The End Of IR Theory As We Know It…

3 Aug

A guest post on the state of International Relations from Felix Berenskoetter. Felix is Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, University of London. He holds a PhD from the LSE and works on theories and concepts in IR; politics of space and time; critical approaches to European Security, and dynamics of friendship and estrangement in transatlantic relations. Felix has published articles in various journals, is a former editor of Millennium and co-editor of Power in World Politics (Routledge, 2007). He is also co-founder and current chair of the ISA Theory Section.


In case you missed it, recent ISA and BISA conferences saw panels contemplating whether ‘IR Theory’ has come to an end. This question, posed by the editors of EJIR, was discussed by a range of distinguished scholars whose answers ranged from ‘yes’ to ‘no’, in the process reflecting on the meaning of ‘theory’ and ‘end’. While state of the art exercises can be tiring, the contributions will be worth reading when they appear in an EJIR special issue later this year.

Yet I could not help wondering what the answers would have been had the panels featured not established professors, but junior scholars at the start of their career. Indeed, would it not be more adequate to have the latter group engage this question? After all, they tend to be the ones teaching introductory IR courses, which are expected to give an overview of theoretical arguments and debates. And they enter the profession with a significant research project under their belt (the PhD), which informs their first wave of publications and likely influences future projects that will shape the field. So what does that generation think of ‘IR Theory’? What theories and what kind of theorizing is prevalent in their teaching and writing?

These questions are important, not least because they can illuminate where the field of IR – to the extent that it is constituted by (shared) theoretical knowledge – is heading. Related, they might tell us whether junior scholars form a new generation of IR theorists, i.e. if they are advancing new theories, ways of theorizing and theoretical debates that mark them as a distinct generation.

While I count myself amongst this group, I do not have the answer(s). But let me share some observations and reflections. On the face of it, there is no escape from IR Theory represented by the ‘isms’ and associated debates, traditionally dealing with conflict and cooperation in interstate relations. They are locked into introductory courses and textbooks and are rehearsed in classrooms year by year. Yet how do we teach these theories (or paradigms)? Are we affirming them, or are we telling our students they are outdated? Are we treating them as part of a tradition that gives us timeless truths, or as historical artefacts that are no longer relevant? If the latter, do we provide our students with alternatives?

The answers probably hinge on what theories we use in our own work, and how we use them. Surely, as students we learned about the dominance and critical dismantling of neorealism, the ascent of constructivism, feminism, post-structuralism, the enduring prominence of rationalism and institutionalism. Some of us are also familiar with theories of European integration, the English School, or Marxism. Sure, attention to and treatment of those theories varies from place to place. But let’s assume we – the ‘junior scholars’ – know the core arguments and understand their impact, their analytical value as well as their limitations.  The question is, do we find them useful?

One way to get to the answer would be to survey the theoretical content of PhD dissertations, conference papers and publications by junior scholars over the past five years or so. I did not do that, but from what I read and from chatter at conferences, it seems that the majority of my peers find the ‘isms’ and associated debates inadequate, if not irrelevant. They don’t inspire to ask new questions and they don’t have good answers to the questions we are interested in (a sentiment echoed in YouTube polemics and in a recent survey noting a declining popularity of the core paradigms).

This is not really surprising as all theories are products of and for particular socio-historical contexts. The established theories we find in textbooks were developed by previous generations and, for the most part, by white men based in the US. While those of us now entering the profession cannot escape the socialization effect entirely, my sense is that few have invested in, or feel particularly attached to, these theoretical debates. Instead, we engage the study of world politics on the back of experiences and with outlooks and commitments that don’t resonate with the ‘isms’. In that sense, IR Theory is at an end.

Yet, of course, that holds true only if we employ a particular understanding of IR Theory. There is no lack of theorizing amongst junior scholars whose background and outlook is arguably less American than that of previous generations, and whose conceptual work draws on political theory, philosophy, sociology, history, psychology, religion, geography, media studies, literary studies, etc – the list goes on. These creative endeavors offer fresh angles on world politics, its very conception and how to study it.  The question is, do the authors still identify with ‘IR’ as an intellectual home?

Here I am not sure. I often hear some of my most creative colleagues – who also regular attend ISA conferences – saying ‘I don’t do IR’.  When pressed, this stance is explained with the aforementioned dislike of or, more precisely, disinterest in the ‘isms’ and associated debates. In a way, this rejection of the IR label is a logical move for those seeking to distance themselves from established thinking.  And yet it also has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating a narrow reading of (theorizing within) IR. This does not have to be the case.

For one, the ‘isms’ are not closed, static paradigms with clear arguments set in stone. Everyone who has ever tried to comprehensively survey an ‘ism’ knows they are diverse and dynamic bodies of thought. And they are not owned by anyone, least of all by those generally cast as representatives. Furthermore, many ‘classic’ works in the field, even if written some time ago and from a particular point of view, contain sophisticated insights about politics and the human condition. Their authors often practiced multi-disciplinarity, that is, they were well read in a range of fields of knowledge, and many would not be able to locate their work amongst the ‘isms’. Textbooks and standard literature reviews tend to ignore this in their attempt to simplify theories and core authors for easy digestion, downplaying context and ironing out creative tensions and contradictions so students don’t get confused. Similarly, the scientific-methodological ambitions underpinning much (mainstream) IR scholarship tend to cast theories in a rather sterile light. We should not forget their richness, however, and their potential for conceptual inspiration.

More importantly, I don’t think it is necessary to engage with literature considered part of the ‘canon’ to be part of the field of IR. It would be a tragedy if creative scholars concerned with issues of word politics shun the association with ‘IR’ because they feel that the field is defined and dominated by theories they don’t find useful. After all, the label ‘IR’ does not belong to a particular set of theories, but to a scholarly community. Theoretical inspiration can come from anywhere, and professional organizations such as ISA now showcase a variety of interests and outlooks at their conferences, suggesting that one can belong to an IR community without being disciplined by a particular conception of the ‘international’.

Indeed, if anything, a hallmark of IR as a field of knowledge is that its boundaries are unclear. And while there will always be some who, in their attempt to clarify these boundaries, try to keep the theoretical scope narrow, there will be others who open new doors and offer new ways of seeing, widening the field in the process. To ensure the latter, however, it is crucial for junior scholars to consciously, and visibly, claim theoretical space within ‘IR’. If this happens, talk about ‘the end’ makes no sense. At best, it’s the end of IR Theory as we know it.

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36 Responses to “The End Of IR Theory As We Know It…”

  1. Robbie Shilliam August 3, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    EXCELLENT post Felix. Very much agree with 99% of what you say. Especially the focus away from senior scholars many of whom have vested interests in isms.

    When I think of this question, i think of whether we define IR as a DISCIPLINE (which it is NOT, it is a faux discipline at best), or as a FIELD OF STUDY. I’m much more happier with the latter. I think that also describes the intellectual arena some of the “godfathers” of IR theory were imagining themselves to be partaking in.

    This also creates a problem for those of us who teach IR in British academia. IR has been promoted as a discipline in the UK largely because of the rise of security studies under the previous labour government as a “policy-friendly” applied studies. That came with money. In the UK we have defended IR as a faux discipline in good part because of the funding. I’m not saying that people have done this instrumentally (some have), but it is a confluence of factors. Now, with financial crisis, with tory govt dismantling public funding of universities, I wonder what will happen to IR as a “disicpline”. That will no doubt have ramifications for how (and if) we teach IR theory.

  2. Felix Berenskoetter August 5, 2012 at 12:44 am #

    Thanks Robbie. I agree, we should understand IR as a field of study rather than a discipline. I think the disciplinary understanding is entrenched particularly in the US where IR is a subfield of Political Science, sitting alongside Political Theory, Comparative Politics, and American Politics. I found that in the UK ‘IR’ is treated much broader, also institutionally. But, of course, government agendas affect research funding and teaching. I wonder how it affects theorizing, though. I would like to think that our sources for creative thinking are not confined to national contexts and can escape their politics (or, at least, is not constrained by it).

    One point of clarification: I don’t want to suggest that all established scholars are caught up in the isms. That’s not the case. We all know Professors who refuse(d) to join a camp or participate in their debates and who (still) push boundaries with their work. Conversely, there are of course plenty of junior scholars who move inside established ways of thinking. But overall my sense is that the new generation of IR scholars is incredibly diverse in terms of both background and perspectives on world politics. That is exciting, as long as we remain in conversation. And then, can you imagine what textbooks will look like in 20 years time?

    • Colin Wight (Editor EJIR, guilty as charged) August 5, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

      A few points: Why would you assume younger scholars are the ones teaching ‘introductory courses on IR theory? Or more to the point, what’s the evidence base for this claim (I’m assuming evidence still matters). I have always taught such courses and enjoy doing so. As far as I know many senior profs do the same and feel the same. Second, senior professors probably have multiple research projects under their belt, so that argument seems spurious. Third, if you want to know what the ‘junior’ scholars think (not a term I would use – implies hierarchy of not only status but opinions) ask them. Convene some panels at an ISA and ask them. And when you do I’m sure someone will complain about your choices. That’s a consequence of decision. Fourth, what’s the philosophical (principled) difference between a ‘field of inquiry’and a ‘discipline’? Not much I suspect. All disciplines are artificial in the sense that the sciences could have been organised differently, but IR is a discipline because in good social constructivist fashion (how easily we forget to apply our theories to our own practices) IR is what we make of it. There are disciplinary journals, disciplinary associations and the vast majority of people engaging in the study of IR consider themselves to be part of such an ‘imagined community’. A discipline is a social entity not (only) an intellectual one. Fifth, a prediction (always dangerous from someone who does not believe in the possibility of such a thing); textbooks in 20 years time? Dream on, the world is changing faster than your imagination. Journals are already on the way out. Textbooks will follow.

      • Carlos Murillo August 6, 2012 at 3:52 am #

        I agree with the idea that IR is a discipline. The problem is to consider only those scientific disciplines that respond to traditional approaches, close to rational positivism. In the social sciences it is necessary to differentiate between so-called “state discipline” and “global discipline”, these include IR and Anthropology. It is necessary to locate IR as particular discipline, because its subject overlaps with that of political science, economics, law, diplomacy, history, geopolitics and others, but approached from a different position. For example, it is necessary to differentiate between international politics and RI, the former is specific study field of the discipline, closely related to political science.
        On the other hand I agree that when some say they do not do IR, they are saying that do not want to be linked with the traditional theories and approaches. But not disconnected from IR as a discipline. I have written about a couple of papers on this matter, but in Spanish.

      • NAJ Taylor (@najtaylor) August 6, 2012 at 3:55 am #

        I agree that Felix’s evidence and reasoning is unsound, and in your refreshing disfavour for hierarchical relations between academics.

        I disagree with your implied contention that ‘emerging scholars’ are capable – through time, resources, or to be even more frank, equal opportunity – to just “convene some panels at an ISA”.

        For non-US students especially, and not just because of travel, this is not as easy as you make it out to be. My evidence is only what I have experienced: I prompted a US student to enter a paper to ISA 2013. He knows the outcome of his submission, in fact within days, yet I still don’t. What’s important is not his/my outcome (for many reasons this is not comparable), but the communication – the experience.

        If I was Felix, I’d have removed the first three paragraphs and said simply that to blog is the forum he chose to enter a previously-held ISA discussion.

        The tendency for ‘emerging scholars’ to do that is telling in my view.

  3. Colin wight August 5, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    I should have that I’m serious about organising a series of panels to get other opinions. I think that’d be a great idea. My own opinion, for what it’s worth is that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the isms it’s how they are handled and taught that matters (see my 1996 incommensurability Millennium piece). I also think an unreflective eclectism has a different set of problems. But in the end we wanted to stimulate debate and we’ve certainly achieved that. :)

    • Colin Wight August 6, 2012 at 5:13 am #

      I agree with the problems you identify, but I think it’s a different one from that posed by Felix. It’s certainly true, and deplorable, that scholars of all ages not in the core, struggle to get their voices heard, attend conferences, and generally participate. However, to be fair to ISA I know they do what they can to help provide support in these areas. Still, it’s never enough. But there are plenty of excellent new entrants to the subject, Phd students etc. that do get to attend ISA, and more to the point if the panels were organised through the theory section then the participants would have a better chance that the papers would be accepted and gaining access to the travel grants. As for those people that say they do not do IR, but seem to be doing IR. I don’t think there’s a generalisable answer here; some maybe don’t want to be embedded within the discipline and in fact may have disciplinary commitments elsewhere, some may be making a theoretical point that they don’t want to be embedded within the dominant approaches to IR, and some might just be wanting to position themselves as ‘outsiders’ (there’s a distinctive cultural cache in being ‘different’, or ‘dissident’). It doesn’t bother me. I’m not going to force anyone to be in or out of anything.

  4. Robbie Shilliam August 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    We did some pedagogy and IR roundtables in ISA 2012, and have put in for a couple more in 2013. So come along!

    In my mind the main distinction between discipline and field of study in this particular context is a cannon. As a field of study I would prefer mainly to teach “theory” through other canons (and traditions, slightly different) – political theory; moral philosophy; social anthropology; sociology; etc. Waltz, Morgenthau etc etc would appear within these and not as the most important. Constructivism would disappear as it is conceived in cannonical IR theory. I think we waste too much time teaching a cannon of IR theory to students. I can’t help but think that this is in part because we have to justify the growth of IR in the UK – as an applied-studies programme, similar to criminology (psychology/sociology) and business studies (economics, organizational theory, psychology) – and the money that has come with that growth in terms of a legit “discipline”. Disciplines are slowly dying in the UK, to be replaced with applied studies that have to take on the respectable mantle of “discpline’ while the cannons they create for this are always about another field of inquiry, hence the fascination with the “international dimension of… ” to which I have been guilty of too in the past..

    • Robbie Shilliam August 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

      SORRY – SPLURTED OUT THAT REPLY! not helpful. here it is again a bit more readable:

      In my mind the main distinction between discipline and field of study in this particular context is a cannon. i.e. the cannon of sociology – its core theoretical horizon, what constitutes it first and foremost as a discipline – being marx, weber, durkheim. As a field of study I would prefer mainly to teach “theory” through a variety of cannons from different disciplines that attend to fundamental epistemological and substantive issues, i.e. political theory; moral philosophy; social anthropology; sociology; etc. Waltz, Morgenthau etc etc would then appear not as the fundaments of an IR cannon, but as coming out of engagements with other cannons. Constructivism would disappear as it is presently conceived in cannonical IR theory. We might put Wendt, Onuf et al in the context of other disciplinary inquiries coming out of e.g. sociology (sociology of knowledge), philosophy of science etc etc. Many of us do this kind of stuff already, yet feel we have to put Waltz, Morgenthau et al first because we have to teach about a “discipline”. I think we waste too much time teaching a cannon of IR theory to students. I can’t help but think that this is in part because we have to justify the growth of IR in the UK as an applied-studies programme, similar to criminology (psychology/sociology) and business studies (economics, organizational theory, psychology). The money that has come with that growth in some sense institutionally demands a legit “disciplinary” home. Disciplines are slowly dying in the UK, to be replaced with applied studies that have to take on the respectable mantle of “discpline’ while the cannons that are created in this transfer paradoxically always point to other disciplines than “IR”. Hence the fascination with the “international dimension of… ” has grown concordant to the growth of IR and other applied studies in a university setting that has – until recently – demanded “policy-based evidence” (not the other way around!). I have been guilty of that, I must admit. This is all quite UK specific, dont know how far it travels. Beyond this is the question of cannons and traditions not sanctified by the western academy including the vexed question of “lay” knowledge. So to my mind, IR theory is the least of our problems; I have no problem with its passing; although if this happens on any broad basis it would probably inaugurate the passing of our own departmental structures for the rise of ther applied-studies combinations, i.e. international business studies.

  5. Felix Berenskoetter August 6, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    Colin – To be clear: my primary aim was not to attack your/EJIR’s choices of panellists (let alone the idea to convene such panels, after all the Theory Section sponsored them). I am critical of the fact that junior voices were missing, true, but my post is driven by the curiosity how the new generation of scholars would approach the ‘end’ question. Of course I, or anyone, can (and probably should) try to put together an ISA panel doing that. We may even fill the room. But that’s different from editing a special issue for one of the leading IR journals in the field!

    On the evidence: I am pretty confident that when it comes to teaching introductory IR courses, junior staff and GTA’s outnumber professors by a wide margin. Also, I was not suggesting that senior scholars don’t have research projects, of course they do. But how many of them have fresh and innovative theoretical ideas in them? Some do (see my first comment above), but my impression is that theoretical advances often come out of PhD dissertations and then are echoed in later works. I admit I have no hard/statistical evidence to prove that. But can you show me evidence that says otherwise?

    On the discipline/field issue: Perhaps it is a semantic question what we call ‘it’. Field sounds softer, I guess. In the end, what matters is how it is organised and where/how its intellectual boundaries are drawn. And here I think it matters whether colleagues doing innovative work identify with IR as a field of knowledge or not. As you note, IR is an established label institutionalised in departments, book series, journals, funding schemes, etc., and growing in popularity with students. These are all massive resources and the question is who is able to use them, who shapes the debates and influences the way we – inside and outside the ivory tower – think about ‘world politics’. And here Robbie’s point on how UK academia is being pushed to produce more ‘applied studies’ highlights a particular challenge for theorists I think.

    As hinted in my post, I agree that ISA has been opening up and is trying to support junior scholars, as well as new ways of thinking. The sections indeed have a crucial role to play here…but that’s another discussion.

    • Colin Wight August 7, 2012 at 1:57 am #

      Felix, well since it’s now not a criticism of choice but a desire to explore how others (called junior) might address the question, then sure. As for evidence, you say you are pretty sure, but on what basis? i think on his neither of us actually know. All I can say on the basis of personal experience of where I have worked and speaking to colleagues elsewhere is that in many places it is accepted that Senior Profs should step up to the plate and deliver the introductory courses to first year students.

      Re what’s interesting, again, that’s another judgment call surely? I am however, concerned by the implications of your argument that ‘theoretical advances come out of PhD’s’. That may or may not be the case, but if it is true then in the current climate, which is much more orientated towards ‘middle ground’ theory and theory testing, then PhDs and the junior (sic) cohort are a concern. Maybe I’ve missed something, or maybe something ground breaking is yet to get in print, but most of the stuff we have seen from PhD’s tend to follow the model of adopting a theory and then testing it. All excellent work, but not really much by way of theoretical innovation. In fact, if anything, it’s the uniformity and conformity of the discipline that troubles me. We can all talk about pluralism, I’m just not convinced it’s practiced that well at present. But apart from the ‘choices’ issue, I’m not sure we disagree about much of this. After all, it says something that the theory section is so new to ISA.

      • Felix Berenskoetter August 7, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

        Ah, now we are getting somewhere. All along I was wondering why junior scholars were missing from the panels and why this particular question was chosen – and now you have given an answer to both: you think recent/current PhDs (junior scholars) are not producing theoretically innovative work.

        I actually share your concern, to a point. Let’s assume we agree on what is innovative work (although THAT is an interesting question). I do agree that the theory-testing model you describe is widespread and stifles innovative/creative research. It operates with a narrow understanding of theory, and it does not encourage taking risks. Neither do PhD stipends which are tied to large research projects (often the case in Germany), or the pressure to finish in three years and do ‘applied studies’ (in the UK).

        That said, as noted in my post, I think there is a lot of conceptually interesting work out there. Maybe it does lack visibility. One reason could be missing platforms to show your work. Arguably editors at top outlets played their role in favoring the standard model (though I don’t think that was ever the case with EJIR). And as you point out there was no dedicated Theory Section until we created it in 2011 (and now that it exists we still have to turn down many promising papers because we are given only so many panels slots). Yet I think one main reasons why new theoretical work may be less visible is that it is not plugged into big debates but, rather, advanced in small groups happy to just talk amongst themselves. I guess that’s what you mean by lack of pluralism. It also goes back to what I said in my post, namely my sense that many young scholars doing conceptually interesting work don’t identify with the broader field of IR. So they don’t see the point of talking to you, or me, or each other. And they remain invisible to ‘state of the art’ debates…

      • Colin Wight August 7, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

        Ok, I think I agree with most of this, although we’d probably have to discuss the devil in the details. The only thing I need convincing of is the ‘hidden cabals’ (sorry, late here and can’t think of a better term) doing interesting conceptual work. They may exist of course, but if they are only talking to each other it’s hardly surprising that I’m not aware of them. And of course the definition of ‘interesting’ is again a judgement call. Anyway, look, as the Aussies say. I understand the concerns, I just hope that others understand that choices always involve inclusions and exclusions and there are no guarantees that we got it right. We made the choices we made, and we are happy to defend them. You aren’t the only people to complain, although the reasons are different. But, given the differences among the editors it’s impossible for anyone to assume we had an ‘agenda'; or at least it should be.

        I think all three of us have gone out of our way to support ‘junior’ scholars and continue to do so. But we had very clear reasons for the choices we made. People may not like, or agree with those choices, but that’s life. Nothing in the choices stops anyone – junior, senior, female, not female, and so on – from contributing through responding; either through panels, articles, books whatever. If that happens, no one will be happier then me, since for all the reasons you indicate the place of theory in the discipline/field isn’t self-evident. And I for one am concerned about where we are going and why. Anyway, I hope the fact that I’ve taken quite a bit of time to respond on this forum indicates that I/we care, irrespective of whether you or others think we got it right.

      • Felix Berenskoetter August 8, 2012 at 1:30 am #

        Well, let me just be clear that I don’t think we need to speak of ‘hidden cabals’. Innovative theoretical work by junior scholars may be less visible, but it’s out there and overseeing that is not a detail. And if you really think it does not exist, would that not be an even better reason to invite a recent PhD to the discussion and ask: “what’s the matter with you, junior, why can’t you theorize properly?” Though the answer might be “who are you again?” Anyway, in the end it seems we share the aim of increasing theoretical depth and diversity in ‘IR’, even if we pursue this from different places. And so I look forward to reading your special issue.

    • Colin Wight August 8, 2012 at 2:16 am #

      Sorry Felix, I couldn’t find a reply button to your last post, so this my be out of sequence. I said explicitly that it was late and i couldn’t think of a better term, so I think your comment could have recognised that. Equally, it was you that suggested that these people just might not be interested in engaging with the wider field which would be part of the explanation of why I am not aware of them. Even then, nothing I have said implies that I think there isn’t excellent work being done by them either. It’s just not work of a particular kind and that worries me. And it’s not about ‘not theorising’ properly. But if it was you’d really advocate we put them up in front of the microscope and ask them to explain themselves? That doesn’t strike me as a particularly professional idea. Anyway, diversity…sure, just not sure how much there really is.

      • Felix Berenskoetter September 5, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

        Colin, so it seems at the core – shining through many of the comments here – lies the question of what is good (innovative/interesting) theoretical work. I have been thinking about this for a while and would hope/expect that many others have done so. However it’s a discussion we (‘the field’) have not seen for a while…and the sooner we tackle it the better.

  6. Inanna Hamati-Ataya August 6, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    Felix,

    As far as I can tell from conversations that followed the EJIR ISA panels, the absence of more ‘junior’ scholars was noted by many. As you said, the fact that those weren’t ordinary panels but panels organized by one of the leading IR journals for a special issue – the only one, I believe, for EJIR in the past few years – is what makes this absence, and the disappointment it produced, more noteworthy. I would even say that both the organization of the panels and this specific reaction to them are important to consider from a wider disciplinary perspective. In fact, I would imagine that anyone doing some work on the sociology of IR (and of IR theory in particular) would see this ‘episode’ as an important manifestation of some current feature of the discipline, and pursuing this discussion with such a sociological prism in mind is not uninteresting.

    It is clear that the panels were meant to initiate a ‘debate’, as Colin said, and I have no doubt that the publication of the special issue will lead to very interesting discussions – and, hopefully, even to some polemical ones! My understanding, however, is that your post invites us to engage in a different debate, or a different discussion, that is legitimate in its own right, independently of the panels, the special issue, and the content of the articles/arguments that will come out of them. Which is why I hope that more colleagues – whether ‘junior’ or ‘senior’ – will engage the points you raised, not least because they are raised from a specific (‘junior’) position in the discipline. You have made clear the reasons why you thought the inclusion of younger academics would be useful to the discussion. Other colleagues might have other reasons in mind. As far as I’m concerned, being another ‘junior’ member of this ‘community’, the point is not only about the importance of including different or newer perspectives on IR theory. It is also about how we frame the discussions about IR theory, and in this case, more specifically, what general problématique is chosen to frame the discussions, and what consequent questions it puts forth. With respect to these panels, I would be interested in knowing what the more ‘junior’ members of the field ‘doing’ and ‘teaching’ IR theory have to say, not only about ‘the end of IR theory’, but about the very relevance/urgency/value of this question itself, at this particular point in the history of the discipline – and its more general context. If asked to choose a theme for a special issue in a journal like EJIR – with all the visibility it enjoys and the impact it has – what (more) crucial theme(s) would they choose? What other problems, anxieties, or aspirations would inform their choice? The same goes for the four specific questions that were put forth by the editors as guidelines for the paper contributions – I, for one, have a problem with the focus of these questions, the assumptions they seem to rest on, and the way they are formulated, and perhaps others do too. It might have been more interesting to open a discussion about what the relevant question(s) should be, and include a plurality of voices in THAT discussion. In this sense, it seems legitimate to ask not only what is involved/at stake in the absence of ‘junior’ scholars from the actual panel discussions, but what is involved/at stake in their absence from the original, agenda-setting discussion.

    We are all aware of what is really at work in the process of establishing disciplinary debates, and I guess we shouldn’t be surprised either by the way it is done – i.e., who is entitled to do it, who is likely to succeed, etc. And perhaps the fact that it is, after all, EJIR we are talking about, should make the lack of openness less surprising – although given that special issues are a rare opportunity for editors to make independent choices in terms of publication themes, it would’ve been great to use this opportunity to open up this venue to less established scholars and have a more pluri-generational input. Colin would probably disagree with such an assessment, but then again it would be interesting to know – if only from a sociology-of-IR perspective! – how the ‘choice’ was made, and not only that ‘a choice’ was made.

    If future panels are to be organized that would bring together a more ‘representative’ segment of IR theorists, I think it would be important to not limit it to junior scholars, so that the discussions can help problematize the very framework within which IR theory is discussed, identify the divisions as they are perceived by all members, and not just those who have enough academic capital to impose unilateral visions of the discipline (and of its divisions), or those who claim to embody a certain ‘dissidence’ as a strategic disciplinary position-taking. In this sense, I think the innovative panel you’re organizing at the ISA is already a good opportunity for a more open discussion!

    • Colin Wight August 6, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

      Too much to say too little time to comment on. Innana and the questions; We’ve been over this before via personal communication. I never find find responses like this interesting. It’s like saying, why did you write that book around that research question, rather than my research question? Well because it’s my question really (or ours in the instance under discussion). And of course, it seems to me that if you don’t find he questions interesting it’s hardly surprising that you’d not be asked to answer them. As for whether they were the right questions, well ask the participants and the audiences. You think they are the wrong questions, then write a piece showing why. I happen to think they are exactly the right questions for this moment in time. Moreover, questions are questions, not statements and it was made clear to all that they could address the issues from any standpoint. In fact, very few of the participants actually addressed the questions head on. But to be honest, it’s one journal in a much larger discipline and much as I’d like think we set the agenda for the field I know that’s not the case (I’m not sure about what is meant that it’s the EJIR, so hardly surprising; we publish more articles by PhD students than any other major journal). I do however, know that the place of theory in the field needs debating, and that’s a debate that needs to be taken seriously.

      As for the idea of ‘applied studies’ and the lack of a cannon within which to embed the students education, well both seem problematic to me. The first smacks of empiricism or the idea that research can proceed in the absence of theory, or at least a consideration of the role that theory plays (hence the panels), and the second risks both not teaching the students how people have thought about the issues previously, and reinventing the wheel. That’s why a lot of this is very deja vu to me. I think we might have been here before and the points your are raising are not new to me. As for choices, we made them on a range of criteria, we didn’t always agree, and not everyone we asked agreed. And of course we discussed the issue of representation long and hard. And we knew the choices we made would not be universally agreed with by all. We only had so many panels and we only have so much space in the special issue. We aimed for as much diversity (understood in one way and not others) as possible and some contributors to the special issue weren’t on the panels. Essentially it came down to fitting in the people we thought might have something important to say on the issue, the people we though had said something previously, and the people we wanted to hear. Choices can always be criticised, and no doubt groups other than ‘junior’ can claim a lack of representation. As political scientists (if I can use that term) we shouldn’t be surprised at this. I should say, I’m very happy to see you all exercised by it and not at all phased or irritated by your criticisms. It’d kind of what we expected. As far as I can see ‘junior’ colleagues are now exercised by how we think about the place of theory in the discipline and how it impacts on them. I’m not sure that was the case before the panels; hence the idea of ‘applied studies’. I look forward to seeing you critiques in print, and with us if possible.

      • Inanna Hamati-Ataya August 7, 2012 at 12:52 am #

        Colin,
        I see no disagreement over the issue that the value of questions/answers depends on one’s perspective and position in the discipline. The point of Felix’s post (on answers) and mine (on questions) was precisely an acknowledgment of this, and hence of the fact that you/EJIR editors and others will have a different view on what is interesting to ask about IR theory. In this sense, it was never implied that someone would impose a ‘right’ or ‘correct’ view on others, quite the contrary, since there is a general concern for plurality, on both sides – and I understand that ‘representativity’ can be difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t change the importance of discussing differences, especially if some feel that more could be said than what was previously said at the ISA.
        The fact that the EJIR panels are addressed on a public IR blog also shows that the discussion seems to be relevant beyond a one-to-one personal communication or individual concerns, and if Felix’s original post can expand the discussion toward more general issues that might be of interest to specific groups within the discipline, then the rules of an open discussion should apply given that the audience is now larger.
        I think we all look forward to reading the special issue, and hopefully it will encourage many of us to write on the subject. If anyone has declined your invitation to contribute to it because they disagreed with the ‘questions’, then they certainly have missed an important opportunity!

      • Colin Wight August 7, 2012 at 1:41 am #

        Inanna, but this now seems to be a wholly different set of issues and ones I completely endorse. If the panels and special issue generate debate and a growing awareness that ‘theory’ is an issue in the discipline then I’ll be more than happy; even if the consensus is that these aren’t the right questions. Not least because, other than claiming that they aren’t the right questions, it might generate debate about why they aren’t the right questions. However, those aren’t issues we could address on the panels, or else we couldn’t have asked the questions; which we thought (and still do) were questions worth asking. I’m all for the kind of debate that panels have produced, but given the difficulties, and restrictions, and taking into account that the editors also have positions on this, the the criticism choices seems to me to be little other than a declaration that someone else’s choices would be different. Well obviously. But this applies to textbooks (why this group of authors and not another?), workshops, seminars, conference panels and so on. In all of these cases, people have to make choices. We knew this, discussed it at length, but ultimately went with our collective judgement. Did we get it right? Who knows and from what perspective can that question be answered. As for whether the answers provided on the panels were the right ones, again, it’s simply a matter of opinions. We didn’t attempt to exercise editorial control on the answers; how could we. We didn’t even insist that the participants address the questions.

        You are interpreting it as a particular power play where senior figures ‘impose’ a vision of the discipline onto a powerless mass of junior scholars. I think that’s such a negative vision of what we do, but it also strips those junior (I still hate the term) colleagues of agency. Let me give you a different interpretation, not one I endorse, but maybe just a different way of looking at it. Perhaps those senior figures were hauled onto public platforms to explain just how they’ve got the discipline into the state it currently occupies. And now having being publicly called to account in this fashion, you are free to throw your tomatoes and whatever else at will.

        I suppose in the final analysis I’m not actually convinced that the ‘junior/senior’ dichotomy works too well in this context, but nor should you assume that we didn’t ask some ‘junior’ colleagues; they just maybe weren’t the ones you might have chosen, but we were trying to balance that with different forms of representation. I can tell you, it’s not easy, and I’m well aware of the limitations, but I’m still glad we did it.

  7. David McCourt August 7, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    Very interesting stuff Felix, and the other respondents. I am glad someone else has picked up on the age distribution of the ISA End of IR Theory panellists, as it was something I noticed and felt some unease about. Of course, it is difficult to put younger (note: not “junior”) scholars on this type of panel, and so I have some sympathy with Colin here, but i did feel like some of the very much more senior (read: retired) scholars could have been left off with no harm done.

    There are lots of points I’d want to address, but I’ll stick to one, and that is the lack – from what i saw – of any discussion of actual recent theoretical work. I’m thinking Dan Deudney’s book, Patrick Jackson’s great transactional social constructionism, Dan Nexon’s Tillian take on the wars of religion, or Vincent Pouliot’s use of Bourdieu – work that i would consider the cutting edge if you will. The key point for me is the way in which IR is so fragmented at the moment that we are struggling to have frames to put these works in, on the one hand, and that some of them are being ignored because of the dominance of rationalist modes of analysis in the US and metatheoretical and historiographical work in Britain and elsewhere (what I would call “the margins”). So I think the prospects for IR theory is at one and the same time getting both brighter (Deudney’s book is surely much better than the neo-neo type theoretical work that came out in the 1980s) and more worrisome, since the field is so split as to leave us with little to collectively get excited/argue about. Add to that the fact that the scholars i mention here are NOT central to the academic world in the US, whatever they may seem to those outside. As Dan told me, scholars like him and Patrick are getting fewer and fewer. As Inanna quite rightly points out, we are then taken into the territory of the sociology of IR – but I wanted to keep the issue of actual work being done on the table too, because whatever issues the question of the end of IR theory raises, it does seem important to talk about some actual IR theory.

    That’s my two cents. Thanks again Felix.

    • Colin Wight August 7, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

      I could say more on this, but I’ll leave it until the special issue comes out; I think David’s post might be worth coming back to. Again, however, I will reemphasise that on these kind of issues we could sit down and endlessly debate about who should be on or shouldn’t, or even who was asked and declined, for all sorts of reasons; incidentally, nobody declined because they didn’t think it was interesting or that the issue wasn’t important. Oh, also, my book, if I ever get it finished, on IR theory will deal explicitly with the issue of fragmentation. I absolutely agree, with all of the points about ‘excitement’ and ‘diversity’, and that the situation is ‘worrisome’. But some think it’s not. Again, just opinions at this point.

      • Robbie Shilliam August 8, 2012 at 10:43 am #

        apologies all, as I think that I am stepping into a conversation that i don’t know the history of. But just to say quickly, colin, you’re not getting my point about applied studies and cannons. maybe it’s not important for the current conversation. But I have to say from where i am standing none of these questions can be seriously posed absent of at least some consideration of the fundamental transformations in higher education taking place at the moment in the context of global economic crisis and re-regionalisation of knowledge/power networks and structures.

      • Colin Wight August 8, 2012 at 11:03 am #

        Robbie, no, I may not have acknowledged it, but all the factors that that you point to would certainly be in my explanation (but I wasn’t invited to be on the panels). These are really important transformations but not one knows how they will fully play out. But you can link them to the relegation of the theory, attacks on social science, and the commodification of everything. I’m with you on all that. I’m also really concerned about the Finch proposals and their impact on the social sciences.

  8. Pablo K August 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    Great to see this drawing so much attention. A whole bunch of the things I wanted to say a week ago have now been aired by several people, so I won’t indulge myself.

    Instead, a word of appreciation for the caption on that photo: “LSE IR Department 1967: Resisting Behaviouralism, But Not Style”.

    And a follow-up invitation: if Colin or David or Inanna (or even our very own Robbie!) want to write up a further engagement, whether developing your comments or taking a different tangent, I think we’d be happy to host it, now or once the Special Issue comes out. It need not be directly on ‘whither IR theory’ (since some of us may find this a rather narrow alley to find ourselves in), but anything on the state/ends/collapse of academic thinking about the global. This is clearly a needed dialogue, and one that will run and run (how easy it turns out to be to say things about ourselves and our predicaments!).

    Drop one of us an email if you’re interested.

  9. Pablo K August 11, 2012 at 3:26 am #

    POSTSCRIPT: All this now subject to some discussion between Professors Nexon and Jackson in a Duck Of Minerva podcast (the future is now people!): http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/irborg/duckofminerva/files/2012/08/DoM_Episode_4.m4a (starts at c. 5 minute mark).

  10. Jason Weidner August 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    Colin, the way I read Felix’s initial post was that (1) in prominent disciplinary venues such as EJIR discussing the state of IR theory, the voices of junior scholars are missing or underrepresented; and (2) that is unfortunate because junior scholars will likely have a different and valuable perspective on the state of IR theory. I do think it was unfortunate of Felix to bolster the second point by claiming that junior scholars do more theoretically innovative work. That is certainly not a claim that goes without saying and is quite possibly wrong (with all the caveats regarding defining “interesting”). Regarding his other claim to bolster point 2, that junior scholars (and teaching assistants, plus adjuncts) tend to teach more Intro to IR courses than senior scholars, I think that has some merit. At least here in the US, and definitely in large universities, that is largely the case. That may not be the case in small, 4 year colleges. I don’t know about schools outside the US. Is that really not the case in the UK? I’d be interested in hearing from others, at least about the programs they know firsthand.

  11. Jason Weidner August 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    I’d like to add that, while I found the initial topic as posed by Felix interesting, I kept thinking about its relation to the broader issues regarding recent transformations in the field of education and knowledge production. So for me, Robbie’s last comment and Colin’s reply, really point in the direction of an interesting and important conversation. I would even argue that a discussion of the relevance or not of IR theory that doesn’t connect with broader issues of education, knowledge production, and social and political transformation runs the risk of solipsism and irrelevance.

    • Felix Berenskoetter September 5, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Thanks Jason. A brief response to your comments: True, claiming that theoretical innovation often comes out of PhD dissertations (and echoes in later works) was not directly necessary for my argument. However, that is my impression. It may not be true for the first generation of IR scholars, and I certainly don’t want to downplay the creative work some scholars do in late stages of their career (Ned Lebow, for instance). And of course it depends on how we define ‘theoretical innovation’ – a crucial question that needs to be debated, especially if the reason for sidetracking young scholars in ‘state of the art debates’ is the view that they don’t do interesting/valuable theoretical work. And IF the latter is the case, then we need to ask why. Off the cuff, my answer would be: because many graduate students are not allowed/encouraged to think in new ways, and a particular understanding of ‘education’ and the function of universities may play a big role here…

      • Colin wight September 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

        Can I just point out that no one, least if all me, has suggested or implied, that people, of all generations, aren’t doing interesting and innovative work. It’s just not (and not just to me but many others as well) work of a particular theoretical kind. Now that may, or may not be a problem but it seems to me that the idea that the reflectivists (to use Keohane’s term) have carved out a reasonable niche for themselves in the field, is a bit like those women who think all the battles have been won and we don’t need feminism any longer. Mind you Felix singling out Ned (I agree) does indicate how moving the argument onto the terrain of innovation and excellence isn’t helpful. Because irrespective of mine and Felix’s own personal judgements who find no value in Ned’s work. And that is not a debate that can be settled outside the subjective judgement of personal likes, dislikes, interests etc. However, where it does get interesting how stuff like Ned’s can be largely ignored by the majority of the field because it doesn’t meet some predefined account of what is good scholarship (science). And that kind of logic knows no age barriers.

  12. LFC September 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    If I may, a small correction (to some comments above): the word is “canon” not “cannon.” (I know spelling doesn’t matter much on blogs, but this just jumped out at me.)

    • Colin wight September 5, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

      Sorry, should have been: Because irrespective of mine and Felix’s own personal judgements I know peope who find no value in Ned’s work.’ can I also say I agree that standards (cannon/canon) are important; just not easy when doing this on the iPhone; this thing has a mind of its own.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. SOAS Politics | The End Of IR Theory As We Know It… - August 5, 2012

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  3. Theories Never Die » Duck of Minerva - September 18, 2013

    […] One reason for this contrast lies, I think, in different conceptions of theory and theoretical debate. Whereas the EJIR brief refers to an end of great debates and paradigm wars, that is, a lack of debate between and development of ‘isms’, I see fruitful theoretical discussions taking place both inside and outside the isms, albeit not in terms of competition. Related, there is a generational factor. The EJIR editors are established professors and so were the contributors initially selected for the EJIR project; the panels at ISA and BISA did not include a single young scholar (I commented on this elsewhere). […]

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