Symposium — Maps are Theories, Cartographic Errors Make Flawed Debates

12 September 2013, 1000 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Janice Bially MatternIt is the 15th 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 Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s and Daniel Nexon‘s article (PDF). Their post appeared earlier today.

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

Jackson and Nexon’s map of IR theory presents a different perspective on the field. The authors are optimistic that from this different vantage point can follow different kinds of conversations among International Relations (IR) scholars; ones that improve the quality of IR theorizing. I am less optimistic. Different though their map may appear, I worry that it will ultimately perpetuate more of the same kinds of conversations—including and especially those that legitimate the kind of “brittle” IR theorizing that Jackson and Nexon hope their map will challenge.

My skepticism ‘trickles up’ from the practical orientation through which Jackson and Nexon (J&N) construct their topography.  More precisely, J&N approach IR theory as a practice—an activity, the logic of which is encoded in the routines by which it is done. The authors’ discussion of paradigms, great debates, and middle range theories is not just any standard overview of the literature but a practical analysis. Through it, J&N discern the dominant kinds of routines via which IR theorizing is done and then decode from those routines the implicit common sense logic of IR theory.  Their conclusion is that IR theory is an explanatory activity that is done through routines that “relat[e] conceptual tools to empirical observations.”

This practical conception of IR theory moves J&N’s argument at multiple levels.  First, it grounds their view that IR theory is relatively healthy.  There is, after all, a “great deal of” explanatory work on world politics that is done by “relating conceptual tools to empirical observations”. Second, it gives shape to their topography.  It enables J&N to delimit the universe of IR theory around explanatory function, and so, to recognize the variation in its routines. Those variations form the axes of contention and clusters of theory that make up the map. Finally, the authors’ practical conception of IR theory underwrites their optimism that this topography could help improve IR theorizing.  It makes IR theories intelligible as scientific ontologies, or catalogues of conceptual terms that are analytically separable from those conversation-stopping categorical philosophical commitments that have long dogged the improvement of IR theory. In this way, J&N’s optimism about their topography echoes Adler and Pouliot’s about practical analysis more generally. Both imagine that the practice analytic provides a gluon that “cuts across” theoretical differences in the field.

But practices do not work like gluons.  As I have argued here and here, practices discipline differences rather than cut across them. Practices are not just ways-of-doing things. They produce exclusive social spaces that are organized internally through normative hierarchies that establish and regulate deviance.  As J&N are aware, the practice of IR theory is no exception.  For instance, the “fairly predictable” routines used for middle-range theorizing have become a script, or norm of practical ‘competency’, for publishing in top-ranked American journals (6). Against this benchmark other routines for doing IR theorizing appear as inferior as do their authors and the journals that publish them. The overall effect is a hierarchical disciplinary system that establishes and regulates deviance through professional incentives (cf.  Zarakol, Towns, Adler-Nissen, Rumellili).

J&N recognize this.  Their hope, however, is that their practical topography can create the space for conversations that challenge the existing norms.  Above all they hope it can upend the norms that legitimate “brittle” IR theorizing—that is, ‘quick and dirty’ theorizing in which scholars grab “off-the-shelf” theoretical mechanisms” for connecting input X to output Y, without concern for whether the assumptions and logic of theory is “bogus”.  This habit, J&N argue, developed as middle-range theorizing became conjoined to neopositivist methods.  But since the practical logic of IR theory pertains to scientific ontology and not to philosophical ontology, J&N’s the latter does not surface in J&N’s topography. The gluon-like hope is that this will enable debate about theorizing, that proceeds unencumbered by the analytically separable issue of methodological difference.

It is here that I become skeptical. Let’s grant, for argument’s sake, that J&N’s topography could launch a conversation in which analytically irrelevant methodological differences do not ‘pollute’ debates about theory.  In such a scenario, the conversation—both its form and content—would be structured by J&N’s topography: that is, by the social space that is generated by the practical logic of IR theory it encodes.  So what does that social space looks like? Where are its boundaries and by what logics are its organizational hierarchies structured? The answers to these questions are important for they indicate the kinds of conversations J&N’s topography can countenance. But what the answers suggest are a very familiar social space of IR theory and so a familiar set of conversations about it.

Recall that the common sense logic of IR theory encoded in J&N’s topography is (a) that it is an explanatory activity; and (b) that is done through routines that relate conceptual tools to empirics. From (a) follows the boundary of IR theory as a field.  It is a rather familiar boundary: to count as normal IR theorizing must articulate an explanatory in function. In fact, J&N’s topography is arguably even more exclusive than the familiar status quo in that it suggests that theorizing which fails to articulate such a purpose is not merely deviant. It is flatly exiled as beyond the border of IR theory proper.

From (b) follows the logic of at least one key normative hierarchy.  This is that since IR theorizing pertains to scientific ontology, the greatest value is attached to those theories that explain empirical observations by drawing only on conceptual tools that are scientific ontological in character. J&N endorse this explicitly in arguing for the exclusion of philosophical ontological issues from the conversation. The latter introduces analytically irrelevant differences that might ‘pollute’ the discussion and perpetuate the logic that justifies brittle theorizing.  The same, then, must also apply to all other non-scientific ontological issues.  To introduce non-scientific ontological conceptual tools into the process of explaining empirical observations is be theoretically abnormal; it is to enact deviance.

And therein lies the problem I foresee with J&N’s typology. Besides philosophical ontology I can think of one rather important set of theoretical routines that falls outside the scope of scientific ontology: conceptual theorizing. Understood as the work of signifying the substances and processes that make up the world, conceptual theorizing is what gives our theories integrity. It is what enables us to construct theories with defensible assumptions and terms; theories that are not bogus or brittle. But conceptual theorizing is analytically distinct from scientific ontology. It is a prior necessity for the latter but it is concerned with distinct theoretical activities.

Conceptual theorizing is already devalued, even deviant, within the practice of IR theorizing.  Indeed, in only one year as an IR journal editor it has become painfully clear how many scholars—and not just those doing middle range theorizing—see conceptual theorizing as an irritating, unnecessary distraction. Given J&N’s aspiration is to reverse the trend of brittle theorizing, it is striking that their topography offers not ground upon which to challenge this attitude. On the contrary, it produces a social space in which it ought logically be just as deviant and ‘polluting’ to debate the conceptual integrity of an IR theory’s assumptions and logic as it is to debate methodological differences. J&N’s topography does not facilitate resistance to the habit of brittle IR theorizing.  It colludes with it.

If such explains my skepticism about J&N’s optimism, there is a broader point I mean to make about the practice turn in IR. For some reason, practices are often represented in IR as formations in flux and as sites of change. This puzzles me. Practices are not just ways-of-doing something. They are self-reproducing social hierarchies.  Just as the practice of IR theorizing appropriates Jackson and Nexon’s theoretical intervention to its own ends, so do practices in world politics appropriate the differences that resist them. Better IR theorizing, among practice theorists anyway, needs to consider this seriously.