‘Theory is always for someone, and for some purpose’ Robert W. Cox

This essay was part of the course work for Politics 2B 2017-18 University of Glasgow 

Cox’s (1981: 128) statement that “theory is always for someone and some purpose”, taken from his essay Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory, is his invitation to a critical theory of International Relations (IR). The first part of this essay summarises and critiques Cox’s original argument and his take on realism. It then evaluates Cox’s claim by considering its effects on IR today and by contrasting it with Waltz’s view on theory. It also highlights that theories may be impacted by personal experiences of the theorist as well as by historical circumstances. The essay concludes that Cox made a valuable but equally problematic contribution to IR.

Cox ‘critical theory of IR’ challenged the most dominant strands of theories in IR at the time of writing, which he calls ‘problem-solving’ theories. His critique addresses other academics, most notably the realists Morgenthau and Waltz (Cox 1981). Cox says that problem-solving theories take the world as it is and use the prevailing social and power relations and their organising institutions as a framework (Cox 1981). The aim of these theories is to make relationships and institutions run smoothly by dealing effectively with potential sources of trouble (Cox 1981). They operate with a ceteris paribus assumption, namely that all states follow their own interests in a system of anarchy, which makes it possible to deduct laws (which work only within the set framework, though) (Cox 1981). Cox takes issue with the level of abstraction which accompanies the ceteris paribus assumption, particularly in regards to realism.

For Cox, realism is a theory built on a theory rather than on empirical evidence since it bases itself on outdated 17th and 18th century concepts of state and civil society as separate spheres of action (Cox 1981). Cox highlights that today these concepts are no longer operational as state and civil society have become intertwined entities (Cox 1981). He further critiques realism’s ahistorical approach as there is “no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in times and space” (Cox 1981: 128). Cox proposes an alternative method, which looks at the problem of world order but does not reify it; which does not understate state power but takes social forces and process into account; and which does not base theory on theory but goes with the time and adjusts accordingly (Cox 1981). The purpose of such a ‘critical theory’ would be to be reflective and critical about the theorising process itself (Cox 1981). Hence, critical theory does not take any order for granted, it appraises the existing frameworks and transcends the existing order (Cox 1981). Critical theory may further contain problem-solving theories as part of the order, serving a particular national, sectional, or class interest and so shows the ideological bias of problem-solving theories (Cox 1981).

Cox suggests that Marxism is a critical theory. To support this claim he demonstrates how historical materialism fulfils the critical criteria he set out. He shows how historical materialism like realism looks at conflict but takes it as a consequence of structural change rather than a reoccurrence within a prevailing structure; how it includes the production process and the mode of production as important elements of power relations; and how it is concerned with the relationship between state and society and between periphery and core (Cox 1981). Citing Gramsci, Cox highlights the reciprocal relationship between structure (economic relations) and superstructure (ethico-political sphere) which transcend national borders because the capitalist class cooperates according to their interest and make them the state interest (Cox 1981).

Cox’s idea that theory always originates from a certain view point or perspective was not a new thought. His call for awareness for biases in different theories and for the inclusion of history in the theorising process was for example expressed already by social scientist CW Mills (Mills [1959] 2000). However, it is not without irony that he chooses Marxism, which it is itself often seen as an ideology, to demonstrate that problem-solving theories and especially realism are too much reliant on set assumptions. He blames realism for overlooking its own biases and failing to see state and civil society as one complex entity of international relations, only to introduce his perspective which is similarly biased. For him, realists are wrong to assume that states are the only relevant actors in IR and that “the future will always be like the past”  (Cox 1981: 128) but it is difficult to see why favouring a theory which is based on the strong core assumption that all history is the history of class struggle (Marx & Engels 1848) is so much different. Cox’s use of Marxism hence shifts the bias but it does not eliminate it. Cox states at the beginning of his essay that “the more sophisticated a theory is; the more it reflect upon and transcends its own perspective; but the initial perspective is always contained within a theory” (Cox 1981: 128) but he uses this statement to reflect and criticise realism rather than to reflect on his own preference. So Cox attempts what any theorist does – he tries to “sell a particular perspective” (Kurki & Wight 2013).

Today, Cox is regarded by many as the ‘father’ of critical theory of IR (Moolakkattu 2011). At the start he had to fight for recognition, especially by North American scholars, so his initial criticism of problem-solving theories had to be fierce. Problem-solving theories tend to deny legitimacy of reflective (and later constructive) approaches (Smith 2013); so to be convincing, Cox first had to introduce the alternative to problem-solving theories before he could later on be critical about the Marxist framework itself and especially about Gramsci’s superstructure concept (Moolakkattu 2011). Eventually, Cox’s work initiated a development in which IR has moved from being a discipline dominated by two main strands of theory, realism and liberalism, towards the divers discipline it is today. Dunne et al (2013) for example list no less than 13 theories of IR as relevant and Burchill et all (2001) list ten theories. Other authors frame their introductions to theories of IR around ‘enduring questions’ which represent the most important subjects in IR and are characterised by being reoccurring, unresolved, and consequential but as different scholars set different priorities, this approach equally leads to great diversity in such works (e.g. (Brown & Ainley 2009; Heywood 2011; Grieco et al. 2015). Generally, the many theories for the many phenomena in IR are seen as all potentially useful ‘tools’ for different occasions, or as different ‘lenses’ which let IR scholars see things with different focuses (Smith 2013; Grieco et al. 2015; Deitelhoff & Zürn 2016).

However, this development has also been cause for concern as some academics feel that having so many theories blurrs the focus on the subject matter and puts IR into danger of drifting too much into other disciplines like economics, sociology, or social psychology (Smith 2013). Additionally, as Wæver highlights, IR as a discipline as much as its theories is not free from inner power struggles and outside influences (Wæver 2013) which has put IR into a “Janus-faced position” of struggles for legitimacy within and outside the discipline (Jahn 2016). Drezner suggests that theories should serve as a “cognitive guide in a complex world” (2015) and that theories should be valued according to their explanatory value and judged by their ability to allow empirical hypothesis testing (Drezner 2015). While there is vast diversity of theories in IR, this seems to be a common ground scholars can agree on: theory has to foster understanding and it has to facilitate meaningful empirical studies (Mills [1959] 2000; Smith 2013; Jahn 2016). Ideally, this should progress the knowledge about international relations. However, the diversity triggered by Cox led to a broad discipline where academics appear to talk past each other rather than with each other (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998) since it is not possible to combine the many lenses IR has in its toolbox (Smith 2013; Grieco et al. 2015). In fact, theoretical diversity has put IR into a dilemma where it is caught up in meta-theory debates rather than progressing as a discipline and developing a strong core argument.

Waltz approaches this dilemma of diversity with a straight forward rebuttal of the idea that a theory should be reflective and inclusive of as many aspects as possible. He sees no good in criticising problem-solving IR theories for their sole focus on the international level with disregard for internal processes in societies since any theory has to be “about something and not about everything” (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998: 380). Additionally, he highlights the importance of distinguishing between theory, interpretation and application. He cites Keohane’s liberal institutionalism as being an example of an application of structural realism rather than a theory in itself and feminism as a “sometimes interesting interpretation of what goes on internationally” (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998: 386). Ultimately, Waltz says, theories explain, but not all explanations are theories: “Interpretations and explanations are plentiful; theories are scarce” (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998: 386).

Cox and Waltz present opposite extremes in their approach to IR theory. Waltz does not deny that his approach omits large aspects of international relations (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998) but he sees that as a necessity to be able to deduct ‘laws of international politics’ by analysing the characteristics of the international system (Deitelhoff & Zürn 2016). For Waltz, being critical about the fact that theory purports a certain perspective or bias is pointless since for him that is exactly how a theory has to be (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998). As long as nobody comes up with an all-encompassing theory of IR which brings together the national and international, which according to Waltz would be logically possible but has not been achieve yet, theory has to be abstract to be able to make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the world (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998; Deitelhoff & Zürn 2016). Cox, on the other hand, acknowledges that theorists have to make a choice about their perspective but he contests the amount of abstraction needed to gain understanding about world order (Cox 1981).

This difference between Cox and Waltz and between academics in general also reflects that “theories reflect theorists needs and wounds” (Inayatullah 2011: 6). Waltz being a war veteran and initially interested in political philosophy (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998) almost naturally developed a different approach to theory than Cox who worked for the International Labour organisation (Moolakkattu 2011). So the choice of perspective is hardly ever free from being impacted by the surrounding circumstances of the theorist. These can be personal, but more generally, major political crises also tend to cause paradigm shifts in IR epistemology (Jahn 2016). Hence Cox’s approach could also be linked with the economic upheaval the Oil crisis in the 1970s caused (Moolakkattu 2011), while Waltz’s theory emerged at the time of the Cold War, a time of seemingly stable power balances which suited the realist view well (Deitelhoff & Zürn 2016).  Theory indeed is always for someone and for some purpose – not at least for academics themselves with the purpose of understanding the world as they observe and experience it.

This essay has presented Cox’s argument and put it into context to IR and to the process of theorising more generally. Different theories serve different purposes and audiences since they aim to highlight different aspects of international relations, apply different levels of abstractions, or reflect personal preference of their authors. The essay has also shown, that initially Cox was not consistent in using his own method since he replaced one ideologically charged theory with another, however, he progressed towards a more coherent account of critical theory in later years. Altogether, Cox, starting with the work evaluated in this essay, undoubtedly has made a major contribution to the diversity of IR. However, the process he initiated has also been problematical as there seems to be no limit to the diversity Cox’s approach creates and hence it stratified IR’s resources and its ability to provide a strong core argument.

[Word count: 2002]



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