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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.

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.

The End of IR Theory? Part I: Bennett and Goddard on Mechanisms

Duck of Minerva, increasingly well-established as the nexus of academic IR online, is hosting a symposium on the ‘The End of IR Theory?’  special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. Lots of interesting posts so far, including one by Mearsheimer and Walt in defence of bold ‘big picture’ grand theorising. Also interesting is Bennett’s take, in which he calls for ‘structured pluralism’ focusing on causal mechanism rather than unproductive inter-‘paradigm’ debate between -isms.  Goddard (who co-wrote what to my mind is one of the best discussions of Waltz in the literature) offers a sympathetic critique, arguing that the pluralism that Bennett advocates might not be all that easy to achieve in practice – as scholars cannot just suspend their pre-established beliefs and reach for the most appropriate mechanisms from a common toolbox when tackling a given problem of explanation. She also defends the pedagogical relevance of introducing students to argument over big ideas in world politics, ‘the lifeblood of the paradigmatic debates’. An overriding focus on the minutiae of mechanisms and nuance of particular theories could result in such a focus being lost.

There’s lots and lots to agree with in this two posts, both on the importance of causal mechanisms for research and advanced-level teaching as well as the relevance of ‘big ideas’ for getting students and aspiring scholars interested in the subject (and let’s be honest, this is why people choose to study and aspire to become scholars of international relations in the first place). In Bennett’s article he makes the important point that

Middle-range theories are not just theories about individual causal mechanisms, but theories about how combinations of mechanisms interact in specified and often recurrent scope conditions or contexts to produce outcomes (p. 470)

This I think provides a bridge from the debate over causal mechanisms within international relations theory to causal mechanisms as understood by historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly (see my post from last year). A central tenet of historical sociology, as I understand it, is that one can indeed locate recurrent causal mechanisms across time and space – but they combine and interact with each other in very different, historically specific ways. So scholars searching for trans-historical covering laws are on a hiding-to-nothing, but – against strongly idiographic approaches that see every historical period, every cultural context as sui generis and incomparable in its uniqueness – we can engage in careful comparisons and draw attention to recurrent sets of causal mechanisms. This is, I think, what Mann means in the later volumes of The Sources of Social Power when he describes the ambitions of his project as lying somewhere between those of Marx and those of Weber.

I’m uncertain, however, about certain aspects of Bennett’s taxonomy of theories of social mechanisms. One dimension of this taxonomy distinguishes between material power, institutional efficiency and normative legitimacy – mirroring the distinction between realism, liberalism and constructivism that seems to have become the orthodox trinity of theories in US IR. I wonder if this set of distinctions leaves room for ideas of social power, as employed by historical sociologists such as Mann. ‘Material power’ implies raw, unsocialised power – what Arendt refused to call power proper but instead termed violence. Institutional efficiency brings to mind Pareto efficiency, discussion of which obscures consideration of inequality and power – as argued by Sen. Mann’s idea of social power involves social organisation (institutions in the broad sense) but involves recognition of the ability of those at the apex of social organization to ‘outflank’ subordinate actors. This kind of power isn’t ‘material’ as such, and it doesn’t really relate to the question of efficiency among institutions. Mann’s notion of social power is quite close to the idea of structural power as employed in Barnett and Duvall’s influential article on concepts of power in IR theory. I’d suggest, therefore, that it’s omission from Bennett’s typology limits this version of ‘structured pluralism’ to some degree.