“Post-positivism” and the real “orthodoxy”

By casting the past of the field of international relations as “positivist,” Lapid’s 1989 article elides important parts of the historical discourse and thus narrows the possibilities of self-understanding in the field. When we consider, however, that his article epitomizes the critical discussion of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this assessment may not seem fair. My apology here is that if he had elaborated upon his analytical and interpretative starting points, we might have gained a more adequate understanding of “orthodoxy” in the field. Lapid certainly paved the way for a more substantive analysis of the body of research; but unfortunately his suspicion that “systematic reconstruction” (Giddens 1979) can mean a “new orthodoxy” prevented him from taking more decisive steps in this direction.

Referring to the works of Holton (1987) and Wisdom (1987), Lapid speaks of three axes of portraying scientific knowledge (“paradigmatism”): “phenomenic” (empirical content), “analytic” (hypothesis, explanations, models), and “thematic”. The thematic axis includes “metaphysical” ingredients ranging from reality-defining assumptions and ideology to epistemological premises. A more detailed elaboration of this last-mentioned axis in its ontological problematic in connection with the “perspectivist” task (which additionally includes epistemological and axiological questions) could have facilitated “systematic reconstruction” in a sense which also keeps in mind that “[p]erspectivism can play a constructive role only in so far as it acknowledges the historic and dynamic character of cognitive schemes and assumptive frameworks” (Lapid, 1989: 248). If Lapid, instead of focusing on mainly “paradigmatism”, had more substantively articulated how “perspectivism” connects with his third theme, i.e. the need to demonstrate the “relativism” of the discourse that reproduces the meta-scientific units, he might have had the means to also relativize his own assumptions about the dominance of positivism in the field.

In the more general sense, my point is that a deeper awareness of the history of the discipline could have helped the critical researchers of those days to recognize that the argument about the reign of a “positivist orthodoxy”, which was imported from the discussions in sociology, never held true for the study of international relations in any way comparable to sociology. In 1989 the empiricist (positivist) ideal had already been largely given up and replaced with the recognition that scientific rationality is a norm of the research community. This “sociological” wisdom had emerged from the Kuhnian wave of discussions and was convenient in the epistemic void it had left behind. By the mid 1980s, the “interparadigm debate” had confirmed the identity of the field as mutually contending perspectives (presented as theory frameworks) on the  empirical world. Because the epistemic bases of this contention were also contested, the threat of “orthodoxy” lay in the reliance on convention in the research community. Concepts and frameworks become so predominant that they, a priori and as “concept labels”, defined research problems. Such predominance of the concept is even manifest in the identity of the field as a series of established debates and schools, “named” with capital letters, e.g. Neorealism or Neoliberalism. In individual research, the predominance of the concept means that research problems represent (symbolize) schools and approaches rather than emerge from the researcher’s reflections and encounters with the domain of study. “Post-positivism” arguably meant to critique all this; but it was an unhappy choice of term.

In hindsight, it is easy to notice that the inspiration which generated the new wave of criticism in 1989 arose through the disciplinary connection which also previously, then in the form of the scientific study of behavior, had shown the way for International Studies. The positivist idea about “unified science” appeared in a new guise when sociology, now turned into social theory, once again was looked at as the source of development. This background convention explains why it mattered so little to ask how the claim about “positivist orthodoxy” applied to the historical body of research in our field, and why it, consequently, was not clear if positivism was used as a metaphor of unreflective attitudes or as an argument about methodology. In the last-mentioned sense positivism, in the form of empiricism, is only a thin strand of discourse on both sides of the North Atlantic. (Rytövuori-Apunen, 2005) Because post-positivism was more a construction of the mind than an argument about a historical discourse, it left a narrow understanding of the field. Surely such excesses of the “celebratory” moment were not Lapid’s alone—and they were yet to come, not least in the joy of “poststructuralist” play with the duality of semantic meaning and the freedom of interpretation assumed in “social construction”.

In these developments, early realism was deformed in two ways; first by behavioralist study which, with a strong input from peace research, cast it as mental setup and attitudinal disposition, and second by making it serve legitimization of great power policies. Academic research, at that time occupied with establishing new conventions with the “neo”-prefix, showed little concern about these developments, and the impact of the “traditionalists” remained embedded and invisible to discussants such as Lapid, who made far too sweeping generalizations about the field being “positivist”. Lapid, who in 1989 opened all windows to the future but, with the argument that the new moment was post-positivist, veiled the way back, contributed to maintaining a collective blind spot about a more persistent “orthodoxy”. But, as mentioned, the predicament is not fair to the individual writer. The discourse in our field was not yet receptive for a “practice turn” which could help us see that systematic reconstruction need not be a step towards a new “orthodoxy”, if we remain critical of the predominance of any research convention — and can systematically reconstruct the field in ways that hold to epistemological realism without privileging empiricism (Rytövuori-Apunen, 2014 illustrates this argument with examples).

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