International relations is an interdisciplinary subject itself

International relations (IR) as a field have becoming more popular these days. Most likely due to globalisation, the public is more interested in foreign affairs and relationship between countries: US-China relations, climate changes, public health issues, wars and conflicts, and governing systems. Many of the hot topics are related to IR.

This, indeed, good news for the field. We have more new blood doing research in IR. However, after studying and teaching in IR for more than ten years, the field has become more complicated than before. I have found that people need to acquire knowledge that is beyond the typical boundary of IR to conduct research.

What is international relations?

When first speaking to my friends that I study IR, most of them mix up the field with public relations, international business, or public policy. That is understandable because the term ‘international relations’ itself is confusing; it appears that we are doing some sorts of research about relationship internationally. The above study areas are, indeed, what people come across in their daily life.

To a certain extent, they are not wrong. IR does study about objects that are ‘international’. It focus on the relations, like state vs state, individuals vs state actors, and regional vs transnational.

Broadly speaking, the IR is a subfield in politics. Most people suggest it was established some time before and after World War Two, which is relatively recent compare with other areas in politics. There are typically four branches in IR: IR theory, security studies, governance and law, and international political economy (IPE).

Disciplinary of international relations 

Each branch is connected with or related to other disciplines. It has made IR beyond a study of politics nowadays and become interdisciplinary.

First, IR theory requires study of social theory and philosophy. In fact, IR theory is derived from these two fields, trying to apply them at an international context. Therefore, they are always related, unsurprisingly.

Second, security studies has become more complicated. Initially, it focuses on international conflicts – global, regional, state etc. However, because of the lack of wars these days, people have different insights of security. Predominantly, the concept of ‘non-traditional security’ has emerged to broaden the understanding of ‘security’. Then, ‘new’ areas, such as civil war in a globalised context, military studies, war studies and peace studies, appear, which has made the field more fragmented. Indeed, what has made security studies nowadays so complicated is that it also requires knowledge in technology, such as cyber security, AI technology and all the different models of submarines and fighter jets – they are beyond the scope of IR.

In regard to governance and law, it is clear that you need to have a legal background. For example, when you research on the United Nations, at the bare minimum you need to understand the legal terms in the treaties (which intended to be vague); when you study a particular international negotiation, you may need to know the legal debates behind. Unless you practice international laws or have a legal mindset, it is difficult for you to research in these areas. Not to mention, sometimes you need to understand domestic laws from a different legal systems.

Finally and obviously, IPE is related to political economy or economics. In fact, some people do not regard IPE as a sub-field in IR, but in economics. This is indeed a unique field in IR, which researchers have more experiences in data analysis, behaviour science, modelling. Though 90% for undergraduate IR students are not equipped with these skills.

We need more experts from other areas

I can use my own experience as a case study to illustrate how IR is now an interdisciplinary field. I study maritime security. In the field of IR, people would be more interested in the political discussion – defining maritime space, the boundary of security issues in the maritime domain. However, as a part of ‘security studies’, people is always interested in the navy, the dominant player in waters. Therefore, in my book, I include some analyses of China’s naval development, with some discussion of the advancement of naval technology and shipbuilding. Nevertheless, I cannot say I am expert in this area.

Maritime security also relates to international laws. I need to have a basic understanding of UNCLOS, and the legal debate of conducting law enforcement in various maritime spaces. In fact, I collaborated with a scholar in international law earlier this year for a comparative study about the legitimacy in coast guard development.

Clearly, collaboration is possible, but it is sometimes difficult as well. Compared with other fields, IR is rather theoretically based. Many IR graduates, like me, do not equip with practical knowledge, like military science and law, which have made our contribution during collaboration become relatively limited.

However, the goal of interdisciplinary is to generate new knowledge and explore new field. The more that IR scholars interact with people outside our discipline, the more in-depth the field will be. Studying IR is never a waste of time. We do have our unique understanding of the world. Even though sometimes it is not that ‘practical’, I still encourage people from our field to explore new ways to see the globalised world.

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