Case Study

IR theory as a history of debates


When it took place

Key battlegrounds

Idealism (early liberal IR) v. Realism, inter-war debate, first great debate

1920s and 1930s

The possibility of cooperation in international affairs and the inevitability, or otherwise, of military conflict


1940s and 1950s

Realism is seen by most as the way to approach international relations

Tradition (philosophy) v. behaviourism (science), second great debate


Could international relations be studied using scientific methodology? Essentially a debate between Realists

Inter-paradigm debate*

Begins to grow in the 1970s, the term was actually coined in 1985

Not really a debate but a reference to the division of International Relations into three separate approaches. Namely those covered in Chapters 6, 7, and 8

Neo-neo debate*, also neo-neo synthesis


A discussion about the relative importance of states seeking either relative or absolute gains in an anarchic world

Rationalist v. reflectivist*

1990s ongoing

Dialogue of the deaf between a belief that rational knowledge can be built and the need for metaphysical/overarching critique

Social Constructivism

2000s ongoing

Not a debate but a broad church and approach in which many authors accept merit in both rationalist and reflectivist positions

*All the debates marked with an asterisk could be called the third great debate. In reality the ongoing disagreements between rationalists and reflectivists have had the most long-term significance.

Cultural globalisation and health

The diffusion of disease around the world is not entirely a one-way process of transmission from South to North. Globalisation has also seen certain non-communicable ‘lifestyle illnesses’, associated with mass-consumption societies of the Global North, head southwards as people in LDCs adopt some of the unhealthy practices associated with modernisation. The consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods, for example, has led to previously minor health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes becoming more prominent in many LDCs and even in the societies on the margins of highly developed states. A rise in rates of obesity and diabetes amongst indigenous peoples of the Arctic has resulted from the nutrition transition to Western consumption patterns. The mechanisation of travel and decline in hunting in some communities has also added to the obesity problem as the Arctic lifestyle has become less active.  Diabetes claims as many lives in Asia as AIDS and is estimated to become the sixth leading case of all deaths by 2030. Tobacco smoking has become more common in a number of LDCs (encouraged by Northern MNCs faced with a declining market at home), leading to a rise in lung cancers. Native Alaskans are nearly nine times more likely to die of alcohol-related health problems than the average US citizen. Cancers were near non-existent in the Arctic until the last hundred years but lung, colon and breast cancers have soared due to social change. Overall, non-communicable diseases account for 63% of all deaths in the world (WHO 2008).