Symposium — The End of International Relations Theory?

6 September 2013, 0915 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tim Dunne, Lene Hansen and Colin Wight. It is the first 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 the issue’s introduction of the same name (PDF). A response, authored by Inanna Hamati-Ataya, will appear at 10am Eastern.

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

In an academic discipline as wide-ranging as International Relations (IR) it is no surprise that the definition, role and function of theory is one of the most highly contested issues. Some of the most fundamental divisions that separate the various theoretical approaches covered in this Special Issue  are embedded within competing accounts of what theory is, and what theory can and should do. In this sense, it is correct to say that there is no such thing as IR theory in the singular, but rather, there are many types of theory.

Recognising the plurality of theories is no barrier to noting what is trending in the field. Our experience as editors of EJIR from 2008 to 2013 suggests that the era of paradigm wars has given way to a form of ‘theoretical peace’.  First, we saw less and less inter-theoretic debate across paradigms (or ‘isms’). Second, pieces engaging solely in theoretical development are now largely non-existent. Theory played a role in almost all the articles published in the journal during our tenure but it was of a ‘theory testing’ orientation rather than outright ‘theory development’ (though we concede that there were a small number of exceptions to this pattern). None of this is to suggest that this work is inferior in anyway, but is simply a statement about the type of work that dominates, not its quality.

This sense that meta-theory was no longer the ‘driver’ of IR was the trigger for the Special Issue – conceived, as it was, over dinner in conversation with our editorial committee at the ISA convention in Montreal. The subject of the Special Issue could well have been ‘The End of Theory’ which would have made this point stronger, although placing it within the context of IR seemed the best option. In putting together the only SI of our tenure, we asked a range of theorists – many established figures and some more recent entrants to the profession – whether they shared this view and, if so, was the retreat from pure theory to be regarded as a positive or negative development?

What follows is a synopsis of the opening essay in the Special Issue by the editors.  Our goal was to frame the discussion about theory rather than to provide a justification and summary of the remaining contributors. Here is where we began our discussion.

Types of Theory

Theory comes in different types with different aims. Often, concerns about pluralism in the discipline are derived from an unfounded belief that one or more theories are failing to engage with each other, when, in fact, the theories are doing very kinds of things.

At a very basic level, the different theoretical schools in IR are at least in agreement that theories should be understood as abstractions from a complex reality and that they attempt to provide generalizations about the phenomena under study. One problem when attempting to understand theory is that theory is wholly conceptual and is not a concrete object. This means that our understanding of theory in general is often drawn from the IR theories we study; hence, if the theories we study are limited in scope and form then our account of theory itself will suffer from the same problem. Put more positively, the broader the range of IR theories we study, the broader will be our conception of theory.

There have been few attempts in the discipline to systematically discuss the process of theorising itself or to consider what ‘theory’ is and does. Kenneth Waltz is a notable exception; for him, theories explain laws (simplifying in the extreme, as Jean-François Lyotard might have put it). Many disagree with Waltz’s understanding of theory. Yet despite these differences, it seemed obvious to us that the Special Issue should be dedicated to the memory of Kenneth N. Waltz (1924-2013) as it is the continuation of a conversation that he began in 1979. The fact that it is possible to be a critic of positivism and be strongly influenced by Waltz would not have been intelligible to many who took part in these conversations in the 1980s and 1990s.

Our discussion of types of theory then leads us to consider alternatives to strict models of explanatory theory, including: critical theory, constitutive theory, and what is entailed by thinking of theory as a ‘lens’. However defined it is clear that theory has multiple meanings and is used in different ways.

Pluralism, What Pluralism?

An undeniable fact about the first 95 years of IR is that there are now many more recognised theoretical orientations than was the case in the earliest decades. How and why does theoretical proliferation come about?

One driver of theoretical proliferation is the invention of new theories in light of a general perception on the part of the academic community that a new historical context requires new conceptual tools of analysis. A second driver that explains theoretical proliferation is the practice of ‘importing’ a theory from a cognate discipline. Importing theories from other disciplines into IR was a marked feature of self-styled critical theorising – with feminism drawing on political theory; post-structuralism on literary theory and philosophy; constructivism on sociology.

The resulting theoretical pluralism of the last 35 years has generated high levels of intellectual antagonism. What is clear from this discussion is that the attempt to come to terms with theoretical proliferations through ‘pluralism’ is deeply contested – some viewing it as a proxy of cultural or intellectual diversity, while others seeing it as a veil over which disciplinary hegemony is exercised. Yet it is interesting to observe that nobody, it seems, is arguing against pluralism per se, in fact, everyone agrees that it is a desirable position (albeit, under certain conditions, such as ‘relevance’ or ‘science’). This leads us to consider the question what kind of pluralism can, and should, IR embrace?

Pluralism and the terms of Engagement

Theoretical diversity is often assumed to be integral to the practice of science. According to this view, theoretical diversity is tolerated only because it represents a temporary phenomenon. The steady accumulation of knowledge generated through the application of scientific methods will eventually place the social sciences on as secure an epistemological footing as the natural sciences. This position is still committed to pluralism, but pluralism is now a means not an end. Theoretical diversity is tolerated because eventually there will be unity ‘over the horizon’.

We can, however, contrast the ‘unity through pluralism’ position to an alternative view, which sees little or no prospect of any type of theoretical unification. According to advocates of this view, we should embrace a strategy of letting ‘a thousand theoretical flowers bloom’. Given the limited prospects of settling theoretical disputes at the epistemological level, the social sciences should embrace an open-ended commitment to all theoretical approaches. For the committed pluralist, unity is neither possible nor desirable; but rather, it is the intrinsic good of pluralism itself which is to be defended. Pluralism here is an end, not a means.

Neither the ‘unity’ viewpoint nor an untrammelled commitment to theoretical diversity seems to be attractive positions for any science to adopt – positions that were strongly taken up, on both sides, during the third (or fourth) debate. Today IR seems to have settled into an uneasy truce on the question of theoretical pluralism/fragmentation. Our view is that the field should go a stage further and adopt what we term ‘integrative pluralism’.* Such an orientation towards theoretical difference accepts and preserves the validity of a wide range of theoretical perspectives and embraces theoretical diversity as a means of providing more comprehensive and multi-dimensional accounts of complex phenomena. Yet such as view also hold out the possibility of, indeed insists upon, theoretical engagement across paradigms when appropriate. Science, broadly defined, is a competitive environment and in the course of engagement some theories may ultimately be rejected, and others may undergo substantial change and modification. Which theories contribute to our overall stock of knowledge and which fall by the wayside can never be resolved solely through metatheoretical debate.

What, then, is our answer to the ‘the end of IR theory?’ As we make clear in the article, we do not seek to align ourselves either with a view that celebrates the ‘theoretical peace’ and neither do we want to return to a paradigmatic ‘war of all against all’. Neither do we join those who think that IR’s theoretical self-obsession is a sign of disciplinary weakness. Instead, we think that IR remains a productive place to understand and explain global social forces not least because it has become theory-led, theory-literate, and theory-concerned.

*This notion is developed more fully in Colin Wight’s forthcoming book on Theoretical Fragmentation to be published by Sage in 2014. [back]