Tag: causality

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

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.


Symposium — The Mother of All Isms: Curmudgeon Edition

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Andrew BennettIt is the fifth 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 Bennett’s article (PDF). A response, authored by Stacie E. Goddard, will appear at 10am Eastern.

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

As the internet lends itself to a rather different tone from that of referred journals, I adopt the pose of a curmudgeon. I want to pick a few fights, starting with epistemology and then moving through methodology to pedagogy.

In the tradition of schismatics, I argue most fiercely in my EJIR article against those with whom I agree on many things, but with whom I differ in subtle but important ways on the future of IR theory. First, regarding inter-paradigm debates in IR, I agree fully with the critiques Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Dan Nexon, and David Lake make in the special issue regarding the need to move beyond paradigmatic “isms” (realism, neoliberal institutionalism, constructivism, feminism, etc.) as the focus of IR theory. Yet I disagree with Jackson’s and Nexon’s assertion that researchers using statistical methods necessarily adopt Humean notions of causation, and I argue that statistical analysis and many other methods have roles to play in developing and testing IR theories. Contra Lake, I argue that there are better ways to structure the study of IR than his proposed framework of interests, interactions, and institutions, which gives insufficient to the social mechanisms that constructivists and interpretivists emphasize.

Second, I concur with key post-positivist arguments: observation is theory laden, knowledge claims are always part of mechanisms of power, meaning is always social, and agents and social structures are mutually constitutive. Yet I argue that IR should continue to aspire to predictive theories, that there are defensible standards for judging some explanations and interpretations to be better than others, and that theories about causal mechanisms are compatible with many interpretivist approaches to IR. In my reading of their essays, none of the interpretivist-minded scholars writing in the special issue explicitly object to my positions on these issues, but other IR scholars do reject claims like the ones I make.

Third, I argue that statistical, formal, experimental, qualitative case study, narrative, and many other methods are useful in developing and testing theories about causal mechanisms. Yet (spoiler alert) I reject the view that there is one logic of inference in IR and that this logic is “explicated and formalized clearly in discussions of quantitative research methods.” Continue reading


You Lost Me in the Second Paragraph

Literally (Abstract):

We define a causal mechanism as a process in which a causal variable of interest, i.e., a treatment variable, influences an outcome. The identification of a causal mechanism requires the specification of an intermediate variable or a mediator that lies on the causal pathway between the treatment and outcome variables. Although qualitative studies often employ the method of process tracing, quantitative investigation of causal mechanisms is based on the estimation of causal mediation effects. Indeed, the traditional approach to causal mediation analysis has been to use structural equation models (e.g., MacKinnon 2008; Shadish, Cook, and Campbell 2001), a practice which goes back decades (Haavelmo 1943).


Taking David Cameron to School……(Literally. This guy is stupid.)

I get most of my European news from the Financial Times, which I admit does make for a somewhat skewed perspective on British politics. You all do still wear top hats and monocles, right? But apparently Britain’s Prime Minister is promoting, earlier than expected in the wake of the London riots, a tax credit for married or co-habiting couples with the belief that a two-parent family makes for a more stable home and fewer young thugs (or righteous freedom fighters railing against the system, either way) looting cell phone stores in the future. Politicians are so stupid.

Let’s take it for granted that the cause of looting lies in the failures of parents rather than of the social environment in which the poor grow up in. I actually do believe that a loving, two parent family is the best way to raise kids, even as it is by no means the only factor. But David Cameron needs a basic lesson in positivistic research design and causality. (Don’t do it, Patrick T. Jackson! Do not pull your hair out every time I use that word inappropriately in a way inconsistent with how science actually operates! It is not worth it! You have lovely hair!)

The causal logic behind this scheme is that two parents simply sleeping under the same roof leads to better-raised kids. If we simply create incentives for the father to stay in the house, surely good parenting will result. Obviously this is silly. It is the quality of parenting that matters. Having two good parents is better than one good parent. But having one good parent is better than two bad parents who hate each other, or two parents who don’t like one another or one good parent and one bad parent.

Generally when single mothers are raising children it is because the guy is kind of a d!&k to begin with. That’s why he left. Or if not, the mom and dad are ill-suited to one another — they fight like cats and dogs. In other words the fact of the single family is endogenous to the crappy relationship, rather than the exogenous cause of the f*&cked-up kid. The Tories are getting the causal relationship wrong. We see this all the time.

So how is providing a financial incentive to keep them in a loveless relationship or keep a deadbeat around going to make for better adjusted kids? Well, it isn’t, David. The key to better kids is better parents, which means some kind of social engineering at a young age to help them learn, ideally before puberty, to resolve conflicts peacefully, not act like they are the center of the universe, etc. Not to change sleeping arrangements.

Also, are the type of people who shack up purely to get a tax write-off the kind of people we want having babies? This is a strange marriage of Reaganite/Thatcherite incentive economics and social conservatism. Those should be separated. Good parents need good values, not more money. Good luck!

How do we do that? I have no idea, but my guess would be education. Yes, that very education budget that is being slashed in the UK right now by the Tories. (That is true, right? Again, I just read the Financial Times, so I only know the market for yachts is stronger than ever. I’m serious– that was an actual article).


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