Symposium — Of Paradigms and Assumptions

13 September 2013, 1000 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Phil ArenaIt is the 16th 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 David A. Lake’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.

Lake’s “Theory is dead, long live theory: The end of the Great Debates and the rise of eclecticism in International Relations”  articulates well a common take on the Great Debates and their aftermath, and I thank Dan Nexon for giving me the opportunity to discuss it as part of this symposium.  I agree with much of what Lake writes, as I expect many readers will.  However, I find part of Lake’s argument problematic.  Specifically, I agree that “The paradigm wars greatly perverted the discipline and turned inquiry into contests of a quasi-religious belief in the power of one or another ‘ism’,” and that we ought not “mourn the tyrant’s passing” for that reason.  Yet it is not clear to me that what emerged from the ashes of the paradigm wars can be characterized meaningfully as “eclecticism”, and no more clear that this would be desirable if it was the case.

Consider the two examples Lake provides of “the new king” which “deserves our support”: open economy politics (OEP) and democratic peace theory.  Though Lake says that neither fits well into any “ism” of the paradigm wars, both fall quite neatly under the umbrella of liberalism according to one of the most prominent descriptions thereof.  In “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics”, Andrew Moravcsik identifies the core assumptions of liberalism and distinguishes between three variants: ideational, commercial, and republican .  Not only do OEP and democratic peace theory share the core assumptions of liberalism, but the former is so perfect an example of commercial liberalism, and the latter of republican liberalism, that Moravcsik points to these very literatures as examples.  In what sense, then, can we say that progress has been made in the wake of the Great Debates by “eclectic” mid-level theory?

My point is not to crown liberalism king.  I would argue that two of the greatest puzzles of international politics are why so much money is left lying on the ground and why actors often burn that which they seek to gain in order to acquire a larger share thereof.  I refer here to the fact that mutual cooperation does not always occur even when all relevant parties would be made better off than they are under the status quo, and the occurrence of war despite its inherently destructive nature.  Powerful, useful, deeply insightful answers to these two questions have been put forth by those who have treated states as unitary actors unconstrained by public opinion, international institutions, transnational norms, etc.  Some have acknowledged that these are the core assumptions of realism (see here and here), but by and large we do not speak of such things anymore.

It was always a mistake to think that the goal of theory-building is to crown a victor.  We gain little by choosing a set of core assumptions to anchor our personal identities and then going to war with non-believers, and I’m glad that few of our number now do so.  After all, assumptions need not be correct to be useful, nor is usefulness a universal property.  We should acknowledge that the core assumptions of realism are useful for certain purposes, as are the core assumptions of liberalism, constructivism, and every other “ism”.  One could even imagine an introductory textbook containing a chapter on conflict that adopts the core assumptions of realism, another chapter that adopts the assumptions of liberalism, and one neoliberal institutionalism, implicitly acknowledging that each “ism” has value.

To repeat, I do not mourn the tyrant’s passing any more than Lake.  But I’m troubled that many in this field now view making assumptions as something to be ashamed of rather than a necessary step along the path to generating insight.  That we all feel the need to claim we’ve sidestepped questions that cannot easily be avoided (if indeed they can at all).  Rather than labeling our work as “eclectic” while adopting all the core assumptions of one or another “ism”, we should admit that “assumption” isn’t a four letter word, theories (even grand ones!) are not the enemy, and above all else embrace transparency.  To my mind, the worst thing that can be said about one’s assumptions is not that they are somewhat less than 100% true in 100% of situations, but that they’ve been hidden from view.