Symposium — Defining Theory Down

6 September 2013, 1000 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Inanna Hamati-Ataya. It is the second  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 responds to the introduction (PDF), written by Tim DunneLene Hansen and Colin Wight. Their own post is available here.

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

The EJIR Special Issue is not only a new opportunity to collectively reflect on the status and future of theory in International Relations (IR), but also to consider alternative ways of thinking about theory and its relation to reality. Although the editors acknowledge the diversity of approaches currently populating the field, their own framing of the discussion remains grounded in the philosophy-of-science narrative that our discipline too often puts forth as the only authoritative framework for discussing theoretical and metatheoretical issues.

Many — perhaps most — IR scholars find commonsensical the view that theory is ‘wholly conceptual and is not a concrete object’. They consider it an unproblematic starting-point for the present discussion. It is not. We should challenge this idealist-philosophical perspective. We should take seriously the ontological status and realism of theory/theorizing. Approaching theory as social construct and practice  leads to a more productive discussion — one that entails a more sociological and reflexive engagement with theory.

Such a discussion begins by rejecting the editors’ tempting invitation to slip back into a comfortable Waltzian posture. This invitation threatens to exclude a wide range of IR theory by avoiding the critical issues raised by the ‘third debate’ (PDF) in the field.  The field needs to preserve and re-assess the important gains of this debate and of the development of ‘post-positivist’ perspectives. To ignore the epistemic implications of Critical, Marxist, Feminist, Post-structuralist, and Post-colonial research is in effect to deny the historicity, social situatedness, and practical nature of theory.

We, and our students, have become more sensitive to the socio-economic, politico-ideological, and cultural determinants and functions of academic knowledge; the problématique of the knowledge-power nexus has raised our awareness of our intimate involvement in the (re)production of local and global power structures and relations, beyond the ideals/illusions of objectivity, neutrality, and value-freedom; research on the history of IR itself has also challenged our earlier naïve, objectivist view on the relation of theory to practice and their alleged antinomy. In fact, preserving and re-assessing the gains of the third debate requires us decide whether we take the social sciences seriously in the first place. If we adopt an abstract understanding of theory that treats the theorist as operating over and above the world that she studies, then we cannot produce genuine social science of the kind that influences the conduct and practice of world politics.

First, the standards we are asked again to uphold in constructing and evaluating theories are rarely discussed in relation to the actual history and achievements of social theories. It is unlikely that, if judged on the basis of ‘logic’, ‘systematicity’ and ‘generalizability’, either Foucault or Bourdieu – the most influential and productive social theorists of the contemporary era – or even Marx, Durkheim, or Weber, would qualify as role-models. And yet we probably have learned more about the world and ourselves from each of them than from all ‘explanatory theories’ in IR.

Second, we are very good at importing theories from the social sciences, but we would benefit more from a serious engagement with their empirical findings. For the purpose of the present discussion, it is enough to refer to social epistemology, the history and sociology of knowledge and science, and science and technology studies, which we can no longer afford to ignore when debating what ‘theory is and does’. We now have access to a wide range of socio-historical studies that clarify the social origins, nature, and functioning of social science, academic disciplines, and concepts, but also of the ‘isms’ and fundamental notions of the philosophy of science – including ‘logic’, ‘causality’, and even ‘abstraction’. These studies suggest that our sophisticated philosophic-epistemic discussions are scientifically and politically naïve; they are divorced from history and real social practice. Contemporary empirical research on the co-constitution of knowledge and society, and the co-production of science and politics, would help us better conceptualize the ‘relation’ of theory to reality, which terms like ‘derive’, ‘interplay’, ‘link’, or ‘bring together’ are too vague and too inadequate to account for.

But there are also practical reasons for engaging this sociological literature. The editors, like many of us, are concerned about IR’s ‘promise’ to ‘make a difference’ in the world. By showing empirically how specific philosophical-epistemic and political-theoretical positions are born out of socio-economic structures and socio-political ideologies, struggles, and projects of legitimation, a sociological approach can help us better understand how and why theory and scholarship fail to make a difference — or even actually contribute to the perpetuation of the social reality they aim to reform. The editors refer repeatedly to the current global financial crisis as an example of a problem that needs a solution, but they never mention the relation between this reality and dominant economic theories and paradigms. From a sociological perspective, if both the problem and the theories that are meant to address it are determined and produced by the same socio-economic and politico-ideological situation, then thinking within the assumptions of these theories and their associated epistemology is a self-defeating endeavour.

Social crises require a re-evaluation of our frames of seeing, and these need to be understood objectively, i.e., as real, ‘concrete objects’. In the case of IR, Critical/Marxist, Feminist, Post-structuralist, and Post-colonial scholars have already alerted us to theory’s own grounding in real international structures and political ideologies, such as the state-system and statist policy-rationales, patriarchy and androcentrism, Western hegemony and Eurocentrism/racism. These affect the content of IR theories as well as the very philosophical-epistemic frameworks we use to construct and assess them – including those that inform the editors’ preferences. If this is an accurate evaluation of at least some aspects of theory and theorizing, then IR cannot reasonably hope to make any significant difference to the world if it does not confront its own situatedness and function in that world. The constant return to allegedly universal categories of thought and theorizing does not solve or avoid the discipline’s disturbing ideological tendencies, but only exacerbates them.

From this alternative sociological standpoint, the return to the Waltzian framework is a move backwards, not forwards – back to an a-historical, a-social understanding and practice of theory. It seems that ‘Critical Theory’ has completely dropped from the conversation, and is now replaced with ‘critical theory’, defined as ‘that type of theory that begins with the avowed intent of criticizing particular social arrangements and/or outcomes’. A theory that ‘criticizes’ social reality but excludes the critique of thought, truth, theory, and science as components of that reality is only very minimally ‘critical’, and of no significant value to any serious reflexive project in IR.

If this loss of diversity and criticality is the price to pay to achieve an ‘integrative pluralism’, then it is worth considering whether intellectual antagonism and conflict are not a better, healthier option for IR. A pluralism from which significant segments of the community are either consciously or de facto excluded also loses its raison d’être, and might be viewed as yet another attempt to impose an artificial consensus and redefine the contours and standards of ‘legitimate’ scholarship. We often speak of the marginalisation of ‘dissident’ scholars and their traditions, but the effects of this marginalisation affect both sides of the divide. Many of our colleagues have already started looking beyond the discipline for more engaging interlocutors and more productive discussions, and the prospect of leaving IR altogether appears to be increasingly appealing and rewarding. But it is unlikely that the discipline would benefit from their defection, or can afford, on the long-run, to treat their contributions as marginally important to the discussion on IR theory. Fortunately, the EJIR Special Issue itself includes some such contributions, and will hopefully stimulate a discussion that is more inclusive than the Introduction seems to suggest.