Meta-theory and Practical Knowledge: Reflections on Reus-Smit’s ‘Beyond Meta-theory’

14 September 2013, 1100 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a  guest post by Milja KurkiIt is the 18th 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). His post appeared earlier today.

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

Christian Reus-Smit’s latest intervention into the seemingly never-ending ‘meta-wars’ published in the long-awaited EJIR special issue on ‘end of theory’ demonstrates the thrust of his core argument superbly well: the debate on meta-theory is unlikely to go away, even as most bored empirical analysts keep demanding it does. Reus-Smit is right to argue that meta-theoretical debate is bound to continue to influence IR theory and debate, explicitly or implicitly, whatever the analytical eclecticists, or other activists for our ‘emancipation from meta-theory’, think. So deeply engrained are meta-theoretical questions and meta-theoretical thinking in IR scholarship that – thank goodness – it is quite unfeasible and unrealistic to seek to dislodge meta-theoretical concerns from the discipline. As Reus-Smit puts it: ‘we can stop talking about meta-theory…but we cannot escape it’.

Reus-Smit’s argument as to the durability of meta-theory and the persistent role of ‘hidden’ meta-theoretical principles in the work of key critics, such as Sil and Katzenstein, is convincing, if not highly original in that he, of course, joins by now rather a long list of defenders of meta-theorising. What is distinct about this contribution is his attempt to raise explicitly the normative-empirical knowledge divide and how it plays into the current treatments of meta-theory. He plausibly makes the claim that if practical knowledge is what we are after (as Sil and Katzenstein argue), then by Aristotle’s standards certainly, we should be opening our knowledge horizons to normative ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘judging’. The failure of current analytical eclecticism to reflect on its bias towards empirical knowledge leaves the normative aspect of ‘practical’ knowledge production unexplored. Reus-Smit calls for a more meta-theoretically self-reflective but also, as such, more ambitious form of eclecticism which can challenge the ‘grund epistemological assumption that admits only empirical-theoretical forms of inquiry and knowledge’.

This is an important point, yet, not in my view the most interesting point he raises. The more interesting aspect of his contribution to me arises – rather implicitly – from his conclusion that the kind of  ‘eclectic’ (but yet firmly epistemologically and ontologically bounded) knowledge that Sil and Katzenstein call for is actually a reflection of ‘the norms and predilections of a particular community of practice’. What Reus-Smit suggests here is a point similar to that often made by critical theorists: that (meta-)theoretical choices are not only ever-present in the work of (social) scientists but also important to reflect on because they can reflect in part the social conditions of knowledge production and thus potentially particular biases. If meta-theories do no arise out of the ‘blue’, out of abstract philosophical ideas without context, and if our meta-theoretical choices too are less ‘matters of taste’ or ‘accidents’ and more ‘sociologically’ rooted (as I think it is fair to claim with regard to ‘pragmatism’ so dominant in the US) a whole new angle opens up as to why we should give meta-theory consideration.  Meta-theoretical choices matter because they are embedded in and reflect our social conditions more widely.

While Reus-Smit does not develop this as a central theme in his piece, what Reus-Smit’s contribution brings home to me most powerfully is that we need to be better attuned to understand the differential backgrounds and framings that emanate from but also shape ‘meta-theoretical’ positions of different kinds. Meta-theoretical positions can be contentious but crucially in such ways which mean that our practical interests and explanations of world politics start to look very different from these different points of origin. As I also tried to point out in a forum on meta-theory’s role in International Theory in 2009 there may very well be ‘a politics’ to the philosophy of science, or meta-theory, in IR and in all social sciences. Perhaps these aspects of meta-theory, and not just meta-theory itself, should be reflected on more.

What is interesting about this is that it would push us in the direction of starting to, hopefully, open up the politics of our meta-theories, the sociologies of knowledge and ideologies of practice, which underpin how we do IR. But this is not all for, for me, we should go further and probe meta-theory in international politics itself. Indeed, what is often ignored is that meta-theory is not only something which plagues the reluctant academics, it also structures international political ‘real world’. Whether it is in structuring of knowledge claims about development of the World Bank or the EU’s report on migration, meta-theoretical assumptions about knowledge, how it is formed and what kinds of knowledge claims ‘count’ – and probably on Reus-Smit’s lines about what kinds of ‘judgements’ are valid and credible – are ubiquitous. These are sites where similarly meta-theoretical choices are constantly made, but even less reflectively than in IR theorising of empirical or pragmatic bent. It is the meta-theoretical underpinnings of concrete global political practitioners then that we can and should turn to in order to really understand some of the problematic and persisting qualities of how international problems are dealt with.