Beyond Metatheory?

14 September 2013, 1011 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a  guest post by Christian Reus-SmitIt is the 17th 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. This post refers to Reus-Smit’s article (PDF). A response, authored by Milja Kurki, will appear at 11am Eastern.

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

Metatheory is out of fashion. If theory has a purpose, we are told, that purpose is the generation of practically-relevant knowledge. Metatheoretical inquiry and debate contribute little to such knowledge and are best bracketed, left aside for the philosophers. This article challenges this all too common line of reasoning. This is not because I wish to defend theoretical abstraction for its own sake, or because I believe that fundamental questions of epistemology and ontology—the stuff of metatheory—are resolvable in any final or absolute sense. Nor is it because I think the generation of practically-relevant knowledge is an inappropriate goal or purpose for international relations theory, far from it. My concerns are different. First, as others have observed, one can bracket metatheoretical inquiry, but this does not free one’s work, theoretical or otherwise, of metatheoretical assumptions. All work has underlying epistemological and ontological assumptions, and these establish the intellectual parameters of our inquiries, determining what we think the social and political universe comprises and what counts as valid knowledge of that universe. Second, our metatheoretical assumptions, however subliminal they might be, affect the kinds of practically-relevant knowledge we can produce. If our epistemological assumptions confine legitimate social knowledge to the formulation of empirically verifiable hypotheses, then the knowledge we generate will be limited to inferences about causal relations between variables. This leaves us well short, though, of what Aristotle and many others consider true practical knowledge.

Today, the most thoroughly articulated call for us to bypass metatheoretical inquiry on the road to useful knowledge is advanced by proponents of ‘analytical eclecticism’, who ask us to ‘set aside metatheoretical debates in favor of a pragmatist view of social inquiry’ (Sil and Katzenstein, 2010: 417). If we want our scholarship to ‘speak to concrete issues of policy and practice’, Rudra Sil and Peter Katzenstein argue (2010: 412), we should address specific political problems and puzzles, develop middle range theories that draw creatively on the analytical insights of different theoretical paradigms, and avoid getting bogged down in the unresolvable and unproductive debates over epistemology and ontology that blighted the field’s paradigm wars. Sil and Katzenstein are keenly aware, of course, about how underlying metatheoretical assumptions structure lower level theories (see 2011: 482-84). Yet their articulation of analytical eclecticism is deeply structured by unacknowledged metatheoretical assumptions, making it one kind of project and not another. Epistemologically, analytical eclecticism is an empirical-theoretic project: it is intended to address empirical not normative problems and puzzles, and the theoretical insights the eclecticist combines are explanatory not normative, however diverse they might be. Similarly, analytical eclecticism rests on a triadic ontology. The assumptions about the nature of the social and political world that the eclecticist combines are drawn from the three mainstream paradigms: realism’s emphasis on material power, liberalism’s focus on cooperation among rational egoists, and constructivism’s concern with norms and identities. The ‘combinatorial logic’ of eclecticism is thus confined to a prefigured set of structural factors, causal mechanisms, and social processes.

A major problem with this metatheoretical framing is that it limits the kind of practically-relevant knowledge that eclecticist research can produce. So long as eclecticism remains epistemologically an empirical-theoretic project, the knowledge it produces will be empirical-theoretic in form. For positivists it will be confined to inferences about causal relations between measurable variables, and for interpretivists, to understandings of constitutive social relations. But whatever utility such knowledge might have, it cannot, on its own, animate social and political action. Aristotle held that choice was ‘the starting point of action, and choice rests on two things: ‘thought’, on the one hand, and ‘some moral characteristic’ or ‘end’, on the other (1962: 148-49). Empirical-theoretic knowledge can contribute to the first of these, but only normative reflection, or ‘deliberation’ as Aristotle understood it, can provide the second. When International Relations scholars call for more practical or useful knowledge, they seldom explain precisely what they mean. But to the extent that they want knowledge that can address some of today’s most pressing questions of international practice—When should states intervene militarily in the domestic affairs of other states? How should the international community respond to national financial crises? What should states do, singularly or collectively, to manage global climate change? Etc.—more than empirical-theoretic knowledge will be required: systematic reflection on the values at stake will be needed as well. Yet it is precisely this latter from of knowledge that lies outside the epistemological boundaries of analytical eclecticism.

The article is divided into four parts. After clarifying a number of key conceptual issues, Part One explores in greater detail the proposition that bracketing metatheoretical reflection and debate is necessary if we wish to produce practically knowledge. The first half of this proposition, the notion that one can put aside metatheory, is confronted in Part Two. We can stop talking about metatheory—reflecting on its complexities, debating contending positions, and considering what it means for the nature of our work—but we cannot escape it. I illustrate this by excavating the epistemological and ontological assumptions that structure Katzenstein’s and Sil’s articulation of analytical eclecticism, showing how their background assumptions admit only certain forms of knowledge and conceive the social universe in a distinctive way. Part Three deals with the second half of the ‘bracket metatheory’ proposition: the idea that foreswearing metatheoretical reflection  is conducive to the pursuit of practically-relevant knowledge. I return here to Aristotle’s understanding of practical knowledge, a form of understanding that could inform political choice, and in turn action, by integrating empirical and normative insights. By bracketing metatheoretical reflection, Sil and Katzenstein fail to see how their unacknowledged background assumptions obstruct the production of such knowledge, as normative forms of inquiry and understanding are epistemologically out of bounds. In the light of this, Part Four calls for an expanded, more inclusive, form of analytical eclecticism.