The debate between the realist and the liberal traditions has dominated IR theory for a long time. Arguments outlining the relative merits of each paradigm have filled major journals in the field such as International Security or International Organizations. However, despite the undeniably significant contribution the debate has made for our understanding of world politics, as well as for the development of IR theory, it is characterized by serious shortcomings. In fact, for many scholars, contemporary forms of liberalism and realism tend to be complementary rather than fundamentally different.

It would be wrong to assume that realism and liberalism are or have been the only theoretical paradigms used by IR scholars. Marxism, for instance, has long provided a direct challenge to some of the fundamental assumption realism and liberalism rest on. More recently, critical theory and postmodernism have become approaches used to uncover and challenge the assumptions made by the dominant theories of the disciplines. While some argue that little can be built upon ‘deconstructive’ approaches, adherents to postmodernism argue we ignore the built-in notions and preconceptions in our theories at our peril.

Seminar Questions:

  1. How does critical theory differ from “problem solving” theory?
  2. What can Marxism add to our understanding of international politics nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War?
  3. Is theory always really for someone and some purpose? Why or why not?


*Baylis and Smith, The Globalization of World Politics, Chapters 8, 9, 10, 11

*Burchill et al. Theories of International Relations, Chapters 5-7.

Dunne et al. International Relations Theories, Chapters 8 and 9.

R. Jackson and G. Sorensen, Introduction to International Relations, Chapter 11 (Methodological Debates)

Review of International Studies - Special Supplement on Critical Theory (2007), especially Nicholas Rengger and Ben Thirkell-White, "Still critical after all these years?"



Suggested Movie(s)


Three Kings (1999) – In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, 4 soldiers set out to steal gold that was stolen from Kuwait, but they discover people who desperately need their help.


In the Loop (2009) – The US President and UK Prime Minister fancy a war. But not everyone agrees that war is a good thing.


Wag the Dog (1997) – Before elections, a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer join efforts to "fabricate" a war in order to cover-up a presidential sex scandal.