Symposium — The Most Important Emerging Theoretical Clusters in IR? Not What You Think

12 September 2013, 0912 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a  post (mostly) by Patrick Thaddeus JacksonIt is the 14th 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 PTJ’s and Daniel Nexon‘s article (PDF). A response, authored by Janice Bially Mattern, will appear at 10am Eastern.

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

To begin with the punchline: we feel that the state of international theory globally is considerably more robust than laments about “the end of International Relations theory” would have it. The problem, we argue, is that the mental maps of the field with which so many of us operate do not give pride of place to the theoretical points of contention that actually do unite the field by giving IR scholars a set of debates within and against which to locate their own scholarly work. The perception of excessive theoretical fragmentation is thus an artifact of the way we conventionally map the field, and accordingly, what has to change are our maps — not IR theory.

There are three conventional ways of mapping the universe of IR theory, all of which have relatively serious limitations. The “isms” mapping pits the supposed “paradigms” of realism, liberalism, and constructivism (once upon a time that third was Marxism) against one another; besides unhelpfully turning straightforward empirical disagreements into presumptively “incommensurable” assumptions that function as shibboleths in academic tribal warfare, the “isms” mapping also only permits broad generalizations about the causes of state behavior to qualify as “theory.”

The “great debates” mapping suggests that field-wide contentious conversations spur scholarly innovation, but this mapping suffers from empirical and historical weaknesses (it is unclear, for example, that the “second debate” actually consumed the attention of more than a handful of IR scholars), and also — especially with the “second” and “third” great debates — conflates theoretical and methodological issues in ways that lead us to confuse discussions about international affairs with discussions of the status of our claims about international affairs.

Finally, the recent vogue for “middle-range theory” pushes scholars to focus on more limited generalizations, often involving one or more “standard stories” selected from a basket of conventional propositions about common social mechanisms, such as “incomplete information” or “shaming.” As a map of the field, these middle-range theories don’t offer us much to go on, since different researchers use similar social mechanisms in different ways…and the overall approach valorizes cross-case generalization to the exclusion of the other approaches to the production of knowledge that are in fact alive and well in the field.

As an alternative, we offer a map of the field that is designed around two basic principles: the separation of theory and methodology, and the idea that a good map points to ongoing disagreements rather than to overly solid theoretical camps. In line with the former principle, we argue that international theory consists not of research design principles and philosophies of knowledge, but is instead scientific ontology: a catalog of the “stuff” of interest to the researcher and how it is interconnected. This catalog is relatively independent of methodology, in that different researchers may choose to cash out the same set of substantive concerns in divergent ways: some may conduct large-n hypothesis-tests, some may engage in analytical modeling, etc. While methodological diversity is certainly important, we suggest that mapping the field in terms of methodology obscures the ways that researchers using different techniques and approaches might nonetheless engage in productive conversations underpinned by their similar substantive concerns.

In line with the second principle, we argue that the kinds of wagers that we see IR scholars making in their current lines of research fall along two axes: one axis involving the degree to which actors are thought to be relatively autonomous from or densely connected with their social environments, and another axis involving the degree to which theories and theorists have to be grounded in the thick contextual experiences of actors as opposed to relatively abstracted from those experiences. Combining these axes and labeling the three combinations we see in evidence in current IR scholarship gives us a convenient map:


This map serves the basic function of giving IR scholars things in common to disagree about, and does so by concentrating on substantive wagers about international affairs rather than on the methodological issues better tackled by the philosophy of science. The three theoretical families we identify — choice-theoretic, experience-near, and social-relational — are emphatically neither “paradigms” nor hermetically sealed intellectual camps. But we feel that they identify some emerging theoretical pivots, best glimpsed by examining the (ideal-typcial) modal position upheld by each family:

Table 1 EJIR

The aim of this exercise is to illustrate the extent to which IR theory is in fact developing and diversifying, and to identify the lines of contentious conversation along which it might develop in the future. Choice-theoretic approaches tend to differ from the other two families on the question of actor embeddedness, but choice-theoretic and social-relational approaches share a commitment to transposable models and abstract causal claims that sometimes puts them at odds with experience-near theory. These are not insurmountable barriers as much as they are a limited vocabulary of things to argue about; particular researchers might find themselves and their work located someplace between these ideal-typical modal positions, and it is our hope that this map provides some insight into how such work is received by scholars whose sensibilities are located more towards the extremes.

So: IR theory isn’t ending; it’s actually alive and well, but that fact is obscured by a focus on older maps of the field which look for theoretical innovation in all the wrong places. We should not expect new “great debates” or “isms,” and we should not unnecessarily limit ourselves to cross-case generalizations using a grab-bag of social mechanisms. We should instead focus on what we actually have, which is a set of contentious conversations about important substantive matters.