Theories Never Die

18 September 2013, 0915 EDT

Having been invited to offer an ‘overall response’ to this special issue, I decided to take a look at how the contributors deal with the editors’ claim that we are witnessing the end of ‘IR Theory’. But let me preface this with an observation.

The EJIR editors’ decision to compile this special issue, taken at the 2011 ISA conference in Montreal, occurred parallel to the creation of the ISA Theory Section (in which I was closely involved). While this was not a consciously coordinated effort, neither was it a coincidence. Both initiatives were motivated by a similar concern, namely a sense that there were not enough substantial/creative theoretical discussions in two primary fora of IR discourse: in journals (the EJIR editor’s view) and at ISA conferences (my view). And yet, the observations spurring the two initiatives are slightly different. The EJIR editors saw a ‘retreat from theory’ in IR indicated by missing inter-theoretic debate and lack of theory development. My view was that there is quite a bit of theorizing going on, but that it is either happening in inward-looking cliques, or has difficulties making it onto the ISA program because it does not fit the outlook of existing sections. Accordingly, the two initiatives were framed in contrasting ways, namely as (i) debating stagnation, crisis and end (EJIR), and as (ii) supporting and bringing together new thinking (Theory Section).

One reason for this contrast lies, I think, in different conceptions of theory and theoretical debate. Whereas the EJIR brief refers to an end of great debates and paradigm wars, that is, a lack of debate between and development of ‘isms’, I see fruitful theoretical discussions taking place both inside and outside the isms, albeit not in terms of competition. Related, there is a generational factor. The EJIR editors are established professors and so were the contributors initially selected for the EJIR project; the panels at ISA and BISA did not include a single young scholar (I commented on this elsewhere).

So I was curious to read this special issue and see what authors made of the diagnosis that ‘IR theory’ is at an end. I was pleasantly surprised that the editors themselves ended up answering their own question with ‘No’ and in the process shifted their diagnostic frame from ‘endism’ to theoretical pluralism. The picture is supported by two subsequently commissioned pieces, by Jackson & Nexon and by Epstein, which point to areas of thriving theoretical discussions. So does the article by Lake, although his understanding of theory is very different from the aforementioned. Indeed, I think the basic (and not surprising) ‘take home’ point of this special issue is that the way one addresses the question largely depends on ones’ conception of theory.

This is already reflected in the confusion about the reality, relevance and impact of the so-called ‘great debates’. The picture emerging from the special issue is that these debates existed but also are a distracting fabrication, that they were useful but also stifling, that they captured something important but that most research happened outside them. As for whether there is an end in sight, it appears the one between ‘positivists’ and ‘non-positivists’ is still upon us, but actually it is not a debate but a complete disconnect, with significant disagreements, including over conceptions of theory, in each camp.

In this regard the various typologies offered by a few articles capturing different understandings of theory are quite useful. Guzzini advocates what he terms ontological theorizing and similar sounds are made by Reus-Smit and Jackson & Nexon, perhaps also Epstein. I sign up to this approach as well and think Guzzini puts it nicely when saying that theorizing in IR is ‘squeezed’ between the popularity of empirical theory (translating into hypothesis testing) and the aim to line up with practical knowledge (translating into policy relevance). While not all contributors seem to agree, these two threads are running through the special issue in interesting ways.

The first thread deals with the tension between theory and empirical science. Notably, the clearest stance in favour of the former comes from John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt who argue that IR in the United States is experiencing a poverty of theorizing due to the popularity of an instrumental approach to knowledge expressed in the procedure of ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’. I think this is an important article. Their candid discussion of the attraction of instrumentalism and the problems arising from it is certainly refreshing, and the call to ‘restore theory to its proper place’ is likely to raise some heads in the US community. That said, Mearsheimer & Walt do not address that the ‘positivist’ mindset prevalent in American IR may have something to do with the situation. And while their pessimism regarding improvement beholds proper realists, they might feel better by recognizing that outside the US the theorist is not an endangered species.

Michael C. Williams complements Mearsheimer & Walt in holding that ‘good’ IR theory is a political project that seeks to defend the enlightenment project from the scientists. His claim that classical realism has done that and, consequently, that Waltz killed ‘good’ IR theory inverses the usual account, but fits with Williams’ recent work on Morgenthau. Unfortunately, Williams deliberately forgets about critical theory and various IR approaches inspired by it, which arguably pursued the ‘good theory’ path since the 1980s and more forcefully so than classical realist have. Chris Brown adds yet another reading by suggesting not only that realism and liberalism are alive and kicking, but that out of all major schools of thought they remain the strongest.

In comes David Lake, who (as we know) welcomes an end of the ‘isms’. Of course, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as much of Lake’s own work moves within the liberal paradigm. That said, for Lake getting rid of ‘isms’ means getting rid of ‘bad’ theory and giving more recognition ‘mid-level theory’, which he applauds for its eclecticism and its focus on causal mechanisms. Fair enough. Not everybody needs to engage grand designs of the international or ontological foundations, and thinking through a causal logic is important for making an argument and linking theory to empirical research. And yet, Andrew Bennett’s ‘theories of causal mechanisms’ are micro theories, at best. In fact, I struggle to see more in it than a demand to make hypotheses more specific. This might allow Bennett to portray it as a bridge between schools of thought and even across epistemological gulfs, exemplified in his attempt to sell the approach to interpretivists. But in the end the purpose of the ‘mechanisms’ approach is to reduce abstraction and bring us closer to accurate measurement. This is not a bridge to theory, it brings us into method-land.

I am split regarding the issue of ‘eclecticism’ endorsed by Lake and making rounds in American IR via Katzenstein & Sil. Of course, a creative mind needs to be able to ignore and move across boundaries, especially in the process of theory building.  But I am on board with Chris Reus-Smit when he criticizes the lack of meta-theoretical reflection in current ‘eclectic’ approaches. Notably, Reus-Smit’s call to introduce a deeper level of theorizing to ‘eclecticism’ pulls the approach in the opposite direction from Bennett’s call for paying more attention to causal mechanisms. Whether eclectic analysts can satisfy both demands will be interesting to watch!

Inevitably, evaluating the ‘end’ claim is also tied up with an understanding of the purpose of theory. This is the second thread running through the contributions.  Most contributors agree that the purpose is knowledge production, more precisely the generation (and accumulation) of ‘practical knowledge’. But what exactly is ‘practical knowledge’? I think the answer to this question largely shapes one’s conception of and attitude towards theory. As Guzzini points out, building theory through practical knowledge and then making such knowledge the aim of theory also creates a dilemma, at least for those reflecting about this process. And the circle can be taken even further: if we accept that IR theories live on in the mindset of practitioners and, thus, take on a performative life outside the ivory tower, academic discourse might be the wrong place to determine their vitality.

But let us return the fold (only to leave it again). For Mearsheimer & Walt, proper theory plays an important role in guiding policy. Brown seems to agree and points out that realist and liberal scholars have been most active in addressing issues of US foreign policy/grand strategy. That’s true, however this hardly makes them more ‘reality based’ than others. Surely those ‘late-modern’ theorists Brown mentions in passing that have critically scrutinized the ‘war on terror’ have been just as ‘reality based’. And so, while one should welcome Brown’s call for ‘critical problem solving’ theory, aimed at addressing the problem of the ‘underdog’, this call is also a bit cheeky given that his article pays limited attention to approaches which characteristically deal with that reality, such as feminism and post-colonialism.

Then again, the place of theory in those approaches is far from clear. Indeed, it is revealing that Christine Sylvester’s article, in its concern with experiences of ‘ordinary people’, hardly discusses theory, or theorizing. Sylvester emphasizes the normative and the practical, but does not seem to care much about theory; for her abstractions stand in the way to the understanding of experience. So I wonder what she makes of Jackson & Nexon’s notion of ‘experience-near’ theorizing? And what about Arlene B. Tickner’s observation that among scholars in the non-Western world theory is either considered ‘unimportant’ or ‘looks quite different’, a thin copy of popular Western approaches at best? For one, together with Sylvester’s article, it reminds us that not everybody interested in practical knowledge agrees that ‘creation and refinement of theory is the most important activity’ (Mearsheimer & Walt). Moreover, it reminds us that any assessment of the ‘end’ claim must take into account the changing scope and configuration of the field of IR. To capture this, I think Tickner’s core-periphery framework is too crude and its portrayal of the US as the theory-producing core seems outdated. But then again, some theories never die.

Editor’s Note: This is the 25th and final installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the  European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. tl;dr notice: ~1750 words.

Other entries in the symposium- may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.