On Structural Theories of International Relations: Examining Waltzian Structural Realism And Wallerstein’s World System Theory

International relations studies are constantly being contested amongst those who believe that it might be best approached through agential level of analysis, international structure, or those who focus on the co-constitution of agents and structures.In this essay, I will critically examine the second academic camp; an approach that believes that struc-ture shapes the nature of international relations (IR).

In order to do so, I will critically examine as well as compare and contrast the two most prominent structural approaches in IR, which come from two different academic traditions, namely Waltzian Struc-tural Realism (SR) and Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory (WST). The former posits that the interna-tional structural system of anarchy shapes states’ behaviour. The latter, however, argues that it is also structure that determines IR, but not political struc-ture. Rather, it is economic roots that manifested in the capitalist world system.

My critically examination conclude that each theory has its strong point over another. In general, both theories have successfully used the structural approach in animating the phenomena of IR by constructing such rigorous, parsimonious, and straightforward theories. These theories can be easily understood and have stimulated a good amount of further research. Their valuable points however have not escapes from several significant flaws. Based on constructivism, I posit my critique as follows; First, they both overemphasize on structure and ignore the role of agents therefore they provide very limited room for change. This brings to mind the concept of constructivism; a good framework should be able to explain change. Secondly, both are reductionist theories in the sense that they reduce the agential role by overemphasizing the international structure and thus condensing the structure in terms of solely material elements (material power for Waltz and means of productions for Wallerstein).

I organize this essay into three parts. The first part explores the origins and basic terms of structural approaches in IR. Why does it matter? And how is it used to understand the phenomena of IR? In sections two and three, respectively, I go on to examine SR and WST based on these identifications of structural approach. The last part of my paper compares and contrasts as well as analyses the structural content of the theories by engaging the notion of constructivism.



Following World War II, IR scholars, particularly those in the United States, adopted a behavioralist approach. This approach lays its theoretical founda-tion on a basic postulation of classical empiricism: knowledge can only be gained through direct observa-tion and measurement Gaddis, 1993:12) To proceed with that kind of approach, behavioralists apply “bottom-up” research methodology, namely the

inductive method: “deferring the construction of theory until they have collected, measured, and compared as much as evidence as possible and after that cumulated, replicated, and thus verified” (Singer, 1972:249-251). In practice, the application of this methodology has been significantly helped by the wide use of research techniques such as statistical methods in quantifying a bulk of data into a certain generaliza-tion (Little, 1985:77).

The rise of behavioralist approaches has been heavily criticized. It has been argued that the inductive approach has failed to generate scientific understand-ing. This notion has stimulated scholars to find an alternative solution, which eventually led to the structural approach. Unlike its predecessor, the structural approach deals with invisible construction. That is, while this approach is difficult to observe and measure, it gives observable and measurable impact in shaping I (Gaddis, 1993: 13-14). In this sense, Waltz stresses that structure is something that cannot be seen, observed, or examined, but instead creates a set of constraining circumstances and produces homog-enous output within various input (Waltz, 1979: 73). For the purpose of this essay, I identify structural approach in terms of four factors.

First, based on its origin, structural approach developed as a reaction to the academic fallacies of behavioralism. Reductionism and inductive research methods have often been criticised as being inappro-priate methods to generate scientific theory. Structur-alism then offers an alternative approach, called deductive methods. This is a “’top down’ approach that assumes the existence of unobservable phenom-ena in IR, uses the collection of empirical evidence to produce generalizations about them, and produces forecasts by projecting the resulting patterns into the future” (Gaddis, 1993:15).

Secondly, by deductive methods, structuralism has rested its analyses on totality or a systemic point of view. This notion of totality has three substantial meanings; first, it presumes the superiority of structure over processes; second, it clearly differs between structure and its parts (agents). Structure is compiled by agents, but structure has its own identity which exists independently and autonomously from agents (Ashley, 1986: 265). Totality also emphasises the dominance of structures over agents (Ollman, 1976: 266). Agents have no independent behaviour or identity, except for that which has been imposed by structures.

Thirdly, the vast majority of structuralists believe in the predominance of structure over processes and agents, but they vary in how they define this structure. With the caution of oversimplifications, these dy-namic definitions can be separated into two strands; minimalist-structuralism and holistic-structuralism. To explain this dichotomy, I will borrow Alexander Wendt’s tracheotomy of the agent-structure proble (Wendt, 1987). The minimalist-structuralism is what Wendt calls individualism, and it refers to a limited definition of structural which “reduces the structure with its properties and interaction of its constituent elements” (Wendt, 1987). The holistic-structuralism, however, emphasises “the absolute ontological priority of the whole over the parts” (Wendt, 1987)

Employing these three identifications of structure, in the following two sections I will examine two of the most prominent structural theories, which repre-sent different intellectual traditions.

Author : Winner Agung Pribadi