Analytic Eclecticism, Phantom Confrontations, and Dialogue: On Reus-Smit´s “Beyond Metatheory?”

18 September 2013, 2124 EDT

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Guzman Castro of the University of Pennsylvania. This post refers to an article and post in the European Journal of International Relations-Duck of Minerva symposium on “The End of International Relations Theory?”by Christian Reus-Smit and the corresponding post by Milja Kurki.]

Christian Reus-Smit’s and Milja Kurki’s interventions in the EJIR symposium are part of a laudable mission to defend meta-theory from the “activists for our emancipation from meta-theory.” The “activists” in this case turn out to be the duo of Sil and Katzenstein in their formulation of “analytic eclecticism” (AE). Although enemies of meta-theory do exist in political science, some in the form of scholars who do not even bother to engage the debate, AE is hardly one of them. Moreover, in trying to advance his own vision of a “practical knowledge” that encompasses empirical and normative components, Reus-Smit unnecessarily and unfairly sets AE up as a convenient foil, ignoring its central mission and misreading its treatment of metatheory. As a result, Reus-Smit ends up engaging in a phantom debate in order to reach a conclusion that, I believe, does not contradict the basic tenets of AE. In the process, he misses an opportunity for a more productive dialogue and, paradoxically, ends up unintentionally strengthening the rationale Sil and Katzenstein provide in their support for AE: the importance of maintaining open boundaries for more useful communication and collaboration.

Reus-Smit´s article offers two central arguments. First, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape meta-theory. Second, if the goal is to build practical, phronetic knowledge, explanatory social science needs to be complemented by normative social science. The glue that binds together these two arguments (which are not necessarily related) comes in the form of AE and its alleged flaws. The author goes to pains to demonstrate how eliminating meta-theory from our research practices is either a chimera, or a bad idea altogether. So far, so good. However, in advancing his call for an expanded AE – one that incorporates normative elements in the study of IR – Reus-Smith unnecessarily and brazenly overstates AE´s apparent limitations due to a supposed “aversion” to meta-theory. In adopting such a strategy, the author might end up undermining his case for his own particular brand of phronetic knowledge.
Importantly, Reus-Smit´s understanding of AE seems to miss Sil and Katzenstein’s central point. The “bracketing” of meta-theory the latter engage in is neither a call for banning meta-theoretical debate, nor a defense of ignorance about the philosophical underpinnings of different research traditions. Quite the contrary, knowledge of these meta-theoretical foundations is crucial to craft the translations across research traditions that are central to eclectic analyses. What Sil and Katzenstein advocate is not a disavowal of metatheory but rather a temporary bracketing of those meta-theoretical principles that foreclose the full range of analytic possibilities, produce misunderstandings and blinders in our collective efforts to understand complex dynamics, and generate unnecessarily sharp divisive effects in academic debates that have become too self-referential -at least within the realm of American international relations.
Reus-Smit is particularly interested in the role of eclecticism in fostering “practically relevant knowledge,” and he sets out to assess AE against that baseline. However, Sil and Katzenstein´s main goal is to combat the self-enclosure of narrowly defined research traditions that, they argue, might be in part contributing to the difficulty of social science to generate practically relevant knowledge. Even if one disagrees with AE´s (somewhat problematic) characterization of the relationship between social science and practical knowledge, and with the emphasis that ought to be placed on normative elements, the central goal of AE is to take on a more immediate obstacle to such goals: poor communication among research communities that stem precisely from failure to acknowledge and empathize with metatheoretical priors and to recognize the artificial boundaries placed on complex “real world” phenomena. True, this is couched as a theoretic-empirical project as Reus-Smit rightly points out. But Reus-Smit’s pursuit for a more inclusive phronetic knowledge that incorporates normative elements would only benefit from, not be undercut by, efforts to cope with the more immediate problem of scholars speaking past each other regularly while artificially confining their analyses to facilitate the use of certain concepts, principles, and techniques sanctioned (often unwittingly) by metatheoretical assumptions. In short, Reus-Smit´s definition of phronetic knowledge as one composed by both empirical and normative aspects would be more compelling if it were formulated less as a critique of AE’s alleged demotion of metatheory and more as an invitation to continue to break down additional barriers within the academe and to stretch even further our understanding of the goals and possibilities of social science.
Reus-Smit concludes by reiterating the core motivation behind his own vision of practical knowledge. He asks: “Why not, then, expand the scope of analytical eclecticism, especially if this will better enable the production of practically relevant knowledge?” While I will not presume to speak for Sil and Katzenstein, I would bet that their response to this question might very well be a positive one. Reus-Smit´s own metatheoretical wagers on what (ought to) constitute “practically relevant knowledge” have pushed him into an unnecessary confrontation with AE. Paradoxically, this is not unlike the kinds of recurrent and unproductive confrontations that motivated the push for a less bounded, more open-ended, and eclectic social science.