As a discipline, IR returns repeatedly to the ‘problem of harm’; debating what harm is or should mean. Exploring the discipline through this lens allows us to understand it as contributing to a broader process of negotiation centred on harm as a principle of restraint. However, existing accounts of what harm means for IR are challenged by the scale and visibility of large-scale harm. This article attempts to push beyond recent accounts of harm by Linklater and Mitchell by examining their respective framings of the relationship between harm and its explanation in IR. Building on their limitations, I propose a framework centred on arguments for ontological realism and structure as a focus for explanation. The resulting ontology sustains the concerns of both while: (a) more fully characterising the relationship between explanation and values in IR; and (b) providing a more adequate account of the role of abstraction. In developing upon existing accounts, this article seeks to provide a stronger ground for the analysis of harm in IR. More broadly, it contributes to contemporary debates centred on the relationship between ontology and values with a view to clarifying the nature of explanation in IR as a social science.
Bibliographical note© British International Studies Association 2018. The final publication is available via Cambridge Journals Online at