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date: 20 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

Scholarship on domestic role contestation arose out of critiques of two frequent assumptions about the impact of national role conceptions (NRCs) on a state’s foreign policy: the assumption of elite consensus and the assumption of elite–public agreement on one or several NRCs. These critiques have been occasionally articulated since the entry of role theory into international relations literature, but they were systematized during a new wave of research on roles that started in the 2010s.

The domestic role contestation approach identifies the key domestic actors that hold NRCs and hypothesizes that roles connect to foreign policy behavior via the domestic political process. The degree of consensus along two dimensions—commonly defined as “horizontal” and “vertical” for the intra-elite and the elite–public nexus, respectively—can explain what roles are enacted or blocked. Empirical findings, though tentative, have corroborated the relevance of these arguments. Elites with significant institutional power—particularly in the executive–can often overcome impediments to enact preferred roles, although this ability often hinges on the lack of divisions in ruling institutions. Although less robust due to the absence of significant empirical research, role theory scholarship has also revealed that the public can, at times, constrain elites from enacting unpopular roles.

The literature on domestic role contestation has a number of limitations that can inform future research directions. First, there is still no comprehensive list of domestic actors that hold (and argue about) NRCs. Such a list can outline the diversity of social environments in which countries find themselves, generate insights into how they navigate their presence in each one, and lead to more detailed accounts of how the contestation process unfolds. Second, the literature is yet to provide a framework for incorporating the involvement of relevant external actors (commonly known as “alters”) in the domestic contestation process. The impediments here are partly practical—an eye to detailed domestic processes and external involvement can create an unwieldy narrative—but the effort to conceptualize this dimension is important in light of role theory’s major focus on the interaction between ego and alter. Third, role contestation scholarship needs stronger and clearer connections to traditional and critical international relations theories, as well as the study of contentious politics. Finally, methodological rigor and diversity should be a priority for the future development of this strand of role theory.

Keywords: role theory, national role conceptions, role contestation, foreign policy analysis, public opinion, domestic opposition

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