Symposium — The Mother of All isms: The paradigm is dead. Long live the paradigm!

8 September 2013, 1000 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by  Stacie E. GoddardIt is the sixth 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 Andrew Bennett’s article (PDF). His post appeared earlier today.  

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

I am excited to blog about this EJIR special issue on theory and international relations, and am particularly pleased that I’ve been asked to discuss Andrew Bennett’s article, “The Mother of all isms: Causal mechanisms and structured pluralism in International Relations theory.” Bennett and Alexander George’s book was a touchstone for me as I wrote my dissertation and then book on indivisible territory. It was invaluable to have a book that was both pluralistic in scope and rigorous in its approach, and that explained in crystal clear language the benefits of a mechanism-based approach to international relations theory.

Not surprisingly, then, I agree with much of what Bennett has to say about international relations theory. Yet at the same time, Bennett’s forceful argument about mechanisms is disconcerting, in that it comes close to suggesting that the only way to destroy the paradigmatic debates is to build a new paradigm. In particular, Bennett argues that if IR scholars are to do away with the existing paradigms, we must embrace scientific realism: scholars must agree that there is a real (if ultimately unobservable) world out there; accept the fact that our knowledge is socially produced; but at the same time, agree that we can rationally adjudicate among theories. In other words, international relations scholars must embrace very specifically defined—and very much contested–ontological and epistemological foundations (I should note that I’m losing “paradigm,” rather loosely here, as I agree with Bennett, and with Jackson and Nexon, that the language of paradigms doesn’t fit the state of IR theory). Once we’ve accepted these paradigmatic foundations, we can then all proceed with the business of proposing and testing mechanisms.

And I have three substantive concerns about the paradigm Bennett proposes. The first is a discomfort with Bennett’s contention that scientific realism presents a more reliable path forward than other ontological or epistemological commitments. One key claim of scientific realism, for example, is that the entities described by a theory have ontic status, that is to say, they really exist “out there,” independent of the theory itself. So, to take one significant example, if a theory of international relations says that there are discrete agents and structures, then those agents and structures are real things that exist outside of the theory’s architecture.

But this is not the only way to approach theoretical concepts. To use the agent/structure example, Waltz most famously adopted an analytic epistemological position, where agents and structures—in Theory of International Politics, states and anarchy—were analytic constructs: they did not exist in the “real world” (for Waltz’s clearest statement on this, see his reply to Vasquez in the balance of power debate here; for a longer discussion, see my paper with Dan Nexon here). There are ways in which Waltz’s analyticism was frustrating. Yet one could argue that Waltz’s analyticism did a better job avoiding the reification of agents and structures into separate ontological entities than did Alexander Wendt’s work. Whereas Wendt’s scientific realism pushed scholars towards treating agents and structures as two discrete entities and, I would argue, reified dynamic processes of co-constitution as a result, Waltz made it clear that the separation of agents and structures was

A second concern I have has to do with the status of theory itself in a mechanistic approach. Where is the theory in Bennett’s argument? On the one hand, theory can generate lists of testable mechanisms: democracies cause peace is the starting point for identifying a host of mechanisms connecting regime type to peace. Perhaps more importantly, theory tells scholars when mechanisms are likely to operate. As Bennett argues, invariant causal models are problematic: it is not that one independent variable operates through a single specified mechanisms to produce a defined dependent variable. Rather, it is “combinations of mechanisms” that “interact in specified and often recurrent scope conditions or contexts to produce outcomes.” (p 12) In many ways, then, the most important role of theory is to establish scope conditions: we know that if we are in this theoretical world, then X set of mechanisms is likely to be operating, whereas if we are in this other theoretical world, then we should expect Y mechanisms to operate.

This, for me, begs the question of how interpret our evidence: in particular, in the face of an unexpected outcome, does this mean the mechanism is less powerful than we thought, or did the necessary scope conditions simply not apply? I suppose Bennett would argue that we can test scope conditions, and that this should be a simple matter of finding even more fine-grained evidence, and then engaging in Bayesian updating (PDF / PDF) in light of the results. If this is the case, Bennett has far more faith in Bayesian inference than I (and I think more faith than is warranted). Bayesians accept that we all approach the world with different theories but that, ultimately, we exist in the same world, we all have common knowledge about that world, and thus will interpret evidence in the same way and thus update our knowledge and theories rationally.

I’m a little more skeptical. While I agree that IR theories are not entirely incommensurable, there is an extent to which our ontological and epistemological commitments shape the way in which we interpret evidence. Social events rarely have a single interpretation, and thus all of our data—qualitative and quantitative—will be somewhat contested. This means that our adjudication of theories is more of a limited Bayesian inference: part rational updating, yes, but also part the privileging certain mechanisms over others, for no “scientific” reason other than the current status of an approach. We risk thus consistently turn to a handful of recognized mechanisms—commitment problems, signaling, etc.—not because they are objectively “out there” and our evidence tells us so, but because it is the language du jour of discussing social processes.

My third and final issue is with Bennett’s contention that a mechanistic approach is a better way to teach international relation theory to students than arranging our syllabi around the three “paradigms.” I guess my first question is, teaching international relations theory to whom? I may have a very specific perspective on this, because I teach international relations theory at a liberal arts college. Maybe I could see this approach working at the graduate level, where we are attempting to teach students a discipline, but at the undergraduate level Bennett’s argument just isn’t convincing.

It’s not simply that a mechanistic approach is somehow more complicated, or that I aim to teach my students more theory than “empirical” knowledge. There is a way to use the paradigms to teach IR theory that is less about hammering in the minutia of neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism, than it is about getting students to think about the big questions, not only of international relations theory, but of social theory in general. What is power? How do we think about power in relation to reason, and can the human gift of reason somehow transcend practices of brute power? What of agency and free will? To what extent can human beings alter and transform the world in which they live? These to me are the lifeblood of the paradigmatic debates. Stultifying as these arguments might have become in the field, they can still electrify a classroom of first and second year students.

And I would argue that asking these questions of our students create better policymakers as well. Bennett argues that moving towards mechanisms is a move towards more policy-relevant science. If we work hard enough at uncovering the mechanisms driving the democratic peace, for example, then we can give policymakers the concrete advice that they seek. Yet teaching students the paradigms is not to avoid these empirical questions. It is rather to argue that the most important skill policymakers can have is to critically question themselves and the state of their world, to realize how much their own theoretical commitments can shape their view of the world around them. It is to show how theoretical assumptions have the decisions of key leaders, how they have both enabled great transformations and blinded leaders to pitfalls obvious in retrospect. Paradigmatic thinking, in essence, can be the foundation of serious critical thought.

It has become quite fashionable to bash the paradigms, and as someone who sees herself as outside of the paradigmatic boundaries it is easy to be sympathetic. At the same time, the paradigms have forced IR scholars to be self-conscious in their theoretical commitments. I worry a world without them would make us more exclusive in our approach to the social world, and less critical in our thinking, than we were in the world of paradigmatic faults.