Is ‘Agency’ A Red Herring?

I’m writing a new IR module and, being a bit weary of the way that IR debates are usually presented, I’ve been trying to use the structure-agency debate as one of the unifying threads. Reading up on the topic, I found an interesting article by Loyal and Barnes – the latter of whom I first encountered on philosophy of science reading lists when I was an undergraduate. Describing (common uses) of the term ‘agency’ red herrings in social theory, they note some of the unconvincing features of arguments about the political significance of free will:

A voluntaristic style of discourse may have suited the libertarian socialism of Giddens, but it has also suited the objectives of repressive political and religious regimes, which have sought to constrain their subjects precisely by stressing their freedom of action and making them responsible and accountable for what they do—with their lives in some cases. Conversely, fully causal accounts of action, for example, those in the various theological doctrines of predestination and divine determination, have been adopted by collectives concerned precisely to ignore and contravene the authority of church and state and even actively to oppose and overthrow them. Oddly perhaps, but oddly only to us, through and beyond the Reformation, it suited creative and resourceful opponents of the political and institutional status quo to hold that, of themselves, they could not have acted otherwise.

Free will is a will-o’-the-wisp of a concept. I’m with Spinoza, radical democrat and critical theorist: it can play no role in making sense of the world and human freedom is entirely possible in its absence. Although I don’t see ‘agency’ as intrinsically wedded to the idea of free will as Loyal and Barnes do, their alternative of ‘responsible action’ has a lot to recommend it.

Quantitative Interpretive Methods – Contradiction or Way Forward?

As I said previously, I’ve changed my mind about what quantitative methods can contribute to international relations research. Becoming more familiar with quantitative research has exposed me to the existence of a more diverse set of viewpoints on the appropriate use of statistical techniques and what they can tell us about the social world. I’ve found the anti-inductivist arguments of scholars of the analytical sociology movement and the creative, innovative positivism of Philip Schrodt particularly useful in their criticism of standard practices in quantitative social science.

Another unorthodox perspective is provided by Salvatore Babones. I first became aware of Babones research on the global income distribution a long time ago when I studying for my MA. His work was one of the influences that led me to gradually take the empirics of global inequality more and more seriously, leading me to my current set of interests. Babones, however, is an anti-positivist – something that he considers to be compatible with the employment of statistical techniques. He argues that quantitative methods should not be put in service of theory-testing, which he regards as an attempt to emulate the natural sciences that is of dubious merit when dealing with observational data. Instead, he advocates the use of statistical techniques as powerful tools to enable the researcher to engage in a dialogue with the data as part of a holistic, reflexive research enterprise. This leads him to a surprising conclusion in a recent article:

The goal of interpretive research is not really to answer research questions. The goal of interpretive research is to develop the expertise of the researcher. The decomposition of new environments into basic building blocks that have already been studied and the assembly of those building blocks into conjectural policy solutions is what human experts do. The practice of interpretive data analysis helps them learn how to do it better.

There seems to be some overlap here with the emphasis on the concatenation of mechanisms by analytical sociologists. Interestingly, Babones notes that he is more sympathetic to the use of traditional statistical technique such as regression than some analytical sociologists. Perhaps the difference arises from the more optimistic and philosophically realist position of analytical sociologists: they believe that sufficiently sophisticated and realistic models can identifying underlying data-generating processes. Babones seems a bit more sceptical, he offers an interpretative perspective in part because he holds that variables are always at least one remove from the entities we are interested in (I wondered if this might dispose him towards latent factor analysis and it turns out he’s edited a book on the topic). In places, Babones’s account seems a bit too inductivist from the position in the philosophy of science that I occupy – but I intend to read his book on Macro-Comparative Research to engage with his standpoint in more detail, as Babones is an expert researcher who has offered a distinct perspective on quantitative methods.

From Utøya to Suruç

The murder of 32 Kurdish socialist youth activists in Suruç in yesterday’s terrorist bombing is reminiscent of the terrorist murder of young members of the Norwegian Labour Party at their summer camp in Utøya by narcissistic fantasist Anders Breivik. The similarity of the two attacks underscores the similarity of extremists – Breivik described his actions in terms of a ‘counter jihad’ and looked, bizarrely, to Salafi extremists for inspiration. Indeed, extremists engaging in terrorism seem to frequently mirror the actions of from their supposed enemies, who are in reality kindred spirits. This can also be seen in the actions of the moronic and reprehensible Zack Davies, who was apparently obsessed with Daesh beheading videos and who sought idiotically to ‘avenge’ the brutal murder of Lee Rigby through a machete attack on a Sikh man in a supermarket. Note also the much commented use of Guantanamo Bay-style orange jumpsuits in Daesh murder videos. There’s an obvious fascination with violence on the part of extremists and a desire to borrow from a common visual lexicon of atrocity. I don’t think that this is just ‘free floating extremism’ as Jamie of Blood & Treasure has often suggested, I would suggest that there is a reciprocal component, in that violent actors feed off each other’s actions.

The attack on Suruç was unlikely to have been inspired by Breivik’s actions, but it demonstrates the similarity of actors motivated by supremacist ideologies and the strategies that they pursue. Suruç and Utøya demonstrate that socialists, social democrats and liberals are often the first victims of extremists. Those promoting peace, equality and social justice are promoting principles that are incompatible with the central tenets of violent supremacist ideologists such as Salafism and white racism.

In a previous post I noted some contributions to the debate over the precise nature of Daesh and its origins. Here is a useful, conventional account of the group’s rise placing emphasis on the sectarian struggles after the invasion of Iraq; here’s a different perspective that agrees with interpretations that emphasise the Baathist element of the group, but argues that the roots of the Baathist-Salafi connection go back to Hussein’s Faith Campaign.

Edit: Tidied up the argument for sake of clarity.

Rethinking IR Theory Through Foreign Policy Analysis I

Time seems to have flown this year. Despite good intentions, I didn’t follow up on a little burst of posts I wrote in April. Exam season and a big shift in my employment circumstances occupied a lot of my time, preventing me from getting back into the groove of blogging. Here goes an attempt to turn this around.

Previously, I wrote about my growing dissatisfaction with ‘Third Image’ international relations theory, that is to say international relations theory focusing wholly or exclusively on the international system. These approaches, exemplified by the work of Kenneth Waltz and Alexander Wendt conceived of the international system as bounded and separate from other social, political and economic processes. From this perspective international system is governed according to its own logic, which means that scholars of international relations don’t need to look beyond their own discipline in order to make sense of international relations – they just need to understand the typical patterns and modes of interaction characteristic of the international sphere. Because over the long-run the international system has certain tendencies that push it in a particular direction, nor do scholars need to pay much attention to the causes or consequences of particular decisions by those acting in the name of states. Third Image theory makes claims that are too general to generate concrete explanations or predictions about particular foreign-policy choices, and the foreign policy choices of states are unlikely to alter the general tendencies that these system-level theories identify. Foreign policy is assumed to be chaotic and idiosyncratic, the general course of international relations comprehensible.

A big problem for some of these theories is that they don’t square very well with evidence. I have become better and better acquainted with the behavioral literature in conflict and peace research, and the evidence tends to sit awkwardly alongside the expectations of Waltz’s Neo-Realism. Quite simply, as Vasquez has maintained, Neo-Realism has not been the source of very many claims that have been corroborated by large-n positivistic research on topics of central importance to Neo-Realism such as conflict between major powers. Just as problematic, rival theories such Liberalism that emphasise factors such as the political system of a state, deemed irrelevant by Neo-Realism, have proven quite successful at generating hypotheses that can survive quantitative tests. Away from the behavioural strand of IR research, a wealth of historical and sociological research has provided evidence that the international system has, since its inception, been shaped quite powerfully by more fundamental forms of social relations such as systems of property rights, gender relations and ways of imagining and depicting space.

Another prong of attack originates in the sub-discipline of foreign policy analysis, the very existence of which demonstrates the enduring power of Third Image thinking in international relations. FPA isn’t on the map of that many scholars of international relations, it’s a corner of the discipline with its own questions, debates and theories. At Brunel I taught an introductory course that combined an overview of the development of the contemporary international system with a primer on foreign policy and the level of analysis problem. The course seemed to go well and the approach clicked for most of the students. Getting more acquainted with some of the classics on FPA prompted me to delve further into this area, and I discovered that there are some really useful contributions alongside some problems and pitfalls. In a follow-up post I’ll discuss Valerie Hudson’s Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory, in which she sets out the stall for FPA as an essential part of IR.

The Congress of Riyadh

A guest post by Conn Hallinan on Juan Cole’s blog compares a meeting of the Arab League in Sharm el-Sheikh  to the Congress of Vienna – which presumably makes the coalition prosecuting the intervention in Yemen a C21st West Asian Holy Alliance. I’ve been thinking and reading about the Congress a fair bit recently, so I thought it was an interesting angle. I’m not sure about Hallinan’s argument that the intervention has nothing to do with religion or actions by Iran. On the first count, I’m not sure that political power, ideology and religion are easily disentangled at the current conjuncture. On the second count, the Houthi groups don’t have to be pawns of Iran for others to be threatened by their success. The very possibility that they could act as proxies or allies in the future, opening up Yemen as a battleground, might be enough to motivate action against them. Such worst-case scenario reasoning may well be more likely given the strategic rivalry that exists between the Kingdom and the Republic, and in the context of the sectarian polarisation sweeping across the region.

The comparison with the interventionist coalition of C19th conservative powers is apt though. I’m currently reading John Owen’s The Clash of Ideas in World Politics, who argues that political instability, leading to ideological polarisation, leading to great power intervention, leading to further ideological escalation is a longstanding and perennial cycle within world politics. Internal ideological challenges and external threats become intertwined and reinforcing as powers compete to impose compatible regimes through intervention and cross-border ideological networks struggle to shift the ideological and geopolitical alignment of states. If he is correct, then the length of past cycles is pretty sobering: around 100 years.

On a closely related topic, I’m going to just note some of the different accounts of what exactly IS is that have popped up: Stern & Berger’s account of the role of foreign fighters, Wood’s comparison of IS to the fanatical sects of the 30 years war, and Reuter’s account of the Baathist origins of IS – which makes him prefer the Stasi as the chosen historical analogue.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how to think about international relations systemically in the wake of the exhaustion of the paradigm wars in international relations theory. Whatever a revived systemic approach to world politics looks like, transnational ideological networks and non-state violent actors have to have an important place.

Edit: Another article on the Daesh-Baathist connection from the Washington Post, from a little while back. Also, Channel 4 docu.

A Pretty Big Omission: More on Event Data

In my recent post on coming round to the contribution of quant research in IR, I mentioned that I was interested to see what emerges out of the ICEWS event data system. But despite my falling scepticism towards quant approaches, the critical theory I imbibed over the years made me roll my eyes pretty hard when I read that the ICEWS project doesn’t collect data on the US ‘by design’. That’s what you get when your research project is funded by Lockheed Martin I guess: data-collection driven by the need to have information about the scary outside world. It strikes me that missing data for the US is going to create some problems for those that want to use the data-base to analyse the relationship between protest and democracy, economic development or a host of other factors.

This seems like a variant of sampling on the dependent variable: gathering data from the rest of the world, as the rest of the world is where threats to the US (are presumed to) originate from. I’m not sure whether the database includes information on US domestic terrorism, but if it doesn’t then that’s a huge omission – especially as some studies find a positive correlation between economic development and terror (both origin and targeting).

Greek Tragedies

Before the weekend, the Monkey Cage featured an interesting article on the Greek debt crisis and Thucydides. In general, I’m not a fan of the way that Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War is trotted out within debates on international relations. The basic problem is that the famous quote plucked from Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, ‘The powerful do what they can, whilst the weak suffer what they must’, is potentially vacuous. There’s a question of whether the quote is even an accurate translation of Thucydides:  apparently, Mary Beard claims that a closer translation would be ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply’, which removes some of the natural necessity of the quote and assigns greater responsibility to the powerful. But putting this to one side, the quotation is circular and tautological if being weak is defined as suffering what one must and powerful means doing whatever one can without restraint. As I’ve emphasised (belaboured?) in discussions with countless students, a lot of power-talk in international relations is vacuous in this regard. These sort of parlour tricks, wheeling out old Thucydides to make seemingly-profound but platitudinous statements, are what provides fairly unsophisticated versions of realism in international relations with their superficial aura of plausibility. To talk about power properly, it’s necessary to distinguish between resources/relationships and outcomes, which enables a much more productive debate about what sort of resources/social relations generate control over outcomes under what sort of conditions.

But the article by Neville Morley is quite a bit better than the usual fare, as it discusses the way in which responses of actors placed positions of strength and weakness differ from what rational choice theories would predict. Thus it seems that the structure of the situation of bargaining among unequals has an influence over the goals that actors pursue. Perhaps this is another case where actors are operating according to heuristics, general strategies that are effective in a range of similar social circumstances. Maybe in their wider social experiences actors are used to using a position of strength to push for maximum advantage and used to shifting to moral appeals and unreciprocated cooperation when they are at a disadvantage. As the evidence I’ve read on cross-cultural experiments with game theory seems to indicate, actors may bring their wider social experiences of competition and cooperation with them into the laboratory.

The article makes some fascinating points about Varoufakis’s own research on game theory and the strategies that he has pursued as Finance Minister. But as someone in the comments points out, Morley’s piece ignores the fact of Athen’s eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides classic has been read as a tragedy in which the Athenians, who expressed the hubris of the overly mighty in their arrogant dismissal of the moral arguments of the Melians, were eventually visited by nemesis. On this reading, there are lessons for the powerful as well as the weak.

Changing My Mind III: Quantitative Research Doesn’t Have Much to Add to IR

For the first few years I studied international relations I was of the view that quantitative approaches didn’t have a great deal to add to the subject. This view was not, I should note, based on a general antipathy towards the natural sciences or a fear of numbers – both of which are common in the social sciences and the humanities. Instead, I thought that the most important issues in international relations were theoretical and related to issues in philosophy of social science. It also seemed to me that the quantitative research that I was aware often missed the point of the issue it was intending to address, operationalising concepts in a manner that was unconvincing and thus reducing fairly subtle processes to crude measures. It also seemed to be atheoretical and involved throwing a load of different variables into the hopper to see what would come out the other side.

I realised, however, that many of the issues that I was interested in could not be resolved through theory alone. It might seem strange that I ever believed (implicitly) that they could, but a lot of debate in IR and the humanities more broadly seems to involve the evaluation of a set of claims based on a set of theoretical desiderata alone. This is a rut, and its a rut that a lot of areas of scholarship fall into. Engagement with philosophy of science and social theory is important, but it can’t adjudicate between competing empirical claims about topics such as inequality, conflict, democratisation and state formation.

Reading more statistical research, I realised that there was much more in the way of theoretically sophisticated, historically informed quant research in IR than I had credited. I started to take quantitative contributions much more seriously, but interrogate them in more detail. Every statistical model makes theoretical assumptions and those assumptions can be questioned and problematised just like those of any other theoretical claim. Getting into the nuts and bolts of quantitative research on topics ranging from economic growth and inequality, to democratisation and economic development, to strategic rivalries between states gave me a more informed understanding of the contributions and limits of quantitative research in world politics. The most significant problems are that first, the entities social science works with are not stable over historical time, the social world is never really in equilibrium, and so the relationships between variables cannot be expected to be constant across time and space. The second problem is the issue of causal complexity, the way in which causal factors may interact and combine in specific configurtions to produce certain outcomes. The third problem is the lack of reliable data and measures based on well-operationalised concepts.

Many quantitative scholars and methodologists acknowledge these problems, however, and have attempted to devise ways to address these tricky issues. Braumoeller and Wimmer come to mind scholars who have made major contributions to world politics recently through the intelligent, theoretically informed use of quantitative methods. Paul Schrodt has made some searing criticisms of status quo quantitative practice in the study of politics and attempted to push analytical techniques forward in the discipline. His contributions to efforts to make event data useful for research in politics and international relations are very interesting, and I’ll be watching out for what he and others do with the huge new ICEWS database. It’s possible that with data at this level of granuality, quantitative scholarship can move beyond a focus on broad structural correlates of outcomes and towards a greater focus on political processes. Of course, there are pitfalls and obstacles, but I’m more optimistic about the prospects than I was before I really started to engage with this area of research.

Changing My Mind II: The Third Image is Where the Action is At

Yesterday I talked about how I’ve changed my mind about Neo-Realism, going back and forth on Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. The key issues in assessing Waltz’s opus is, I think, not the question of whether Waltz characterises this or that feature of the international system, but whether Waltz identifies a mechanism that emerges from the interaction of states that pushes the international system towards an equilibrium point, irrelevant of influences from other spheres of the social world.

I think that this project has not been successful and that there are significant implications for IR theory in general. Waltz wanted to put forward a ‘Third Image’ theory that would explain patterns of international outcomes in terms of international processes alone. If he had accomplished this, IR theory could be freestanding and IR could be studied independently of politics, economics and sociology more broadly. This notion was attacked by scholars such as Robert Cox quite early on, and in the long run they have had the better of this argument.

I am also very sceptical of alternative efforts at establishing a free-standing ‘Third Image’ theory of international relations, such as that advanced by Alexander Wendt. In Social Theory of International Politics he attempts to offer a Constructivist Third Image theory in which states establish their identity in relation to each other. One again, international relations is conceived of as a separate domain of social activity, Wendt intentionally brackets domestic political processes (1999: 11, 13). States are theorised as corporate actors who negotiate the norms of international conduct with each other as if they were individual persons. Wendt even introduced a teleological argument that does the same job as Waltz’s claims about general equilibrium, flattening the importance of particular actions of states over the long-run. Despite Wendt’s status in the discipline, the actual substantive theory offered by Wendt has been taken up by surprisingly few scholars – perhaps because it introduces a whole host of controversial Constructivist commitments without moving very far from Waltz’s framework.

So the prospects for a self-standing Third Image theory of international relations do not seem that great and much high theory in international relations has been misguided. I don’t think that this need cause to much concern, however, as there still might be important processes that operate at the system level, especially once we recognise that these processes are likely to shape and be shaped by other social, economic and political processes.

But a logical consequence of this is that sharp distinction between foreign policy and international relations cannot be maintained. If states do not adjust their policies to external circumstances rapidly  and the system does not exhibit strong equifinality, then the foreign policy of states will matter quite a lot as it will push the system in all sorts of different directions. This is what Braumoeller argues in Great Powers and the International System, in which he develops a partial rather than general equilibrium theory of international politics. Alternatively if the tendency in the international system is to concentration of power and not balance and the structure of the international system is conceived of as including institutional frameworks and ideology as well as physical resources, then the international system might evolve under the leadership of a series of hegemons. This is the argument put forward by scholars working in the tradition of Arrighi and Modelski (both now deceased, sadly).

These approaches provide systemic theories that employ a notion of the system that is broader than the relations between states, narrowly conceived. They are theories of world politics, not just IR, as they try to incorporate domestic politics and transnational processes into their frameworks. Their notions of structure are broader than the spare accounts of Wendt and Waltz. We also seem to have brought politics back into the picture, which is missing from the classic Third Image theories (Liberal Institutionalist approaches are just as guilty on this score). This is the direction that I believe we should head in: developing theories of world politics by bridging foreign policy and IR, analysing the international dimensions of domestic political change and identifying the reciprocal effect of structure and agency on one another. This might seem ambitious, but a massive amount of knowledge about the historical development of world politics has accumulated and, if we take the Third Image blinkers off, there is no reason we cannot make use of it.

Changing My Mind I: Neo-Realism

As noted in my post a few days ago, I’m going to emulate Stephen Walt with a short series of posts about how I’ve changed my mind on some major issues in international relations since I first starting studying the subject way back at the beginning of the War on Terror. One of those issues is the status of the theoretical perspective that Walt is a major contributor to: Neo-Realism (or Structural Realism). The theory is still described as the orthodoxy within IR, even though that hasn’t been the case for a long while. Nonetheless, as Wohlforth has argued, it’s still an important foil for rival theories. Indeed, criticising the central Neo-Realist text, Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, is one of the few things that gives the discipline any kind of coherence.

Nearly everything I read on IR theory as an undergraduate and MA student was an attempt to refine or overcome the framework set out by Waltz. When introduced to the theory, I agreed with the criticisms that Waltz’s approach was fatalistic, mechanical and ideological: providing a set of rationalisations for callous and cynical foreign policy. But once I started to read ToIP for myself I realised that it wasn’t philosophically naive at all, but the product of serious reflection on the nature of social scientific theory. Although I disagreed with the substantive claims of the theory, I respected it as an intellectual achievement. When I started my doctoral research, I was persuaded by the more positive reappraisals offered by scholars such as Nexon and Goddard as well as PT Jackson, Richard Little and even Justin Rosenberg.

Nonetheless, I’ve cooled on the theory as a starting point for theorising. Waltz’s framework was an intellectually rigorous attempt to define international politics as a separate sphere of social activity governed by its own laws. The problem is that huge amounts of evidence and compelling theory has accumulated that international politics is closely, perhaps inseparably intertwined with domestic politics and the world economy. Waltz attempted to distinguish between theories of foreign policy, which explain particular courses of action, from theories of international politics, which identify recurrent patterns of behaviour. But this gambit depends on the identification of an equilibrium that the system tends towards: if the system has a natural rest point to which it will always tend, we don’t need to be too concerned with how it will get there.

The problem with this argument is that Neo-Realism has had huge difficulty in identifying this equilibrium point. The claim that the international system tends naturally towards a balance of power has proven difficult to defend theoretically and empirically. Scholars have tried to patch up the problems with BoP theory and with Waltz’s ambiguous statements about what Neo-Realism actually expects to occur in international poltiics, but the difficulties have mounted up much more rapidly. Wohlforth, a major proponent of Neo-Realism, has even argued that Robert Gilpin’s argument that concentration of power is the norm would have made a more compelling starting point for Neo-Realist theory – but Gilpin never attempted to separate international relations from politics and economics like Waltz did. Waltz made a compelling case for systemic theory and for a focus on structure, but I think the discipline has absorbed what it needs from Neo-Realism and can move on. The attempt to establish a general equilibrium theory that would enable us to understand any international interaction in terms of the system-wide balance of power has not been successful.


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