Monthly Archives: July 2015

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 succeed at 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.

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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.