Abridged: toward a modular framework for integrative research in IR theory


International relations (IR) theory as a discipline of study has both suffered from and found communicative grounding in a series of well-connected “Great Debates” between generations of conflicting theoretical schools. Presently, the crux of the fourth Debate can be summed as such: positivism versus interpretivism (sometimes conflated with “post-positivism”). In recent years, there have been a number of calls to reverse the so-called “balkanization” of the field (Colgan, 2016: 7), mostly advocating for a degree of cross-theoretical dialogue, and a pragmatic admission that both schools offer mutually enriching tools for problem solving (Price & Reut-Smit, 1996; Kowert & Shannon, 2002; Fearon & Wendt, 2002; Katzenstein, Keohane, & Krasner, 1998). At the same time, there have been counter-argumentative efforts that reify the divisions between the two predominant philosophies, pointing to certain fundamental rifts in methodology that demand consideration (Moravcsik, 1999; Mearsheimer, 1994). At the forefront of the epistemic divide are a growing school of scholars who are crafting an obscure, though earnest, conciliatory framework for bridging the rival paradigms. Borrowing from recent developments in the philosophy of social science, “critical realists” (or critical naturalists) have provided a possible catch-all epistemology that accommodates for the ontological claims from both sides of the field (Jackson, 2010; Bhaskar, Esbjorn-Hargens, Hartwig, & Hedlund, 2016). I intend to situate this emerging interface within the established canon of IR theory in such a way that it provides space for a possible détente between opposing theoretical factions. To this end, I will illustrate my solution using the concept of modular design.

In plain terms, positivism is a collection of multiple epistemological approaches that share the foundational assumptions in the efficacy of (i) data derived from empirical evidence, and (ii) its interpretation through reason and logic, as the only source of true positive knowledge (Larrain, 1979); albeit, this statement has no intention of ever “being proved” as a truth claim itself (p. 197). And here lies the crux of the debate: positivism, on the whole, relies on a Humean account of causality and a foundational claim of scientific laws as being those extracted from the empirical unification of events. These assumptive premises have been questioned as to whether they are consistent with some general “goal of understanding” (Smith, 2006: 192). Smith (2006) goes on to point out that the antithetical method employed by the interpretivist of rejecting natural or social causality contradicts their inclusion of this world in their research should it maintain any pretenses to science or ‘inquiry’ (p. 192). We can now infer that the ontological status of causality, and thus what can be known about the world in general, presents a rift between the two parties that fundamental obstructs their ability to meaningfully communicate with each other—or, in more temporal terms, there is no mid-level theory on which these epistemologies can interact.

In advancing further with respect to the positivist’s dilemma, it would be a disservice to the debate to not continue expounding its foundational difficulties. At its core, the positivist advances a causal mechanistic framework that rests upon grossly unempirical assumptions regarding “timeless necessary connections” between causal events (that is, the inextricable quality linking ∆X with ∆Y); however, to accept this as true would be to accept that nothing, in empirically verifiable terms, binds X and Y together, and the fact that “all past [X] has been [X and Y together, and the fact that “all past [Xs] have been [Ys] is a matter of cosmic coincidence” (Hildebrand, 2016: 4). This is a cogent description of David Hume’s critique of inductive reasoning which, in broad terms, posits that inductive arguments are concerned with inferential justifications from the premises; however, inductive premises are justified themselves by subjective experiences which themselves have no immediate bearing “on how the inference from that premise to the conclusion is justified” (BonJour, 2010: 53).

At this point, one begins to recognize the depth of the epistemic problem, but perhaps not the application. It would be useful, then, to bring to mind the methodologies of the neo- schools, the constructivists, and the traditionalists—those of the so-called mainstream—and consider the fact that in all cases, despite their ontological or assumptive differences, they share a devotion to empirically derived casual insights of the international world. In a more liberal sense of the term, it can be said that they hold common commitments, of varying degrees, to ‘scientific’ causal insights made possible by the foundational claims of positivism. It would be helpful to evoke the fact that even the methodological outliers of this type—say the work of neo-Marxists— derive: (i) causal claims, (ii) regarding material modes of social organization, (iii) from empirical observations, (iv) presumed as objective to the observer.

Interpretivism, alternatively, as an epistemic tradition in IR, has recently found significance as the basis of the emergent critical and postmodern schools; under the ‘interpretivist’ umbrella, they share an “incredulity toward metanarratives and foundationalist [justifications of knowledge]” (Smith & Owens, 2011: 287). In staunch opposition of positivism, they make no clear distinction between an objective and subjective world independent of interpretation, instead framing their contributions more in terms of “critiques” and commentaries on the prevailing impositions of language, or “discourses”, which reify hierarchies of power that shape the lived-in experience of those affected by international affairs (Mearsheimer, 1994; Smith & Owens, 2011: 295). The interpretivists assert that knowledge-power relations are mutually constituted to create “regimes of truth”, the ‘nature’ of which being subject to the various accounts of those experiencing it relative to their position within the power-hierarchy (Smith & Ownes, 2011: 287). By this scope, any attempt at explaining or inferring a ‘real’ truth, or making a claim to a reality as it ‘really’ is, or even a claim to an objective causal mechanism would be in violation of their epistemic doctrine. The indistinguishability of an assumed real world from the “virtual” world—or discourse-represented world—has been fleshed out in more precise detail in the IR literature in recent years (Der Derian, 2000; Der Derian, 2009; McCarthy, 2015).

In the following section I provide a condensed account as to how we as international relations theorists might be able to reconceptualise the stagnancy of the fourth Debate with the help of critical developments in the philosophy of social science. This may provide a useful starting point for correcting the attendant contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in both the positivist and interpretivist frameworks identified in the literature (Hopf, 2007: 56; Smith, 2006: 192), and move closer toward research integration across epistemologies.

As a wholesale philosophy of social science, critical realism (CR) closely resembles the structuration theories as espoused by Wendt (1987) in its support for a conjoining of agent and structure in creating a “dialectical synthesis” without subordinating one to the other, while further claiming that social structures are fundamentally linked to spatial/temporal structures and thus these contextual elements demand inclusion in social research (p. 356). Put more succinctly, the social and the structural world are seen by CR as inter-dependent, therefore they are both required for explanations of social phenomena by necessity; they ask, consequently, what structural elements must be present in time and space for certain agent-level social events to occur, and how the possible arrangements of these elements are also determined by the behaviors of agents (p. 363). Indeed, it stands to reason that one would have to, at least temporarily, assume as ‘fact’ that the structural-material and the agent-interpretive co-exist such that you can observe the effects that one has on the other.

Irrespective of methodological concerns, CR presents an interesting framework for epistemological discussion. To assert that social structures require repeated conditional actions from the agent, and to further assert that the constitutive agents are “capable of consciously reflecting upon, and changing, the actions that produce them”, is especially provocative (Bird, 2010: 75). If this is assumed to be true then it follows that any observations, in the form of research or otherwise, has the possibility of interfering with the generative mechanisms required for that observation to be considered accurate in the first place. This precludes observers from making absolute claims to causal relationships, but could still allow for speculative yet verifiable knowledge claims for theory-building (Note: is this not the ‘objective’ of knowledge anyway?). This is reiterated by Jackson (2010) as a critique of positivism owing to its interference with falsifiability tests; in other words, it is plausible that other mechanisms will simply counteract or otherwise negate the expression of the assumed causal mechanism. What this brings to bear on the discussion, is that under this theoretical framework there is an implicit “intransitive” quality to the external world which holds that our knowledge of the world constitutes a part of that world, while also holding that the existence of the world does not depend on this knowledge (Smith, 2006: 200). This quality is significant because it entertains the deeply held ontological positions of both the interpretivist and positivist. This sheds light on the promise of the critical realist ontology in potentially providing ground for epistemic revision that is hospitable to both the relativist and scientific realist.

In sum, it is important to note that I am not alleging that CR can assume a foundational justificatory role in grounding our knowledge about international relations. Certainly this would go against the central theoretical dictates of the postmodernist, and as a result spoil any attempt at establishing a framework for conciliation. Instead, what must be drawn from this insight is the potentiality for a general conceptual pathway toward lasting cross-epistemic dialogue. I contend that this ought to be of paramount importance to nonpartisan IR theorists, as intellectual solipsism and epistemological religiosity have accomplished little in the way of theoretical innovation and disciplinary growth. To this end, the most central contribution I hope to bring to bear on the state of the literature is that Checkel’s (2012) call for meta-theory “[to guide] plural and synthetic research efforts”, at least in a propositional sense, has now been raised. With the emergence of future research in this topic there is hope that epistemological divides will be transgressed in the IR theory literature, effectively closing the fourth, and most essential, of the Great Debates in the discipline.




Figure, above. A simple dual-input neural network. This provides a more holistic illustration of the critical-natural solution.  Here, the initial inputs (arrows) represent either of the two “intransitive” dimensions of the critical-natural phenomenology, either corresponding to positivist-oriented or interpretivist-oriented epistemologies (green dots). This graph demonstrates a more abundant state of literature positing mid-level theories, as represented by the web of connecting edges. The theoretical output is represented by the yellow dot after having been subject to analysis from the preceding input layers. The arrow then points outward, indicating its readiness for retesting.

Abridged: toward a modular framework for integrative research in IR theory

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