The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

“Overheard” on Political Science Job Rumors

March 13, 2009

Direct from the website that makes us all ashamed to be Political Scientists, I bring you this gem from a discussion about eliminating Political Theory to conserve resources in Political Science departments (yes, that’s a not an uncommon sentiment in the field, PTJ’s views notwithstanding).

The whole discussion between realists, constructivist, etc. has dissapeared from the top journals (IO, World Politics, etc.) since the 80s

I can only sigh, even though the poster is one of those who seems supportive of political theory.

A quick JSTOR search suggests that the first use of the term “constructivism” (or “constructivist”)–at least in the way we now use the term in the field—in a major IR journal occurred in Review of International Studies in 1991. The occasion? Alex Wendt’s review of Nick Onuf’s World of Our Making. This should come as little surprise, since Onuf is responsible for our current use of these terms.

Also in 1991, Peter Haas edited a special issue of International Organization (IO) on “epistemic communities.” In his introduction, he noted that a “limited constructivist” view informs most of the articles in the issue. The next reference appears in Alex Wendt’s 1992 IO article, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” which many scholars believe was the defining moment for the emergence of the label to describe “the big tent” of the new culture turn.

The three-cornered “paradigm wars” pitting realists against liberals against constructivist simply did not exist, as such, in the 1980s. Many of the arguments were already there (via, in very different forms, scholars such as John Ruggie and Richard Ashley), but there was, at the time, no self-identified “constructivist” movement to struggle against realism and liberalism.

I suppose a charitable reading of this remark would be that “since the 80s” is more of a claim about trajectory: that this particular variant of the paradigm wars has been in decline since the 1980s. But that too is impossible to reconcile with accurate disciplinary history: the paradigm wars peaked in the 1990s. Katzenstein’s The Culture of National Security only came out in 1996. I remember Iain Johnston telling me about the project’s “road show” when I was an undergraduate at Harvard.

The wars really only began to ebb within the last half-dozen or so years, in no small measure because constructivism effectively established itself as a legitimate activity, i.e., constructivist work is now more or less insulated from being rejected out of hand in the US.[*] And, in consequence, the impetus for the paradigm wars began to dissipate.

Another major factor has been the proliferation of journals and the general fragmentation of the field. It is difficult to have big theoretical struggles if no one bothers to seriously engage with anyone doing anything different from what they do.

Indeed, the consensus in the field seems to be that the “paradigm wars” are better left behind. In some respects, I agree. Most of the theoretical aggregates (to borrow a phrase from the Elmans) we called “paradigms” really didn’t qualify as such, and treating them in Kuhnian or Lakatosian terms created real problems for the field. But the “paradigm wars” also prevented the field from devolving into a landscape composed of little islands without much intercourse between them, and I would not say that the growing trend in that direction comprises a positive development.

Finally, the increasing availability of fast and cheap computers over the last two decades has been lowering the barriers to doing advanced quantitative work… and thereby ushering in the current triumph of “mixed methods” as a dominant “paradigm” in IR, even if its proponents don’t recognize it as such.

*But a number of people who were on the front lines of that fight still bear the scars, and continue to operate like part of an embattled movement. I should also note that, at least in the US, constructivist approaches are much less established in International Political Economy (IPE) than in other subfields. US-based IPE refects what my colleague, Kate McNamara, calls a “monoculture” of econometrics and formal models.

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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.