The Concept of Power and the (Un)discipline of International Relations

Janice Bially Mattern

in The Oxford Handbook of International Relations

Published in print August 2008 | ISBN: 9780199219322
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:


The Concept of Power and the (Un)discipline of International Relations

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  • Politics
  • International Relations
  • Political Methodology



Where there is politics there is power. It is no surprise, hence, that the concept of power is fundamental to the study of world politics. Power, or, more exactly, the particular way in which it is conceived at any given time, has been a significant constitutive force defining the discipline of international relations. As an ‘essentially contested concept’ whose meaning has broadened substantially over the years, the developments in conceptual thinking about power have progressively demanded acceptance of new empirical focuses, research methods, and normative logics into the lexicon of what counts as international relations. Contestation over the concept of power, thus, has helped broaden the discipline. And yet, if a broad discipline is desirable for the ‘engaged pluralism’ it facilitates, such benefits seem to have escaped international relations. In fact, international relations scholars have responded to the breadth of the discipline by narrowing both their views on power and their empirical, methodological, and normative schemas. The unfortunate result is that international relations is less a discipline than a collection of insular research communities; it is an (un)discipline. If international relations is to amount to more than a cacophony of disconnected views on world politics, these niches need to communicate.

Keywords: international relations; power; world politics; pluralism

Article.  3304 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; International Relations ; Political Methodology

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