Intelligence Studies and the Study of International Relations: A Common Scientific Identity?


This article examines the relationship between intelligence studies and the study of international relations from an interdisciplinary perspective. It explores the extent to which these two fields, which developed largely independently, share a common scientific identity and epistemological orientation. The analysis suggests that while intelligence studies and international relations scholarship have distinct origins and objectives, they converge around a core set of philosophical assumptions and methodological commitments rooted in the social sciences. By tracing this common ground, the article argues for greater intellectual exchange between intelligence studies and international relations scholars. It concludes by proposing ways these overlapping research communities can productively collaborate to advance theory and knowledge.


Intelligence studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field focused on the history, politics, and processes of intelligence work, defined broadly as clandestine efforts to understand the strategic capabilities and intentions of state and non-state actors (Warner, 2009). The study of international relations, by contrast, is a well-established discipline centered on theorizing the forces that shape interstate relations and global politics (Dunne, Kurki & Smith, 2016). At first glance, the two fields appear to have little in common. Intelligence studies sprang from the peculiarities of espionage tradecraft and state security organs. International relations grew out of scholarly attempts to explain the causes of war and conditions for peace.

Upon closer inspection, however, important parallels between intelligence studies and international relations come into focus. This article argues that despite their distinct origins, contemporary intelligence studies and international relations scholarship share a common scientific identity rooted in the social sciences. Exploring this intersection yields theoretical insights for both fields and highlights opportunities for greater collaboration between them.

The analysis unfolds in four sections. The first provides background on the emergence of intelligence studies and international relations as distinct disciplines. The second examines their philosophical orientations and methodological approaches, finding considerable common ground linked to the social sciences. The third draws out shared substantive interests around issues like foreign policymaking. The fourth proposes ways scholars from both fields can productively learn from each other through collaborative projects and research.

Emergence of Intelligence Studies and International Relations

Intelligence studies coalesced into a recognizable field only in the past two decades. For most of the 20th century, scholarly analysis of intelligence remained limited. Much literature adopted a descriptive approach focused on recounting the organizational structures and operational details of particular agencies. Critical social science perspectives were rare, given limited access to classified activities (Warner, 2009).

The field began achieving greater coherence in the early 2000s as declassified records, memoir literature, and leaks fostered more rigorous scholarly analysis. Drawing on these disclosures, historians, political scientists, psychologists and other social scientists initiated more systematic studies of intelligence history, policy, and processes. Dedicated academic journals launched, university programs started, and professional associations formed to institutionalize intelligence studies (Phythian, 2013).

If intelligence studies is a young discipline, international relations qualifies as well-established by comparison. The study of international politics emerged at the end of the 19th century in conjunction with the professionalization of the social sciences. Pioneering figures like Norman Angell and Alfred Zimmern sought to apply scientific methods to understand the evolving international system following the First World War (Schmidt, 1998).

The idealist-realist debate of the 1930s and 1940s catalyzed the coalescing of international relations theory. Positivist approaches rooted in quantifiable data and testable hypotheses came to dominate the field, especially in the United States. Post-positivist, interpretivist and critical approaches challenged this orthodoxy from the 1970s onward. By the end of the Cold War, international relations had achieved disciplinary status within political science (Dunne, Kurki & Smith, 2016).

In summary, intelligence studies and international relations arose from different contexts: the former driven by practitioners and recent declassifications, the latter evolved from early 20th century social science. Their distinct origins contributed to separate trajectories of inquiry. However, as the following sections demonstrate, both now operate within a shared scientific paradigm.

Shared Social Science Orientation

Intelligence studies and international relations exhibit core commonalities in their social science orientation. Both adopt, with some variation, philosophical assumptions and methodological commitments rooted in logical positivism and empiricism. These include ontological materialism, epistemic positivism, and value neutrality. Both also rely predominantly on quantitative and qualitative methods standard in the social sciences.

Ontological materialism refers to the view that reality exists externally from individuals and is driven by material, natural forces. This contrasts with idealist ontologies that emphasize the central role of ideas. Positivist approaches, which dominate both fields, take material reality as their starting point. They presume it can be objectively measured and theorized just as the physical world can (Kurki & Wight, 2013).

For example, intelligence studies typically treats espionage capabilities as tangible resources that interact with other material dynamics. Game theoretic approaches model intelligence agencies and targets as rational actors navigating objective constraints and payoffs (Phythian, 2013). Similarly, dominant international relations theories like realism see military capabilities, geography, and technology as objective material drivers of state power and international outcomes (Donnelly, 2013).

Both fields also adopt forms of epistemic positivism and empiricism. These maintain that valid knowledge derives from sensory experience and requires verification through rigorous scientific methods. Facts must be established through empirical observation or experimentation. Universal theoretical laws can be induced from such evidence (Klotz & Lynch, 2007).

Intelligence studies displays strong empiricist tendencies in its focus on documenting the observable structures and practices of espionage based on primary sources and insider accounts. Mainstream international relations scholarship prioritizes datasets, field research, and model testing to validate or falsify hypotheses – an approach grounded in positivism (Hellmann, 2017). Both fields privilege quantitative methods like statistical analysis that conform to empirical standards of valid measurement and inference.

Additionally, most scholars in both areas strive for value neutrality and objective reporting of facts. Practitioners like intelligence analysts are expected to avoid politicization and cognitive biases that distort conclusions. Academic researchers are trained to remain detached and impartial (Marrin, 2012). International relations scholars similarly consider overt policy advocacy or normative theorizing as outside the parameters of scientific analysis, which should remain independent of partisan agendas.

In summary, intelligence studies and international relations exhibit considerable overlap in their ontological materialism, epistemic positivism and empiricism, and adherence to value neutrality. These reflect their common ambitions to operate as rigorous social science disciplines. Both apply methods like quantitative analysis widely seen as upholding scientific norms of objectivity, replicability, and accumulative knowledge building.

Overlap in Substantive Interests

In addition to their shared philosophicalorientation and methodologies, intelligence studies and international relations scholarship demonstrate significant overlap in their substantive research interests. Three areas of convergence stand out: 1) state security policy, 2) analytic practices and foreign policymaking, and 3) transnational risks and networks. Exploring these shows how the two fields intersect around common problems.

First, a core focus of both disciplines centers on explaining state security policies and behaviors – a key concern of political science. Intelligence studies traces how espionage agencies evolve in response to geopolitical contexts, technological change, and bureaucratic politics. The shaping of national intelligence structures across countries has attracted comparative analysis (Farson et al., 2008).

The study of international relations similarly examines how material capabilities, regime type, and culture influence foreign policy and strategic doctrine. Debates persist between realist, liberal, and constructivist accounts of state actions. But the overriding focus on the state remains constant (Sterling-Folker, 2013). Both fields derive their predominately state-centric foci from political science, their parent discipline.

Second, an overlapping interest centers on foreign policymaking and the role intelligence analysis plays in informing diplomatic, military, and national security choices. Intelligence studies devotes extensive attention to how assessment of capabilities and intentions feeds into decision-making processes. International relations scholarship also theorizes the organizational and psychological factors that produce foreign policy behaviors (Marrin, 2011).

In particular, the links between intelligence and foreign policy come to the fore during periods of international crisis that carry high stakes for national security. For instance, intelligence failures preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis and Iraq War have attracted extensive scholarly analysis from both fields on breakdowns in statecraft (Pillar, 2011; Betts, 1978). Such cases reveal intelligence-policy dynamics shaping high-level state interactions and outcomes.

Third, both disciplines demonstrate growing shared interest in transnational risks and networks as complex interdependence binds states. Intelligence studies has traditionally focused on state rivals. But topics like counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and monitoring global health threats increasingly engage scholarship on intelligence agencies (Phythian, 2013). These transnational issues involve tracking non-state actors who network across borders.

Similarly, international relations theory once centered on state security competition. But complex interdependence perspectives highlight how transnational flows of information, capital, people, and pandemics constrain traditional geopolitics (Keohane & Nye, 2011). Intelligence studies and international relations are both adjusting to analyze diffuse power and risks in a globalized world.

In summary, intelligence studies and international relations scholarship substantially converge around political science topics: explaining state security policies, foreign policymaking, and transnational risks. This reveals a common concern with elucidating state power and strategy. It creates space for intellectual exchange between scholars from both fields.

Opportunities for Greater Collaboration

Recognizing their overlapping scientific orientation and research interests opens up opportunities for productive collaboration between intelligence studies and international relations scholars. Exchange can occur through four promising channels.

First, scholars from the two fields could team up on collaborative research projects that leverage their respective expertise. For instance, intelligence historians can partner with international relations theorists to model how intelligence-policy dynamics interacted during past national security decisions like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such interdisciplinary efforts can produce richer explanations of major historical events.

Second, intelligence studies can further internationalize by engaging international relations scholarship comparing security structures across regions. Much intelligence work focuses narrowly on the US and UK. But incorporating frameworks like strategic culture theory could strengthen analysis of how intelligence institutions vary between Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America based on societal values and historical experiences (Farson et al., 2008).

Third, exchanges at academic conferences can foster greater cross-pollination between the two scholarly communities. Joint panels at events organized by the International Studies Association, where international relations scholarship features prominently, could productively integrate work from intelligence studies. Such platforms allow scholars from each field to keep abreast of emerging research.

Fourth, intelligence studies can diversify its theoretical horizons by drawing on the pluralist debates within international relations on issues like post-positivism and critical theory. Moving beyond empirical analysis of operations to engage philosophical questions around power, discourse, and morality could enrich intelligence scholarship (Dover & Goodman, 2009). Engaging alternative paradigms from international relations will hasten the intellectual maturation of intelligence studies.


This article examined the relationship between intelligence studies and international relations scholarship. It argued that despite their separate origins, the two fields exhibit considerable overlap in their social science orientation and substantive research interests. By tracing these commonalities, the analysis showed how intelligence studies and international relations form part of a shared scientific enterprise to elucidate state power and strategy. Recognizing this common identity creates opportunities for collaborative projects and intellectual exchange that can benefit both disciplines. As intelligence studies professionalizes, deeper engagement with the theories and methods of international relations scholarship will accelerate its development as a mature field.


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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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