Rethinking Role Theory in Foreign Policy Analysis: Introducing Positioning Theory to International Relations

  • Francis Baert Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT)
  • Luk van Langenhove Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Melanie James
Keywords: positioning theory, role theory, foreign policy analysis


Ever since ‘roles’ and role theory have been introduced in International Relations (IR), foreign policy analysts have grappled with the different roles that states and other political actors can play in international relations. In a wider context, symbolic interactionism found its way in IR making headway for social constructivism. But role theory can be criticized as being a too static concept in order to describe the way in which actors are actually experiencing and enacting upon their different roles. Within psychology, positioning theory emerged as a modification of role theory. The difference between roles and positions lies along a spectrum of flexibility: roles are fixed while positions are fluid, overlapping and ephemeral. Positioning theory has been widely used in a variety of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities, but its insights are so far absent in IR. The idea behind this paper is threefold. First, it seeks to introduce positioning theory in foreign policy analysis in order to revitalize the importance of role theory by looking at the assumed positions, the developed storylines and speech acts used by actors in international relations. Secondly, at a more meta-theoretical level, position theory challenges IR’s ‘conventional’ social constructivism. This opens a space for more targeted interdisciplinary scholarship and productive debates between psychology and IR under the rubric of social constructivism. This will all be done by introducing the work of the philosopher and psychologist Rom Harré, which brings us to our final and cross-cutting argument: that the in IR largely unknown work of Harré provides ways to productively discuss progress in IR theorizing.

Author Biographies

Francis Baert, Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT)

FRANCIS BAERT Francis Baert is since 2015 Strategy Planning Manager at the Chief Executive Office of Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT). At FIT he is also project coordinator of the ‘Flanders accelerates’ programme, the official internationalization strategy of the Flemish Government 2017-2021, a large strategic stakeholder and business acceleration programme. Previously he worked for 9 years at the College of Europe and the United Nations University in Bruges as researcher and project coordinator on several EU-funded projects (Framework Programme 6 &7). He was a visiting researcher at the universities of Cambridge, Ghent and Gothenburg. He is the co-author of 3 edited volumes and 40 academic articles including in journals like International Affairs, Review of International Studies & Global Policy. He obtained masters in international relations and international and European law at Ghent University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (

Luk van Langenhove, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

LUK VAN LANGENHOVE, PhD, is Academic Commissioner for International institutes and Networks at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Between December 2017 and January 2019, he served as Academic Director at the Institute for European Studies (IES) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). He previously held the position of Director at the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS) in Bruges. He currently also teaches at the VUB and has been teaching at the College of Europe, the University of Maastricht and Université Libre de Bruxelles. Since 2018 he is a honorary professorial fellow at Warwick University (

Melanie James

MELANIE JAMES, PhD, was an academic at the University of Newcastle, Australia, from 2006-2018. In 2015, she was awarded the National Golden Target Award for Australian PR Educator of the Year by the Public Relations Institute of Australia. Prior to this role, Dr James held executive level communication management positions and provided consultancy in strategic communication. Her (2014) book, "Positioning Theory and Strategic Communication: A new approach to public relations research and practice” (Routledge, UK) placed her as a leading researcher among international academics applying Positioning Theory to their respective fields. She continues to undertake selected projects and consultancy roles (