Theory is Dead, Long Live Theory: The End of the Great Debates and the Rise of Eclecticism in International Relations

13 September 2013, 0915 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a  guest post by David A. LakeIt is the 15th 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 Lake’s article (PDF). A response, authored by Phil Arena, will appear at 10am Eastern.

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

The field of International Relations (IR)  has a long tradition of Great Debates, but both grand theory and clashes between competing grand theories now appear to be on the wane. Many International Relationists bemoan the dominance of “normal science,” a phrase almost always uttered in a derogatory manner. Yet, if grand theory was king, it was an evil tyrant. The paradigm wars between contending grant theories then perverted the discipline and turned inquiry into contests of quasi-religious belief in the power of one or another “ism.” I, for one, do not mourn the tyrant’s passing.

Flourishing in the interstices of the paradigm wars, however, has always been a rich ecosystem of other theories, often competing, that never rose to the level of Great Debates but nonetheless produced significant progress over time in improving our understanding of IR. Mid-level theory today, exemplified by democratic peace theory and open economy politics, forms the basis for a more progressive and eclectic approach to IR. Mid-level theory is less exciting than the Great Debates. Precisely because it focuses on what “works,” mid-level theory, does not inflame the passions like allegiance to this or that paradigm. Yet, mid-level theory can form the basis for a progressive discipline of IR that the paradigms have never provided. This contender for the crown deserves support.

There is, however, a real and emerging divide in the field of IR between “positivists” and “post-positivists” that we would best avoid. The great irony of Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory of scientific revolutions is that scholars choose between paradigms before their promise is completely demonstrated. In his case, he looked to the scientific community as a whole to understand the shift as a sociological phenomenon. Such community ties likely play a role in determining one’s positivist or post-positivist inclinations today in IR: where one was educated, and with whom, appears to have a massively conditioning effect, even recognizing that an element of self-selection goes on in choosing a graduate program. Yet, given two competing paradigms in the field today, the choice also remains a highly subjective and personal assessment based on what appeals to each individual as a satisfying explanation of any given phenomenon. This is, perhaps, as it should be. My own sensibilities may already be known (or more likely assumed), but in the spirit of full disclosure they lean in the positivist (and eclectic) direction. But I recognize that this is a subjective judgment. That my sensibilities lean in one direction does not mean that I cannot respect the subjective assessments of others with different intellectual beliefs who make alternative intellectual “bets.” Rather than another inconclusive Great Debate, there is room, I believe, for both approaches and, I hope, a little friendly competition.

In the last two decades, there has been significant progress in elaborating a positivist methodology of causal inference. Some positivists have turned new attention to old problems of the scientific method, employing laboratory and field experiments in new settings, elaborating new quasi-experimental designs, and working on new ways of solving the endogenity or “identification” problem through selection and instrumental variables models or matching designs. Other positivists have developed a distinct qualitative methodology focusing on causal mechanisms, process-tracing, counterfactual analysis, and other innovative methods. Although seemingly two distinct cultures, in larger perspective quantitative and qualitative research, at least as understood in this literature, are two variants of the same positivist approach. There is now substantial agreement on the basic methodology of and standards for positivist social scientific research.

Like positivists, post-positivists have also made substantial progress recently in developing appropriate research methodologies and standards. Interpretivists pose an over-arching research method based on the “Chicago school” of anthropological and sociological field work developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Critical theorists have wrestled with the question of standards when research is inherently subjective, drawing insights from humanist scholars and post-modernists. Recognizing that self-identified members of their school work on both sides of the positivist and post-positivist divide, even constructivists have posed a unifying methodology of inquiry.

The attention to methods and standards by post-positivists in recent years lays the foundation for important research progress as it is defined by each approach, whether this be improved understanding, the revelation of forms of hidden social power, or ethical change. Despite the progress in each paradigm, I admit to a deep ambivalence about the existence of this divide.

On the one hand, I sympathize with Benjamin Cohen and others who have argued eloquently on the need to bridge and, ideally, close the positivist/post-positivist divide. I too am loathe to see IR split into two separate disciplines sharing the same subject matter and intellectual history but divided by epistemology and ontology. Were this to happen, both sides would inevitably “forget” some of what we think we know about world politics, and both would be intellectually poorer for it. On the other hand, any attempt to bridge the divide will either produce a pabulum of inconsistent approaches or profound frustration from dealing with incommensurable facts and “explanations.”

More important, as Kuhn first argued, progress is only possible within paradigms. Open economy politics and democratic peace theory have made progress only through sets of shared assumptions and common epistemologies and ontologies that allowed theory to be extended to new topics, additional hypotheses to be deduced, and propositions confronted with evidence according to agreed upon standards. Were researchers forced to defend their methodological, epistemological, and ontological assumptions at every turn, progress would have been severely hampered. As these research programs have developed, they have been increasingly challenged by accumulated anomalies, as expected, and will either be revised or superseded by some future theory. Similar progress is apparent in the feminist security studies program. This too would have been even more difficult if researchers were forced to debate first principles at every turn. Within both positivist and post-positivist approaches, progress occurs within paradigms according to their own criteria for evaluating progress. This suggests letting each paradigm develop on its own in its own fashion.

In the end, I prefer progress within paradigms rather than war between paradigms, especially as the latter would be inconclusive. The human condition is precarious. This is still the age of thermonuclear weapons. Globalization continues to disrupt lives. Transnational terrorism threatens to turn otherwise local disputes into global conflicts. And all the while, anthropomorphic change transforms the global climate. Under these circumstances, we as a society need all the help we can get. There is no monopoly on knowledge. And there is no guarantee that any one kind of knowledge generated and understood within any one epistemology or ontology is always and everywhere more useful than another. To assert otherwise is an act of supreme intellectual hubris.

Do not mourn the end of theory, if by theory we mean the Great Debates in IR. Too often the paradigm wars became contests over the truth status of assumptions. Likewise, assertions that positivism or post-positivism is a “better” approach to understanding world politics are similarly blinding. The Great Debates were too often academic in the worst sense of that term. Mid-level theory flourished in the interstices of these debates for decades and now, with the waning of the paradigm wars, is coming into its own within the field. I regard this as an entirely positive development. We may be witnessing the demise of a particular kind of grand theory, but theory – in the plural — lives. Long may they reign.