Saturday, December 19, 2009

International Relations and American political science: revisiting some disciplinary history

The disciplinary history of International Relations (IR) has been a scholarly growth industry in recent years. Articles and books have re-evaluated major writers and traditions and questioned the once-standard presentation of the field’s evolution as a series of stylized "great debates."

One result of this work is that more attention is being paid to the history of IR’s connection with political science. At least in the U.S. and in much of Europe, IR has ended up, for the most part, as a subfield of political science. To be sure, there are many scholars and analysts who "do" IR and are not political scientists, and there are many programs in international studies whose faculty and courses are drawn from a range of fields, but it remains the case that the majority of those studying IR in the academy are political scientists. However, the relationship between IR and political science, particularly American political science, has hardly been an uncomplicated romance.

"The growth of the discipline [of International Relations] cannot be separated from the American role in world affairs after 1945," Stanley Hoffmann observed in his 1977 essay "An American Social Science: International Relations."* He pointed to “a remarkable chronological convergence” between U.S. policy-makers’ concerns and scholars’ output:
"What [American] leaders looked for, once the cold war started, was some intellectual compass which would serve multiple functions: exorcise isolationism, and justify a permanent and global involvement in world affairs; rationalize the accumulation of power, the techniques of intervention, and the methods of containment apparently required by the cold war;...and reassure a nation eager for ultimate accommodation, about the possibility of both avoiding war and achieving its ideals."
Such an "intellectual compass" was exactly what many IR scholars furnished. And yet, Hoffmann went on to observe, a peculiarly American "quest for certainty" tried to purge from the discipline the inexactness that inheres in its subject matter, producing a drive for precision "that turns out false or misleading."**

This complaint echoed debates of two decades earlier, debates which are the subject of an article published last year. In "The Realist Gambit: Postwar American Political Science and the Birth of IR Theory," International Political Sociology 2:4 (December 2008): 281-304, Nicolas Guilhot looks at the period in the late 1940s and 1950s when behavioralism, with its positivist-empiricist and ahistorical style of inquiry, was becoming the dominant force in American political science. Guilhot describes a contrary tendency, a move to (in the words of the article’s abstract) "insulate the study of international politics from the behavioral revolution that was transforming the practice of political science in postwar America."

Two of the key figures in this countermovement were Hans Morgenthau and his former student Kenneth Thompson, who was at the Rockefeller Foundation from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s (and who later became director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia). Trained in international law (as were a number of other émigré IR scholars of the same generation, e.g. Arnold Wolfers and John Herz), Morgenthau was, as Hoffmann puts it, "steeped in a scholarly tradition that stressed the difference between social sciences and natural sciences." As an heir to that tradition and author of a book called Scientific Man versus Power Politics, Morgenthau was, not surprisingly, averse to behaviorialism, a type of social science that, to quote Hoffmann again, "suffered from ‘hyperfactualism’ and conformity."*** Nonetheless, as Guilhot points out, Morgenthau spoke of the importance of "general laws," which Guilhot interprets as mainly a strategic move on Morgenthau's part to gain a hearing and as "a tactical weapon against liberal historians and legal scholars" (p.296). (Other interpretations are possible: there are more sides to Morgenthau than this article suggests.)

In the often told and sometimes oversimplified story of IR’s so-called "first debate," Morgenthau and his fellow realists took on the illusions supposedly fostered by the liberal internationalists of the interwar period (Alfred Zimmern, James Shotwell, Nicholas Murray Butler, et al.).**** However, as Guilhot writes (p.296), Morgenthau, Thompson, and their allies believed that "the critique of interwar liberal internationalism…could not be complete without a simultaneous critique of the behavioral sciences, which were seen as responsible for the further depoliticization of social [science] and IR typical of liberalism." This stance led to an effort to set IR apart, to distinguish it from the direction in which "mainstream political science" was traveling in the postwar period. (p.283) At a paper prepared for a May 1954 conference, Morgenthau insisted – in words Guilhot italicizes – that: " 'A theory of international relations, to be theoretically valid, must build into its theoretical structure, as it were, those very qualifications which limit its theoretical validity and practical usefulness.' " (p.297) These "qualifications" amounted to the view that, as Morgenthau put it, "in reality you can only rely on a series of informed hunches." (quoted, p.297)

Guilhot’s article, based partly on research in the Rockefeller Foundation archives and also on a reading of academic publications from the period, throws light on the intellectual quarrels of the era. He sets the IR debates of the 1940s and 1950s in a wider context, emphasizing that they were "part of a discipline-wide conversation involving all the branches of political science" that centered on "the legitimacy of political science as a scientific project" (p.285) in the wake of the upheavals and catastrophes of the 1930s and 1940s which social science had done little or nothing to help avert. He also notes a kind of dilemma of certain postwar realists, who were caught between their need to distinguish themselves from so-called idealists, sometimes by using the language of "science," and their simultaneous desire to "protect" IR from behavioralism, a desire that, in terms of the rhetoric of "science," pulled them the other way. There is, in short, a lot of rich material in this article, much of which cannot be summarized here.

That said, the article also has a couple of weaknesses. First, Guilhot equates a strand of postwar American realism with "IR theory," period. Guilhot maintains that "the ‘theorization’ of IR was essentially meant to…make it immune to the cues of behaviorialism" (p.282) and that "the theory of IR was developed by [the Morgenthau-Thompson] group as a way to secure a space for its alternative vision of politics and scholarship" (p.282, emphasis in original). However, this use of the phrase "the theory of IR" implies, dubiously, that only this group was producing theory and thus, perhaps, tends to confuse more than it clarifies. Guilhot himself notes that "the postwar triumph of the 'realist' approach to international politics concealed deep discords within the ranks of the realists themselves" (p.301), disagreements that had to do with their attitudes about the utility of social-science methods and, more broadly, the degree of their skepticism about the possibilities of taming or moderating power politics.

More importantly, Guilhot’s judgment that the 1950s "realist gambit" was ultimately a failure (p. 300) exaggerates the current prevalence of behavioralist and rational-choice approaches. It is true, of course, that IR did not become separate from political science and in this sense the "gambit" did not succeed. Contrary to what Guilhot implies in his conclusion, however, "psychological, anthropological, or normative elements" (p.300) have not been banished from the tool kits or discourses of IR scholars. On the contrary, the field today is a cacophony of different approaches and orientations. If it were otherwise, scholars would not bother to publish exercises in "field-mapping."***** Admittedly, newly minted scholars who do a particular kind of work, involving for example the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in the same study, may have an advantage in the current academic job market, at least in the United States. Hiring committees often seem to like candidates who can do quantitative work and are technically proficient. In this sense, self-consciously social-scientific norms prevail in the discipline. However, people continue to produce other kinds of work (some of it of equal or greater value), as a glance at the journals indicates. Indeed, the discipline of political science in the U.S. was engulfed in a much-noticed contest over these issues in recent years, as the "perestroika" movement charged that the field had tilted too far in a positivist, "scientific" direction. Today the large majority of IR scholars identify themselves as social scientists, but what counts as social science (or "good" or "real" social science) remains a matter of dispute, as it has for a long time. The debates of the 1950s discussed in Guilhot’s "The Realist Gambit" thus continue to reverberate, even if in a somewhat different key.


* Hoffmann’s essay first appeared in Daedalus 106 (3) (Summer 1977). It has been reprinted several times, e.g. in J. Der Derian (ed.), International Theory: Critical Investigations (1995), pp.212-241, and in Hoffmann’s Janus and Minerva (1987), ch.1.

** Hoffmann, "An American Social Science," in Der Derian, pp.222-23, 237.

*** Ibid., p.217.

**** See David Long and Peter Wilson (eds.), Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed (1995).

***** For a recent example, see P.T. Jackson and D.H. Nexon, "Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory," International Studies Quarterly 53 (4) (December 2009): 907-930.

Further reading (a few suggestions)
R.M.A. Crawford and D.S.L. Jarvis (eds.), International Relations -- Still an American Social Science? (2000)

Christoph Frei, Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography (2001)

K.J. Holsti, "Scholarship in an Era of Anxiety: The Study of International Politics during the Cold War," in T. Dunne et al. (eds.), The Eighty Years' Crisis: International Relations 1919-1999 (1998)

Miles Kahler, "Inventing International Relations: IR Theory After 1945," in M. Doyle & J. Ikenberry (eds.), New Thinking in International Relations Theory (1997)

D. Long and P. Wilson (eds.), Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis (1995)

Joel Quirk and Darshan Vigneswaran, "The Construction of an Edifice: The Story of a First Great Debate," Review of International Studies 31:1 (2005)

William Scheuerman, Hans Morgenthau: Realism and Beyond (2009)

Brian C. Schmidt, "The History of International Studies," in International Studies Encyclopedia Online, ed. R. Denemark (2010)

Michael J. Smith, Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (1986)

No comments: