The previous two chapters have set the foundations for understanding our world as one determined by centuries of warfare. At the same time, we have developed mechanisms for ‘getting along’ via diplomacy. With that context in mind, we must turn to unpacking how International Relations as an academic discipline analyses our world. International Relations (IR) traditionally focused on interactions between states. However, this conventional view has been broadened over the years to include relationships between all sorts of political entities (‘polities’), including international organisations, multinational corporations, societies and citizens. IR captures a vast array of themes ranging from the growing interconnectedness of people to old and new forms of security, dialogue and conflict between visions, beliefs and ideologies, the environment, space, the global economy, poverty and climate change. The sheer number of actors and issues that are relevant to IR can be overwhelming. This can make it seem like a daunting task to not just study various aspects of IR but to try to grasp the bigger picture.
All the more important are the analytical tools that scholars have developed in an attempt to make the field more manageable – not just for newcomers to the discipline but also for themselves. Social scientists in general spend quite a lot of time thinking about effective ways of structuring their thinking and of processing the complexity of the reality they endeavour to study, analyse and understand. A lot of this kind of analytical sense-making in IR happens in the form of theories. Scholars use theories to explain and capture the meaning of real-life events in the form of abstract interpretations and generalised assumptions. On the one hand, theories can be ‘empirical’ – based on measurable experiences, usually through observation or experimentation. Empirical theories generally seek to try to explain the world as it is. On the other hand, theories can be ‘normative’ – meaning that they build on principles and assumptions about how social interactions should occur. In other words, normative theories generally seek to present a version of world that ought to be.
Before scholars develop or adopt any specific theories, however, they take what is often a subconscious decision in selecting the focus of their analysis. Following this, they normally stick with their choice without reflecting very much on alternative approaches to the issue. As students of IR it can be helpful to equip ourselves with a basic overview of the perspectives one can adopt when analysing just about any topic. This chapter will do this by looking at different ‘levels of analysis’ as one of the most common ways of structuring scholarly debates in IR.