A Quarter-Baked Note on Grand Theory in IR

by on 2013-01-31 in Duck- 8 Comments

Political scientists often say that ‘no one reads books anymore.’ I’d add that ‘almost no one reads book reviews.’

This is a shame. Although most book reviews are paint-by-numbers affairs, some smuggle in provocative claims or important statements about aspects of the field.* For example, in his Perspectives on Politics review of Miles Kahler, ed. Networked Politics: Agency, Power, and Governance, Zeev Maoz nails an important problem with one branch of work on social networks in international relations:

most network analysts would view the “networks as structures” versus “networks as actors” dichotomy as fundamentally flawed. The various chapters actually demonstrate this point. Even those authors who study networks as actors focus on the structure of the network and its effects on outcomes. Network analysis is capable not only of distinguishing between hierarchies and decentralized forms of connectivity but also of measuring them in quite precise ways.

On the provocative side, there’s Cameron Thies’ review (in the same issue) of two books, Christopher J. Fettweis’s Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace and Gilulio M. Gallarotti’s Cosmopolitan Power in International Relations: A Synthesis of Realism, Neoliberalism, and Constructivism. Here’s the key quotation:

These two books illustrate some of the best and least desirable qualities in contemporary scholarship. The best qualities include the attempts to provide strong theoretical foundations for the conceptual arguments made by each author, as well as the empirical applications and recommendations for grand strategy and foreign policy. The least desirable quality is the continued devotion to the “isms”—a point reiterated by David Lake in his recent International Studies Association presidential address. The obsolescence-of-major-war and cosmopolitan power concepts do not need a reconstructed foundation in a grand theoretical tradition when they can stand on their own with middle-range theoretical constructs.

Despite not having appeared in print — or even taken final form — EJIR‘s “End of IR Theory” symposium has produced a fair amount of ink in the IR blogsphere surrounding variations of this issue. Setting aside a good deal of noise, one of the core issues is this: what is the status of “middle-range theory” in the absence of “grand theory”? An oft-repeated quip, more or less, notes that “in the absence of theory, there are no puzzles.” Thies provides an (apparent) set of common-sense counterexamples. But these sorts of issues are, in another sense, only worthy of explanation because something suggests that they are puzzling. That thing, the full line of argument goes, is grand theory. The fact that the grand theory may be latent, unarticulated, or embedded in a discipline doesn’t change what it is; in fact, latent and unarticulated grand theory may be dangerous if we don’t drag it into the light and scrutinize it.

Whether or not this is true, in practice there are a number of ways we establish the importance of a particular piece of middle-range theory. First, as alluded to above, we explicitly relate it to grand theory. Second, we take our cues from “policy problems,” such as the impact of specific counter-insurgency strategies, the effectiveness of structural adjustment, and so forth. Third, we invoke claims in canonical texts (grand-theoretic or otherwise) — and, in so doing, help constitute “the canon.” Fourth, we critique, modify, or extend recent middle-range theories.

It seems to me that these strategies create various degrees of separation from grand theory, but none really avoid it.

If that’s right, then a way of inflecting Thies’ objection is that (1) grand-theory need not always be the explicit target of all scholarship and/or (2) there are specific problems with the current -isms that render them not worth our attention. I agree with both propositions. I also remain unconvinced that, at some fundamental level, we can dispense with “grand theory” altogether. At the same time, I also wonder if the current “war on paradigms” doesn’t reflect deeper sociological currents in the field — ones that trace back to the 1960s and 1970s — that we still labor under and that deserve more attention.

Regardless, I remain stuck on the basic dilemma that (1) there are no puzzles absent theory, (2) middle-range theories are never independent of grand theory, and (3) it distorts and contorts both middle-range theories and descriptive work to force it to engage with grand-theoretic traditions. Perhaps Felix Berenskoetter’s bottom-line is the best way to go: the discipline is big enough to handle multiple levels and kinds of inquiry.




*I have an inkling that there’s something linking together good book reviews and a certain species of academic blog posts, but I won’t pursue this line of thought right now.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.levine.39 Daniel Levine

    Well, I agree — mostly. If grand theory is embedded in all ostensibly middle ange theory, the question becomes how thinking works and what ethical practices meet what that account of thinking necessitates. I, for one, have offered a pretty detailed (or at at least long) account of such an ethics. So have some oter smart and good folk. I’d be suspicious of the “our discipline’s diversity can sort this out” arguments, in that vein. We need an active commitment to it. Are we intellectually mature enough to have a discipline without clear hegemonies? I hope so; but we start by affirming the obligation to try, and considering what follows from that affirmation.

  • http://duckofminerva.org/ Dan Nexon

    We definitely need more Otter theorists.

  • AHM

    Kahler is making an important distinction here that Maoz is muddying: there are multiple definitions and conceptualizations of networks. People who study networked forms of organization look at structure, and people who look at network structures look at organizations. Of course. But they are two separate research traditions in sociology that have gotten entangled (and not in a useful way) while being imported to political science (actually, they’re entangled in sociology, which I blame Woody Powell for), and it’s important to remember just what a given author is talking about; Kahler is just providing some shorthand.

    This links to the broader point here: you don’t always need to refer to paradigms, and sometimes you shouldn’t. But if you don’t have some kind of common set of terms to refer to things, then you mostly end up with conceptual confusion and people talking past each other. One of the great benefits of remaining cognizant of or actively using paradigms/grand theory is that they provides shortcuts and simplifying assumptions within which mid-range theories can operate. That doesn’t mean that a given mid-range theory can’t be compatible with a number of different grand theories or has to be fit into one, but without paradigms you just end up pretending your simplifying assumptions are real rather than made up and ignore wider possibilities for work.

  • http://duckofminerva.org/ Dan Nexon

    Fair enough. As you know, I’m a bit biased from having banged my head against this conflation for much of the early 2000s.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.levine.39 Daniel Levine

    Yeah, iPad typing…an obscure, difficult art. I remain a padwan.

  • Grand Theorist

    Yes, there are problems with the current -isms. Yes, some kind of “grand
    theory” or general theory is probably needed.
    So, some new general theories are needed. But where are the candidates? Perhaps Darwinism? It is a “general theory” but it also made up of lots of well-established particular theories.

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  • Matt B.

    Maoz is defending his territory, just as sociologists are circling the wagons on theirs. Perhaps this calls for a social network analysis of network analysts.