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What is theorising the international?

Across our joint collaborations, one of the key features has not just been our co-authorship but also our joint teaching. The latter has combined delivery of undergraduate political economy courses (or modules/units) as well as International Relations theory teaching, not least in relation to the core Masters’ course at the University of Nottingham in Theories and Concepts in International Relations.

Back in 2012 we were joint recipients of the British International Studies Association (BISA) / Higher Education Academy (HEA) Excellence in Teaching Award for classroom innovation, content delivery, and broader pedagogical engagement. We want to add to that by launching a new online teaching resource for International Relations (IR) theory that is completely free and open access.

This resource is called Theorising the International and is based on eleven “classes” that any interested reader can access by clicking on the left-hand tool bar or thumbnail image of a book that we engage with in the content of each class. The topics covered introduce the reader to some of the standard departure points in theorising “the international”, referring to the so-called big and important issues of geopolitics as defined by the theory of neo-realism.

At the same time, our focus in addressing the constitution of the international is much broader and fine grained. We have always maintained a feminist curiosity and this is evident in the midst of the lecture content in highlighting how gender “makes the world go around” within the nexus of capitalist-patriarchy relations as defined by Maria Mies, rather than treating these conditions as an additive bolt-on at the end of teaching resources. Of course, our engagements with historical materialist, constructivist, and poststructuralist contributions is also strongly evident. Furthermore, drawing on Frantz Fanon who said that ‘Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem’, a focus on decolonial and postcolonial processes is present.

Many of the themes and issues we raise are extant in our latest book Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis, which can be read as a companion to the online teaching resource. Class 9 on Agency and Structure and Class 10 on the role of Ideas draw directly on Chapters 2 and 3 of this book.

For our focus on theorising the international, the goal is to deliver each of the classes in a deliberately short format (at around just 3,000 words per class) centred around a series of “Think Points”, which are raised at relevant junctures to pose questions back to ourselves and the readers about the content.

In writing What is History?, it was E.H. Carr who said that ‘Knowledge is always for some purpose. The validity of the knowledge depends on the validity of the purpose’. Of course, in theorising the international it was Robert W. Cox who took this on and famously argued that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’. Usefully, as our final class on theorising the international relays, Ken Booth also extends this in a recent chapter entitled ‘What’s the point of IR?’, to highlight that theory is also ‘by someone from somewhere’.

Time and place exert a great deal of influence on what we think is significant, how we theorise, and what we believe most meaningfully constitutes the international. The classes we offer as part of our teaching resource on the international are therefore a set of constantly evolving reflections, open to further development and fresh insight.

That said, the dominant frame of reference in theorising the international is still neo-realism, which in the words of Robert W. Cox continues to ‘appear ideologically to be a science at the service of big-power management of the international system’.

Our teaching resource aims to widen the horizon, not the least in the spirit of E.H. Carr who said of history, ‘And yet—it moves’, which is still something largely misunderstood by the ahistorical mainstream purveyors of static analysis in theorising the international.


The set image for this post is a photograph by Sebastião Salgado, Churchgate Station, Bombay, from the series Migrations.

Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton
Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton are joint authors of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Globalisation and Enlargement of the European Union: Austrian and Swedish Social Forces in the Struggle over Membership (Routledge, 2000) and The Struggle for a Social Europe: Trade Unions and EMU in Times of Global Restructuring (Manchester University Press, 2006) as well as co-editor (with Bruno Ciccaglione, Ingemar Lindberg and John Hilary) of Free Trade and Transnational Labour (Routledge, 2015) and (with Chun-Yi Lee) of Chinese Labour in the Global Economy (Routledge, 2017). Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (Pluto Press, 2007) and Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), which was awarded the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG). He is the founding editor of the blog Progress in Political Economy (PPE) that is a central forum for political economy debates and was awarded the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.
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