Recently, my graduate IR seminar addressed critical theory — and we naturally contrasted critical theory to “problem-solving theory,” as Robert Cox would have it.

In a volume about Cox’s contributions to IR, Timothy Sinclair draws the distinction (pp. 5-6):

It is the action, not the limits of the system, that is the analytic focus of of problem solving. Critical theory steps outside the confines of the existing set of relationships to identify the origins and developmental potential of these phenomenon. While problem solving theory assumes the functional coherence of existing phenomenon, critical theory seeks out the sources of contradiction and conflict in these entities and evaluates their potential to change into different patterns.

Allow me to dip into today’s blogosphere to illustrate.

1. Mr. Trend of Alterdestiny cannot figure out what to do with his old baseball cards.

In addition to my impending move to New York, my parents are also leaving the house they’ve lived in for 14 years, so I am forced to sort out the few valuable things I might have and throw out the rest of the majority, which can politely be called “junk.” As part of this process, I’ve been forced to go through all the baseball cards I bought between 1987 and 1991-ish.

Problem solving theory: sell them on Ebay.

2. D at LGM is pondering his falling retirement account:

So I’m wondering what sort of drink goes best with the news that one’s retirement account has lost nearly 15% of its value since January.

Critical Theory response: maybe D should have bought Mr. Trend’s baseball cards (value determined by community member attachments) — instead of traditional investment securities (value at least partly determined by American power, environmental degradation, continued income inequality, etc).