The Duck of Minerva

Re-schooling IR Theorists

3 February 2010

I was intrigued to read my colleagues’ latest essay in International Studies Quarterly a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the abstract.

American scholars routinely characterize the study of international relations as divided between various Kuhnian “paradigms” or Lakatosian “research programmes.” Although most international relations scholars have abandoned Kuhn’s account of scientific continuity and change, many utilize Lakatosian criteria to assess the “progressive” or “degenerative” character of various theories and approaches in the field. We argue that neither specific areas of inquiry (such as the “democratic peace”) nor broader approaches to world politics (such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism) deserve the label of “paradigms” or “research programmes.” As an alternative, we propose mapping the field through Weberian techniques of ideal-typification.

If I’ve understood them correctly (and if I’ve not they’ll be sure to tell me so), Patrick and Dan are arguing that it is bad semantics to refer to the IR “isms” as “competing paradigms” or to certain empirical areas of study as “research programmes.” They make this case by deploying Thomas Kuhn’s and Imre Lakatos’ original definitions of the terms “paradigm” and “research program” and point out that these concepts were meant to define wholly incommensurable areas of study. Whereas what IR scholars are doing is studying interesting empirical phenomena from a variety of perspectives.

But, they point out, there are certain cleavages in IR that might very well be described using those terms. Critical theory versus problem-solving theory might be a plausible candidate, they argue. On this particular point, I am not so sure. I tend to see that as a continuum rather than a dichotomy, a point made by Bob Keohane way back in 1997. And it’s certainly the case that many conversations and engagements are happening along that continuum, so in what sense are they incommensurable? I think possibly normative theory v. explanatory theory would be a better candidate.

P/D also suggest that a more useful way to carve up the field for conceptual or pedagogical purposes is through thematic propositions such as the extent to which anarchy constrains, or the extent to which power can be tamed. I like this idea – in part because it suits the kind of institutional culture in which I’m currently embedded, which is all about breaking down silly conceptual divisions among schools or subfield to focus on cross-cutting thematic problems.

However I’m curious about the selection of anarchy and power here. Sure, these two ideal-typifications are as good as any for illustrating the point, if that’s all they’re doing. But if there’s another reason those two propositions (rather than, say, something about the extent to which sovereignty continues to matter) ended up constituting their nifty two-by-two grid, I’d love to know – especially since the whole question of whether anarchy exists is begged by deconstructions of sovereignty, and critical theory appears to have fallen off their grid altogether.