Narrative Explanation and International Relations: Back to Basics

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One of the central concerns of International Relations (IR), as well as International History (IH), is to explain how a given event came to occur. However, the importance and effectiveness of narrative as explanation is often neglected in IR. By focusing on the structure and role of narrative causal accounts, this article argues that drawing a distinction between IR and IH on the basis of their treatment of narrative is senseless. In the course of the discussion, a number of standard philosophical distinctions underpinning mainstream IR are challenged: in particular, reasons and causes, understanding and explanation, history and social science, and history and theory. It contends that the historical mode of knowledge production is indispensable to IR in addressing its substantive issues. However, it also warns that if IR is to take advantage of history in this way, it should also take seriously the epistemological and political critique of history and the narrative mode of representation. It ends by taking a critical glance at the works of Hollis and Smith, Lebow, and Edkins, and identifies a number of important meta-historical questions that need to be addressed in order to deepen our understanding of our ways of knowing world politics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)327-356
Number of pages30
JournalMillennium: Journal of International Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2008


  • history
  • International Relations
  • narratives


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