The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Flat-Footed Empiricists of the World, Unite!

February 3, 2007

You have nothing to lose but those pesky questions about whether your methods actually prove anything….

[Warning: what follows will likely only be of interest to practitioners and students of academic IR]

[UPDATED 2/4/07]

Almost a year ago, but two months after the conversation had moved on, “IR scholar not philosopher”–who, to his/her credit included an amusing false email address (–posted an interesting comment in response to a post I wrote on realism and constructivism. I lack the energy to respond to it right now, but I thought it might provide some grist for discussion among interested parties.

Dan: “I have yet to read a debate between self-identified realists and self-identified constructivists in which such questions as (to take one example) whether the rockness of rocks is generated by human language or by a rock’s intrinsic rockness made one whit of difference to resolving the dispute.”

Well, I can think of a couple of reasons why this debate (or one analogous to it) has yet to take place within international relations scholarship: 1, the discipline, as represented by the derth of such articles in the major journals in the field (IO, IS, APSR, JCR, ISQ), has decided that IR is moving on as an empirical social science rather than one dominated by large paradigmatic wars or debates, and 2, the arguments (and the concepts employed) are so far up in the clounds that if they magically landed on the desk of an [sic] newly-minted assistant professor of IR who was then asked to investigate the argument, he/she would have a difficult time identifying both what they are trying to explain and how to operationalize and test it.

“IR scholars have an unfortunate tendency to see two boneheaded people arguing about something and call it a case of “incommensurable ontology.”

you must be studying an entirely different type of IR than the rest of us. You seem more interested in developing a philosohpy of how the world works (or ought to work, I cannot tell which) than testing theoretical arguments against the empirical record and actually telling us something important about the world.

I think it is time to come down out of the clouds, identify something meaningful in IR that you want to explain, develop an explanation from stated assumptions, define the domain, develop logical hypotheses, and then test your argument against the data.

From someone who doesn’t want to see the field flushed down the toilet, this is my request.

UPDATE: since of my colleagues inadvertently thought I was affirming (rather than offering up for discussion) the views quoted above, I suppose I need to clarify.

If it isn’t clear from the opening lines of my post, I don’t endorse this view; or, to be more precise, I have serious reservations about it. A few quick points:

1. IRSNP accuses me of “studying a different type of IR than the rest of us.” I’m not sure what, exactly, this means because I’m not clear on who “us” is. Certainly, one can find any number of articles–some of which have been “field defining”–in major journals over the last two decades, including, yes, International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, and the American Political Science Review that involve, either explicitly or implicitly, claims about incommensurable assumptions in the field. So either the field has already been flushed “down the toilet” or there’s actually little problem with allowing multiple kinds of debates and scholarship to take place in the social sciences.

2. IRSNP makes a very classic mistake of practicing flat-footed empiricists, the conflation of their own (often unspecified) philosophical supposition of “how the world works” with a lack of a “philosophy” about how the world works. This is a very old, and well-recognized problem that would hardly need to be remarked upon if more social scientists took a few months to familiarize themselves with the relevant work in social theory and philosophy of science.

3. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to those frustrated with some of the non-issues that get batted about in “high theory” debates. Which was, ironically, enough, the thrust of the discussion that IRSNP intervened in about two months too late.

In reposting these comments, however, I did not want to get a round in against the anonymous contributor to the thread. Thus, my initial decision to post his/her as a possible touchstone for debate. Sunship (in the discussion thread to this post) has already raised some very interesting issues and concerns; I hope others will weigh in.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.