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.
Nice analysis Felix, but just a slight correction, I don’t think the Editors, and I’m one of them, ever suggested theory was coming to and end. It was always ‘The end of IR theory?’ As such, it’s framed as a question not a statement. It’s also clear in the questions we sent to the participants, and in the fact that we also said to them that those questions were simply some we thought interesting, but that they should feel free to deal with the issue in any way they like. I’d also really like to see the point you make about there is ‘quite a bit of theorizing going on, but that it is either happening in inward-looking cliques [CW:agreed] or has difficulties making it onto the ISA program because it does not fit the outlook of existing sections’ developed further as I think it’s a really interesting issue. I’m not totally convinced of the latter point, but I’m open to persuasion. But then, I’ve not seen any empirics about how much theoretical stuff has/does get turned down for the program, so it’s difficult for me to comment on that. I really like the point you make about the problems surrounding ‘practical knowledge’, and one could say the same thing about the idea that the proper test of a theory is its ‘utility’.
The point at issue is not whether there’s “quite a bit of theorizing going on”. Of course there is. The issue is whether IR theory is currently in an innovative, creative phase or not.
I think not. As Philip said things seem to be in “a standstill with old ideas being restated over and over.” It is “sedimented, institutionalised and routinised.”
This symposium is evidence. One contribution says: yeah for Morgenthau and boo to Waltz. That was already said a third of century ago by Richard Ashley. Another contribution repeats the same pomo complaints against Wendt as was said two decades ago and more. Another contribution wants less abstraction and more concrete empirics as if there’s anything new about concrete empirics. Another contribution wants to revive the core-periphery idea from aeons ago as if it hadn’t long ago been shown to be a vast oversimplification to divide the world into just two zones. (True, Nexon+Jackson *tried* to talk up some things as new(ish) and cool — not entirely convincingly IMHO). Another says down with grand theory and up with mid-range — nothing at all new in that idea.
In short, this symposium itself did not reveal much, if anything, that’s new. IR theory seems bereft of new ideas.
Thanks Colin. Well, your team may not have declared an end, but the way you posed the question does ring of ‘endism’. You cannot talk your way out of that frame afterwards (even though the introduction tries to).
As for evidence on the new/fresh theorizing happening (we had that discussion before), it depends on what we mean by new/fresh. But let’s assume we agree when we see it. I can only say that I witnessed innovative abstracts being rejected from ISA programs and then was wondering why the thick program looked so boring. And when we founded the Theory Section and did its section program for the first two years, we received a HUGE number of submissions, most of which we could not accommodate (because a new section gets only very few panels). Some papers were picked up by other sections, but many were not.
I also think theory innovation is difficult to see, as often people are playing with new ideas yet are not quite sure where they are going with it, or how to sell them. So unless you hook onto one of those popular ‘turns’ and buddy up with their leaders, you present at ISA in front of three people, while the room next door with the big names rehearsing old themes is packed. There also is an element of people not wanting to hear new ideas. Why? Because it’s challenging, it’s work, especially if the ideas have no connection with your own way of thinking. Fortunately there are journals like Millennium which (from time to time) do let you play around. But Millennium can afford doing that, while a journal like EJIR, perhaps, cannot (let’s not speak of others).
So I disagree with HarmoniousJones that IR is ‘bereft of new ideas’. But I do agree that the institutional environment often fails to encourage creative thinking, especially among PhD students. And I don’t think this is a problem just in the US. In Germany (the land of ideas, ironically) you have cohorts of PhD students embedded in large multi-year projects which provide them with funding but also limit their intellectual room of manoeuvre. And that is sad because I think PhD students are the most likely producers of fresh ideas and should not already be molded into a community/institutional practice from the start.
Has the Special Issue managed to showcase new, innovative
theorizing? I don’t think so. But that’s because it was not framed that way. Still, you and the Duck generated a discussion that puts the issue(s) on the table and thanks for that!
Hi Felix. What do you mean ‘the way we framed the question?’ And what can’t we talk our way out of? im not trying to talk my way out of anything, im telling you it was listed as a question, and framed as a set of question. The fact you missed the question mark off and interpreted it as endism is nothing to do with us. So there’s no attempt to do something in the intro that wasn’t already in the inception, and I’m not sure how you could possibly (apart from mind reading) know otherwise.
Incidentally, for what it’s worth, I’d put the EJIRs record up against any journal (including Millennium) for publishing, both PhD students and early career people. The innovation issue is a judgement call, and not one we’ll agree on.
Hi Colin – What I mean is: You ask about ‘end’ and you get people contemplating end. You ask about ‘innovation’ and you get people contemplating innovation. The thrust of the question matters. And I do agree EJIR is/has always been publishing theoretically innovative articles. Which is why I thought the end question was a strange one to ask!
We asked about ‘End?’. I really have nothing more to add if you consistently elide the importance of that question mark. We’ll have to agree to disagree, but I’m ok with that because everyone can see the question mark. Incidentally, even if it had been ‘innovation’, it would have been the end, start, of ‘innovation?’ More to the point you can answer the question of ‘the End?” by saying ‘no, there’s plenty of innovation’…just nobody did…That might suggest something.
On the subject of innovative thought, it isn’t just that creative thinking has difficulty getting published. While undoubtedly there is always a bias against unfamiliar approaches I’m sure that there are editors open minded enough to accept unusual work if it’s good enough.
However, that isn’t the only barrier to innovation. The very process of doing a PhD often seems to be one giant exercise in having any individual, creative thought beaten out of you – or at least that’s what I’ve heard from friends; I have not been through that process myself. Support in pursuing non-standard lines of questioning isn’t something that all (or perhaps even many) PhD candidates can count on and enjoy.
There are understandable reasons for this. The further one strays from the well beaten path the greater the chance of failure, while a supervisor’s primary job is to get the supervisee through the process as quickly and successfully as possible. It makes sense.
But, nevertheless, the experience of the supervisee often seems to be one of a human being getting squeezed into a jelly mould.
Hi Phil, yes, exactly the point…
Obviously I agree with what I myself said the other day (!) but I should add that this ‘repetitiveness’ that I note in much IR theory (I picked on poststructuralism but that’s not the only case) doesn’t, in my view, mean that we must necessarily tear our theories out and start again. I’m thinking more along the lines of instigating fresh mutations within existing discourses so that we do not abandon what is good about them but we are able to make improvements on those respects in which they are lacking. A Darwinian approach, one could say!
Which is why, ironically, I think that importing a Darwinian theoretical apparatus whole largely from other disciplines doesn’t necessarily address the issues that I raise with poststructuralism. Where poststructuralism speaks of everything social and natural in socio-linguistic terms Darwinism tends to speak of everything social and natural in naturalistic terms. There is always potential for cross-breeding – to this end I’m interested in the likes of Latour and Whitehead whose works incorporate elements of Darwinism on a philosophical level without adopting its scientism – but there is a lot of hard work needed to make that a reality. I’m thinking more about splicing DNA than having a new, more fearsome species invade the habitat of the old one and stomp it out of existence.
In any case, in my criticism vis-a-vis ‘repetitiveness’ I am looking to preserve and reinforce at least as much as I am looking to discard.
To some degree repetitiveness, routinisation, sedimentation are markers of *success*. These theories have become standardised, in part, because they work well at what they do. Poststructuralism is excellent at critiquing logocentrism, reification, naturalisation, etc. – and this is a legitimate endeavour. But that very success tends to make it complacent; having carved out a relatively stable and safe place for itself within the intellectual ecosystem it has stopped asking difficult questions of itself and it has stopped mutating.
What I am hoping to play some small part in is shaking it out of its complacency, not chasing it off the territory altogether.
Maybe this ecosystem is due for an asteroid to come along and kill off the dinosaurs.
Maybe the (a)steroid has been and we all missed it…? That’s a question by the way. :)
Waltz has certainly been hit by some big rocks, maybe even an ice age…
If an asteroid impacts a planet and no one notices does it make a sound?
You point to the key question: what are the sources of creative theorizing? We need a real conversation (panel) on this…
Means, motive and opportunity – not too many people have all three!