Book chapter

Historical Theories of International Relations (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies

Abstract

History has provided a site of theoretical inquiry for scholars of International Relations since the discipline's inception. However, serious and sustained historical inquiry has only returned to the foreground of international studies in the last two decades or so, after a prolonged period of postwar uninterest. How can scholars identify moments or processes of systematic change? Does history have a long run structure or trajectory? Moreover, scholars have begun to take seriously the epistemological problem of historicism. International relations scholarship on history during this period addresses the intersection of theory and history in four broad ways. The first encompasses substantive historical studies that take history as a site of theory building about world politics. Here, accounts of early modern Europe, ancient China, precolonial South Asia, European colonial expansion, and other settings have challenged previous historical narratives that assert or assume linear progress or realist cyclicality alike. A second category follows on the first, comprising a plurality of methodological turns. Here, scholars have developed ways of inquiring into history, ranging across macrohistorical or structural analysis, rationalist accounts of international-system building, relational accounts of international hierarchies, discursive accounts of colonialism and resistance, and others. A third focuses directly on theoretical questions drawn from philosophy of history. These works aim to provide not methods of historical inquiry so much as theoretical tools for thinking philosophically about the historical long run itself. Fourth and finally, scholars of the history of international thought have developed contextualist accounts of the intellectual history of international theory. These approaches rethink how theory interfaces with history by interrogating international thought itself.