Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Coming Out of the IR Theory Closet

I am a constructivist.  There, I said it.  Ok, not in my work, but in my thinking about the profession.  Huh?

I have always had a bit of an identity crisis as an IR scholar (some would think of me as a comparativist, but that is wrong and beside the point): Liberal IR theory as enunciated by Andrew Moravcsik seemed to fit me best: I focused on patterns of interests.*  But as many critics have suggested, that is pretty damned broad.  At the TRIP workshop last week, I realized something that I always kind of knew: my work fits into the non-paradigmatic box.  Nearly all of my work is focused on understanding particular questions and problems and then figuring how how domestic institutions/dynamics are likely to shape how countries react to such problems.  I take seriously IR theories and try to apply them, but usually always find that the domestic dynamics matter more.  During the presentations, I dug through the TRIP Journal Article dataset and found my stuff coded as non-paradigmatic. 
* To be clear, I am also a Realist in the sense that I think that power often determines outcomes (but not interests).  Ken Waltz did much to shape my view of the world, but structural realism is so indeterminate  there is plenty of room for folks like me to operate.  Indeed, my students, grad and undergrad, have often been confused about where I stand (and that is probably a good thing in my case).

So, how am I a constructivist?  Well, when it comes to the profession, I think that much of what we face is intersubjective--that the realities we face are social ones, that norms, expectations, that which we value are shaped by the social system in which we inhabit and that our actions reproduce and reinforce this social system.  The social system can change as we change what we value and how we act. 

What does this mean?  Well, for instance, when one engages in peer review of a manuscript for a journal or press, it hardly ever comes with any kind of explicit instructions.  The idea is to give one's assessment of the article/book based on one's idea of "good work" and what belongs in the press or journal.  The first part is what you more or less get in grad school.  The second part?  Damned if I know where it comes from.  People (by which I mean me) use different standards for an article submitted to International Organization versus Bob's Journal of IR.  While one may use roughly the same criteria for methodology (or not), one is likely to focus on the contribution, the uniqueness, the heft of a piece for IO than for BJIR (Bob's Journal of IR). 

While we may quibble about which journals/presses are ranked the highest, we largely share an understanding of what "belongs" in each journal.  This guides our submissions--it may not be that APSR rejects heaps of case study work but that people who write cases submit elsewhere due to expectations.  It also guides how we review stuff.

While I spend a heap of time here dismissing rankings, the reality is that our perceptions of what is good (journals, presses, universities, grad programs, whatever) is socially constructed.  We do not really spend heaps of time taking seriously objective metrics (those who complain about citation counts have not spent that much time in hiring and tenure/promotion meetings), but go with our beliefs about the various hierarchies.  What makes Harvard the number one school in the world in various programs?  Mostly our shared perception.  Is it the best place to get a PhD in Poli Sci?  Depends on what best means, as the label really helps people get hired elsewhere, but best set of profs in every subfield of political science?  Probably not.  But as long as many people share this belief, Harvard will have a position in the social structure that gives it more heft, more influence, more resources so that it does have the impact of being number one.  Which then reinforces everyone's views (ok, nearly everyone).

Is anarchy what we make of it, as Wendt claims?  I am not so sure.  Is the IR profession what we make of it?  Absolutely.  I will be revising my TRIP paper as it needs much work (thanks to the comments of peers), but the constructivist view of the profession will remain.


Vladimir said...

My impression is that you're a student of foreign policy which is different than IR. But I guess that's another debate in itself. More to your point there are powerful incentives to go to Harvard. Elite PHD programs from what I've heard provide better funding packages to grad students and certainly perform a more useful signalling function in the labour market. Similarly there are powerful incentives supporting the classic realist view on anarchy.

Simon said...

To some extent, I think this shows the limited value of paradigmatic categories in conveying useful information about your theoretical affiliations.

If all 'realism' has become is 'takes power dynamics seriously as a causal factor', I imagine the overwhelming majority of people in the field would then be realists.

Carr advocated that 'realism' be understood more as a mode of historical interrogation and critique directed at universalist aspirations, but this understanding does not seem popular.

At the same time, if 'constructivism' is simply the view that social reality is at least partially constituted by intersubjective beliefs, or linguistic performances, I doubt that many people would disagree. After all, this position does not require that one theorise all change in terms of norm-change, but simply to recognise that norms are ontologically substantial. If you think money exists, you're a constructivist.

And if we're all realists and all constructivists, then neither term helps place ourselves.