The Science Question in International Studies: PTJ, CoI and follow-ups

Science Montage

From the beloved xkcd

Long time TDOT readers may recall the first ever book symposium we hosted, on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. PTJ’s argument regarding the status of ‘science’, epistemology, methodology and reflexivity has continued to generate vibrant and wide-ranging discussion in the discipline. At last year’s Millennium Conference on Method, Methodology and Innovation, PTJ’s keynote speech extended an argument regarding the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge, but argued that international studies did not have to be a science. Responses from Iver Neumann, Mark Salter, Nicola Chelotti, Laura Sjoberg and myself were invited in the follow-up special issue of the journal.

I’ve made my contribution accessible via, but here’s a sneak preview:

In fact, there are two lines of argument for the distinctiveness of ‘epistemic knowing’ in the piece – one is for the distinctiveness of scientific practice as emphasising ‘systematic claims’, ‘public scrutiny’ and ‘worldliness’, and the other is for the character of scientific knowing as being characteristically ‘detached’ and ‘impersonal’. Working with these as ideal-types, Jackson argues that they will not perfectly map onto actual practice, but provide logically distinctive characteristics of ‘epistemic knowing’ / ‘science’.

This logical defence of ‘science’ might be distinguished from its sociological defence, gestured to in the response here by Iver Neumann, in which ‘science’ is more a genre, a community, operating in a specific way with as many technical and aesthetic attributes as other kinds of fields which are integral to its practices.[1] Inanna Hamati-Ataya has made this case in much more depth elsewhere in Millennium with regard to IR theory in particular as well as ‘science’ in general.[2] I would support this line of reasoning, and add that in addition, the logical distinctiveness of ‘science’ as proposed by Jackson cannot be sustained (actually, as opposed to its self-conscious objectives, technical habits and aesthetics, which arguably are distinctive).

In part, this is because on the first line of argument regarding method, at least both the requirements for ‘worldliness’ and ‘public scrutiny’ are integral to all the other kinds of knowledge Jackson proposes – aesthetic, technical, normative.[3] Regarding the ‘systematicity’ of claims, this is a little more complex and task-dependent, and also dependent on the expectations of the observer / evaluator. Is Roger Federer’s knowledge of tennis not ‘systematic’? Monet’s knowledge of how to represent light? Buddha’s knowledge of the ego? Are they more or less ‘systematic’ than Wendt’s conception of the conduct of states?[4] Are they less ‘worldly’, or less amenable to public scrutiny? At very least, these criteria on their own cannot be used to argue for the logical distinctiveness of what ‘science’ is doing. For those leading their respective fields of knowing, I would suggest that the expectations for systematicity – understood here as some form of rigour – and accountability to the relevant communities are shared dynamics.


[1] See Neumann, ‘Must International Studies Be a Science? Yes’, this issue.

[2] Hamati-Ataya, Inanna. ‘IR Theory as International Practice/Agency: A Clinical-Cynical Bourdieusian Perspective’. Millennium – Journal of International Studies 40, no. 3 (1 June 2012): 625–46.

[3] As an aside, it’s not clear that Jackson doesn’t confuse ‘writing about art’ with ‘producing aesthetic knowledge’ – under his schema these should be different things.

[4] See also Wight’s query about the systematic knowledge of one who has read the cinema listings, ‘Dualistic Grounding’, p. 342.


3 thoughts on “The Science Question in International Studies: PTJ, CoI and follow-ups

  1. “PTJ’s keynote speech extended an argument regarding the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge, but argued that international studies did not have to be a science.”

    This reminded me of a quote from
    “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

    Or: Everything should be made as simple (and thereby scientific) as possible, but no simpler.


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