The gap between teaching and use of International Relations Theory in Brazil, by Fernanda Barasuol & André Reis da Silva

One of the recent major debates in the field of International Relations is related to the predominance of (mostly) American and European theories. Some authors even argue that there are no “non-Western” theories of International Relations. This limits our understanding of the reality of the International System, since these theories tend to privilege issues that are of interest to the regions where they are developed.  Most explanations for this situation focus on the barriers that authors from other parts of the world face to publish their work (language barriers are one example). However, it is becoming increasingly clear that, to understand this, it is also necessary to look into how theoretical reflection takes place in the rest of the world.

The article International Relations Theory in Brazil: trends and challenges in teaching and research, published in the special issue Many Worlds, Many Theories? of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (Volume 59 – No. 2) presents an analysis of International Relations Theory (IRT) in Brazil, as used both in teaching and research.

To analyze the teaching of IRT the authors looked into curricula of 83 undergraduate courses of International Relations – to see how many IRT disciplines were offered – and 31 syllabi from IRT disciplines to see which contents were taught. They discovered that, while the number of disciplines offered could be considered adequate (an average of 1.8), many of them used only manuals as reading materials, not asking students to engage with the original texts. In terms of which theories are predominant in the syllabi, the authors found that “mainstream” theories (Realism and Liberalism) account for more than half of the mandatory readings. Perspectives developed in Latin America, meanwhile, accounted for a very small fraction of those readings (2%). This profile is similar to those of other Latin American countries, as shown in previous studies. The authors also found that most syllabi did not include any discussion regarding the role of theory and its uses, as an important tool both in policy making and in research.

To evaluate how theories have been used in research in the field of International Relations in Brazil, the authors studied PhD dissertations, technical reports of research projects financed by CNPq and papers published in two academic journals (Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional and Contexto Internacional). The main objectives were to verify the presence of different theories in the texts analyzed and compare the use of theory in teaching and in research. They found that there are important differences in the use of theory both between different types of publications and between teaching and research.  For instance, PhD dissertations tend to use theories (any theories) much more than journal articles: while only 14% of dissertations do not use theories, for articles that number is 44%. The use of theory was also found to be connected to the author’s academic background: authors who had at least one of their degrees (undergraduate, masters or PhD) in International Relations were more likely to use theory than those who had none.

Regarding the differences between the use of theory in teaching and in research, the authors verified that in teaching there is a predominance of the more traditional theories – the most present being Realism, Liberalism and Marxism. In research, however, the most used theory is Constructivism. It is also noteworthy the quantity of

research that uses theories that are not “grand theories” or “paradigms” (i.e. Realism, Liberalism, Marxism, Constructivism). In those cases, the theory used in often a Middle-Range Theory, that is, theories that tend to pertain to more specific phenomena. Another fact that drew attention among the results was the use, in a considerable amount of the works analyzed (34%), of the combination of two or more theories. One of the most common combinations which could be observed was of Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism.

The data collected led to a series of questions and insights. Firstly, the lack of Portuguese translations of many important works of IRT likely represents an important constraint on professors when building a syllabus. Secondly, Brazilian academia seems to conform to international trends on marginalizing its own theories – notably Dependencia theory. Additionally, the lack of debate regarding the role of theory in IRT courses led the authors to question how much of what is taught in IRT courses is retained and whether theory is perceived as being useful by students, either in research or for future professional careers.

Finally, in research, the large number of works that do not cite any type of theory, as well as those that use several theories from different Schools of Thought, seem to indicate the necessity of an ample debate in the field regarding the role of theory in research, its applicability and how to evaluate it. This debate will be crucial not only to improve the conduct of research in general, but also to boost the development of independent theorizing.

This is the discussion presented in the article International Relations Theory in Brazil: trends and challenges in teaching and research, published in the special issue Many worlds, many theories? (Volume 59, N. 2) of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional.

Read the article:

Barasuol, Fernanda, & Silva, André Reis da. (2016). International Relations Theory in Brazil: trends and challenges in teaching and research. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 59(2), e005. Epub September 05, 2016.

Fernanda Barasuol – Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Faculdade de Economia, Porto Alegre – RS, Brazil (

André Reis da Silva – Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Faculdade de Economia, Porto Alegre – RS, Brazil (


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