Symposium — The Poverty of Grand Theory, Duck Taster Edition

9 September 2013, 0914 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Chris BrownIt is the seventh 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 Brown’s article (PDF). A response, authored by David Edelstein, will appear at 10am Eastern.

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

In their invitation to contribute to the Special Issue, the EJIR editors appeared to approach contemporary IR theory in a somewhat sceptical manner, with words such as “stagnation” to the fore — the implicit, and sometimes explicit, proposition was that the period of theoretical innovation and contestation post-1979 is drawing to a close, or, indeed, has ended. Then we had inter-paradigm debates and post-positivist critiques, now the excitement is over and we are becalmed in the doldrums.

Is this actually so? It is not at all clear how one might approach this question and it seems implausible that any kind of rigorous answer is going to be available whatever method of doing so is adopted. Still, one thing that is clear is that this kind of judgement cannot be made without some kind of examination of the sort of work that is being done now and the work that was being done then. At least a rough and ready compare-and-contrast of the 1980s and the 2000s is called for and while approaching this question in terms of a comparison of the major theoretical works published in the two periods may actually be a little too rough and ready, not least because it privileges books over the journal literature, it seems the simplest way to go, and is not likely to be too misleading.

In the full paper I carry out such an inter-temporal comparison, and, making allowances for the crudeness of the exercise, I argue that some conclusions are possible, and that, taken in the round, progress in the discipline is discernable — but only in some areas rather than across the board , and, interestingly, progress is most apparent in the more conventional, mainstream areas of theory. Liberal institutionalists and realists (structural and classical) have in the 2000s produced new, theoretically sophisticated work that represents a genuine advance on the discourses of the 1980s — it is, however, less clear that the same can be said of critical/‘late modernist’/post-structuralist work or even of constructivism.

The 1980s saw many promissory notes issued on behalf of the potential importance of a turn to Grand Theory in the Continental sense of the term, but few of these notes have been cashed out. In the 1980s we were directed to read Foucault, Derrida, or, according to taste, Habermas and the Frankfurt School; to bring things up to date we should add i.a. Lacan, Schmitt, Rancière, Agamben and Luhmann, but while the list of names has grown longer, the positive contribution of work done in the shadow of these names is less easy to find. And in the case of constructivism, while there have been a number excellent empirical case studies illuminated by constructivist thought, there are no major theoretical statements that are as compelling as those by Kratochwil and Onuf nearly a quarter of a century ago.

I argue that the different fate of mainstream and ‘critical’ scholarship partly reflects different reactions to the politics of the last decade or more — and in particular the attempts to reshape the world of the (first) Bush Administration. In the early 1980s Robert Cox compared ‘problem-solving’ theory unfavourably with ‘critical theory’ — but it is the ‘problem-solving end of the discipline that has made progress, and, arguably it has made progress precisely because it is problem oriented and has directly addressed the problem posed by the hubristic excesses of Bush II.

Liberal and Realist theorists in their different ways have been part of the so-called ‘reality-based community’ in the 2000s, and in an attempt to combat the leanings of those in the Bush Administration who believed themselves to be capable creating their own reality, they have actually refined and developed their perspectives in IR in innovatory and progressive ways. They have been joined in this project by some adherents to other schools of thought, but, strangely, not by a great many adherents to the more obviously grand of the ‘grand theories’, the late modernists. These latter writers have produced work that has illuminated our understanding of the world, but, though valuable, such work in the end remains ‘world-disclosing’ rather than ‘action-guiding’ (to draw on a distinction of Stephen White’s).

It might be argued that this lack of problem-oriented action-guiding work form non-mainstream theorists is of no great consequence, but in fact the lack of voices from this area has had unfortunate repercussions. Liberal and realist ‘problem-solvers’ have, on the whole, addressed the kind of problems that the powerful would like to see solved and have had much less to say about the kind of problems that reflect the interests of the disadvantaged. There are a range of ‘problems’ that the ‘problem-solving’ theorists are not addressing, and this is where the need for new thinking is pressing. I suggest that what is needed is ‘critical problem-solving’ – work that is which addresses the needs and problems of the dispossessed, the ‘wretched of the earth’ as the old song has it, rather than with the problems of the masters of the universe. This would be ‘problem-solving’ theory in so far as it directly engaged with the pressing social problems of the day, but it would also be ‘critical theory’ in so far as it did not take the definitions of such problems for granted. In short, it would compress the two modes of theory identified by Robert Cox into one; Cox’s formula made a kind of sense in the context of the 1970s and 1980s when the need was to combat the hegemony of establishment-oriented theories which made no attempt to problematize the status quo, but the original meaning of ‘critical theory’ was theory that contributed to human emancipation and for this task problem-solving in the broader sense is essential. The aspiration to create Grand Theory need not be, and should not be, abandoned but such theory must be oriented towards real-world problems.