The constructivism that wasn’t

9 April 2012, 1441 EDT

[Note: This post is almost entirely “inside baseball” for IR academics.]

For this year’s ISA conference I was supposed to write a paper called “The Constructivism That Wasn’t: On the Non-Inevitability of Sociological Liberalism.” The idea was that I would go back and carefully reconstruct those moments of historical contingency in which an alternative IR constructivism — one which did not so neatly track with sociological liberalism, roughly defined as the notion that individuals’ thoughts and beliefs shape their behavior an thus the social world that they inhabit — might have emerged. The alternative history is simple: accentuate Morgenthau’s debt to Nietzsche and Weber and play up his sense of the tragic, reclaim Waltz as an analytical systems theorist instead of the prophet of the inevitable consequences of systemic anarchy for state behavior, push Jervis’ work on the manipulation of images and symbols into a more semiotic direction by rooting things in social/discursive instead of cognitive psychology, and then place Nick Onuf’s 1989 book (about to be released in a new edition, so people can actually read and assign it!) at the center of an alternate way of worlding, and knowledge-producing, in the field as a whole. Presto, a constructivism that would be just as anti-utopian as the field’s founders would have liked: rules, Onuf reminds us, produce rule, and domination (whether legitimate in the Weberian sense, or just naked force) is an omnipresent factor in political life. And then you can fill in the blanks for yourself: insert a whole variety of social and political theorists at appropriate points in the lineage, produce a mashed-up remix of The Culture of National Security and Cultures of Insecurity, and so on.

But as we all know, this didn’t happen, and constructivism came to mean “ideational variables matter,” where matter = systematic cross-case co-variation, best captured in statistical studies whether large-n “quantitative” or small-n “qualitative” — and that’s not a methodological distinction, that’s a lifestyle choice. All of this to the point where I usually don’t feel comfortable self-identifying as a “constructivist” without a great deal of qualification. So the more I have thought about it, the more I have become less and convinced that this really could have happened differently in mainstream Anglophone IR, because mainstream Anglophone IR is dominated by US IR, which is constituted as a subfield of US Political Science — and both US Political Science and US IR bear the traces of the way in which they were legitimated and justified within the US social and political context. In global IR, there may be space for a plurality of voices and visions, and a robust debate about important theoretical and methodological issues like the nature of scientific explanation, the fundamental structure of the world system, and the legacies of imperialism and colonialism (particularly the issue of whether what we have nowadays is any significantly different than what we had during the period of formal colonial empires). But in US IR, as a subfield of US Political Science, the organization of intellectual life forces virtually every interesting question into the liberal cookie-cutter with its twin blades of neopositivism and actor-centric reductionism, and thus neuters anything like a radical critique or even the envisioning of a significantly different alternative future by assuming virtually all of the interesting things away at the outset. If there is actual contingency here, it is the contingency of IR as a separate field of study having been nurtured in the United States.

I should be clear that the kind of liberalism I have in mind  is neither left-leaning politics nor a simple translation of the classical liberal tradition of political philosophy and its confidence in free markets. What I mean instead is a specific triumvirate of value-commitments: individual liberty, equality, and reason, with the third usually being cashed out in intellectual/academic circles as “science.”  Grant for a moment that the US is a constitutively liberal society (and if you doubt this, may I refer you to the aforementioned Alexis de Tocqueville, and to Louis Hartz’s diagnosis of the “irrational Lockeianism” of US society and political culture?).* It therefore follows that social and political science, in such a society, would have to — if it wanted to be taken seriously — concern itself with individuals and their decisions, lest it be accused of ignoring individual liberty. It would have to be impersonally abstract, lest it be accused of ignoring equality. And “scientific” in such a society would have to mean something like “objective and nonpartisan, accessible to all who have the proper training” — disenchanted knowledge, to make a Weberian gesture. Putting this together we have two basic implications for political science in a liberal society: a kind of explanatory individualist reductionism (in technical language we now call this “microfoundations”), and the kind of advisory role that — as Jack Gunnell so brilliantly sketched in The Descent of Political Theory — comes from a withdrawal of science from politics so as to subsequently correct and improve political activity. (Call this “the Enlightenment legacy/hangover,” and insert all the E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau-inspired comments about the limitations of reason in politics you want at this point.)

The dominance of neopositivism is and has to be understood sociologically. Although I have argued elsewhere — I think pretty conclusively — that there is no generally compelling philosophical warrant for neopositivism as a philosophy of science, because there are alternative approaches to science that do as good if not a better job accounting for science and clarifying the foundations of scientific knowledge, it unfortunately does not follow that all philosophies of science are created sociologically equal. Indeed there is something of an elective affinity between the situation in which US IR finds itself, and neopositivism as a methodological stance. For two reasons: neopositivism appears to offer a firm demarcation criterion for the boundaries of science (“falsifiability”; leave aside for the moment that it doesn’t actually work philosophically, it works pretty well rhetorically because it figures prominently in the self-narratives of many self-identified “scientists” especially when they argue against religion in public settings); and neopositivism holds out the promise of a general notion of truth that can be used to discipline policy makers (leave aside for the moment that fact that this doesn’t work, that policymakers generally take from social scientists only those findings that support their already-existing goals).

As for the other implication of liberalism, actor-centric explanations seek to relate social outcomes of any sort to the motives and interests of individual actors, and regard any explanation as incomplete until it has specified the various internal commitments that compel individuals to act in certain ways rather than others. Sometimes we call these “microfoundations,” and it makes absolutely no difference whether we are talking about calculations of expected utility, ideas about appropriateness or moral rectitude, or emotional attachments to one or another option. In all of these cases, and more like them, the important causal factors inhabit the subjective space within actors, and more or less compel their choices and decisions. Whether those factors are interests or beliefs or desires or whatever does not effect the form of the explanation one bit, since in all cases it remains an explanation of external behavior by means of an internal state of mind.

One might object that states don’t have minds, so that state-centric mainstream US IR can’t be actor-reductionist in this sense. But the objection has no value, because regardless of the ontological issue of whether states do or do not have minds, the dominant theoretical frameworks with which US IR scholars seek to explain state behavior (and thus “international relations,” which in an actor-centric reductionist approach is nothing but a bunch of states and their behavior) treat states as if they were big people, and routinely refer to the state’s interests, beliefs, and desires. The form of explanation remains firmly actor-centric and reductionist, inasmuch as an explanation that does not specify the motives and interests of the relevant states is routinely taken to be incomplete.

Another way to say this is that mainstream US IR, like mainstream US Political Science, is largely if not quite exclusively about specifying actor interests and motives, by way of explaining the choices that individuals make — choices that result in particular social arrangements and outcomes. It is not that there are not structures and interactions and processes in US IR theory; it is rather than all such factors have to be related to individual states of mind in order to explain anything. Norms work by penetrating the heads of relevant decision-makers; the threat of force works by affecting the decision-calculus of the target of the influence attempt; and rhetoric works by altering the preferences or values of those at whom it is aimed. The relevant action takes place inside the individual, which is precisely what a liberal view of society and social action would suggest: autonomous individuals are the fundamental reality, and if other things are taken to exist (not all liberals are Thatcherites or libertarians; liberalism in the sense I am using it here is not a fundamental ontology, but a value-laden ordering of a class of ontologies, some of which contain things like social structures and some of which do not) then they have to be related to individuals in order to have any role to play in a valid explanation.

I’m not going to tell the old, old story of the change between Wendt 1987 and Wendt 1992 [these articles are behind paywalls at JSTOR so I am not going to link to them, and besides, if you have gotten to this point in the post then you have read these articles already] in terms of the pre-social ontology of the state, except to say that I do not believe that this transformation of constructivism is Wendt’s fault, but the fault of what we might call the structural selectivity (borrowing a term, but not necessarily the whole analytical package, from Bob Jessop’s state theory) of mainstream Anglophone IR: actor-centric theory literally makes more sense to irrational Lockeians and their intellectual progeny, so that’s the version that catches on. (There’s a parallel story here about realism, which declined from tragic realpolitik to “material factors matter.” but that’s material for another essay.) And subsequently we have Keohane and Goldstein 1993, “ideas matter,” various statistical studies of norms and ideas, etc. The only way for US IR to have been different would have been for it not to be a subfield of US Political Science. And even then I am skeptical, since I can more easily envision a free-standing US IR adopting neopositivism and actor-centrism (just as Political Science did) in order to justify itself to the wider public, then I can imagine an alternate US IR that went in a completely different direction.

But there is cause for cautious optimism, as long as IR graduate students can avoid the kind of hyperprofessionalization that Dan points to and remain focused on the breadth of IR beyond the “top” US academic institutions. For one thing, since we are talking about domination and not hegemony, there is both active resistance and strategic accommodation on the part of the subordinate. The position of mainstream US IR might be thoroughly actor-centric and neopositivist, but it is not (or at least not yet!) the case that every US IR scholar is similarly inclined. (It is possible that in the future the hiring market will be so thoroughly overrun by neopositivist actor-centrists that no one else will be able to get a job at all; that hasn’t happened yet, and despite the fact that many of the “top” US IR programs are pretty thoroughly dominated by this kind of IR, the overall market is still, I think, big enough for other entrants. And at some level I am still convinced that a good story goes further than the most sophisticated models and methods, so non-neopositivists interested in structures and processes still have a fighting chance, at least in some places.) The problem is, as it has always been, that the vast majority of academic IR scholars in the US work in Political Science departments, and those departments tend to be dominated not by the IR faculty, but by other subfields of Political Science which are much less methodologically and theoretically diverse (cough cough American Politics). But as long as departments need people to teach IR (in this respect, the invention of interdisciplinary undergraduate majors in things like Global Studies is a very welcome development), and as long as such people have publication outlets that are open to their kind of work, there is a fighting chance for an alternative to neopositivism and actor-centrism.

And this in turn points to what I would say is the most important change in the IR scholarly landscape in the past two decades or so: the consolidation of a vibrant English-language IR journal space that is not US-dominated. It is not that mainstream US-style IR doesn’t show up there, it that the overall space is not so heavily dominated by neopositivism and actor-centrism. This is an important point, so let me make it explicitly again: my problem is not with actor-centrism or neopositivism, but with the way that mainstream US IR equates those two commitments with social-scientific IR per se. I have argued that this is because US IR lives within and as a subfield of US Political Science, and both of these live within a liberal society where there is very little space to question the core values of individual autonomy, equality, and reason expressed through science; criticizing neopositivism and actor-centrism in such a context looks like an undermining of the basic rationale for the whole enterprise, which helps to explain why frontal assaults are met with such caustic and dismissive criticism (and the ever-popular misinterpretation-through-reinterpretation: “you can’t possibly have meant X, so I am going to treat you as having meant Y”). It is therefore nigh upon impossible for mainstream US IR to be as pluralist and ecumenical as global IR can potentially be, because the space for intellectual engagement is so narrow: we can argue about variables and hypotheses and specifications of actor motivations, but little else.

I think that the task of building and defending a pluralist space in IR would be immensely strengthened if we stopped having to deal with US Political Science, because that would help make US IR one voice among others in a much more global intellectual space. Global IR has already built some of the scholarly capacity in terms of journals and book publishers that it would need to be genuinely autonomous, and it seems to be the case that alternate centers of graduate training (i.e., not exclusively US institutions) are playing a more significant role in forming IR scholars worldwide. IR in many parts of the world does not have to deal with the legacy of US Political Science, which increases its capacity to foster a diverse scholarly dialogue. We don’t have a good and clear picture of what global IR looks like, exactly, but I hope to shortly launch a mapping project that will assemble a global directory of IR scholars and their career trajectories, and that will hopefully give us a better sense of things.

I am not at all optimistic about the discipline of US Political Science. Indeed, I think it is largely a lost cause, if one is interested in vibrant pluralism and an ecumenical approach to knowledge-production. That said, things emanating from US Political Science still have a disproportionate impact in US IR and hence in global IR, so it is incumbent on those of us interested in preserving pluralism to keep working to broaden those messages as much as possible — not to change US Political Science, which I think largely impossible, but to keep open the space for global IR, including those parts of global IR that live and work in the United States. Part of that is focusing on the right things; the culprit is not and never has been “statistics” or “quant” or “rationalism,” but neopositivism and actor-centrism. But an even larger part of it is building the practices and institutions that can sustain an IR beyond US Political Science: global studies programs, free-standing IR departments, interdisciplinary journals and book series, and conversations across theories and methodologies about world politics broadly understood.

* at the panel Nick Onuf wisely pointed out to me that “irrational Lockeanism,” although dominant in the US, was perpetually locked in combat with a much weaker strain of (neo)classical republicanism of the sort that manifests as communitarianism etc. — and a lot of the bitterness of dissident social science in the US might be attributed to the ressentiment of frustrated republicans. It’s a good and intriguing point, and a fuller genealogy of US IR probably should take that into account.