answers are important or legitimate as they are over the 'facts of the matter'. This has helped open the door since the mid-1980s to a wave of second order or meta-theorizing in the field. The objective of this type of theorizing is also to increase our understanding of world politics, but it does so indirectly by focusing on the ontological and epistemological issues of what constitute important or legitimate questions and answers for IR scholarship, rather than on the structure and dynamics of the international system per se.



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1 Wendt, A., ‘The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory’, International Organization, 41 (1987), pp. 335–70.

2 Moul, W., ‘The Level of Analysis Problem Revisited’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 6 (1973), pp. 494513; 495–6.

3 Wendt, A., ‘Sovereignty and the Social Construction of Power Polities’, manuscript under review.

4 See, for example, Ashley, R., ‘The Geopolitics of Geopolitical Space: Towards a Critical Social Theory of International Polities’, Alternatives, 12 (1987), pp. 403–34; and Wendt, ‘Sovereignty’.

5 Taylor, M., ‘Structure, Culture and Action in the Explanation of Social Change’, Politics and Society, 17 (1989), pp. 115–62.


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