Symposium — Reflections on Reflexivity and Theorizing in IR

11 September 2013, 1000 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Cameron ThiesIt is the 13th 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 Stefano Guzzini‘s article (PDF). Guzzini’s post appeared earlier today.

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

Stefano Guzzini provides us with yet another in a long line of thought provoking contributions on International Relations (IR) theory. There is a great deal that I appreciate about this piece: the observation that IR theorists have become increasingly reflexive over time, that this progression cannot be undone, the relationship between reflexivity and the four modes of theorizing he outlines, as well as the emphasis on concepts and the “unfinished dictionary of the ‘international’.” As is the case for many articles, I wish there had been more space for him to fully articulate the connections he outlined between increasing reflexivity and the modes of theorizing. Perhaps we will be lucky enough to see this article expand into a book at some point.

Rather than continue to extol the virtues of Guzzini’s contribution, I thought I would use my limited space to press the author on several aspects of the article. In the rest of this blog entry I will briefly address the premise of the paper, the generation of theory in contemporary social science, the kind of theory empiricists desire, and a few additional comments on the role of Great Debates in IR theory (because I can’t help myself).

At first, I was drawn in by the premise of the paper: that IR theory is being caught in a scissor movement between those who believe only practical knowledge is important and those who desire a specific version of empirical theory. The former seems to be driven in Guzzini’s mind by professional schools, while the latter is a result of the homogenization of training in the discipline to produce “quantitative-followed-up-by-qualitative” graduate student clones. Upon reflection, this seemed to me to be somewhat of a false premise. How much do professional schools really affect the disciplinary trajectory of IR? It seems to me that the core of IR is still squarely in traditional academic institutions. In fact, if anything, the gap that Alexander George and others wanted to bridge between applied and basic work in IR and foreign policy seems as wide as ever to me. My academic career has largely been spent in departments that might approximate the disciplinary homogenization Guzzini decries as one blade of the scissor, yet I don’t think my empirically oriented colleagues require that all theorizing be reducible to empirical generalizations.

In contemporary social science, theory generation is seen as a never-ending, cyclical process. One might start with an existing theory, generate hypotheses, subject those hypotheses to empirical testing via observation, which may yield empirical generalizations that then are used to refine theory. Or one may enter into this process at any other stage: prediction/hypothesis, observation or empirical generalization. In contradiction to Guzzini, I do not think that empirically oriented scholars believe that that “theory is either the result of the study (the empirical generalization) or its given and external starting point.” Theory is thus never solely external to a research design, nor divorced from methodology. Perhaps a caricature of a quantitative analysis, or the worst of such work, views theory as completely external to the research process or solely a result of empirical generalization, but I do not believe this is the mainstream view or reflective of the best work in the field. What does seem to me to be different today is that people have grown weary of the usefulness of the “isms” in our field. Unlike the theory that empirical researchers desire, the “isms“ are more accurately subject to Guzzini’s criticism since they occupy the space of being either an external given or subjected to repeated amendedments by empirical generalization. One only has to recall Legro and Moravcik’s complaint “is anybody still a realist?” (PDF) to see both a desire to recapture the hard core of an externally given theory in the face of repeated amendments based on observed reality. Instead of this scenario, which most closely fits Guzzini’s characterization, most empirically oriented scholars seem to desire middle-range theory

Robert Merton developed middle-range theory in opposition to the kind of grand theory developed by Talcott Parsons. Both agreed that observational regularities alone could not generate adequate theory, but Merton wanted theories limited in scope to specific conceptual ranges, rather than to identify the entire conceptual structure that comprises a field of study. Such theories of the middle range could eventually accumulate into increasingly general theories, such as our “isms” pretend to be, but the process is more in keeping with how I have defined contemporary social science approaches to theory generation. It also turns out to be in keeping with Guzzini’s desire to advance ontological theorizing for our continuous (re)writing of the “unfinished dictionary of the ‘international’”. As a result, I think Guzzini may actually not have much of a quarrel with contemporary empirically oriented IR scholars after all.

Finally, I am reminded of the differences between Europeans and Americans when it comes to constructing the memory of IR’s defining Great Debates. What was the Third Debate? I had always thought it was about positivism vs. post-positivism (e.g., PDF), but the moniker “Inter-Paradigm Debate” used by Guzzini is more reminiscent of the short-lived Neoliberal-Neorealist Debate (e.g., PDF).

Further, while the Third Debate (however defined) clearly demonstrates the kind of increased reflexivity that Guzzini suggests is a feature of the Great Debates, it is not so clear to me that earlier debates fully share that feature. I have written on the First Debate and argued that there was no real academic debate, hence there cannot have been much reflexivity at the time (PDF). Perhaps in retrospect, that debate serves as a reflexive moment, but I do not believe it did for academics at the time. Indeed, I have argued that the Great Debates are much more about demonstrating academic progress and developing disciplinary identities. It is quite possible that both Guzzini and I are telling compatible stories about the role of the Great Debates in our discipline’s history, but that will have to wait for more in-depth analysis.

Again, I thank Stefano Guzzini for another contribution that stimulated my thinking about some of these fundamental issues for IR and social science theorizing more generally.  I look forward to seeing how this conversation unfolds in the discipline, which is indeed in a much more reflexive space as a whole than anytime previously in its history.