Theorising Politics and IR

By Editorial Team Jan 07, 2022

Theorising Politics and IR

The Questions

The final deadline for the Essay is Thursday 6 January at 13:00. Grades and feedback will be available by 27 January.

Answer one of the following questions:

  1. What are the most significant ways in which Western political thought has been shaped by the West’s colonial and imperial past? Your answer should refer to both Political Theory and International Relations theory.
  2. Can cosmopolitanism help us address the main challenges of 21st century world politics? Your answer should compare cosmopolitanism and at least one other theory or school of thought covered on the module.
  3. Which tradition provides a more convincing critique of liberalism – Marxism or Classical Realism?
  4. What are the implications of Robert Cox’s claim that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’? Discuss with reference to feminism and/or critical theory.
  5. What is ‘international society’? What can the idea, or its limitations, tell us about the character of modern international relations? Your answer should refer to the English School of IR theory.

1. Preparation

Reflect on the Article Review

  • Look back at your article review and at the comments you have received. Identify areas which you need to work on. Think about what went well.
  • There will be a lot of similarities between the Article Review and the Essay:
    • You need clear summaries/interpretations of key theories, arguments, and sources;
    • You need a clear evaluation of key theories, arguments, and sources;
    • You might need to be selective about what you focus on;
    • You need to base your writing around a logical structure
  • But look out for the differences! This time:
    • You will need to answer the question, which means the scope is broader;
    • You will need to have conducted more research;
    • You will need to interpret the question;
    • You will need to explain in more detail what the essay is going to do;
    • The essay is longer – structure is even more important

When marking your essay, we are looking for:


  • To what extent have you demonstrated knowledge and understanding of the relevant theories and theorists covered on the module?
  • Have you shown evidence of extended reading and research using appropriate academic sources?


  • To what extent have you succeeded in explaining, interpreting, and evaluating the relevant theories, texts, and ideas? Have you done more than simply describe then?


  • To what extent have you answered the question? Have you presented a coherent argument in support of your answer?


  • Has the essay been carefully planned? Are the points it makes logically sequenced? Are these points adequately signposted?


  • Is the writing understandable and clear? Have quotations, ideas, and evidence been properly referenced? Is the essay well-presented?

2. How to get a good mark

Some simple dos and don’ts

  • DO:  follow the Harvard referencing system
  • DON’T: make-up your own referencing system as you go along
  • DO: start your research by looking at the module reading list, then the library website, Google Scholar, and the sources referenced in key sources
  • DON’T: Google the question or topic (it shows)
  • DO: use journal articles; academic books; textbooks
  • DON’T: use Sparknotes; UK Essays; Encyclopedia Brittanica; E-IR student essays
    • DO: read back through your work to check for errors

Some key words

  • Ideology: a set of political beliefs and ideals and/or the dominant ideas of a society which conceal its true nature and/or privilege those in power.
  • Theory: A set or system of ideas, often produced through research or reflection, formulated with the goal of explaining or understanding a given phenomenon, topic, or value, or goal.
    • There might be an ideological element to theory, but ‘ideology’ and ‘theory’ are not synonymous.
    • In your essays you should usually assume that you are talking about theory. If you want to talk about ideology, explain why.
    • Some theories (liberalism and Marxism) overlap with ideology in the first sense to a significant degree, but you should usually engage with them as theories
    • Some do not overlap in the same way. E.g. Realism or Constructivism (ever heard of a Realist or Constructivist political party?). These might have an ideological element, but it would be problematic to refer to them as ‘ideologies’ without explaining why.
  • Tradition: a ‘family’ of theories which might take quite diverse forms. E.g. ‘the Realist tradition’, ‘the Marxist tradition’.
  • Concept: An abstract idea. E.g. ‘Sovereignty’, ‘power’, or ‘rights’. One of the building blocks of theory. In the social sciences they are often contested – there is debate about their meaning.

To get a high mark, focus on… constructing your argument

  • Your goal is to answer the question not simply to write about the topic.
  • You need to tell us exactly what your answer is and to be specific. You need to do this in your introduction and then remind us at key points in the essay.
    • E.g. NOT ‘This essay will ask whether Realism or Marxism offers a stronger critique of liberalism. It will look at some authors from each tradition before reaching a conclusion’
    • BUT ‘This essay will argue that Realism offers a stronger critique of liberalism than Marxism. It will demonstrate this, first, by showing that like Liberalism Marxism is a utopian theory. Second, it will show that Realism offers a more flexible approach to politics. To make this argument it will draw on the work of Carr and Morgenthau’
    • Your argument in support of this answer should form the main body of the essay

Constructing your argument

  • Interpret the question
    • The questions are broad and there will be lots of ways of answering them.  Your introduction should explain how you are going to do it and why – this is an important skill!
    • Be selective. You can’t do everything and we don’t expect you to. A good essay sometimes focuses on a particular issue or author.
  • What’s you answer? Write it down. You need to be clear, but nuance can be good. You might need to adjust your answer later.
  • What are the main steps you will go through to justify your answer? You will probably need two or three.
    • Identify these when planning
    • Make sure they are clearly explained in your introduction
    • Make sure they are signposted in the main part of the essay
    • Think about key arguments/theories/ideas which you will need to include
    • Which ones from the module do you need to write about? Sometimes these will be in the question, sometimes not
    • How might they support your argument, or even provide the basis for it? Which represent important alternative positions?
    • At each step, check that your argument is convincing. Why should the reader accept your position?
    • Have key concepts, theories, or ideas been clearly explained?
    • Have you provide convincing reasons and evidence?
    • Have you explained how any examples support your argument? Remember, people with opposing points of view will likely be aware of these but interpret them differently.
    • What are the alternative positions or possibilities? A convincing argument requires that you have considered alternatives or objections.

Some pitfalls

  • Polemic
    • This isn’t a comment piece, Twitter post etc. There is no need to pretend to be ‘neutral’ but the standards of justification and evidence are higher. For the most part, assume that opposing views are rational even if they are problematic. Why might a reasonable person believe this thing? How might you persuade them that they are wrong?
  • Excessive generalisation
    • It’s good to make the connection to wider issues and to say if you think something is important… but statements like ‘for all of human history…’ or ‘all liberals promote imperialism’ are (a) probably untrue and (b) definitely hard to justify.
  • Historical context/age of the theory
    • Historical context is important, but ‘this was written a long time ago’ won’t do!
    • The age of a theory is not necessarily an indicator of its lack of relevance. Some theorists from the same era might ‘speak’ to us today, others might not
    • You need to explain why you think ideas from an earlier time aren’t relevant in our own. Be specific – in what ways has the world changed such that the theory no longer applies?
    • The length of an era can be hard to define. E.g. When does ‘modernity’ start – 1492, 1648, 1789, 1800, 1918, 1945, 1989?
  • Moral criticism
    • You are encouraged to think about the moral implications of theories but remember that moral outrage is not an argument!
    • Why should anyone share your concerns? How would you persuade someone who might be sceptical?
    • Possible reasons you might give to persuade them: the theory is at odds with widely held values; implementing the theory would be self-defeating or have unforeseen consequences; the theory prevents us from thinking about important moral problems/perspectives; the theory reflects the interests of one group at the expense of others
    • Taking the theory as a whole
    • Looking at a theory as a system is important but it is possible to agree or disagree with parts of a theory instead of dismissing the whole thing

To get a high mark, focus on… critical analysis

  • Constructing your argument will mean working with the academic literature. When engaging in-depth with sources you need to:

1. Interpret – ‘reconstructing’ someone else’s argument/idea/theory in your own words.

  • E.g. What do the English School mean by ‘international society’?
  • Aim is to capture the meaning and the nature of the idea or argument – these might not always be obvious
  • Helps you to emphasise points or contradictions which will be the focus on your argument
  • Needs to be accurate and coherent – be specific, refer to texts, give page numbers

2. Evaluate – do I find this argument/idea/theory convincing?

  • Is it logical?
  • Is it accurate?
  • What are its moral/political implications?
  • E.g. ‘Realism is a problem-solving theory which cannot tell us how we came to be living in a world of states’ (claim about limited accuracy and about political implications)



Essay Checklist




  • Have you answered the question? Be specific. Say exactly what your conclusion will be.


  • Have you explained how your argument is going to develop in the main part of the essay? What are the main steps you will go through?


  • Have you explained exactly what you will say at each of your main steps?


  • Is there any ambiguity in the question? Is there too much to cover? If so, explain what you will be focusing on and why.


Defining your terms



  • Have you defined any keywords or concepts which might be ambiguous or controversial?
    • Avoid using definitions from dictionaries or encyclopaedias for political concepts. We want you to engage with academic debates, so try to find a definition from an article/chapter/book you read.
    • You don’t need to define all terms – if they are not the focus of the essay you can often assume that your reader knows what basic terms mean (e.g. ‘politics’ or ‘theory’). You will need to use your judgement.
    • In some cases, e.g. where the essay question concerns a key concept, you might do this in the main part of the essay and at length (it might even be the focus of the essay). In other cases, if a shorter explanation is needed, you might do it in the introduction.


  • Are these definitions clearly referenced?


  • Is there disagreement about these definitions or concepts? If so, acknowledge this and say which definition will you be using.


Main body


  • Does each paragraph help you support of your answer to the question?


  • Are the links between each paragraph clear? Have you provided ‘signposts’ which make clear its role in your argument? Good links and signposts could include:
    • ‘Another important question to consider is…’
    • ‘The account of [e.g. hegemony] offered above helps us to understand that…’
    • ‘While the previous section focused on [e.g. realist understandings of war] further insights can be gained from considering [e.g. the post-colonial perspective] ...’


  • Does the arrangement of the paragraphs correspond to the plan you outlined in your introduction?


  • Is each paragraph roughly the same size? Does each correspond roughly to one topic or sub-topic?


  • By the end of the main body have you provided a clear explanation of your position/answer to the question?


  • Does your argument include critical analysis of key sources and theories?




  • Does your conclusion provide a clear summary of your argument?
    • Are equally clear statements of your position contained in your Introduction and the Main Body of the essay? If not, go back and insert them.


  • Does your conclusion introduce any new ideas, concepts or examples that are not explained in the main body of the essay? If it does, go back and explain them.




  • Are all your sources relevant and of good quality?
    • As a starting point, use relevant key readings and link them to the subject of your essay.
    • Next, use the module reading list to find further sources.
    • Are there any important sources mentioned by the authors you have identified so far? If so, take a look at some of these.
    • Find other sources using the Library website or Google Scholar
    • News sites etc. might be useful for evidencing a point you are making but should not be used for analysis.


  • Have you avoided unsuitable sources?
    • Wikipedia is not appropriate for an academic essay!
    • Avoid blogs, unless they contain material by reputable researchers (even in this case there will usually be articles you can read instead).
    • Never use essay help websites.
    • Never use the student essays on These are clearly identified on the website.


  • Are you using a good range of sources?
    • Relying too heavily on one or two sources is problematic. There is no magic number, but it is hard to write a good essay with fewer than five good quality sources (and this is a bare minimum).


Referencing and bibliography


  • Have you read over and understood the Harvard referencing guide or the referencing information in the PIR Red Book? Check all your references and bibliography entries against one of these guides.


  • Is every point, quotation, or paraphrase referenced, usually with a page number?


  • Have you consulted the source you are referencing yourself? If not, you should also include where you found the information. For example: (Smith 2009: 41; cited in Jones 2015: 59)


  • Have you included a correctly formatted bibliography?




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