International Relations’ First Great Debate: Context and Tradition

Author/s (editor/s):

Darshan Vigneswaran , Joel Quirk

Publication year:


Publication type:

Working paper

Find this publication at:
IR Working Paper 2004/1 (PDF, 199KB)

Darshan Vigneswaran and Joel Quirk, ‘International Relations’ First Great Debate: Context and Tradition’, IR Working Paper 2004/1, Canberra: Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Affairs, The Australian National University, August 2004.

According to International Relations (IR) orthodoxy, the story of three Great Debates accounts for the most important theoretical developments in the discipline. Over the last decade, critical historiographers have established that the story of a First Debate, which tells of a struggle between idealism and realism between the 1920s and 1940s, is a misleading caricature of early academic international thought. This article adds to this critical literature by tracing the manner in which the story of a First Debate became a part of disciplinary orthodoxy between the 1950s and 1980s. Our analysis reveals that a myth of a First Debate was produced when more recent scholars detached the concept of a struggle between idealism and realism from both the unique historical milieu in which this dichotomy was conceived, and the rhetorical purposes for which it was employed. We use these findings to make the case for a contextual approach to disciplinary historiography, and to illuminate the historical contingency of contemporary notions of scholarly purpose in IR.

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