ISQ Blog

Annick T. R. Wibben; posted on March 27, 2014 07:01

In 1989, Yosef Lapid proposed that post-positivist optimism was to be found in the “move toward relativism and methodological pluralism” (246). One has to wonder - was his optimism justified? Lapid claimed that the new tolerance for varied alternative epistemologies produced “an exceptional ‘opening up’ of international theory” (246) and rendered all versions of methodological monism suspect. Yet, twenty-five years later the declaration “this is unscientific” can still strike fear in the heart of an IR scholar.

More recently, Patrick Jackson (2011) again makes the case for methodological pluralism in IR. He presents a fourfold classification of approaches (neo-positivist, critical realist, analyticist and reflexivist) that are distinguished by the relationship between knower and known, yet all of which are deemed equally scientific. Ann Tickner, who has long attempted to facilitate engagements between feminist scholars and the IR mainstream, draws on Jackson to counter “IR’s frequent dismissal of  [feminist] scholarship deemed unscientific” (2011: 616). She proposes that the implication of methodological pluralism is that “we must all accept that it is not permissible to judge one methodology by standards of evaluation suitable for another” (617). This might be so, but there is more at stake here than awareness of different methodological standards.

Rather than successfully displace positivism, methodological pluralism has effected little change.  Methodological pluralism – where a variety of approaches are tolerated – makes life a little more bearable for those at the margins, but does not fundamentally challenge power relations in IR. Instead, IR has tamed disagreement by separating into camps, each with their own way of delimiting and doing IR (Sylvester 2007, 2013). The discipline has yet to take seriously the challenges posed by feminist, post-structuralist and post-colonial scholars that implicate some of the central ideas and practices of IR scholars in creating and maintaining global injustices.

Any attempt at classification invariably produces silences, but it is important to note which silences are produced and what their effects are (what Gayatri Spivak called epistemic violence in 1988). While Lapid’s development of the post-positivist profile in three acts – paradigmatism, perspectivism, and relativism – impresses with its ability to cut across a broad set of engagements, the elegance also obscures his oversights. Taking seriously “that meaning and understanding are not intrinsic to the world but, on the contrary, are continuously constructed, defended, and challenged” (Lapid, 1989: 242) it becomes necessary to carefully dissect his presentation. Closely examining what he excludes, and how the 3rd debate has consequently been narrated, provides insights into the constitution of IR as a discipline. We can detect in the silences that shape this particular epistemic community what is at stake – not just then, but today as well.

What is at stake is “the power to define and lay claim to normality” (Dunn, 2008: 52) and to set the terms of the debate(s). It is striking that positivists assume a scientist who is unidentified or disembodied – a knowing subject without an identity. Yet, isn’t the classic IR scholar, indeed almost every single person cited by Lapid, a white man? As Kevin Dunn (2008) points out, “it is important to recognize that the current academic discipline is built upon a foundation of white male privilege and that the process of privilege remains an active element in how the discipline continues to be structured, reproduced, taught and practiced” (51). This is no trivial matter: If those theorizing are men only, “what is male becomes the basis of the Abstract, the Essential and the Universal, while what is female becomes accidental, different, other” (Thiele, 1986: 35).

Asking these questions has political implications: Paying attention to who is doing the talking “allows us to become answerable for what we see”(Haraway, 1988: 583). The question of normality, of a shared understanding of the world, is central to feminist interventions (as well as postcolonial scholarship, e.g. Agathangelou & Ling, 2009, Blaney & Inayatullah, 2003, Chowdry & Nair, 2002). Recognizing that these forces fundamentally frame the international, feminist scholars (who are notably absent in Lapid’s account) reject many of the parameters of IR. Their insistence of the particular, anchored in the commitment to theorizing on the basis of (women’s) everyday experience (cf. Enloe, 2004), inevitably provides for a different understanding of global politics (Wibben, 2011)

These interventions also have methodological implications – “feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object” (Haraway, 1988: 583) – but they are primarily political. When the personal is political, “women’s subjectivities and experiences of everyday life become the site of the redefinition of patriarchal meanings and values and of resistance to them” (Weedon, 1987: 5-6). Since “most of us, most of the time, reproduce gender, class, race, and countless other relations of domination unreflectingly” (Peterson 1992: 38) situating oneself and the subject of study is a priority in challenging existing power structures (cf. Wibben, 2004).

Disagreements in IR, often framed as debates about methodology, are actually debates about politics. This can be hard to see within the broadly positivist framework that still dominates IR. While there is “little in the way of a discussion of what positivism actually means” (Smith, 1996: 16), IR separates science and politics in a way that cannot be upheld in practice. The production of knowledge and its modalities (science and scientists) are intrinsic to the social, symbolic, and political order and never free from its dimensions. The division of knowledge and politics has consequences of a different kind: it represents science as though it is clearly divided from politics and thus provides a legitimacy that seems to rest on a foundation other than authority (Wibben 2004, 2011). Ironically, “science is value-neutral in the dangerous epistemological and social sense that it is porous, transparent to the moral and political meanings that structure its conceptual schemes and methodologies” (Harding, 1986: 238). These political debates have not been resolved.

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