Renounce Spoonfeeding!; Or, What’s Wrong With International Relations Textbooks Anyway?

Term is upon us, and with it new cohorts of students eager for the accumulated wisdom of IR condensed into textbook form. e-IR recently promoted two such texts, and I took gentle exception.

But what’s so wrong with textbooks anyway? It’s not so much the simplification itself. All theory (including some much-lauded high theory) does that. Nor is it any particular problem with the qualifications of the authors (the contributors to Baylis, Smith and Owens, for example, are pretty well the dominant names in their respective sub-fields).

Still, textbooks do seem to take on a strange epistemic authority, at least in undergraduate study. Confused by the relationship between ethics and self-interest in Morgenthau? Settle it with some bullet-points! IR is a young discipline, and none of its canonical texts approach the difficulty of, say, political, social or cultural theory proper. Any competence is going to come from understanding those texts, so why not do it sooner rather than later? Moreover, the relentless simplifications of the ‘paradigms’ debates (can we drop the mutilation of Kuhn yet?) provide an easy tool for obliterating complexity. This is not unrelated to a patronising attitude towards students, gently shepherded through the early years before being told harsher truths.

Textbooks, especially ones recommended at the start of courses as the intellectual crutches of choice, reinforce those dynamics. But it gets worse. Textbooks also lie.

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Demarcation Problems: ‘The Conduct Of Inquiry’ Between Politics & Methodology

This is the first in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics, released last year to considerable critical acclaim. The next few weeks will see further posts, followed by a reply by Jackson (or PTJ) himself. Taken together, we hope they go some way to meeting the challenge, to paraphrase PTJ himself, of emerging from splendid isolation to engage in some contentious conversations on inquiry.

UPDATE (24 Jan): Joe’s call to free the pluralist imagination is now up.

UPDATE (3 Feb): Nick’s speculative realist examination of inference, progress and materialist monism is now available.

UPDATE (17 Feb): Meera’s further untangling of ‘science’ and challenge to the stasis and status of reflexivism completes this round of responses.

UPDATE (14 March): PTJ has begun his reply.

Conclusion: neither science nor the methodology of research programmes provides arguments against anarchism. Neither Lakatos nor anybody else has shown that science is better than witchcraft and that science proceeds in a rational way. Taste, not argument, guides our choice of science; taste, not argument, makes us carry out certain moves within science (which does not mean that decisions on the basis of taste are not surrounded by and entirely covered by arguments, just as a tasty piece of meat may be surrounded and entirely covered by flies). There is no reason to be depressed by this result. Science, after all, is our creature, not our sovereign; ergo, it should be the slave of our whims, and not the tyrant of our wishes.

Paul Feyerabend, ‘Theses on Anarchism’ (1973), For & Against Method (with Imre Lakatos)

I: Conducts Of Inquiry

Paul Feyerabend’s Dada-ist approach to the philosophy of science was informed by a hostility to singular conceptions of the world, a rejection of rigid prescriptions for the correct character of knowledge and a healthy scepticism towards how people thought their forms of inquiry worked. Setting himself against method, he argued that ‘science’ has no common structure and that no general laws can explain its success or prescribe its methods. The growth of knowledge has not only historically been associated with a disrespect for prevailing methodological rules, it in fact requires such violation (whether deliberately or unwittingly).

Patrick Jackson’s The Conduct Of Inquiry attempts both to expand and to limit the knowledge practices counted as legible and legitimate in International Relations. Like Feyerabend (and Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper for that matter), Jackson evinces a healthy distrust of hard, fast or easy judgements about truth, reality and research procedure. And so he both avoids making the argument for a particular philosophical perspective with which to forge ‘better’ IR and eschews usual schemas that start with the putative ‘fundamentals’ of ontology and epistemology. Instead he offers a Weberian ideal-typification of methodologies (not methods), intended not as a menu of coherent and precise options but as a useful typology of functional categories (on which more in a moment).

The conception of methodology proffered is an expansive one, taken to designate ‘the logical structure and procedure of scientific inquiry’, but not the actual nature of reality and knowledge or the correct technique for a particular problem. Four commitments to philosophical ontology organise the options, generating four methodologies through their various combinations. The purpose is not somehow to test between them, but to reveal their assumptions and explain how they hang together as philosophical wagers. Hence the need to discuss the forms of faith and commitment that under-gird our styles of research.

So, in one sense, we could read PTJ as speaking with Feyerabend in demonstrating that “all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits…like an undercover agent who plays the game of Reason in order to undercut the authority of Reason (Truth, Honesty, Justice, and so on)“.

This intervention is much needed. Continue reading