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date: 26 February 2020

Historical Theories of International Relations

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. Please check back later for the full article.

History has provided a site of theoretical inquiry for scholars of International Relations since the discipline’s inception—indeed, long before. IR’s canon of theoretical forerunners prominently includes written histories (Thucydides) and commentaries on history (Machiavelli, Marx). Many of the modern discipline’s founders were diplomatic historians. However, serious and sustained historical inquiry has only returned to the foreground of international studies since the turn of the 21st century or so, after a prolonged period of postwar uninterest. IR scholars have now begun to more rigorously theorize history as an object or analytical category unto itself. 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. Recent IR scholarship can be understood as addressing the intersection of theory and history in three broad ways. The first encompasses substantive historical studies that take history as a site of theory building about world politics. Here, new 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 new ways of inquiring into history, ranging across macro-historical or structural analysis, rationalist accounts of international-system building, relationalist accounts of international hierarchies, discursive accounts of colonialism and resistance, and other matters. In parallel, scholars of the history of international thought have developed new, contextualist accounts of the intellectual history of international theory. A third focuses directly on theoretical questions drawn from the 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. While explicit work in this area remains small, we find implicit theory building about history as such at work in much or most of international theory.