Category Archives: critical theory

Leaving exhausted theories behind

Two years ago prominent Neorealist authors Mearsheimer and Walt lamented the current inattention to grand theory in IR as an academic field (which they also summarised over at Duck of Minerva). They argued that ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ had replaced inquiry into the fundamental features of world politics and the debate among rival intellectual frameworks seeking to make sense of international relations. There probably is too much ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ in IR, the use of positivist methods to answer micro-questions that no-one has every actually cared about abounds in major journals. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s critique was odd and misdirected in lots of respects, as others noted at the time it was published. Notably, M & W are dismissive of any non-positivist approach such as critical theory and feminism – yet their commitment to positivism hardly sits well with their aversion to ‘normal science’.

I’ve got time for Stephen Walt as a theorist, his version of Neorealism is flexible and non-dogmatic. His analysis in his blog is measured and rejects nationalistic claims about US exceptionalism. But along with Mearsheimer, his criticism of ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ reads like rearguard action in support of a version of Realism that just doesn’t convince any more, doesn’t provide any useful leads for empirical research and doesn’t warrant any further theoretical refinement.

The example that they use to illustrate ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ is telling, as it does little to support their case. Research by conflict theorists on strategic rivalries, they claim, produced:

an expanding set of empirical findings but did not produce a broader synthesis or a general explanation of the various positive and negative results. Instead, we get generalizations of the following sort: ‘Dyads that contend in territorial disputes have a greater probability of going to war than is expected by chance,’ or ‘[Enduring] rivals have a greater probability of going to war than other dyads’ (Vasquez and Leskiw, 2001: 308–309). But we still have little idea why.

Glossed over here is the issue that these findings have been interpreted by scholars as running directly against the default assumptions of Neorealism! Conflict theorists in the steps to war tradition argue that war does not arise out of the general jockeying for power among states, the whirl and dance of military coalitions that states create and dissolve as they each seek to advance their own power or security at the expense of any and all others. Instead, conflict originates in specific issues over which pairs of states disagree – most often territorial issues – and self-reinforcing, reciprocated patterns of power-political behavior between such pairs of states. It is completely false to suggest that the claims in the strategic rivalries literature are atomic, atheoretical hypotheses – they are part of a well-established, elaborate research project set out most fully in Vasquez’s The War Puzzle. It’s also false to suggest that no attempts have been made to explain why territory is especially likely to generate conflict or why strategic/enduring rivals account for so much conflict in modern international history. Vasquez’s original arguments suggested links between the psychology of territoriality and aggression, he and others later emphasised the role of hardliners and the formation of pro-war coalitions within states in sustaining rivalries, others still emphasise the socially constructed aspects of territory and rivalry. The arguments and empirics presented by the steps to war approach might still fail to convince, but it makes no sense to claim that it is not a theoretically-informed research programme that attempts to contribute to our knowledge of fundamentally important features of the international system.
M & W’s example is badly chosen and interpreted uncharitably and misleadingly. On the other hand, Vasquez’s criticism of Neorealism as a research programme, made in 1997, still stands up:

The field hardly needs realism to tell it that states will oppose threats to themselves (if they can) or that revisionist states will seize opportunities to gain re-wards (especially if the risks are low).

Once again, Neorealism offers little more than the banal observation that international politics is a rough-and-tumble world and that states pursue their interests – if we define interests broadly enough to include just about any possible goal that a state might feasibly pursue. Walt has offered some well-judged observations about contemporary international politics, but these are often made in spite of Neorealism – indeed as corrections to the baseline Neorealist model developed by Waltz. The discipline of IR doesn’t need Waltzian Neorealism as a grand theory, certainly not to the exclusion of critical theory, or middle-range research programmes such as steps to war, or the much more convincing rival systemic theories that despite M & W’s protests are actually out there.

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).

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.

The End of IR Theory? Part III – Cores, Peripheries and IR Theory

As I am incredibly busy I didn’t expect to write another post, but I want to note further excellent contributions to the ‘End of IR Theory’ symposium at the Duck of Minerva (previous posts here and here). Arlene Tickner argues that

core-periphery like logics similar to those described by world-system and dependency theory in the 1960s and 1970s are still operational in multiple spheres of (globalized) human activity, including knowledge building.   International Relations (IR) is no exception.

This pattern is resistant to change, not least because

Strategies that acknowledge and embrace diversity are inadequate too because scientific cores are hard-pressed to recognize non-Western or Southern intellectual contributions as equals without undermining their own power, privilege and place in the world knowledge chain.

‘World knowledge chain’ implies that this feature of the IR discipline is but one facet of a wider pattern of asymmetric social organisation. But Tickner nonetheless claims that

Terms such as core and periphery (or third world) are largely passé, and may even be conceptually and heuristically objectionable on the grounds that they are rooted in dichotomous language that reproduces power differentials between diverse actors and sites around the world.

It seems odd for Tickner to describe the terms ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ as passé (although I agree that ‘Third World’ refers to a very specific conjuncture in world politics that has now passed) when her own argument appeals to ‘core-periphery like logics similar to those described by world-system and dependency theory’. What’s the difference between a core-periphery logic and a core-periphery like logic? In a superb, and beautifully written, response Inayatullah sketches the details of the political economy ‘implied’ by Tickner’s piece:

It is worth noting that under capitalism the competitive process requires all corporations to have research and development (R&D) facilities. The stream of capital dedicated to R&D is subsidized by the state, promoted by the military, and enriched by colleges and universities. Colleges and universities provide the training for future corporate employees, provide junior candidates for those jobs, and serve as incubators for social and technical innovations. Intensive and extensive cultivation of knowledge serves as the fuel for innovation – the driving force of capitalism. As participants in the discipline of IR, we are not passive bystanders in the accumulation process.

Why then does Tickner hesitate to actually embrace the wider structuralist perspective her contribution implies (and contributes to)? In part it seems to be her opposition to ‘dichotomous language that reproduces power differentials between diverse actors and sites around the world’. These concerns are widely held, but I would argue that some of the antipathy towards dichotomy is misplaced. It is very difficult to reveal, analyse and critique inequalities without drawing dichotomous distinctions. Identifying the location of power doesn’t necessarily contribute to its reproduction, sometimes quite the opposite. But these are issues that would have to be treated at greater length.

In any case, Inayatullah invites readers to un-forget the process by which concepts such as core and periphery were erased from disciplinary debates in favour of a concern with representation and social construction. For a brief period, core-periphery relations were the subject of major scholarly attention as dependency theory reached its apex. But

It wasn’t long before it was shelved in the curio cabinet. Caporaso himself was one of the few who soberly assessed the situation: Dependency Theory, he claimed, had died from neglect, not from critique.

Consider, in contrast, the case of what we call “Constructivism.” Not what emerged from Nick Onuf’s work but from Alex Wendt’s. Reflexivity? Dialectical sophistication? An awareness of the meta issues – ontology? epistemology? How shall we name that moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s when someone came up from the basement and said, “Hey, look what I/we found?” The result twenty years later: a booming mass-production of constructivism – the new liberalism, same as the old liberalism.

Reading Inayatullah’s post, it’s hard not to regret the unmet promise of that period of intense scholarly debate about core-periphery relations (it seems very strange to feel nostalgic about something I never experienced, but Inayatullah’s post really is well written). Caporaso’s assessment is accurate, dependency theory has a lot of weaknesses, but this was not why it was abandoned. As I noted in a previous publication, compare its fate to the benefit of the doubt that was extended to neo-realism after the end of the Cold War.

In the social sciences, if theories are to survive they need to be constantly updated and elaborated – reassembled mid-sea, with non-functioning parts thrown overboard and theoretical coastlines raided for new supplies. To contribute to contemporary debates in the IR discipline, which are increasingly focused on middle-range theory, remaining relevant requires a relentless focus on mechanisms and their interaction. But theorists also need to remain aware of the process of disciplinary forgetting that Inayatullah highlights, which – as argued by Arena in his comment on a contribution by Lake to the Duck symposium – in its latest incarnation has enabled scholars to represent the core assumptions of liberal international theory as neutral and non-paradigmatic. I’ve attempted to make my own contribution to a renewed analysis of systemic inequalities in world politics, but the path to theory (especially critical theory) is long and we in the discipline are prone to forgetfulness.

The End of IR Theory? Part II: Brown on ‘Late Modern’ Theory

Duck of Minerva is currently running a symposium on ‘The End of IR Theory’. Yesterday I wrote a post on Bennett’s contribution and Goddard’s response. Chris Brown’s post also caught my interest, so I thought I’d offer a few comments.

In addition to being one of the people most directly responsible for bringing normative concerns back into international relations and establishing international political theory as a sub-field in its own right, Brown has established a niche for himself as something like a curator of contemporary international relations theory, having penned several overviews of the state of the discipline over the years. In the latest installment he seems as cautious and ambivalent about the achievements within international relations theory as he was in a 2007 article and when I saw him speak at the SGIR conference in 2010. In his latest contribution, he focuses on the question of whether ‘later modern theory’ (post-structuralism, critical theory etc.) has made good on the ‘promissory notes’ it issued in the 1980s and 90s. Overall, his judgement is fairly negative.  Much sophisticated work has been done in this area, but it has remained ‘Grand Theory’ in C Wright Mills’ pejorative sense: focusing on the relationship between concepts rather than the application of those concepts to thorny social and political problems.

‘Problems’ are important in Brown’s article and accompanying article. He suggests that the more interesting work done within more mainstream currents of international relations theory has been worthwhile precisely because it has been fairly hard-headed ‘problem solving theory’ in Cox’s sense of the term in an era when the US government seemed to be in the grip of a strange right-wing variant of post-modernism that denied any objective limits on American power to reshape the world. I seem to recall that at a previous BISA conference he suggested that haute IR theory had become sophisticated but risked becoming arcane, perhaps he now believes this has come to pass. He thus calls for ‘critical problem-solving theory’ focusing on searching for solutions to the problems facing the marginal and the vulnerable in world politics – presumably, given his choice of examples, focusing on the extremes of physical and economic insecurity.

It’s hard to completely disagree with his judgement that a research programme has been slow to emerge amongst the ‘late modern’ perspectives. I wrote my MA thesis on the relevance of Adorno and the Frankfurt School for international relations theory, but I ultimately found that these conceptual frameworks did not have the purchase on the empirical (and some of the normative) questions I was interested in. I have found historical sociology and political economy to be much more useful. But maybe Brown’s skepticism about the absence of a research programme is too thoroughgoing: Columba Peoples drew on the Frankfurt School in his well-regarded analysis of US missile defence policy.

On the issue of ‘problem solving’, I wonder if Brown doesn’t stack the decks against critical theory. Mainstream theories have it easy, in some respects, as they have a clear addressee: those who currently wield power in international relations. This was part of the definition of Cox’s idea of problem-solving theory, it takes the currently configurations of power for granted and tacitly accepts the legitimacy of the present power-holders. The existence of ‘reality-based’ US politicians waiting in the wings during the Bush administration gave the mainstream ‘problem solvers’ a set of agents who might very plausibly put their proposed solutions into action. The difficulty for ‘critical theory’ is that it lacks access to equivalent agents, indeed part of the purpose of ‘critical theory’ is to help create an agent capable of bringing about radical change (Gramsci’s ‘modern Prince’). Unfortunately for critical theorists, labour movement is at present very weak in much of the Western world, depriving critical theory of a plausible potential agent of radical change. Notions of the ‘multitude’ remain fairly dubious, the ‘late modern’ contribution to the vacuous field of globalisation theory. This problem of absent agents (the ‘death of the subject’ if you really want to get late modern, I won’t judge) leaves critical theory spinning its wheels, with little torque exerted on pressing political problems. Milja Kurki wrote an insightful article in Millennium in 2011 on the problems currently that critical theory currently faces in its attempt to find influence inside and outside of the academy, I can’t help but think that the lack of agents is the root of the problems that she and Brown identify.

As for the nature of contemporary problems and the scholars who might address them, I agree with LFC’s point in the comments that a central problem faced by the dispossessed throughout the world is poverty and maldevelopment. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, such intensely political issues are at risk of being defined as outside the remit of IR due to the rather ridiculous barrier that has emerged between IR and IPE. Indeed, I’d argue that it is in IPE and development/heterodox economics that we find ‘critical-problem solving’ research seeking to address the tangible problems of poverty and inequality by refusing the solutions and explanations advanced by the powerful. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Ha-Joon Chang, Robert Wade, Peter Evans and Raphael Kaplinsky – but there are many others. As for agents, looking towards the democratic representatives of those who are marginal in the world economy might be a good start: Lula for one seems to have a keen understanding of both the structures of power that maintain global inequalities, as well as the concrete potentials for the amelioration and transformation of some of the least desirable aspects of the present world order.

IR and the New Space Opera

Since I’m commenting on posts over at The Disorder of Things, I may as well offer some thoughts on a post on science-fiction and international relations that Pablo K wrote ages ago. Although the post is pretty old, it didn’t attract much comment at the time. I would have written a comment, but I didn’t have this soapbox back then and now I do.

I think Pablo K and I are coming from quite radically different directions, unfortunately. I don’t, for example, think that using science-fiction as an inspiration for developing counterfactuals and for systematic thinking about large-scale social change is an unworthy pursuit. I agree that it’s an error to mistake ‘things that give us pleasure [for] things which matter to the study of world politics’,  but the use of the term ‘fanboy identification’ does speak of a certain literarian snobbery. My suspicions are likewise raised by a statement like ‘Star Trek similarly embodies much of the technological determinism that literary types find so vulgar’. Is the shiver of disgust here ironic or is the writer really trying to denigrate as baseborn and common the belief that technological change influences social change?

I’m not sure. But the real problem with the article is not that it doesn’t share my own perspective, but that I’m not really sure how familiar Pablo K is with science-fiction. Who on Earth claims that Alfred Bester ‘hardly counts as SF at all’ in the view of many sf enthusiasts?

To unpick one misunderstanding in detail, the post describes Star Trek as hard science-fiction, presumably because it features space-ships and teleporters and so on. This is incorrect, hard science-fiction is usually defined by the conformity of events in the narrative to the laws of physics as they are understood. The plot is driven by problems which are largely scientific and technical in nature. This doesn’t describe Star Trek to any great degree. Science and technology in the franchise are largely rationalised in terms of technobabble and serve as devices to advance plots which focus on human relationships, moral quandries and philosophical puzzles. In fact I’d go as far as to say that Star Trek the Next Generation is a great example of soft science-fiction, with its prioritisation of anthropological, social and ethical issues over hard science. Mind-melds, a robot who want to have emotions, an empathic counsellor, a Traveller who can navigate space with his mind, aliens who only communicate through metaphor… and barely a Lorenz transformation in sight! Nor is Star Trek technologically determinist (as if there was anything wrong with that!) – indeed how can it be if other technologically similar civilisations are so different in the series? So the dichotomy being established here doesn’t work, the popular science-fiction series given as an example is on the wrong side!

The misunderstandings continue as the article goes on, with the author conflating the hard/soft distinction with the low-brow/high-brow distinction. This is in error: both hard and soft science fiction are generally both relatively highbrow elements of the sfverse. The lower-brow or more mainstream science-fiction gets the more it sheds both the hallmarks of hard sf, scientific verisimilitude, and soft sf, attention to the interior life of protagonists and complex socio-cultural milieu. In the end we reach the stage occupied by weaker entries in the Star Wars franchise, which are essential space fantasy (although sadly lacking the mythic resonances of the original films) with sfnal tropes like space ships and blasters. This is where we get ‘gun battles and car chases… now merely transposed to an astral register’. Fun if executed well, but not deserving of sustained attention. In this the author and I are probably close to agreement.

But Star Wars isn’t the be all and end all of space opera, which the author is probably thinking of when he talks about his phantom category of mainstream/hard science-fiction. Indeed, it’s pretty surprising that the post doesn’t mention anything from the new wave of space opera which has emerged over the past twenty years, which has integrated many of the concerns of hard sf, soft sf and cyberpunk. Grittier than its predecessors and free of the transposed jingoism of much older space opera, the new space opera has combined a concern with the implications of technology with an exploration of philosophical and political questions, and the inner-worlds of realistic, three-dimensional protagonists. Gender, identity, the legitimacy of intervention and terrorism, the nature of mind, socialisation and human nature, inequality, religion and ideology – all are addressed by luminaries of the new space opera such as Banks, MacLeod, Stross, Simmons and Williams.

For this reason, I don’t think an engagement with sf has to be limited to the approach suggested near the end of Pablo K’s article. Yes, science-fiction can be analysed by cultural archaeologists to provide insights into the hopes, fears and beliefs extant within wider society. But following such reflective and autobiographical route actually blocks off some of the radicalism of good science-fiction, the radicalism of science itself and the realisation that we are biological beings who live on a planet orbiting a star in a vast universe, fated to make out own collective future. It is this radical insight which many in the humanities flinch from, seeking to return to comforts of anthropocentrism, but which the best science-fiction, exemplified in hard, soft, cyberpunk and the new space opera, addresses with verve, intelligence and imagination. Here international relations has a great deal to learn.

Post-Scarcity Critical Theory

The Utopian has a fascinating excerpt from a discussion between Adorno and Horkheimer, luminaries of the Frankfurt School of critical theory which has deeply influenced the UK study of IR through people like Andrew Linklater. To pick up on a single point, they insist that ‘it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings’. This is a pretty important claim as it supports the idea that human beings no longer live in the ‘realm of necessity’ where possibilities for human beings are no longer set by nature or the development of technology. Rather, the only thing limiting us is the cage of illusion and mass deception which we have constructed for ourselves in the contemporary world. So according to this strand of thinking, transmitted I think by Marcuse to the New Left, is that those who want a better world should focus on the realm of culture and ideas rather than on purely economistic or technical questions.

The problem is I think this is incorrect, and provide a few reasons why in the Crooked Timber comments thread. To expand on those points:

1. The world mean GDP per capita is around $9-10k. That’s what each person would get if egalitarians won the day and everyone got an equal share of the world’s wealth. Obviously, it would represent a massive improvement from the perspective of the billions living on less than $2 a day, but living on $10k pa would take some adjustment for many people in the advanced industrial economies who have gotten used to expected more than essentials. Subtract from that figure the per capita cost of healthcare, education and other public goods.

2. Although nearly everyone could likely meet their essential needs, we still wouldn’t be able to abolish work.

3. Static comparisons are misleading. If incomes around the world were equalised the price of essential commodities like grain, fuel and cooking oil would rise due to inelasticities of demand. $10k would go less far. Indeed, this kind of demand-pull inflation is happening already due to the industrialisation of Asia.

4. Wealth might not be all that easy to redistribute (I think van Parijs talks about this in ‘Real Freedom for All’). Roads and other infrastructure can’t simply be redistributed to the world’s underdeveloped regions. Wealth tied up in human capital, trust, firm-specific knowledge and technology is not easy to transfer.

These points aren’t meant to be in support of a cynical point of view. Yes, we could indeed make the world significantly better and go a long way to remedying the worst forms of human misery at this stage of world history. But I think Adorno and Horkheimer, talking in the 1950s, jumped the gun by about 150 years. As they say, they know little of Asia. I think they, like many egalitarians since, under-appreciated the challenge of moving the whole world to a situation where meeting human needs and abolishing toil is within our grasp. That means that issues of material scarcity and distribution will remain with us for a very long time. It’s unjustified, therefore, to jettison a concern with such issues in favour of a focus on cultural and ideological formations.

In any case, the excerpt is fascinating, especially how they see nothing whatsoever of value in the USSR but are adamant that they cannot call for defence of Western civilisation: even though it represents in their view the most free and just society that has existed it seems they thought it could not achieve its own aspirations without criticism to highlight its many failings.