Symposium — A Comment on Chris Brown’s “The Poverty of Grand Theory”

9 September 2013, 1014 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by  David EdelsteinIt is the eighth 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 Chris Brown’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.

Every other year, I teach a field survey seminar in international security for doctoral students in Georgetown’s Government Department. The students are invariably engaged and, like all good graduate students have forever been, eager to eviscerate the work of others. What interests these students, however, has changed from when I was a graduate student in the 1990’s. This current generation studies grand IR theory because they are told they have to do so or because they anticipate needing to know the literature for comprehensive exams. What interests them more is the work that has come to be called “mid-range” theory. That is, work that tackles a more modest and manageable question that is amenable not only to theoretical study but also to using the latest and greatest methodological techniques.

My students came to mind as I read Chris Brown’s commentary on the state of grand theory in international relations. Brown usefully surveys the literature over the past decade or so as seen through both the conventional “isms” that have defined the grand theoretical landscape—realism, liberalism, and constructivism—as well as alternative perspectives including feminism and “late modern” approaches. His conclusions are mixed. On the one hand, he lauds realism and liberalism, in particular, for continuing to push their research programs forward. He notes with approval what he sees as the demonstrated problem-solving capacity of these paradigms. Even though such research falls short a Skinnerian ideal-type for grand theory, Brown is able to find solace in much of this work.

On the other hand, he is less complimentary of those approaches that he sees as engaging in theoretical navel-gazing over the last decade, focusing on the development of theory for the sake of, well, developing theory. In particular, Brown laments that critical, “late modern” theory has perhaps made the least progress. If any school of international-relations theory ought to be prepared to offer theory that can help us solve “real world” problems, it should be those critical theorists who come at theory with an explicit problem-solving approach. Yet, to his chagrin, this has not happened.

This returns me to my graduate students with two observations. First, any optimistic conclusions that Brown reaches by looking retrospectively at international-relations theory work done over the last decade might be turned upside down if one were to look prospectively. That is, I fully expect that my graduate students will be doing more “problem-solving” work in their dissertations (in fact, the evidence is already crystal clear on this front), but they will not be making much effort to connect it to grand theoretical debates in the discipline. If grand theory must, as Brown defines it, “have implications beyond the immediate discourse within which it was created,” and grand theorists are “figures who have name recognition across the human sciences as a whole,” then I am not particularly optimistic about the future of grand theory in international relations.

Maybe this is not such a problem. Perhaps the field will, indeed, be better off with more mid-range theorizing. But one should not be sanguine that a retrospective look at the discipline a decade from now will reach similar conclusions about the state of grand international-relations theory. In fact, if one looks at the students currently being hired at the most prestigious departments or publishing at the most impressive rate, I can think of very few that have engaged in grand IR theory debates. I would go so far as to say that any effort to do so in a job talk would be viewed as anachronistic, a time warp back to the days of the paradigmatic warfare in the 1990’s.

Second, Brown’s call for a reinvigoration of critical theory with an emphasis on problem-solving is, for better or for worse, unlikely to resonate in the United States. Here, Brown’s essay usefully reminds me of the grand-theoretical chasm in this business known as the Atlantic Ocean (or perhaps chasms, defined by the two oceans that border the United States). I can think of very few top-tier graduate programs of political science in the United States that teach critical theory in any sustained way or have a critical mass of such theorists (and teachers) among their faculty. If there are no faculty producing critical theory at top departments, then it follows that there will likewise be few students to someday fill the faculty ranks. Thus, if the deficit in the grand-theoretical thinking is truly in the area of critical, problem-solving theory, then a solution will have to come from elsewhere, perhaps even from those areas of the world that Brown notes are in dire need of more study and understanding from a critical, problem-solving perspective. Such a division of labor may be appropriate—there is no particular reason why the academy in the US needs to produce critical theorists—but it also is undoubtedly likely to lead to less conversation and intellectual exchange among the alternative grand theoretical approaches as different camps settle into their geographic homes.

Finally, a note on problem-solving theory and its practical utility. Brown praises those grand theorists, like John Mearsheimer and John Ikenberry, whose work has had an apparent impact on debates over policy and the solutions to various problems in international politics. Are these models replicable? And if they are, should they be? As someone who lives, works, and teaches in Washington, DC, I would suggest that policy makers in this town are interested in hearing from academics, if for no other reason than to legitimate their own views and preferences on various issues.

But I would also suggest that having an impact requires a certain type of theory and writing that Mearsheimer and Ikenberry share in common. Namely, it employs simple, straightforward logic expressed through equally clear and understandable language, absent (for the most part) pretentious social science vernacular or needless neologisms. If we want to be problem solvers, then our work must be intelligible to those doing the problem solving. Otherwise, the effort by scholars to influence policy will be thrown aside as useless ivory tower nonsense. As important as the theories we come up with are, how we present them matter just as much.

So, I am less sanguine than Brown. To be clear, I am optimistic about what the future holds for my graduate students, but not because they are doing grand theoretical work. I think we will have lost something if grand theory fades away, but it is not clear to me how that can be reclaimed at this point. Instead, what I will continue to do is to press my students to think theoretically about the issues that they are studying, even if thinking theoretically doesn’t always, or perhaps ever, mean thinking grand theoretically.