Symposium — The Ends of IR Theory: Stages of Reflexivity and Modes of Theorizing

11 September 2013, 0915 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Stefano GuzziniIt is the 12th 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 Guzzini’s article (PDF). A response, authored by Cameron Thies, will appear at 10am Eastern.

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

My article argues for the fundamental importance of theorizing in International Relations (IR) against two by now classical critiques, regularly repeated. One critique tends to reduce IR theory to a version of practical knowledge, the other reduces it to some version of empirical generalization with allegedly no further need of checking the conceptual and theoretical coherence as traditionally done through the –isms debates. Both reductions are mistaken.

A critique of the alleged superiority of practical knowledge

It is common to hear that all the abstract language of academia (whether meta-theory or formal modelling and mathematisation) has alienated IR from the world of practice. In its strongest version, this view claims that the ‘real’, or at least only relevant, knowledge is what has come down to us over centuries of practical self-reflection and political judgement. The balance of power simply is, whatever clever critiques people may come up with. Such a vision of theory also explains the common confusion of foreign-policy ideology and explanation. How often have we not seen realist scholars seeing their theory confirmed when world events turn nasty and liberal scholars when diplomacy breeds peace (or at least truce)? But liberal theory has to understand the outbreak of conflicts just as much as realists their resolution. Neither deterrence nor reassurance is unique to one theory, although they do define respective policy strategies.

This confusion is odd in the world of social sciences. The article argues that showing the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge from practical knowledge is constantly undermined by the sheer closeness to the field of political practitioners in whose language the analysis of world politics is authoritatively spoken, and by the socialisation of analysts through (some) professional schools, attracting students who, in the school’s rite of passage to become leaders in their society, are often encouraged to belittle, if not de facto neglect the ‘academic’ (i.e. useless) approach to knowledge. This has deeper and historical reasons. Western IR as field of study emerged not as a response to societal changes, as did other fields of systematic inquiry. In the early days, the discipline was not there to produce knowledge; already existing (practical) knowledge produced its discipline for justifying the maxims of established policy strategies transnationally shared by Court Aristocracies.

Yet, and using the early writings of Morgenthau as a foil, I argue that the resulting attempt to square the circle of practical knowledge in a scientific environment did not and cannot work. Practical knowledge remains caught in the ‘conservative’ or justification/tradition dilemma. Its classical defence no longer applies: it cannot just refer to the world ‘as it is’ and rely on its practical understanding by the responsible elites. But if it then defends itself in a ‘theoretical, that is, an objective, systematic manner’ (Morgenthau), practical knowledge at this level of reflexivity has no choice but to engage the scientific canon of the day, which it had left to others to define. Not re-defining the core of theorising itself, it ends up in a no-win situation: being consistent with itself, it should avoid a scientific defence, but that will no longer do; by attempting that scientific defence in positive and positivistic language (‘as it is’), practical knowledge does not, however, stay consistent with itself.

A critique of reducing theory to one version of empirical theorising 

Although this argument supports the need to find a reflexive distance to the level of political action, and indeed a different language from the one in which world politics is spoken, my second point targets attempts to reduce the theory of IR to a particular way of empirical theorising. In many contemporary research designs, theory is either the result of the study (the empirical generalisation) or its given and external starting point (if that generalisation informs a proposition put to a test). Theory, then, is external to research design and divorced from methodology. In such designs, all this once fashionable talk about isms and paradigms is but a waste of time. Cashing in on the widely shared impatience with routine applications of our isms (and their confusion with foreign policy strategies, see above), the implication is that we can dispense with them altogether. This claim is at best ingenuous, and surely detrimental to the development of a social science.

As Allison’s famous study on the Essence of Decision had brought home to a wider IR public, theory is not only the result of knowledge, but also the condition for the possibility of knowledge. Our frameworks of analysis guide us in the selection of (relevant) empirical material, how to understand it, which questions are relevant and which explanations consistent. Not stating those frameworks openly or not reflecting on their applicability in general or for the particular analysis robs our science of a crucial control of our knowledge. Hence, theorising must cover the instrumental as well as the constitutive function of theories, and the fact that not all knowledge is empirically determined, rather than succumb to the now fashionable appeal to simply ignore isms.

Taking the two functions of theories seriously and allowing for theoretical self-control of knowledge implies that there are at least four different modes of theorising.

  • Normative theorising consists in applying the scientific criteria of moral and political philosophy to issues of international relations.
  • Meta-theoretical theorising provides the building blocks and fundaments upon which all theories are built.
  • A third type of theorising I call ‘ontological’ for lack of a better word. One could call it also ‘constitutive’ since it is mainly about theorising the central phenomena that constitute the field of inquiry (power, sovereignty, state, etc.).
  • Last but not least, there is empirical theorising. These can involve large-n correlational analysis (which also lead to deductive hypothesis testing), small-n comparisons, single case studies and the generalisations which these allow, but also often neglected versions of interpretivist process-tracing where different types of causal mechanisms (and causality) apply. The produced knowledge is checked according to the respective criteria and specific logics. Concepts play a special role by linking up these different modes of theorising, providing the common language (and translations) within which our progress in knowledge can take place. Ignoring much of this is neither scientifically innocent nor ultimately useful.