Conceptualizing in the Minefield: Role Theory and Foreign Policy Learning


  • Contribution to the Special Issue of the Journal “Foreign Policy Analysis”: Integrating Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations through Role Theory


Harnisch, Sebastian. (2011) Conceptualizing in the Minefield: Role Theory and Foreign Policy Learning. Foreign Policy Analysis, doi: 10.1111/j.1743-8594.2011.00155.x

The paper suggests a dialogue between role theory and foreign policy learning literature. I argue that role theory, when conceptualized in the interactionist tradition of George Herbert Mead, can contribute analytical clarity to the literature on policy learning. By specifying role theory to account for various modes of “role taking,” the constitutive social effects of individual or organizational learning for a given community become apparent. Furthermore, an interactionist reading of role theory advances the concept of “role taking” by complementing it with “role making.” While the former connects societal expectations and individual or collective self-expectations and behavior, the later conceives learning as the interaction between individual creativity and societal expectation in the process of “as-if role taking.” The illustrative cases of role making and taking reveal the creative effects of role making while accounting for the constraining impact of institutions and communal expectations. I conclude that role theory and (foreign policy) learning are powerful explanatory tools, but only if they are integrated to bridge the gap between agent and structure.