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The Emergence Of The Role Theory

Info: 4170 words (17 pages) Essay
Published: 11th May 2017 in Politics

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Role theory is a conceptual framework with long history in the field of Foreign policy analysis. In order to explain and understand the foreign policy of nation states, the role theory focuses on the reasoning of national political elites, their explanation of the international system and their own states role within this larger system. Despite its conceptual stringency, methodological openness and rich empirical applications, the role theory seems to be neglected by the main stream scholars.

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Role theory as we said is a long established conceptual tool for the foreign policy analysis. While the role theory analytical potential is high, only recently we have witnessed its revival. Role theory first attracted attention in the foreign policy literature after the publication of Holsti’s [1] study of national role conceptions. Role theory had been in development for nearly four decades in Sociology, Social Psychology and Anthropology by this time. Holsti didn’t import much of the conceptual or theoretical language associated with role theory. He chose to focus on the simple idea that the Self, in this case the leaders of the state may hold a set of beliefs or images about the identity of the state. Also, a social psychologist of the sociological variety [2] suggested that Holsti’s article may well be an example where borrowing a theory has paid off. These national role conceptions were shaped the way that a state acted by it in the international system level.

The objective of this paper is to present a role theory as a theoretical and conceptual tool for the analysis of the foreign policy. This paper will divide into parts. First part introduces the intellectual sources and inspiration of the role theory. The second part introduces the assumptions of the role theory, and then I’ll mention the key concepts offered by the theoretical conceptual framework of the role theory. The third part summarizes the criticism of International Relations theorists towards formulation of the role theory. The fourth part explores briefly how we can integrate foreign policy analysis and international relation through role theory.

The emergence of the Role Theory and its intellectual sources:

Role theory was first introduced in 1970 by Kalevi Holsti in his article “National Role Conceptions in the Study of Foreign Policy”. In 1970, Holsti criticized the unnecessarily crude shape of the national roles and too strong pre occupation with national role types relevant to then structural conditions such as bloc, leader, satellites, allies, and non-aligned. Such typology ignores the great set of roles that smaller states play in the system and in different regions [3] . At a time of structuralism analysis of foreign policy, Holsti tries to refocus the attention of the discipline towards the domestic sources of foreign policy behavior.

Role theory has been inspied by sociological and social psychological theories about the role of individual in the society [4] . Holsti drew heavily on Mead’s symbolic inter action [5] long before Wendt picked symbolic inter action as a core principle of his constructivist theory. Holsti relies on George H. Mead and his study of the impact of the behavior of others on an individual’s self conceptions and his conceptual distinctions between the self and the change. Symbolic inter action remains the most important source of inspiration for role theorists up until today.

Social psychological and sociological theories about the role of individual in the society are applied in the explanation of the behavior of the state. Role theorists argue that by providing the sense of purpose of the state in international community, national role conceptions concede the state with a sense of selfhood and identity. Without the sense of identity, individuals can’t order their environments and they will find that the social behavior becomes difficult to understand and manage [6] . According to Chaftez, the same process occurs within the states.

In this sense, role theory is just another example of anthropomorphic theory [7] . It is built around an anthropomorphic assumption that we can draw an analogy between individuals in the society and the state. This assumption some would say chicanery allows us to import social psychological and sociological theories into the disciplines of international relations and foreign policy analysis. At the same time the role theory steers clear of the trap of treating states as some kind of unitary actors. After explaining the origin of role theory and knowing the main scholars and intellectuals ideas of the theory. I’ll explain the main assumptions that theory depend on. Theoretical assumption of the role theory:

This part tries to identify the assumptions of the role theory which are the epistemological and ontological and its position in contemporary theoretical debates. The starting point is the classification of approaches to the study of foreign policy by Walter Carlsnaes [8] . In line with the categories developed by Hollis and Smith [9] , Carlsnaes distinguishes four basic approaches to the study of foreign policy according to their epistemological assumptions which are objectivism versus interpretativism and ontological assumptions versus individualism.

Objectivist holistic approach such as various strands of realism and neo realism offer a structural perspective on the foreign policy. Objectivist individualist approaches such as bureaucratic politics approaches and liberal approach see the foreign policy from the agency based perspective. On the intersection between holism and interpretativism lie the approaches such as: social constructivism or discursive approaches representing the social institutional perspective.

Hollis and Smith distinguish explanation and understanding as two basic epistemological positions. Explanatory approach is inspired by natural sciences and looks for causal relations within the social reality. On the other side interpretivists rely on reconstructing inter subjective meaning of that structure for the subjects of interests. The goal of interpretativism is to reconstruct and understand the way people make sense of the social reality and on this ground understand the behavior of individuals and groups.

While some authors argue that the two theoretical questions are interrelated as ontological position predestined the epistemological choice [10] , Carlsnaes agrees with Hollis and Smith that ontology doesn’t entail epistemology and thus we can distinguish four basic combinations of theoretical perspectives.

After that, it’ll be better to explain the meaning of the two assumptions which are epistemology and ontology in details to form the whole image in our minds about the role theory.


The epistemological position of the role theory is quite clear according to Carlsnaes. It is an example of interpretative perspective. Role theory seems to favor domestic sources of foreign policy and at the same time given its roots in symbolic interactionism, role theory produces interpretative knowledge rather than casual explanations. Role theory allows us to reconstruct the meaning attributed to national role by the domestic elite individual national foreign policy makers [11] . Carlsnaes classification shows the original analytical intentions of those who formulate the role theory. According to Stephen Walker, role theory offers a thick description. The theoretical function of role theory isn’t codifying abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them. In line with its epistemological underlying, role theory is more suitable for answering the How possible questions rather than the Why questions.

Role theory follows the principles of interpretative which examine the background of social and digressive practices and meanings which make possible the foreign policy practices as well as the social actors themselves, how meanings are produced and attached to various social subjects and objects thus constituting particular interpretive disposition which create certain possibilities and exclude others.


Walter Carlsnaes, following Hollis and Smith distinguishes two basic ontological positions: holism and individualism. Holism holds that the effects of social structures can’t be reduced to independently existing agents and their interactions, and that these effects include the construction of agents in both causal and constitutive senses [12] . The dynamics of social systems can always be tracked to the evolutionary changes on the level of self reproducing structures [13] .

On the other side individualists’ claim that individuals are ontologically primary, all social phenomena as institutions, norms and cultue are intended or unintended consequences of aggregated behavior of the individuals.

Social scientific explanations should be reducible to the properties or interactions of independently existing individuals. Walter Carlsnaes puts the role theory unambigously into the individualist box. The role theoretical analyzes focus on the reasoning of individual national foreign policy makers. Role theory exemplifies the bottom up individualist interpretative approach which is concerned to understand decisions from the standpoint of the decision makers by reconstructing their reasons. Holsti and most of the empirical applications of his conceptual framework didn’t incorporate role prescriptions of external expectation and their empirical analyses focus solely on the domestic sources of national roles.

Conceptual framework of the role theory:

It’s better to divide the concepts of the role theory into three categories which are: National role conceptions, which are better one role or many roles and other concepts of the role theory.

National role conceptions

Role theory explains the foreign policy behavior by exploring the roles played by individual countries in international level. The conceptual framework of the role theory has evolved through time as new concepts have been added. The key concept of the role theory is national role conception introduced by Holsti. He defines the national role conception as the policymakers have definitions of the general kinds of decisions, commitments, rules and actions suitable to their state and it’s the function of any state that should perform on a continuing basis in the international system or in subordinate regional systems. It’s the image of the appropriate orientations or functions of their state or in the external environment [14] . This definition has been widely accepted by other role theorists. For example Ulrich Krotz thirty years later defines the national role conceptions as domestically shared views and understandings regarding the proper role and purpose of one’s own state as a social collectivity in the international arena [15] .

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National role conceptions induce preferences and motivate wills, goals and actions. Often interests and policies that derive from National role conceptions are viewed as normal and right within the respective country. According to Le Prestre, the articulation of a national role betrays preferences, operations of an image of the world, triggers expectations and influences the definition of the situation and of the available options [16] . At the same time, national role conceptions make certain interests and policy options intuitively implausible, categorically exclude them as wrong or unacceptable or make them unthinkable. National role conceptions are a product of domestic socialization processes and they give meaning and purpose to the foreign policy.

One role or many roles

Glen Chafetz notes that actors usually have multiple roles that various in overall importance centrality and according to the situation salience. This argument is supported by Holsti’s original empirical analysis. He confirms that on the lowest level of a day to day politics actors normally have several different roles in the international system and its subsystems. Role theory reflects the arguments made by James March and Johan Olsen that humans maintain a repertoire of roles and identities each providing rules of appropriate behavior in situations for which they are relevant [17] . On the other side some researchers adopt the single role assumption that the foreign policy as such is on the highest plane guided by a shared, historically constituted role vision of a national mission which is relatively stable and coherent across time, context and circumstances.

The analysis of such dominant, overarching shared view, understanding regarding the proper role and purpose of one’s own state as a social collectivity in the international arena can be challenged for being overly generalizing. By looking for common thing in the national elite’s world views and visions of the national mission, we get that one inevitably puts aside differences in the political elite’s foreign policy priorities.

On the other side the single role assumption allows us to trace and explain patterns in the foreign policy of the state and identify ideas discourse shared even among national politicians with different political preferences in foreign policy making.

Other concepts of the role theory

Even though the national role conception represents the key concept of the role theory it isn’t the only concept. While the national role conception is an ego’s own conception of his position and function, the term role prescription has been introduced to capture the alter’s prescriptions. Holsti defined role prescriptions as norms and expectations cultures, societies, institutions or groups attach to particular positions. Role prescriptions emanate from the external environment. In the constructivist language role prescriptions are interred subjectively shared norms and expectations which form the social structure of the international system. Even though the term role prescriptions has been introduced in the role theory since its very beginning, the structural source of the role prescriptions has been sidelined and hardly utilized in role theoretical empirical analyzes. It took some time before role theorists acknowledged the analytical value of the role prescriptions and of the structural dimension of the role theory. Contemporary role theorists not only acknowledge on a theoretical level that roles are determined both by an actor’s own conceptions about appropriate behavior and by the expectations or role prescriptions of other actors but they include role prescriptions into the design of their empirical analyses. The inclusion of the role prescriptions into the research design is in line with the tenets of symbolic interactionism and with the constructivist arguments that roles are institutionalized in social structure.

Stephen Walker a Sheldon Simon introduced another structural concept into the framework of the role theory: role set [18] . Role sets can be defined as a set of actors positioned as significant others and the web of mutual roles in the system. It is a web of mutual expectations which according to Walker and Simon represent a dynamic and interconnected system.

The last term is national role performance. National role performance denotes concrete foreign policy decisions and actions. National role performance encompasses the attitudes decisions and actions governments take versus other actors in order to implement the role.

Empirical analyzes relying on the concept national role conceptions usually rely on the single role assumption, they try to discover domestically shared ideas about the purpose and role of the state in international arena and they try to illustrate. The term role set is simply denoting the set of roles played by a particular state versus the spectrum of other actors explain the continuity in the foreign policy behavior of national role performance.

On the other side analyzes operationalizing the concept of role prescriptions are better equipped to capture and explain changes in roles and role performance of foreign policy behavior. For example: Walker and Simon claim that actors do from time to time experience role conflict. Role conflict is defined as a situation in which multiple roles are elicited by competing or conflicting expectations, cues and conceptions. This conflict can have the form of a clash between contradicting national role conceptions and role prescriptions or as a clash between two competing role prescriptions. Walker and Simon convincingly argue that the structure of the role set is a product of this role location process as countries enact roles and attempt to cope with role conflict. If individual member of the system in an attempt to solve his own role conflict and changes the role he plays in the system then the whole role set changes as other members of the change their roles and expectations in response.

The criticism of the role theory:

In line with Carlsnaes’ classification of the role theory as an individualist interpretative approach, International Relation constructivists treat the role theory as an actor based perspective. Alexander Wendt who praises the role theory for introducing symbolic inter actionism into the field criticizes Holsti for emphasizing the agentic role taking side of the equation at the expense of the structural, role constituting side which strips the concept of role of much of its interest. Similarly Audie Klotz criticizes Holsti for excessive focus on individual motivation and cognition at for ignoring the congruence in shared norms which form the backbone of dominant ideas and knowledge. To summarize the critique, International Relation constructivists castigate the role theory for orientation on subjective rather than inter subjective ideas. Role theory seems to forget that national identity and role is not only about inner experience of the state in elite national role conceptions but also about the structure of expectations of the wider international environment role prescriptions.

Wendt and other critics are to some extent different and right. The theoretical and conceptual model introduced by Holsti in fact incorporates not only actor centered national role conceptions domestically shared visions about the role and purpose of the state in international arena but also structural role prescriptions expectations of others. But this socio psychological theoretical model wasn’t fully translated into Holsti’s design for a foreign policy analysis. Even though role the agent society relationship plays a crucial role in the original Mead’s social psychological theory, Holsti depreciated the impact of society on the formation of national roles in the international context. In his words the expectations of other governments, legal norms expressed through custom, general usage, treaties and available sanctions to enforce. These are ill defined, flexible and weak compared to those that exist in an integrated society and particularly within formal organizations. In a rather neorealist he also refers to the lack of institutions, acute international conflict and the fact of sovereignty as the factors behind the precedence of policymakers’ role conceptions over externally derived role expectations. Here lies the rift between Holsti on one side and the English School and constructivist IR on the other side which has been reproduced in some of the empirical analyses.

Integration of FPA and IR through Role Theory:

Role theory has an intermittent presence in the study of foreign policy analysis, though it is unfamiliar to scholars in international relations. Yet it is uniquely suited to integrate IR and FPA. Role theory is premised on explaining and understanding the interaction between agents and structure. This may sound familiar to constructivist IR scholars. Role theory tends to focus on the agent structure debate from a slightly different, albeit complementary and vantage point.

Foreign policy analysis and International Relation scholars operate within different analytical traditions. Whereas the former consider the individual to be the ground of International Relation theory, the latter are more apt to proceed from a system level orientation. To be more precise, Foreign policy analysis scholars often use role theory informed by social psychology while International Relation scholars are more firmly grounded in constructivist principles borrowed from sociology. There is a geographical divide: the former group of scholars is more prevalent in the United States, whereas the latter tend to be located in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Both groups use methods of analysis and standards of evidence that are in keeping with their separate traditions. Some suggest that theories of International Relations can’t also be theories of foreign policy.

However, others have argued that there is no logical barrier to such a synthesis [19] . We believe that role theory offers the potential for integration, possibly and synthesis. Foreign Policy Analysis generally as well as cognitive approaches specifically and International Relation theory generally as well as constructivism specifically stand to benefit from the results of dialogue between the former’s largely agent based role theory and the latter’s largely system based agent structure debate.

Although fully synthesizing the two fields may not be feasible, there is so much common ground that bridging the divide between these two traditions not only brings them closer together but also advances knowledge in both Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations theory. Indeed some efforts aimed at synthesis can already be identified. Consider for example: Maull’s work on the civilian power role of Germany and Japan and Harnisch’s subsequent efforts to place Germany’s civilian power role in a constructivist International Relations framework. These two scholars demonstrate the potential for a synthesis of Foreign Policy and International Relations through role theory. Roles like the civilian power role make intuitive sense to policymakers and offer great potential to translate Foreign Policy and International Relations theory into meaningful policy relevant advice.


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