This is the fourth and final post in a series of responses to Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s recent book The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. Paul began the discussion with comments on the problems of boundary setting, Joe followed up with an interrogation of the nature of Jackson’s pluralism, and Nick most recently gave an exposition of a missing methodological position in the typology. We look forward to a reply from PTJ himself in the near future.
In this post, with the pleasure and pain of coming last in a hitherto excellent series, I want to tease out several issues that struck me in the reading of Jackson’s Conduct of Inquiry, which specifically relate to the success of the central typology, a possible alternative and the ‘science’ debate in this context.
I confess to having begun my reading of this work very sceptically – although not because of any doubt about the author or importance of the subject matter. Rather, like Joe, I doubted whether there would be much of interest for me as one whose work does not have too much invested in the ‘science’ claim as it stands in the mainstream IR debates. Whilst, along with my colleagues, and as I will discuss below, I remain unconvinced about the use of the term ‘science’ amongst other things, I found the book engrossing, stimulating, erudite and brilliantly argued. The marketing people are free to recommend it particularly for graduate students, although my own view is that it contains very important intellectual challenges for the whole field at all levels. It is no small achievement that it reaches Jackson’s stated ambition to provide a platform for a much better philosophical conversation about inquiry than we have had thus far.
Perhaps controversially, however, I cannot pretend to have emerged from the book wholeheartedly sharing Jackson’s enthusiasm for the kind of pluralism in the field of IR that he aims to promote. I respect the sentiment and the generosity of spirit in which it is made, and I do recognise that it is essential for keeping important conversations on track, and that this is the best way forward for a less introspective discipline. Yet I feel myself torn, as perhaps critical pluralists are fated to be, between a desire to fight false dogmas and respect reasonable differences. In some senses, it is Jackson’s own critical reading of different positions that subversively feeds this tension.
I. Of knowing and being: some questions
I was struck in the early set-up of the book by the distinction between scientific and philosophical ontologies upon which the central typology is built. Briefly, according to Jackson, scientific ontologies specify the catalogue of objects of investigation – states, individuals, classes etc. – whilst philosophical ontologies relate to the ‘hook-up’ between mind and world. Jackson presents this in a 2×2 matrix, with which I am sure readers are by now familiar:
Jackson’s key claim is that as researchers our methodologies flow logically from where we sit on these philosophical-ontological issues, and as such should not all be evaluated on neopositivist claims of how valid ‘science’ proceeds. Whilst I accept the broad point, what I want to pursue in more detail is whether this typology does in fact get to the heart of the core wagers that underpin each ontological position in the matrix. To put it in Jackson’s terms, it is to ask whether our ideal-typification helps us “clarify the implications that a particular combination of ontological commitments has on the actual practice of knowledge-production” (37).
This is motivated by some connected responses to the way that the problem is set up throughout the book. On the one hand, whilst the axes of the matrix seem to successfully distinguish analyticism and critical realism from neopositivism in intuitive and convincing ways, I think they prove a strange and unhelpful way to distinguish or understand the category of things marked as ‘reflexivity’. As Jackson himself remarks, a transfactual monism looks like a strange methodological starting point – “precisely what can be known transfactually if there is no sense in referring to a mind-independent world?” (157). Indeed it is strange, but this is because it is the artefact of an ideal-typical set-up that cannot really contain the various challenges to the conduct of inquiry that diverse approaches labeled ‘reflexivist’ present. Jackson is correct to note that certain approaches to IR stipulate the starting location of the researcher as being relevant to the ways in which knowledge is produced, but has less secure grounds on which to claim this as a sort of ‘transfactual’ claim across the theories he wants to include. Indeed, in particular for many of the feminist and post-colonial theorists included, the philosophical status of the claim “the researcher is a member of Western intellectual elites” is the same as the claim “colonialism sought to extract labour surpluses from India” – they are both ‘analyticist’ claims in Jackson’s terminology. Moreover, standpoint theories do not make the same philosophical wagers as the Frankfurt School, particularly with regard to possibility of dialectically transcending one’s social location in the pursuit of knowledge.
What better unites the various positions in this box in their relationship to analyticism is not so much an adherence to transfactualism as a willingness to countenance the potential ontological instability of knowledge – in many senses this is a rejection of any stable universality of our lenses and procedures and a readier acknowledgement of the role of non-universal evaluative judgements in the process. In this sense, Jackson’s critical commentary that ‘reflexivism’ lacks explicit methodological procedures for generating valid knowledge seems to entirely miss the point of what might be its central challenge – i.e. that we must countenance the possibility of limit and incommensurability in methodologies, some of which may derive from our embedded locations as researchers. It is also disappointing that Jackson cites efforts such as the Ackerly et al volume that attempt to bring together and explore feminist methodologies whilst simultaneously claiming that reflexivity has abandoned the language of methodology and the attempt to evaluate work critically (186).
I will suggest below that this treatment of the reflexivity category is also linked to Jackson’s keenness to preserve the category of ‘science’ within IR. Before that, however, I want to suggest that in terms of ‘actual practices’ of IR – a key referent for Jackson’s project – pervasive category slippage might threaten the stability of the matrix.
II. Of convenience and conviction
For me, two thoughts call into question where and how the split between neopositivism and analyticism does meaningfully reflect actual practice. What I want to suggest is that actually there is fairly widespread (if readers will forgive the term) ontological miscegenation between these two forms.
Firstly, it is clear that much work that might be characterised as neopositivist for its stance on the importance of covariation in causal analysis often begins with analyticist modes of definition – that is to say value-laden ideal-types. As an example, when one thinks of famous, ostensibly neopositivist work on the democratic peace theory, such as that of Russett (1993), or work connecting democracy and development through hypothesis-testing (Przeworksi et al 1996), it is clear that the definitions of democracy being used – in both cases the political-theoretical model established by Dahl – are done so on grounds of intellectual convenience for comparison (on this, think also about justifications for using the Correlates of War datasets). In no instance that I can think of (although I am most willing to be enlightened) do neopositivist accounts construct definitions about social phenomena through an argument that is genuinely based on a ‘correspondence’ argument about the real world, which is what a thorough-going dualism would require. Because Waltz makes this presumption explicit, he is put into the analyticist camp. Yet, I would argue there are many more who in the actual practice of their research do this without the explicit intention of doing so.
Secondly, given the importance of the notion of procedural validity within analyticism, it seems that the enterprise collapses without some minimal conception of a world beyond the mind that it seeks to grasp and explain. If there were no actual/empirical world beyond the mind – if it were not logically separate from our constructs, then there would be no need to procedurally validate these constructs; validation would become either superfluous, or impossible since our constructs would be the precondition for grasping this reality. The ‘fact-value’ distinction within an analyticist framework requires that this is sustained by a valid and distinctive procedure for checking these ideal types against concrete actuality, although as I have suggested this is logically useless without the supposition of an empirical world that is independent of the mind.
The ‘phenomenalist-transfactualist’ question also seems to fall away for a logical monism, since in principle there is no ontological distinction between the statements “grass is green”, “America is a democracy” and even “rape is unjust”. All three require the employment of two different ideal-types and the application of evaluative judgement, all can be validated intersubjectively across time and space – there seems to be no obvious way to argue that one is ‘perceivable’ and the other ‘unperceivable’, or that the application of one evaluative procedure is ‘observation’ whilst the other is ‘interpretation’. I am open to the idea that I may have missed something that rescues the particular distinctiveness of the ‘factual’ judgement from that of the ‘evaluative’ judgement – although I have asked many people and no one has been able to give it to me under a monist framework.
This is not to say that there is not something important going on in the differences between these different positions in IR, nor that the statements about grass, America and rape do not differ at all. But it seems to me that the most important differences are the claims about the world itself, which are related to what we can know, rather than the hook-up between mind and world as such.
III. This year’s model
I want to suggest that the 2×2 typology might be better explicated as a spectrum which expresses varying attitudes to the stability of the world. I think its continuous axis rather than discrete categories might deal better with the actual practices of IR, and I think it more sensibly accounts for a reflexivist position that does the idea of transfactual monism. Of course, on this spectrum, particular thinkers may move categories from Jackson’s original work, but I largely follow his characterisations.
In summary, for critical realists, the social world is in principle highly determinate and knowable in both its observable and unobservable facets. Epistemological disagreements are progressive and through more detailed observation can lead to cumulatively improved knowledge about the world. For the neopositivists, direct observations of the world can be determinate but relationships between observed singularities are always hypothetical. To an extent there is scope for reasonable disagreement about the relationships but the ‘real’ relationships can in principle win out through their correspondence with the observable world across different cases. For analyticists, the world is in principle not directly observable but can be knowable through the application of systematic procedures connecting ideal types with empirical reality. Whilst there is the scope for ontological instability, it can be made irrelevant through epistemological procedures. For reflexivists, the world is ontologically and epistemologically unstable and plural, with necessary limits both to the ideas through which we grasp it and the procedures through which we seek to defend them.
|Degrees of assumed ontological stability||Ideal type in CoI
|High||Critical realism||Social and physical world in theory knowable and stable, logically necessary, observable and unobservable available for reasonable consensus given appropriately detailed and careful investigation|
|Neopositivism||Some parts of social world knowable through direct / proxy observation; particular procedures are required to stand in for unobservables. Bounded determinacy.|
|Analyticism||Heuristic use of ideal types to grasp social and physical world reflect values but particular procedures can establish ‘facts’ through logical and consistent application for limited purposes / contexts|
|Low||Reflexivity||Analytic types and procedures for application both unstable and amenable to reasonable dissent, especially so in plural experiences of social world.|
To me, this spectrum, also throws light on the ‘science’ question, already mentioned by Paul and Joe, and why Jackson might be better advised to discard the term.
In the opening chapter, following an excellently sharp critique of the use of ‘science’ as a disciplining tool, Jackson ultimately defends use of the term in the light of Weber’s fact-value distinction, or at least on the grounds of the intuitive separability of taking party-political positions from the investigation of empirical reality (20). Jackson is however wrong to characterise this as a ‘logical’ distinction, to my understanding. As far as I can seen, this is not an argument grounded in the special epistemological status of inquiry but something like an appeal to the intersubjective agreement about what it feels like to conduct Weberian-style inquiry – more or less a type of orientation to one’s work. This does not seem to me to be in any sense a logical defence of the retention of the term, if indeed the term will then be used to include positions which are sceptical of this basic separability and do not just assert but demonstrate its limits. In Chakrabarty’s formulation this is the ‘inadequate but indispensable’ status of claims about the world (2000).
If the defence of ‘science’ is a pragmatic one – to do with the utility of inquiry in terms of collective apprehension – this is a different kind of question to that asked where the defence of ‘science’ is a logical one, to do with the distinctive character of inquiry. The analyticist position that Jackson proposes seems to call for both, although they have different consequences. For example, if we are evaluating the term pragmatically, then its negatively disciplining role in the past may be a good reason to throw it out if it is preventing us as the discipline from having important conversations about the kind of world we assume we live in (which I think it is). If it is a logical claim, then I think it must necessarily attempt to exclude those that reject its logic, whatever that ultimately is: if we are to respect that logic, then we must follow it through. Ultimately, however, this might lead to the exclusions of both the critical realist and reflexivist camps from the conduct of proper inquiry.
IV. Concluding thoughts: putting the ‘social’ back into ‘social science’
Jackson’s third chapter does an excellent job of broadly demolishing the correspondence of neopositivist positions with any sophisticated or mainstream theory of the philosophy of science. The importance of this contribution, if it is in any way understood by its intended targets, is momentous. What the book as a whole does not do sufficiently is provide a convincing account of serious attempts to deal with the nature of the social world as a contested realm of interpretation and judgement. Indeed, the argument of the book appears to bracket off rather than deal with this arguably much more important question. Similarly, the demolition of the logic of critical realism to me is a convincing refutation of the logical necessity of mind-world dualism in social theory.
It is in these senses that I cannot wholeheartedly endorse Jackson’s call to consolidate a pluralist science of IR – if it is to be genuinely pluralist, the term ‘science’ should be abandoned, but if it is to be ‘scientific’ then we need to perhaps abandon the pluralism and begin to challenge unsustainable claims about the character of the social world, as he in fact quietly and successfully does.
In the next book, I would like to see him deal with rather than bracket off the serious challenges to the ‘scientific’ status of analyticism in the light of the more unstable and controversial world that reflexivity suggests. Given the exciting and stimulating character of the work under discussion, I am confident that it will prove required reading, and it will be a dialogue about social theory in IR that many will look forward to.
Ackerly, B. A., M. Stern, et al. (2006). Feminist methodologies for international relations. Cambridge, UK ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe : postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.
Fluck, M. (2010). “Truth, Values and the Value of Truth in Critical International Relations Theory.” Millennium-Journal of International Studies 39(2): 259.
Przeworski, A., M. Alvarez, et al. (1996). “What makes democracies endure?” Journal of democracy 7: 39-55.
Russett, B. M. (1993). Grasping the democratic peace : principles for a post-Cold War world. Princeton, N.J, Princeton University Press.