Critical Theory in International Relations

Robert Cox ‘s famous quote, ‘Theory is always for someone and for some purpose‘ (Cox, p.128), suggests the utility that a theory provides in privileging the perspective of the theorist . The problem that arises is that no single perspective or ideological stance inherent in a theory can adequately conceive or make sense of the myriad of realities in international relations.
In this respect, Cox distinguishes problem solving theory from critical theory by insinuating that the former is more accommodating of the prevailing  social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised’ (Cox, p.128); The fact that problem solving theory may present one with fixed ‘limits or parameters to a problem area and to reduce the statement of a particular problem to a limited number of variables’ (Cox, p.129) suggests the use of a more manageable and precise approach to the study of international order or conflict. What appears to be a rational, objective study of , for instance, the underlying causes of the Israeli – Gaza conflict may conceal the social, political and historical forces that impinge upon the policies of the Israeli government , IDF and Hamas.
Where problem solving theory is ‘non-historical or ahistorical’ (Cox, p. 129) and may be unquestioning of meta- narratives woven by State institutions and the media on perceived threats posed by, for instance , an ethnic minority to the racial and religious composition of a State, Critical theory  is ‘theory of history’,  conscious of the past as well as the ‘continuing process of historical change.’ (Cox, p. 129) . Thus Critical theory would reflect on and question not only the specific variable or subject of study on, for instance,  the officially sanctioned reasons for the Israeli blockade of Gaza provided by the IDF , but also on the historical forces, ideologies and institutional polices that underpinned Operations Cast Lead 2008 and Protective Edge 2014 as well as those that impinged upon the ethnic  cleansing of the Palestinians prior and subsequent to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Critical theory as a dialectic approach to the study of IR , in my view, is a more intellectually rigourous approach to the study of IR than problem solving theory. The reflexivity and suppleness of critical theory provides for a more nuanced, informed study that is able to transcend the ideologies of the theory relied upon, and consider the historical processes involved in changing realities and power relationships in ‘institutionalization’ as ‘ a means of stabilizing and perpetuating a particular order’. (Cox, p. 136)
Cox, R.W. (1981) ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’
Millennium,  10:2, pp. 126 – 155.
battle black board board game
Photo by Pixabay on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s