A Quarter-Baked Note on Grand Theory in IR

31 January 2013, 1418 EST

Political scientists often say that ‘no one reads books anymore.’ I’d add that ‘almost no one reads book reviews.’

This is a shame. Although most book reviews are paint-by-numbers affairs, some smuggle in provocative claims or important statements about aspects of the field.* For example, in his Perspectives on Politics review of Miles Kahler, ed. Networked Politics: Agency, Power, and Governance, Zeev Maoz nails an important problem with one branch of work on social networks in international relations:

most network analysts would view the “networks as structures” versus “networks as actors” dichotomy as fundamentally flawed. The various chapters actually demonstrate this point. Even those authors who study networks as actors focus on the structure of the network and its effects on outcomes. Network analysis is capable not only of distinguishing between hierarchies and decentralized forms of connectivity but also of measuring them in quite precise ways.

On the provocative side, there’s Cameron Thies’ review (in the same issue) of two books, Christopher J. Fettweis’s Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace and Gilulio M. Gallarotti’s Cosmopolitan Power in International Relations: A Synthesis of Realism, Neoliberalism, and Constructivism. Here’s the key quotation:

These two books illustrate some of the best and least desirable qualities in contemporary scholarship. The best qualities include the attempts to provide strong theoretical foundations for the conceptual arguments made by each author, as well as the empirical applications and recommendations for grand strategy and foreign policy. The least desirable quality is the continued devotion to the “isms”—a point reiterated by David Lake in his recent International Studies Association presidential address. The obsolescence-of-major-war and cosmopolitan power concepts do not need a reconstructed foundation in a grand theoretical tradition when they can stand on their own with middle-range theoretical constructs.

Despite not having appeared in print — or even taken final form — EJIR‘s “End of IR Theory” symposium has produced a fair amount of ink in the IR blogsphere surrounding variations of this issue. Setting aside a good deal of noise, one of the core issues is this: what is the status of “middle-range theory” in the absence of “grand theory”? An oft-repeated quip, more or less, notes that “in the absence of theory, there are no puzzles.” Thies provides an (apparent) set of common-sense counterexamples. But these sorts of issues are, in another sense, only worthy of explanation because something suggests that they are puzzling. That thing, the full line of argument goes, is grand theory. The fact that the grand theory may be latent, unarticulated, or embedded in a discipline doesn’t change what it is; in fact, latent and unarticulated grand theory may be dangerous if we don’t drag it into the light and scrutinize it.

Whether or not this is true, in practice there are a number of ways we establish the importance of a particular piece of middle-range theory. First, as alluded to above, we explicitly relate it to grand theory. Second, we take our cues from “policy problems,” such as the impact of specific counter-insurgency strategies, the effectiveness of structural adjustment, and so forth. Third, we invoke claims in canonical texts (grand-theoretic or otherwise) — and, in so doing, help constitute “the canon.” Fourth, we critique, modify, or extend recent middle-range theories.

It seems to me that these strategies create various degrees of separation from grand theory, but none really avoid it.

If that’s right, then a way of inflecting Thies’ objection is that (1) grand-theory need not always be the explicit target of all scholarship and/or (2) there are specific problems with the current -isms that render them not worth our attention. I agree with both propositions. I also remain unconvinced that, at some fundamental level, we can dispense with “grand theory” altogether. At the same time, I also wonder if the current “war on paradigms” doesn’t reflect deeper sociological currents in the field — ones that trace back to the 1960s and 1970s — that we still labor under and that deserve more attention.

Regardless, I remain stuck on the basic dilemma that (1) there are no puzzles absent theory, (2) middle-range theories are never independent of grand theory, and (3) it distorts and contorts both middle-range theories and descriptive work to force it to engage with grand-theoretic traditions. Perhaps Felix Berenskoetter’s bottom-line is the best way to go: the discipline is big enough to handle multiple levels and kinds of inquiry.




*I have an inkling that there’s something linking together good book reviews and a certain species of academic blog posts, but I won’t pursue this line of thought right now.