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date: 19 April 2018

IR As a Social Science/IR As an American Social Science

Summary and Keywords

The nature of the debates surrounding international relations (IR) as a social science have pointed to issues of ontology, epistemology, methodology, philosophy of science, history, and sociology of knowledge, yet they are all crucial in understanding the character of international relations. Such an idea was brought about by Stanley Hoffman’s 1977 article, “An American Social Science: International Relations.” For Hoffmann, IR developed the way it did out of a set of distinctive intellectual predispositions, political circumstances, and institutional opportunities. His insights, however controversial, thus reveal fundamental questions about the work of IR scholars. The key issues here are the definition of IR as a discipline, the definition of IR as a science, and the definition of IR as an American social science in particular. The large variety of inquiries explored in IR, the “kind” of social science IR scholars are engaged in, as well as how “progress” is assessed, all reveal some important nuances in international relations as a discipline. Moreover, the debates surrounding the scientific legitimacy of IR scholarship reveal how IR gained legitimacy as a discipline. The historical development of IR could in fact be described as a series of debates, known among those in the field as the “great debates,” which eventually became the coherent whole understood to be the field of international relations.

Keywords: international relations, social sciences, scientific legitimacy, historical development of IR, Stanley Hoffman, American social science, disciplines, IR scholarship, great debates


With his 1977 seminal article, “An American Social Science: International Relations” (1977), Stanley Hoffman laid out his now (in)famous argument about the distinct American character of the discipline of International Relations (IR). For Hoffmann, IR developed the way it did out of a set of distinctive intellectual predispositions, political circumstances, and institutional opportunities. A profound conviction that all problems can be resolved through the use and application of scientific methods, coupled with the belief that the sophistication of the natural sciences would benefit the social sciences; and the immigration of foreign-born scholars like Hans Morgenthau, Ernst Haas, and Karl Deutsch prior to and during the Second World War: All of this, Hoffman argues, brought distinctive intellectual predispositions that led to the development of the new social science that IR was to become (Hoffman, 1977, pp. 35–47).

America’s rise to power after the war also led to the conviction that “a concern for America’s conduct in the world blended with the study of international relations, for the whole world seems to be the stake of the American Soviet confrontation … To study United States foreign policy was to study the international system. To study the international system could not fail to bring one back to the role of the United States” (Hoffman, 1977, p. 35). This conviction, in turn, favored the development of the scholar-citizen, one that not only seeks to produce knowledge, but also implicitly or explicitly produce knowledge that can be politically useful and reflect the country’s values (Hoffman, 1977, p. 47). As an intellectual and analytical framework, realism thus proved to be the ideal compass for policy makers. Finally, Hoffman insists that three institutional features peculiar to the United States made the development of IR scholarship thriving in ways unthinkable elsewhere: (1) the close links between academics and policy makers, who could easily move in and from academia, think tanks, and policy circles; (2) the funding of policy-relevant academic research sponsored by wealthy foundations; and (3) the mass-education system that allowed for disciplinary specialization (Hoffman, 1977, pp. 49–50). The discipline of IR, Hoffmann contended, was a distinctively American social science, an identity that affected the way research was conducted. So much so that disciplinary reflexivity was called for to lead to prescriptive changes:

Born and raised in America, the discipline of international relations is, so to speak, too close to the fire. It needs triple distance: it should move away from the contemporary, towards the past; from the perspective of a superpower (and a highly conservative one, toward that of the weak and the revolutionary …; from the glide into policy science, back to the steep ascent towards the peaks which the question raised by traditional political philosophy represent.

(Hoffmann, 1977, p. 59)

Hoffman’s insights hinge on fundamental questions about our work as IR scholars. They range from the kind of scientific inquiries IR scholarship represents and/or requires (scientific dimensions), to the aims or IR work (normative dimensions) and the intellectual and social environment IR scholars evolve in (sociological dimensions). Therefore, even if Hoffmann’s own position is still debated today, the scientific, normative, and sociological aspects pertaining to the discipline, as well as their potential impacts on the way we conceive of our work and the world we study, have lost none of their prescience. The extent of possible areas of debates becomes obvious if we ponder on the key words of this review article’s assigned title. Each of them could be bracketed and become the object of a distinct review. Consider the following:

  • What do we mean by IR as a social science? What counts as being part of a discipline we call “International Relations”? What makes a discipline a discipline? Are or should relations between states (“inter-national” relations) be the discipline’s main object of study? Should not we talk about international politics or global politics instead?

  • What do we mean by IR as a social science? Does this entail that the methods used in the natural sciences cannot be used or applicable in the study of politics, a social domain? Through what social practices or processes (attending conferences, publishing in specific journals, teaching core courses) does IR become a discipline or a science in the first place?

  • What do we mean by IR as a social science? Can IR be a science at all? What constitutes “proper” scientific work in IR?

  • What do we mean by IR as an American social science? Can a scientific endeavor have national characteristics? If so, what would they be, and would they be fixed ones? What makes IR “American”: the fact that most IR journals are based in the United States? That several influent IR scholars are trained in American universities? What about IR programs in the world?

The title, along with some of the questions it elicits, points us to issues of ontology, epistemology, methodology, philosophy of science, history, and sociology of knowledge. These are all heavy-packed terms that are often wrongly used, when not used interchangeably, “thrown around like philosophical hand grenades, with little consideration given to how they are deployed, or to what end” (Wight, 2012, p. 32). Though interconnected, they still refer to different aspect of scientific inquiry, and need to be distinguished, if only crudely. As Martin Hollis and Steve Smith summarize, the question of ontology refers to the referent of analysis, whereas “the basic epistemological question is how statements about international relations can be known, or at least rationally believed, to be true or false. How, for example, can claims about real but unobservable systemic pressures be justified?” (Hollis & Smith, 1990, p. 394). Epistemology, “[a]t its most fundamental level … is concerned with what constitutes valid knowledge” (Reus-Smit, 2013, p. 592). Finally, “[t]he basic methodological question is what forms of explanation or understanding are to be attempted and how they are to be achieved” (Hollis & Smith, 1990, p. 394).

Philosophy of science, as applied in IR, is the domain of questions about “what science is and whether IR can or should be a science,” a broad line of inquiry that includes questions and reflections on “the nature of explanations, the nature of causation, the nature of laws, and so on” (Wight, 2012, p. 29). By contrast, Ole Wæver and Arlene B. Tickner suggest that a sociology of science “examines the social mechanisms at play in the social universe of researchers—internally in each community as coordination, control, and contestation, between fields in processes of delineating disciplines and superseding them interdisciplinary, and vis-à-vis the external world of economic and political interests” (2009, p. 11; emphasis in original). (It is worth noting, however, that the distinction between philosophy of science as an essentially apolitical and abstract activity unconcerned with “the social,” and the “sociology of knowledge” is a contested one [see, e.g., Kurki et al., 2009]. On how science should be understood as always being in relation to politics, see, for instance, Shapin & Schaffer, 1989.)

This review article starts with the premise that all these dimensions are crucial and interrelated if we are to understand what “IR as a social science/IR as an American social science” might mean and entail. Doing them justice in all of their nuances is simply impossible here, and this review article can only do violence to their complexity—and perhaps raise outright outrage from those intellectually and emotionally invested in these debates. However, gesturing toward their respective importance and relevance in this review article while highlighting the key questions and debates they raise for “the discipline” enables us to appreciate how far we have come since Hoffmann’s attempt to make sense of what exactly characterized IR as a discipline. Indeed, the last years have been marked by a significant rise of scholarship on the various facets of the study of the discipline. And while some maintain that debates and dissent about the discipline are merely a distraction from empirical research (Keohane, 1988) or can represent a challenge to achieving a true “global” discipline (Biersteker, 1999, p. 3), others see those current debates as a sign of thriving, healthy development (Wæver, 2013).

Accordingly, this review article will be divided in four sections. The first one tackles, if only too briefly, what “kind” of social science IR scholars are engaged in or should be engaging in. What kind of scientific work do we produce, and how do we assess “progress” inside the discipline? Martin Hollis and Steve Smith (1990) famously reworked Max Weber’s division between “explaining” (erklären) and “understanding” (verstehen) to make sense of the different types of inquiries found in IR (see Jackson, 2011; and Wight, 2012, for a contestation of this division), but their account is one among many. An overview of different debates surrounding the scientific legitimacy of IR scholarship will allow us to appreciate how the discipline itself gained legitimacy as a discipline. As a counterpart to these theoretical and philosophical questionings, the second part recasts the discipline’s historical developments, often understood as a succession of debates over time. Here, we turn to historical accounts of the discipline: How did a body of scholarship ever become to morph and change into a coherent whole known as “IR”? Here, familiar narratives of the ways in which “great debates” might have molded the discipline and provided it its coherence, is addressed. Discussion around the issue of “great debates” and how they might make us “forget” or “erase” other central features of the discipline such as its Eurocentric roots to function as a coherent whole will be addressed.

The issue of “great debates” in particular raises a paradox: How can we explain that despite the accumulating scholarship detailing how the so-called first debate actually never took place (Ashworth, 2002; Schmidt, 1998, 2012; Wilson, 1998), it is still taught and depicted as a defining moment of the discipline? The turn to a sociology of the discipline informed by a critical historiography (Quirk & Vigneswaran, 2005), examined in the third section, appears to be particularly helpful to help us understand why, despite historical accounts that prove common assumptions of the discipline wrong (e.g., that idealism was a dominant paradigm during the discipline’s nascent years in the 1920s and 1930s [Osiander, 2001; Schmidt, 2012], or that a new world order was instituted in 1648 with the treaty of Westphalia [Teschke, 2003]), the discipline does not adapt itself to these findings. This underscores how we need to move beyond historical work, and even (meta)theoretical debates, to understand fully what “makes” the discipline. In other words, as Ole Wæver carefully warns, we need to forego a certain naivety when it comes to academic work, and avoid the too common illusion of understanding the evolution of the discipline “as if it were either decided by ‘reality’ or by ‘debate’ about pure ideas … [L]ike any social system [the discipline] is a structured field permeated by relations of power” (Wæver, 2007, p. 289). Finally, in the fourth section, we examine the various responses to the current state of the discipline, as anxieties about lack of interparadigmatic dialogue have lead several authors to propose ways to redefine and unite the discipline beyond interparadigmatic debates.

What Kind of Social Science Are We Talking About? IR, Philosophy of Science, and Meta-Theoretical Concerns Over IR As a Scientific Inquiry

“In the case of IR,” explains Gerard van der Ree, “the status of knowledge is closely affiliated with its ability to present itself as ‘scientific.’ Not surprisingly, the dynamics that govern knowledge representation in the field also revolve around the ‘science question’” (van der Ree, 2013, p. 25). As theorizing is “usually appreciated in the field as a way of overcoming standstills and advancing the discipline,” van der Ree insists, in “IR, then, part of the capital of theorizing has become linked with achieving or facilitating some form of progress in the field, which is often associated with overcoming the ‘problem of plurality’” (van der Ree, 2014, p. 221).

Theoretical pluralism that pits perspectives one against the other certainly stands as a source of either deep anxiety (Keohane, 1988; Lake, 2011) or celebration (Jackson, 2011) in the discipline. This concern over pluralism is not particularly new (see, e.g., Holsti, 1985), and the so-called second debate did initiate discussions about epistemology and the value and relevance of positivism (Curtis & Koivisto, 2010). However, as Hamati-Ataya notes, it is since the emergence of post-positivist critiques in the 1970s that a more sustained critique “has systematically engaged the discipline’s core concerns at the theoretical and epistemic levels, targeting foundational assumptions about truth, objectivity, theory, and science” (Hamati-Ataya, 2012a, p. 626, see also Hamati-Ataya, 2016). Especially since the mid-1980s and the so-called third debate (Onuf, 1989), there has been a surge of scholarship on meta-theoretical aspects of the discipline of IR, ranging from issues of knowledge production (Agnew, 2007) to the limits of identifying IR as a distinct “discipline” (Palan, 2007; Wæver, 2007).

Rather than being engaged in developing new substantive theories about the structure and dynamics of an assumed international system, such work focuses mainly on ontological and epistemological issues within the discipline; and questions what constitutes scientific, important, or legitimate questions for IR scholarship. As Alexander Wendt points out, rather than dismissing meta-theoretical theory (or what he calls “second order theory”) as being of less importance than other specific theoretical inquiries inside a delineated body of scholarship such as realism or constructivism, theoretical and meta-theoretical research should be seen as being deeply connected: “By constituting certain types of questions and answers as important or legitimate (or not), however, second order theory may open up (or close down) avenues for substantive theory and thereby exercise an important regulatory influence on the latter” (Wendt, 1991, p. 383). Meta-theoretical scholarship takes us back to the very foundations of the discipline: What kind of social science exactly is IR? What are the scientific foundations and criteria by which scholarship gets evaluated?

Acknowledging the respective insights and divergences of different modes of scientific inquiries, Hollis and Smith epitomize a common understanding that IR scientific inquiries can fall into two broad categories, each reflecting scholars’ meta-theoretical commitments to either “explaining” or “understanding” international relations. For Hollis and Smith, “explaining” entails adopting a detached and holistic scientific view of the world and assumes that IR is causal and predictable, whereas “understanding” refers to an interpretative mode of inquiry focused on actors and relying on hermeneutics and historical knowledge to propose an insider’s view” of the world (Hollis & Smith, 1990, esp. chs. 3 and 4). The tensions between the two modes of inquiry are made clear in Hollis and Smith’s two-by-two table. Holism and individualism are identified as possible levels of analysis, and explaining and understanding as two distinct modes of inquiry. With this, Hollis and Smith thus touch on the agent-structure and levels of analysis debates that still remain at the core of the discipline (see, e.g., Dessler, 1989; Wendt, 1987; and Wight, 2006), as each mode of inquiry requires a positioning regarding the extent to which actors are constrained by structures. In the end, the two authors emphasize that both “explaining” and “understanding” should be seen as leading to legitimate scholarship in a complementary fashion: If actors are interchangeable in explaining an outcome, then a causal approach may suffice; otherwise, an interpretative approach might be more relevant.

This call for peaceful cohabitation of different modes of inquiry in the discipline might sound reasonable and well, but in reality, pluralism has become a definitive “organising principle that functions to regulate social power dynamics in the field” (Van der Ree, 2014, p. 219). In other words, rather than cohabiting as equals, theories and their scientific legitimacy have become a battlefield for arbitrating doxic antinomies mobilized at various points to organize and evaluate the intellectual production inside IR, such as quantitative-vas-qualitative methods, “science-vs-philosophy, practice-vs-theory, descriptive-vs-normative, facts-vs-values, objectivism-vs-subjectivism, objectivity-vs-ideology, value-freedom-vs-bias and so on” (Hamati-Ataya, 2012a, p. 636).

Hollis and Smith make a good case for the methodological complementarity of traditions of “explaining” an “understanding” in IR, but for many scholars, IR’s major fault lines are not to be found in methodological diversity, but rather in epistemological commitments. The positivism-postpositivism debate (often labeled third debate) represents, for many scholars, one of IR’s major axiological fault lines. Donald Puchala, Yosef Lapid, and Markus Kornprobst (Kornprobst, 2009; Lapid, 1989; Puchala, 2003) all agree that epistemological disagreements represent the deepest trench dividing IR scholars on which research is legitimate and valid inside the discipline. This debate centered around “the question of science and its applicability to the study of world politics” (Vasquez, 1995, p. 218), and Robert Keohane’s seminal and controversial article “International Institutions: Two Approaches” (1988) was among the first ones to explicitly seek and establish grounds to appraise progress in knowledge development in IR based on these new emerging approaches (see also Keohane, 1986).

What Is Your Research Program? Kuhnian Paradigms and Lakatos’s Methodology of Scientific Research Programs

In his seminal 1988 article, Keohane underlines the differences between what he calls rationalist and reflectivist approaches (a typology that did not stand the test of time, as opposed to “positivist” and “post-positivist” approaches) and calls for the need to establish evaluation criteria to appraise the validity of other approaches’ “research program,” a concept borrowed for philosopher of science’s Imre Lakatos (1978). With the label “reflectivist research program,” Keohane grouped together varied work inspired by sociology and dialectical logics, as well as poststructuralist and feminist analyses. “Reflective approaches,” specifies Keohane, “are less well specified as theories: their advocates have been more adept at pointing out what is omitted in rationalistic theory than in developing theories of their own with a prior content. Supporters of this research program need to develop testable theories, and to be explicit about their scope” (Keohane, 1988, p. 393).

A self-described neopositivist, Keohane argues that scientific success in IR “is not the attainment of objective truth, but the attainment of wider agreement on descriptive facts and causal relationships, based on transparent and replicable methods” (Keohane, 1998, p. 195). And though Keohane acknowledges that rationalist approaches should be rightly criticized for their poor use of history and their concern with generalizations drawn from macroeconomics, an “encouraging opening towards a positive assessment of the plurality of theoretical perspectives is quickly closed off by the preference given to a highly specific and philosophically contested account of what a proper research programme should look like” (Walker, 1989, p. 164).

Still, resorting to philosophy of science and neopositivism, warns Ned Lebow, has often been done loosely in IR. He explains:

Political scientists committed to a “scientific” approach to politics turned to neo-positivism and Karl Popper’s emphasis on falsification to legitimize their project. Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba, authors of perhaps the most widely used text in North American graduate scope and methods course, still root their epistemology in the Vienna School, although its enterprise has been discredited by philosophers and disavowed by some of its founders.

(Lebow, 2011, p. 1219)

As Colin Wight summarizes, “If social inquiry is to emulate the natural sciences it needs to examine its methods, procedures and underlying rationale. It needs a yardstick against which claims to be science can be measured. Where better to look than the philosophy of science?” (Wight, 2013, p. 25). In IR, this mobilization of philosophy of science traditionally entailed a turn to the work of Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, and especially a mobilization of the former’s concept of paradigms, and the latter’s Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (MSRP). For Lakatos, such programs “are defined by various elements: a hard core of axiomatic theoretical assumptions, a negative heuristic of unchallengeable and untestable propositions that define scope conditions for the theories, and a positive heuristic comprised of solved and unsolved anomalies” (Harrison, 2003, p. 355).

But whereas in the United States, King, Keohane, and Verba’s Conduct of Social Inquiry (1994) still remains one of the dominant reference volumes for conducting neopositivist research in IR, it has not been free of criticism. Friedrichs and Kratochwil are brutally unequivocal and speak of a disciplinary “organized hypocrisy of positivism” characterized by “its nonapplicability” (2009, p. 71). Not only is it “doubtful that any scholar has ever conduct research the way King, Keohane and Verba describe it,” they hammer on, but “[e]verybody knows, but nobody recognizes openly, that no one actually follows the stylized steps of hypothesis formulating, testing, and so on.” (Friedrichs & Kratochwil, 2009, p. 710). Though themselves keen promoters of Lakatos’s MSRP, Colin and Miriam Elman nonetheless concede that the MSRP has been indeed often used as an organizing device as well as a concrete mean for promoting or de-legitimizing specific contributions to the discipline (Elman & Elman, 2002a, p. 23; see also Berling, 2011, on how scientific arguments are mobilized in securitization processes).

Still, the use of Lakatos’s MSRP introduced by Keohane still remains in the United States one of the most used tools to map out and appraise various theoretical strands inside the discipline. Moving from a disciplinary critique to a theoretical critique, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Deniel Nexon (2009) contest the very idea of applying Lakatos’s idea of “research programme” (1978) or Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm” (1970) to talk about body of scholarships such as “constructivism,” “realism” or “balance-of-power-theory” in IR. Kuhn and Lakatos were embraced by the discipline of IR out of the desire to make the field amenable to the status of “science.” As Jackson and Nexon note, the mobilization of both Lakatos’s “research programme” and Kuhn’s “paradigm” “provide (or provided) accounts of the nature of science and scientific progress compatible with disciplinary practices in international relations and political science scholarship” (Jackson & Nexon, 2009, p. 908). However, they argue that both uses do not work in the discipline because the specific histories of the natural sciences or mathematics that supplied the data for Kuhn and Lakatos are way different from the fields of international relations. There are no background conditions in IR of “widely recognized, scientific achievements of the kind that Kuhn and Lakatos take for granted in their analyses,” and IR is not, as opposed to physics or chemistry, “unquestionably ‘progressive’” (Jackson & Nexon, 2009, p. 908). Finally, Jackson and Nexon point out that a paradigm is formed when specific theories share common content that renders them incommensurable via-à-vis other paradigms. In a Lakatosian perspective, this implies that a “research programme” has content that leads to “local incommensurabilities” with other research programs, thus making testing programs against each other impossible. In that case, choosing the appropriate theory requires an appeal to Lakatos’s MSRP to provide an external criterion of theory choice. Yet, when it comes to IR, since most theories like realism and liberalism are commensurable and comparable, an appeal to this notion is unwarranted.

To be sure though, contestations of neopositivism or of the use of Lakatos’s MSRP does not discredit the relevance of causality altogether in the study of international relations. Kurki and Suganami recently called for a careful reconsideration of causality on the part of non-positivist IR scholars, who might often be too quick to dismiss it: “Causal analysis in world politics, as in the study of society and history more generally, we accept, is not politically neutral, but the political implications of causal explanation are not overwhelmingly dangerous or negative as the critics suggest” (Kurki & Suganami, 2012, p. 401). Through a careful engagement with the respective work of Maja Zehfuss, Jenny Edkins, David Campbell, and Friedrich Kratochwil, Kurki and Suganami argue that what several postspositivist scholars see as the “dangerous politics of causality” can be questioned, namely, a technologization of the social world, a fetishization of specific origins to social phenomena, a refusal of to the contingency of social phenomenon, and a refusal to take moral responsibility for events in social life (Kurki & Suganami, 2012, p. 402). Ultimately, their claim is more an ethical than an epistemological one: Causal inquiry is important and necessary, they claim, not because it is the best or only way to study international relations (Kurki & Suganami, 2012, p. 427), but because as scholars, we have a commitment to reduce harm in the world. “[T]o warn against engaging in causal inquiries because they have pernicious impacts is an instance of reformism: ‘no causal enquiries, a better world’ … Yet, we believe that social scientists’ and historians’ social and historical responsibility lies in contributing to reducing harm in the world … and hence in some form to causal inquiries and debates” (Kurki & Suganami, 2012, p. 427).

From “Great Debates” to Peaceful Cohabitation? The Case for Pluralism

All these debates have led to a renewed interest in the philosophy of science. In The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations (2011), Patrick Thaddeus Jackson locates his intervention as being neither one in philosophy of science, nor in the sociology of science, but as a middle ground between both, one “which emphasises the heterogeneity of ways that philosophers of science have thought about scientific knowledge and its distinctive warrant(s) over time, and draws out their implications for empirical research” (Jackson, 2013, p. 371). Neopositivism, he suggests, is currently dominant in the discipline of IR, and it is characterized by a limited understanding of what constitutes scientific work. It encompasses work that can display causality as “a systematic correlation between factors across cases” (Jackson, 2006, p. 40). Jackson’s point is that, pace King, Keohane, and Verba (1994), neopositivism does not have a stronghold on what defines proper “science.” Rather, he insists that there are at least four different philosophical ontologies about the world, all located at the crossroad of two divides: neopositivism, critical realism, analyticism, and reflexivity. One divide is located around a “mind-world monism” or a “mind-world dualism.” The other one entails subscribing to either phenomenalism or transfactualism. All of them propose a different kind of scientific work, and all of them are valid as scientific work. Jackson’s call is thus one for pluralism, one which could lead to “a more hospitable International Relations” (Jackson, 2013).

The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations represents a significant scientific, political, and sociological intervention in the discipline of IR, especially in the American context. Hidemi Suganami appropriately labels it “a contribution to meta-science concerning world politics” (Suganami, 2013, p. 2). Intellectually, Jackson makes a compelling argument for the relevance of the philosophy of science in the discipline of IR, and for the necessity to adopt pluralism inside the discipline, rather than engaging in discrediting battles where some approaches and theories are tossed aside based on the idea that they might constitute a degenerative research program (as opposed to a progressive one) (Vasquez, 1997) or that they end up “fragmenting epistemology, denying the possibility of social science” (Keohane, 1998, p. 259). Politically and sociologically, it purposefully aims at challenging, if not disrupting, a distinct rise of neopositivism in IR in the United States, which, according to him, hampers our ability to make sense of the world’s complexity and heterogeneity. This rebellion against a specific academic environment that enforces a distinct view of what constitutes proper scientific knowledge about the world is acknowledged by Jackson himself: “I got to graduate school and was handed King, Keohane and Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry as a fixed template for ‘good social-scientific research in the field’, which I responded to by petitioning my department for permission to take a seminar on James Joyce as an epic poet offered in the English Department” (Jackson, 2013, p. 368).

However, the book has been met with some reservations, notably regarding Jackson’s premises for making the case for pluralism in the first place (Chernoff, 2013), his taxonomical categories (Michel, 2013) and classifications (Humphreys, 2013), his distinction between monism and dualism (Wight, 2013), and his unwillingness to examine that though each of the four vantage point can be neutrally assessed in terms of its contribution to the discipline, “the four are actually not equal in terms of the power they exert within the discipline” (Blaney & Tickner, 2013, p. 2). Jackson explains that he deliberately bracketed the ethical and political status of neopositivism “in order to focus on the way that it [neopositivism] warrants claims, and I deliberately bracketed the ethical and political status of the proclamation of scientific status per se in order to focus on opening space within that dominant discourse” (Jackson, 2013, p. 370), but this bracketing, for scholars like Blaney and Tickner, has real consequences in maintaining structures of knowledge legitimacy. Inanna Hamati-Ataya (2014) and Hidemi Suganami (2013), for instance, note how Jackson still resorted to a traditional 2x2 table familiar to political science students to frame his argument, and thus avoided meta-considerations that would end up putting neopositivism not on equal footing with other approaches (Suganami, 2013, p. 264). This false equality is significant, argues Hamati-Ataya, especially when it comes to reflexivity, which can only be limited when it comes to neopositivism. As opposed to strong reflexivity, “neopositivism can neither objectivate itself nor other forms of knowledge; Jackson’s two-dimensional table flattens out the meta-epistemic level that would make this distinction visible and meaningful as a classificatory and political standard” (Hamati-Ataya, 2014, p. 155).

Disciplinary and Historical Developments: Recasting a Social Science Historically

While debates about the scientific quality of knowledge in IR have taken more prominence in the last years, they are not necessarily new. In fact, as far as the traditional narrative of disciplinary development goes, they are often said to be at the very foundation of IR, allowing it to distinguish itself from history in the first place (Elman & Elman, 2002b). The narrative, familiar to IR students, holds that the discipline was founded in 1919 in Aberystwyth, Wales, when the first chair in international relations was created. From there, the story suggests, the discipline unfolded and progressed through a series of debates. Typically, the first debate is said to have taken place between the First and Second World Wars and opposed realism to liberalism (idealism). The second debate occurred after the Second World War and pitted traditionalists against behavioralists regarding the merits of objective data accumulation and historical methods for understanding international politics (Bull, 1969; Kaplan, 1966; Kratochwil, 2006). Some label the exchanges between the tenants of neorealism and neoliberalism as a third debate; but scholars like Wæver forego it, deeming it more a synthesis than a debate (1996, p. 161), and reserve the label third debate to the clash between positivists and post-positivists (or what Robert Keohane labeled “rationalists vs reflectivists” in his 1988 ISA presidential address).

Questioning the Great Debates

But questioning the accuracy of this narrative about the structural and intellectual development of the discipline through great clashes of ideas is important, according to Brian Schmidt, because establishing the parameters of the disciplines also ends up demarcating its legitimate object of inquiry (2013). Still, the image of progressive debates leading to disciplinary progress is so well anchored in the field that Steve Smith does not hesitate to call them the most dominant self-images of the discipline (Smith, 1995). Schmidt has extensively written about how this so-called birth of the discipline through the first debate has become a powerful founding myth that impacted theoretical debates to come (quoted in Smith, 2000, p. 278). This founding myth acts as a starting point to the distinct discipline of IR, which is said to evolve through a series of scientific debates or phases: “idealist, realist, behavioralist, post-behavioralist, pluralist, neorealist, rationalist, post-positivist, and constructivist. The image of the first three phases has been so deeply ingrained in the minds of students and scholars that there almost seems to be no alternative way of understanding the early history of the field” (Schmidt, 2013, p. 3).

But too often, laments Schmidt, the history of the discipline of IR suffers from presentism: “Histories of the field and images of that history, are frequently advanced for the purpose of either illustrating theoretical progress and scientific advance of diagnosing an obstacle that is preventing the field from making historical progress” (Schmidt, 2013, p. 10). The current state of the discipline is taken as an assumed established state of consensus, and from there, scholars embark on a teleological account that supports or discredit a specific claim (Schmidt, 2013, p. 9). But even if one aims to avoid the trap of presentism, one must ponder to what extent the discipline of IR indeed developed as the result of so-called internal paradigms that allowed the discipline to evolve through different states or as the result of external “shocks,” such as the end of the Cold War (Bell, 2001, 2009; Holden, 2002). The external approach usually borrows from the work of Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School, and attempts to locate disciplinary developments in their local historical and linguistic context. The internal approach is in line with Thomas Kuhn’s account of progress in science in general, and realism or idealism is usually heralded as a typical paradigm. But while this account of progress inside the discipline through specific debates corresponding more or less to paradigm wars is accepted by many, it sits uncomfortably with the facts that (1) neither realism or liberalism correspond to paradigms, according to Kuhn’s criteria; and (2) Kuhn himself “argued that his account of the development of science was not applicable to the history of social sciences” (Schmidt, 2013, p. 11).

Eurocentrism, Sexism, and Racism of/in the Discipline

The succession of great debates is not the only founding myths about the discipline that is shaken up by recent historiography. What appraising the evolution of the discipline of IR as the result of unfolding “great debates” make us miss, John Hobson forcefully argues, is the fact that “beneath the sound and fury of these Manichean great debates lies the hum-drum consensus of virtually all parties concerning the politics of defending Western civilization in world politics” (Hobson, 2012, pp. 18–19). Indeed, for all their supposed radical differences, variants of constructivism, realism, and liberalism appear quite unequivocal on this point. Robert Vitalis (2000) and Duncan Bell (2013), for instance, are thus quick to remind us that contemporary IR scholars might have forgotten that the Journal of Race Development was the first American-based academic IR journal established in 1910, before its name was changed to Foreign Affairs in 1922, and that racism has been central to the discipline’s development and unfolding (Vitalis, 2015).

In The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, Hobson meticulously provides and documents a genealogy of Eurocentrism in the discipline to show its evolving shapes and forms, rather than take it as a “cookie-cutter” concept. His analysis, according to Knutsen, leads to a reevaluation of so-called intellectual great ruptures in the discipline, along with a reconsideration of neat distinctions between reactionary and progressive theoretical enterprises (2014, p. 451). Starting with the premise that the promotion of (neo)positivism inside the discipline might mask an unacknowledged Eurocentric metanarrative (Hobson, 2012, p. 17), Hobson enjoins us to question other key myths about the discipline of IR and what makes it a discipline proper, such as the axiom that IR theory is “concerned to understand and theorize the relations between sovereign states in an anarchical world” (Hobson, 2012, p. 17). By contrast, he suggests that the discipline is at its core composed of Eurocentrist and imperialist international theories (see also Hall & Hobson, 2010) that promotes “informal hierarchies and gradated sovereignty,” which “awards ‘hyper sovereignty’ to Western states and either denies sovereignty to Eastern polities … or grant them ‘conditional sovereignty’ whereby sovereignty can be withdrawn if ‘civilized’ conditions are not met” (Hobson, 2012, p. 19).

Indeed, both traditional internal and external approaches to the historical development of the discipline seem decidedly focused on the Western world: The discipline of IR is located in European or North American universities (the United States, Abeerystwyth), debates inside the discipline only seem to occur in relation to Western events and intellectual development (but see Long & Schmidt, 2005; and Vitalis, 2015, for a history of the discipline that addresses the centrality of race and colonialism). The global South appears to be a place where the discipline of IR does not “occur”: It is a “problem” to be resolved by IR theory (Chowdhry & Nair, 2002; Seth, 2011; Tickner & Blaney, 2012). African states, for instance, are nearly always addressed as “problems of good governance” or “problems of state failure” (Jones, 2013). The discipline, Hobson insists, is not so much characterized by a scientific project (“to understand and theorize the relations between sovereign states in an anarchical world” [Hobson, 2012, p. 19]) than by a normative one. It “does not so much explain international politics in an objective, positivist, and universalist manner but seeks, rather, to parochially celebrate and defend or promote the West as the proactive subject of, and as the highest or ideal normative referent in, world politics” (Hobson, 2012, p. 1).

A whole 2013 special issue (Vol. 26, no. 1) of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs devoted to “Space, Race and Imperial Hierarchy in World Politics” reminds IR scholars how colonialism and racism remain “hidden in plain sight” (Henderson, 2013) when it comes to the discipline of IR, and affects theorization enterprises and the way we see the world. Still, in his concluding remarks on the special issue, Robbie Shilliam observes that most of “the critique of this collection of essays is in the first place addressed to the master… . [T]there is a strong, if sometimes implicit, indictment of masters for failing to honour the gift of humanity bestowed upon us” (Shilliam, 2013, p. 156). He gestures that what perhaps needs more development is a new scientific and theoretical agenda for conceiving what the discipline of IR might looks like when “intellectual and political questions … are not obsessed with the master’s humanity but rather are concerned with a redeemed humanity and meaningful personhood forged by sufferers in the very maelstrom of racial rule and racism” (Shilliam, 2013, p. 156).

Such enterprises have started to emerge. They propose original and thought-provoking ways of conceptualizing world politics in ways that confronts issues of race and racism (Shilliam, Anievas, & Manchanda, 2014), but also sexism, while also proposing different intellectual theoretical projects that fall outside established IR theories and concepts. Indeed whereas feminist historiographical accounts of the discipline remain to be developed (but see Tickner & Sjoberg, 2011), feminist IR theories have long documented how dominant IR theories like realism are far from being gender neutral (Tickner, 1997, 1988), how the discipline of IR is blind to the presence and relevance of women (e.g., Peterson, 2004; Zalewski & Parpart, 2008), and how, even by mainstream theories’ own evaluation criteria, gender might be a crucial omitted variable (e.g., Sjoberg, 2013). Arlene B. Tickner and David Blaney’s edited volume Claiming the International (2013) precisely engages geocultural variations in understanding the state and the international that are resolutely anchored in non-Western experiences and intellectual projects. L. H. M. Ling’s work on world orders and the theoretical usefulness of Buddhism or Daoist dialectic to teach us about international relations (2014a, 2014b, 2011), David Blaney and Naaem Inayatullah’s rethinking of liberalism and the “problem of difference” in the discipline (Blaney & Inayatullah, 2012; Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004), and Cynthia Weber’s (2014) and Anna Agathangelou’s (2013) work on the relevance of queer theory for theorizing and making sense of international relations are but a few examples of such attempts to propose a new agenda for scientific inquiry inside the discipline that would forego its gendered and racialized bias that taint its scientific endeavor.

Toward a Sociology of the Discipline

The substantial literature and debates about the historical development and framing of the discipline as a recognizable discipline, as well as debates over its scientific claims to knowledge and the exclusions they entailed, paved the way for a new body of literature focused on the sociological dimensions of IR. To be sure, evaluations of scientific claims, along with the historical development of the discipline, are not uncoupled from sociological processes. In fact even King, Keohane, and Verba acknowledge that the validity of a topic studied hangs on some social recognition:

Though precise rules for choosing a topic do not exist, there are ways—beyond individual preferences—of determining the likely value of a research enterprise to the scholarly community. […] First, a research project should pose a question that is “important” in the real world. […] Second, a research project should make a specific contribution to an identifiable scholarly literature by increasing our collective ability to construct verified scientific explanations of some aspect of the world. […] Whether a research question meets this criterion is essentially a societal judgment.

(Emphasis added. King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994, p. 15)

The question of scientific legitimacy in IR scholarship, for instance, directly affects scholars in their research. The potential costs on research development makes understanding the ins and outs of disciplinary intellectual history and the sociology of the discipline even more noteworthy. As Donald Puchala recalls, debates about theoretical relevance and scientificity in IR are far from being trivial in their consequences: “Scholarly careers have been (and are today being) established, challenged, and in some cases ruined depending upon academic partisanship. Journals have been turned into ramparts, book reviews into cannonades, … tenure and promotion processes into inquisitions, graduate students into foot soldiers or pawns and idealists into cynics” (Puchala, 2003, pp. 216–217). In other words, assessing the discipline of IR through sociological lenses is to acknowledge that “doing science,” with its theoretical, methodological components, is first and foremost “a bundle of practices … Practices are organized social activities; they are materially situated and involve things and their use, bodies, mental states and emotions, and they involve all sorts of practical understandings and rules of thumbs” (Bueger, 2012b, p. 13).

What Does It Mean to Speak of IR As an “American” Social Science?

The sociology of IR has now become a disciplinary niche that attempts to grasp the connections between the way “the international is thought” and the various practices and social structures that make IR the discipline that it is today. These practices range from peer-review processes to evaluate scholarly work to post-conference ISA drinks and meet-ups (Bueger, 2012a, pp. 98–99). Whereas historical accounts of the discipline necessarily entail a questioning of the discipline’s so-called origins and a recasting of its development through a balancing of internal and external factors, sociological accounts of the discipline initially took to Hoffman’s 1977 argument about the innate American nature of the discipline. While not the first to note how IR might be distinctively American (e.g., Neal & Hamlett, 1969; Olson, 1972), Hoffmann’s article was the first to propose a sustained argument about the historical, social, institutional, and intellectual features that that could explain this state of things. Since then, various authors have tried to articulate what exactly constituted “American” IR, and what exactly constituted “American hegemony” in IR (see Hamati-Ataya, 2011).

Peter Marcus Kristensen proposes a thorough review of the various ways in which the discipline has been appraised as being “American,” from bibliometrical analysis to issues of theory, methodology, and meta-theory (see Kristensen, 2013, pp. 1–7). He notes that a first group of scholars (Alker & Biersteker, 1984; Nye & Lynn Jones, 1988; Palmer, 1980) first criticized the fact that IR was not “international enough,” namely, that “the discipline was still studies most exclusively in the United States—with most scholars, courses, journals, departments and associations being American,” thus suggesting “an ethnocentric bias, a bias that inhibited pluralist and neutral analysis” (Kristensen, 2013, p. 3). Yet, for other authors such as Bull (1972), Alker and Biersteker (1984), and Krippendorf (1987), IR as a parochial “American” social science corresponded not so much to the numerical dominance of American authors or American scholarship, but to a “scientist view of the discipline, behavioralist and often quantitative methods, positivist epistemology, and an ahistorical ideal of IR theory as universal and timeless axioms” (Kristensen, 2013, p. 4). Here, a specific style of social science was deemed to be American, with the results of promoting a certain vision of the world. This position is certainly clearly exemplified in Steve Smith’s work (2000, 2002), who, in the wake of September 11, reminds readers of an inextricable link between IR as an American social science and U.S. foreign policy:

I believe that the U.S. discipline of international relations constructs a field of knowledge and the actors within it in such a way as to mask its own involvement in the reinforcement and reconstitution of these practices … By objectifying and reifying some aspects of the social world the discipline engages in politics, never more so than when it rules out of court some approaches and methodologies as not being ‘serious social sciences.’

(Smith, 2002, p. 83)

In a groundbreaking 1998 article that became the anchoring stone of a body of literature dedicated to the sociology of the discipline, Ole Wæver sought to examine closely whether the discipline was indeed still characterized by its Americanness (1998). Comparing the German, French, and British IR communities with the American IR community, he examined institutional developments, major theories used, as well as authorship in four main IR journal, two based in the United States and two in Europe: International Organization (IO), International Studies Quarterly (ISQ), Review of International Studies, and the European Journal of International Relations. For Wæver, the American discipline of IR is structured around “the great debates” narrative: Independently of their historical accurancy, this is what provides the discipline some coherence. An intellectual elite accesses the highly rated journals (such as IO or ISQ) and the content featured there structures the content of the discipline. By contrast, the European communities he surveys do not rely on defining journals, and the discipline did not develop according to norms of professionalization and the influence of behavioralism in line with other subfields in political science as it did in the United States. A turn to sociology, constitutional law, or history was often preferred. Wæver’s conclusion is thus that there is a global discipline of IR, since “most national IR communities follow the American debates, teach American theories, and Americans publish in European journals” (1998, p. 723). He still warns that over time, American parochialism will ensure. There will still be one large self-sufficient American “professional and coherent national market” that can avoid engaging with emerging and coalescing European cores, which will slowly but surely become independent entities of their own (Wæver, 1998, p. 726).

Studying National Communities in International Relations

Wæver’s study was important in that it was the first that attempted to put Hoffmann’s famous thesis to the test by quantifying specific elements of the discipline (namely, journal content and authorship) and analyzing it according to a sociology of science approach. It paved the way to a series of books and articles appraising IR in terms of national communities and comparing them on various grounds, from their respective theoretical commitments to the historical development of their academic structures, and to their access to the American publishing market (e.g., Friedrichs, 2004; Jørgensen & Knudsen, 2006; Tickner & Wæver, 2009; Zhang, 2002). Various analyses of the “published discipline of IR,” whether done through bibliometric analyses or university affiliation of published authors, ensued, showing that scholars based in American universities still dominated top IR journals (e.g., Breuning, Bredehoff, & Walton, 2005). This, coupled with Hoffmann’s initial analysis of the Americanness of the discipline, definitively steered sociological understanding of the discipline of IR toward a specific spatialization, namely, “national communities,” and a specific site where one could “see” the discipline at work, namely, academic journals. The spatialization of the discipline has thus tended to either focus on either national communities that could be surveyed and compared to the “American community” or on the notion of a “core-periphery,” borrowed from Immanuel Wallerstein’s famous world-system theory (Tickner & Wæver, 2009).

The idea of studying and comparing how IR unfolds in different national communities has allowed for the study of pluralism in Europe (Friedrichs, 2004; Jørgensen, 2000; Jørgensen & Knudsen, 2006), Central and Eastern Europe (special 2009 issues of JIRD), Asia (2008 special issue of the journal International Relations of the Asia-Pacific), Africa (Harman & Brown, 2013; Smith, 2009), China (Hückel, 2012; Kristensen & Nielsen, 2013; Qin, 2007, 2009; Song, 2001), and what Arlene B. Rickner and Ole Wæver termed the “periphery” of the American IR (Tickner & Wæver, 2009). Still, the study of various national IR communities has become the hallmark of the College of William and Mary’s TRIP (Teaching, Research and International Policy) survey, which launched in 2004 (Maliniak, Oakes, Peterson, & Tierney, 2011). In 2011, the TRIP survey reached out to IR scholars in 11 national communities and compared data on different issues, ranging from foreign policy to theoretical allegiance, and teaching. The question format allows readers to compare quickly, for instance, the respondents’ approach to the study of IR, and see which theory is being preferred in which community. Answers for this specific question shows, for instance, that realism appears to be the preferred theoretical approach in Turkey and Israel, and constructivism the preferred approach in the United States (Maliniak et al., 2011, p. 27). Hence the TRIP survey allows for a comparative study of the “Americanness of the discipline” based on different issues and variables.

Up to this day, the TRIP survey constitutes the most detailed longitudinal pool of data on the discipline of IR. Still, its main problem is the lack of reliance on a proper methodology congruent with a sociology of knowledge perspective. Therefore, commentators noted how deeply “American” the survey still remained in the very framing of questions and choices of answers offered to non-American communities, making comparisons sometimes difficult. For instance, in some communities, asking whether one categorizes his or her own work in “positivist,” “non-positivist,” or “post-positivist” terms (Maliniak et al., 2011, p. 32) led to confusion as to what distinguished “non-positivist” from “post-positivist.” Similarly, comparing the status of surveyed IR scholars remains hard without insider knowledge, as “Professor” in the French context and “Assistant Professor” in the American one do not entail the same things in terms of symbolic capital and influence in the discipline. Others have noted that establishing what constitutes “American IR” or “British IR” is a tricky question in itself: How would one situate a Turkish IR scholar who completed a PhD in the United States, and ends up a lecturer in the United Kingdom? Different takes on how to evaluate the American parochialism of the discipline were also featured in Crawford and Jarvis’s 2001 International Relations—Still an American Social Science? Toward Diversity in International Thought. In that volume, Tony Porter is quick to point out that studying IR in terms of national communities is “misguided.” The one thing that “Kenneth Waltz, Richard Ashley, Cynthia Enloe, and Craig Murphy” have in common, he notes, is teaching at American universities (Porter, 2001, p. 131). These scholars might hold radically divergent IR theoretical perspectives, but they are nonetheless all part of the same national American IR community. Similarly, Palmer noted as early as 1980 that attempts to label an “American community” appear especially misguided considering the fact that German scholars who migrated to the United States did found the discipline (Palmer, 1980, p. 343).

To overcome these limitations, sociological studies of the discipline have evolved in two directions. The first one aims to refine what we might mean by an “American” discipline of IR and attempts to forego the idea of bounded national communities. The work of Kristensen, who uses different visualization tools to forego the idea of a bounded national community, is exemplary in that regard. Zeroing in on social networks structures of authorship and coauthorship in key IR journals, Kristensen draws a more nuanced stratification of the IR community, even inside the United States. His study shows that while there is a relative decline of U.S. affiliation from authors publishing in IR journals, “the Anglo-World … has grown from 17% to 29% of total IR production” (Kristensen, 2013, p. 13). And even though there are “2,217 universities in the United States,” when it comes to key journals such as International Organization, “a group of seven universities account for around one-fourth of all institutional affiliations (Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford, UCSD, Yale, Berkeley)” (Kristensen, 2013, p. 17). What this suggests is that assessing the discipline in terms of its “Americanness” or its “Europeanness” is not only deeply ethnocentric, but also very analytically limited, as stratification of the discipline at the state or university level appears to matter way more than “national” communities in framing the discipline. Even more, the issue of language and the dominance of English as the language of the international (D’Aoust, 2012), along with access to journals seems to be key determinants to consider.

The second trend consists in engaging in sociologies of the discipline that move beyond studies of journals as a privileged site where the discipline gets to be made. Such scholarship notably examines the ritual uses of specific dates as disciplinary benchmarks (e.g., the 1648 treaty of Westphalia [Buzan & Lawson, 2014, de Carvalho, Leira, & Hobson, 2011]), the development, circulation and use of key concepts such as “failed state” or “soft power” (Bueger & Bethke, 2014; Eriksson & Norman, 2011) or teaching in the classroom (Hagmann & Biersteker, 2014; Parisi et al., 2013). Because only a minority of IR scholars will gain entry into the most prestigious journals of the discipline, Hagmann and Bierstaker note that it is in fact classroom training in IR that is most likely to determine civil servants’, policymakers’, and IR scholars’ perspectives on the world (Hagmann & Biersteker, 2014, p. 292). Ultimately, Hagmann and Biersteker’s account of IR in the classroom is bleak. Not only are local experiences and expertise falling outside Europe or the Unites States appearing to be dismissed in IR classroom teachings across the world (see Ofuho, 2003, 2009, on Africa; and Makdisi, 2009, on the Arab region), but there is a serious gender gap in terms of assigning and citing texts written by women scholars (on this, see Kadera, 2013; and Maliniak, Powers, & Walters, 2013). There also appears to be strong discrepancy between what is taught and what is published in terms of theoretical approaches in Europe, thus adding another layer of complexity to the very idea of “American” or “European” IR: “Not enough rationalist work and also too much reflexive work was published in EJIR [European Journal of International Relations] and RIS [Review of International Studies] to be representative of European IR pedagogy” (Hagmann & Biersteker, 2014, p. 306).

But whereas the literature on the sociology of the discipline has now reached high levels of refinement, an uncomfortable question remains: For what purpose would one engage in this sociological endeavor at all? For some, it might be to subscribe to some form of emancipatory project to challenge hegemonic positions inside the discipline. However, as Macmillan remarks, it is not often clear what the intellectual content of this hegemony actually consists of (2012), whereas hegemonic sites (such as key journals for publications and social recognition inside the discipline) appear more clearly identifiable. Since a sociology of the discipline also considers why certain questions get asked and gain prominence at the times that they do, we should also be curious about why there appears to be a rise of interest in the discipline of IR as an object of inquiry in itself. In that sense, it is interesting to note that more and more PhD students and junior scholars (e.g., Grenier & Hagmann, 2016; Kristensen, 2016) are invested in work pertaining to the sociology of the discipline. A possible answer worth exploring as to why this is so might lie in the current state of precarity that young IR scholars find themselves in when it comes to the job market. It might well be that understanding how the discipline works as a social field provides a sense of control in an otherwise uncertain context, or that direct experiences of marginalization leads one to inquire as to what led to this experience in the first place, but this remains to be examined.

Still, Bueger argues that there is a lack of sociological and scientific reflexivity on the part of those invested in a sociological study of the discipline. This, he insists, needs to be addressed more seriously than simply justified as a parrhesiastic attempt to speak truth to power. For him, it is precisely because there has been an emerging consensus in the discipline between the (need for) relevance between IR literature and policy making that we need to examine much more closely the links between “the intellectual” and “the practical”:

IR scholars have cottoned on to the fact of IR’s capabilities to influence policy formulation through their direct participation in policy formulations, as experts and advisors, through their participation in collectives, and (maybe most importantly) through their representations of the world. This rarely recognized emerging consensus … highlights the importance of a research agenda that sees IR scholarship as a constitutive element of world politics and investigates the particulars of how IR makes the world it studies. That IR does something with the political world, and that we need to understand this performative capacity, hence constitutes the first major reason to engage with sociology of science in IR.

(Bueger, 2012a, pp. 100–101)

Whither the Discipline of IR and IR Theory?

So where do we stand now? Is the discipline still in a state “of crisis”—and, perhaps more importantly, does this “crisis” of unity matter at all? Is it indeed “the end of IR theory”?, as the editors of a special issue of the European Journal of International Relations devoted to the question recently asked (Dunn, Hansen, & Wight, 2013)? As Colin Weight ironically notes, despite all the renewed interest in meta-theory, philosophy, and sociology of science, “contemporary IR seems to have little desire to reflect in a systematic manner on the post-positivist period. Indeed, we now allegedly inhabit a theoretical terrain where “isms ‘are evil’ and ‘analytical eclecticism’ is the order of the day” (Wight, 2013, p. 327). Whereas accounts of the discipline as a succession of great debates or competing paradigms still abound, Dunn, Hansen, and Wight note that the “paradigm wars” is virtually over (2013, p. 406). Similarly, Jackson and Nexon conclude that “location with respect to and IR theoretical paradigm has lost its salience as the central point of scholarly identity” (Jackson & Nexon, 2013, p. 546, emphasis in original). New ways of mapping the field that forego these traditional accounts are needed, as even a mere willingness to dialogue across theories or competing paradigms is now questioned (Hellmann, 2003). Yet, lack of dialogue does not mean that theoretical pluralism is now actively promoted as a value: “Today, the acknowledgement of individual scholarship quality strongly relies on an individual’s visibility in peer-reviewed journals. The stakes for distinctly recognizable profiles are high, to the point where paradigmatic competition has become a dominant career-promotion strategy” (Hagmann & Biersteker, 2014, p. 310).

In a provocative blog entry that led to much discussion, Felix Berenskotter noted that it might well be the end of IR theory—and that this is perfectly fine (2012). Younger scholars, he suggests, do not necessarily recognize themselves in the debates that appear to have molded the discipline, and interdisciplinarity appears to be happily embraced by younger scholars, who are more interested in the object of their inquiry, than anchoring it in a specific subfield. His point implicitly make the case for further investigation regarding the impact that generational divides might have on the discipline and its scientific agenda (Steele & Acuff, 2012). But this attitude toward theory might not be exceptional, but instead representative of a broader trend across social sciences, as scholars develop more and more exchanges and networks with their peers across the world than with colleagues in their own department. This generational gap might also inadvertently be revealed in the 2013 special issue of the European Journal of International Relations on “The End of International Relations Theory?” While the editors and several contributors speak of an end of IR theory first and foremost in terms of the absence interparadigmatic dialogue, Berenskotter notes that the ISA panels on the theme of his original blog, which became the theme of the ISA panel that ultimately inspired the special issue, led to a radically different conclusion: “The EJIR editors saw a ‘retreat from theory’ in IR indicated by missing inter-theoretic debate and lack of theory development. My view was that there is quite a bit of theorizing going on, but that it is either happening in inward-looking cliques, or has difficulties making it onto the ISA program because it does not fit the outlook of existing sections” (Berenskotter, 2013).

This situation has recently been bemoaned by Christine Sylvester (2013), who notes that the discipline, far from constituting a coherent whole where dialogues can take place, can be at best characterized by the metaphor of the camp. It is characterized by working bounded units, functional on their own, each with they own key canonical work and figures, “comfortable in the knowledge that it has a power base in the field, small or large as that might be, and resources available from professional organizations to legitimize and sustain it … As a result, debate, once thought of as a disciplinary sport, is now mostly confined to within-camp issues” (Sylvester, 2013, pp. 614–615). Whereas, for instance, feminists like J. Ann Tickner and Cynthia Weber could argue in the early 1990s with Robert Keohane in the pages of ISQ about the place and relevance of feminist theories in IR (Tickner, 1997; Weber, 1994), now, insists Sylvester, researchers do not even bother. People talk among themselves inside their own communities, foregoing what could perhaps be a fruitful intellectual engagement with people whose work is anchored in different traditions.

The dangers of “camps” and “sects” resulting in lack of dialogue is identified by mainstream (Lake, 2011) and critical scholars (Sylvester, 2013) alike. Not everyone sees this as a problem though. Daniel Nexon points out that a discipline structured as camps “seems to be an improvement over disciplinary hegemony in the way that a world of multiple sovereign states seems to be an improvement over an imperial structure” (2013). Theoretical approaches that were once considered marginal to the discipline (such as feminism and poststructuralism, for instance) have now acquired a broader audience, as well as a “safe space” in venues such at the journals International Political Sociology and International Feminist Journal of Politics, thus ensuring that theoretical engagements do not remain at the level of “understanding each other,” but rather focus on deepening knowledge. This raises a perhaps more disturbing question that merits pause: Setting aside the need to abide by an implicit liberal position in favor of intellectual pluralism, why should we engage in dialogue with those opposing our views? Why would it matter, for instance, that constructivist might not want to dialogue with offensive realists? Or that Marxists might not want to dialogue with Foucauldians? What is intellectually gained or lost in engaging in these practices of dialogue across theoretical boundaries? Assuming that interparadigmatic dialogue is better for “scientific progress” (however one defines it) than internal discussion is a metaphysical assumption which rests on no secure ground (Ringmar, 2014, p. 4). Even more, promoting dialogue often assumes that all participants start on equal footing. This assumption, Kimberly Hutchings observes, is quickly proven one when we observe attempts to include non-Western theoretical perspective and accounts in the discipline (Hutchings, 2011).

Transcending Differences? Analytical Ecclecticism and Practices

In the apparent absence of great debates unifying the discipline and acting as coherent reference points, two paths have emerged to create new unifying grounds for IR. The first one takes the form of eclecticism. Analytic eclecticism was developed in the discipline of IR by Rudy Sil and Peter Katzenstein (2010). Sometimes labeled “eclectic pragmatism” or “problem-driven pragmatism” (but see Cornut, 2014a, pp. 31–77, for a discussion of the important and necessary distinctions between these terms, notably when it comes to epistemology), analytical eclecticism promotes “a complexity-sensitive research agenda that invites scholars to abandon paradigmatism and conduct pluri-theoretical analyses” (Cornut, 2014b, p. 1). In other words, analytic eclecticism rejects the idea of universal foundations to science and willfully rejects the very ideas that some research programs in IR might intrinsically be better than others to lead to “progress” in the discipline. Rather than being compared and evaluated on criteria that could help us establish which account might be the best one to understand a substantive problem, different theoretical approaches are taken into account: “[F]eatures of analyses in theories initially embedded in separate research traditions can be separated from their respective foundations, translated meaningfully, and recombined as part of an original permutation of concepts, methods, analytics, and empirics” (Sil & Katzsenstein, quoted in Cornut, 2014b, p. 3).

What makes analytical eclecticism or pragmatism more generally (e.g., Bauer & Brighi, 2009; Cochran, 2012; Kratochwil, 2007) so appealing now, Christian Reus-Smit suggests, is the fact that it appears to satisfy a common complaint about the lack of policy relevance of the work produced in the discipline (2013), especially work concerned with epistemological and ontological divides in IR, as well as philosophy of science. Such work, especially when it comes to philosophy of science argue Nuno Monteiro and Ken C. Ruby (2009), are not productive because IR scholarship should be judged on substantive rather than philosophical standards (For a reply to this specific claim, see Kurki et al., 2009). In short, “bracketing metatheoretical reflections and debate is necessary if we wish to produce practically relevant knowledge” (Reus-Smit, 2013, p. 591). The problem with this view though, as Reus-Smit argues, is that bracketing meta-theoretical concerns “does not free one’s work of metatheoretical constraints” (2013, p. 605). One can choose to avoid reflecting on one’s theoretical choices, but which theories one decides to use certainly influences what one is looking at in the first place, and even some practical forms of knowledge production might end up being neglected, as what is considered “practical” can have distinct meanings (Reus-Smit, 2012). A bit more concerning, as Jorg Friedrichs and Friedrich Kratochwil point out, is the fact that analytical eclecticism “is based on an elitist division of intellectual labor, exploiting existing research traditions and presupposing that most scholars continue the laborious process of parochial research so that a few cosmopolitan colleagues can draw on their work and construct syncretistic collages” (2009, p. 709). Even more, analytic eclecticism does not do away ontological realism and correspondence theory (2002, p. 709), which assumes that the world can be independently grasped by observers rather than considers how our ways of grasping the world has to do with our implicit available theories and concepts.

Apart from the transcending project of analytical eclecticism to overcome theoretical difference and promote pluralism, a call for an embrace of “practices” as that which might unite us all in IR recently gained some traction. Making “practices” the ontological defining feature of IR, Emmanuel Adler and Pouliot contend, “helps broaden the ontology of world politics, serves as a focal point around which debates in IR theory can be structured, and can be used as a unit of analysis that transcends traditional understandings of ‘levels of analysis’” (Adler & Pouliot, 2011a, p. 1). Rather than approach the world through specific theoretical lenses, they call for students and scholars of IR to “approach world politics through the lenses of its manifold practices” (Adler & Pouliot, 2011a, p. 1). Zeroing in on specific practices such as diplomacy or cooperation, for instance, allows one to focus indeed on definite objects and engage in dialogue with other scholars, independently of their theoretical preferences: Practice is “the ontological core concept that amalgamates the constitutive parts of international life” and allows for real interparadigmatic dialogue (Adler & Pouliot, 2011b, p. 10). This position is certainly appealing, as it appears to focus on the minimum level of agreement possible among scholars as the possible bridge for dialogue. Erik Ringmar strongly objects to this view, and insists that this bridging approach to IR still rests on three debatable premises: that all scholars agree with their definition of practices, that practices can overcome some on the ontological gaps they identified in the discipline, and finally, “that it is through theoretical bridge-building of this kind that science makes progress” (Ringmar, 2014, p. 4). Why taking practices as the key ontological concept of the discipline, he asks? Why not power, identity, or even globalization (Ringmar, 2014, p. 3), for that matter? Still, in the end, he concludes that “There can be no inter-paradigmatic practices, no grand syntheses and no new start for the academic study of international relations” (Ringmar, 2014, p. 23).

It is perhaps easy to discard conversations about the discipline and its meta-theoretical features as displays of self-indulgence or pointless meta-theoretical navel-gazing that keep us away from one of the many problems that need to be tackled in our contemporary world. Yet, what kind of problems we address (or not) in the discipline, and how we decide to study and address is inseparable from our own sense of purpose and self when it comes to scholarship: Why do we do it? How do we do it or should we do it? How can we evaluate whether we are doing “it” right? These questions matter to us, but also to those outside the discipline questioning “our” relevance, as all debates about the significant gap between academic IR and policy makers like to remind us (e.g., de Felice & Obino, 2012; Walt, 2012; Weiss & Kittikhoum, 2011). In a context where editorialists like Nicholas Kristof, from the New York Times question the relevance and broader impact of political science scholarship (Kristof, 2014), where the American National Science Foundation (NSF) has eliminated its fall 2013 grant call for political science (Mole, 2013), and where the American Congress has passed a bill that explicitly prevents “wasting federal resources on political science projects, unless the NSF Director certifies projects are vital to national security or the economic interests of the country” (Coburn Amendment 65 as Amended), these questions are far from being trivial for all those evolving in the IR community: They have acquired immediate saliency and urgency.


E-IR is “the world’s leading website for students and scholars of international politics.” The website features entry definitions for key concepts in the discipline but also articles, students’ essays, books reviews, and interviews. Short essays on key issues and debates in the discipline of IR provide students with a useful start on specific questions, such as the question of “great debates” inside the discipline or the relevance of philosophy of science to the study of the discipline.

International Studies Quarterly’s Blog: Symposium on “Third Debate,” 25 Years Later

International Studies Quarterly (ISQ) is one of IR’s top journals. Since 2013, it features a blog devoted to contemporary events, but also specific debates and practices inside the discipline. In March 2014, the journal published a symposium supplement online devoted to the “Third Debate” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Yosef Lapid’s 1989 ISQ piece, “The Third Debate: On the Prospects of International Theory in a Post-Positivist Era.” The online symposium is a useful online resource to complement the European Journal of International Relations’ 2013 special issue on “The End of IR Theory?”

Duck of Minerva

The Duck of Minerva is a group blog founded in 2005 and “focusing on world politics from an academic perspective.” Most, but not all, contributors are established scholars based in American universities, and are involved in debates about the discipline. The blog notably features working papers and symposia, and several blog entries have addressed the state of the discipline and the “end of IR theory.”

The Disorder of Things

The Disorder of Things is a group blog “devoted to the critical inquiry of global politics, but with a Decided Preference for the exploration of the Normative, the Philosophical and the Polemical.” Most, but not all, contributors are younger scholars based in universities outside the United States. The blog features entries on different academic takes on current events, but also on the discipline: its workings, challenges, etc.

Political Science Rumors

By no means an academic reference, this website has nonetheless become a key source for PhD students in the American IR job market to find information on prospective jobs, and ventilate on different issues pertaining to the discipline. Taking the trolling aside, the website can be considered a potential valuable source for scholars interested in the sociology of the discipline in the United States: people posting there are already part of the discipline or aspiring to be, and they openly debate about what scholars should do or not do to gain entry in the discipline and progress throughout their career. Debates on which scholarship is deemed serious/legitimate or not, as well as overt attempts at ridiculing or discrediting specific people or scholarship also provide some insights about the structure of power relations that characterize the discipline in the American context, as seen from the perspective of mostly junior scholars.


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