Critical Problem Solving

The general aim of problem-solving is to make these relationships and institutions work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble” (Cox 1981, 128-129).

This definition, remember, follows Cox’s opening statements in the article about the importance of theory for the production of practical knowledge.

I disagree with his assessment of the status of critical theory, as do many of the contributors to the special issue and to the symposium, in particular with his claim that it has failed to live up to the promise it showed in the 1980s – but that’s a conversation for another time.

What is most interesting here is how Brown takes up Cox’s analytical division of “critical theory” from “problem-solving theory”. Murray; or in Ali Diskaya, just to take a few examples appearing here in e-IR.

It “does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing. Critical theory is directed to the social and political complex as a whole rather than to the separate parts” (Cox 1981: 129).

Cox also allows that where problem-solving theory might be seen as conservative, critical theory might be seen as utopian: “Its aims are just as practical as those of problem-solving theory, but it approaches practice from a perspective with transcends that of the existing order. Critical theory allows for a normative choice in favour of a social and political order different from the prevailing order, but it limits the range of choice to alternative orders which are feasible transformations of the existing world” (Cox 1981: 130).It is therefore important to consider what Cox actually said about these categories.Problem-solving theory, first, “takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action.Indeed, the trope of problem-solving versus critical theory is asserted quite often in discussions of the status of theory in IR: for example, in A. It is this trope, along with Cox’s other oft-cited claim in the 1981 some purpose” (Cox 1981: 129) that have made his article canonical.Indeed, Cox’s categories of “critical” and “problem-solving” are now part of the very common-sense ordering of theory in IR.He takes issue with the idea that problem-solving theory is value-free and asserts that it is conservative (Cox 1981: 129-130) but this is as close to a normative assessment of problem-solving theory as Cox gets.Critical theory, in contrast, is holistic where problem-solving theory is analytic.Thus theory itself has long and often been treated as an object for theoretical reflection in International Relations.Recently, we could point to both the founding of a specific section of the US-based International Studies Association dedicated to Theory – indeed, this section honoured Professor Cox at the ISA convention in Toronto in 2014 – as well as the special issue in September 2013 of the blog.Instead of just saying, how are we going to get this course done. Both the, the knowledge content, then the emotional content.We said how are we going to fit the pieces off of the spine of the, of the project in the course. It's, it's so hard to ask a good question. Two of my other favorites including in addition to scientific method.


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