The Good Debate

It is a genuine pleasure to reflect upon Yosef Lapid’s “Third Debate” article. I remember all too well finding it an exciting cutting-edge piece that spoke to me as a Ph.D. student, and around which I oriented some of my own ruminations in a paper on funky new approaches for my core graduate seminar in International Relations. That paper, as I look back, pivotally helped me work out my own intellectual place, and for that I’ve always been grateful for Lapid’s article which helped sort out in its very clear language a maelstrom of intellectual ferment. In the spirit of the piece, I didn’t deploy the conventional methodology of re-reading the article itself to then reflect upon how well its analysis and arguments have held up. Rather, as enjoined by the Symposium editor (my way of ducking blame if this strikes any readers as too solipsistic), this is a more personal reflection by a scholar who followed some of the paths charted by Lapid’s piece among others. My method here instead then has been to first engage in the archival research of finding my hand-written notes taken when I first engaged the article - miraculously an empirical success. I have then used those notes as a springboard to reflect upon what I found so critical then and how well those beacons of attraction hold up today as having proven salient, and pondering a few implications of what has come to pass or not.

My first reflection is to recognize that there are far more proclamations of game-changing new approaches, of being in a pivotally unique time, and so on, than in hindsight live up to the billing. Every era likes to think they are at least a little bit special. Even being self-conscious of that tendency, I am struck that the very fact of this symposium provides some external validation to my sense then that Lapid’s proclamation was at the threshold of a new era. His clearly was a diagnosis of major intellectual currents that indeed challenged and subsequently changed the look of the discipline. This is not to say that the orthodoxies against which the meta-theoretical and other innovations were arrayed have gone away, but neither was that Lapid’s contention; rather he argued that the end of the hegemony of a particular positivist consensus was nigh. There have been and will continue to be plenty of analyses of the extent to which such an alleged intellectual flowering has in fact really delivered greater post-positivist reflexivity, theoretical or methodological tolerance, and diversity as reflected in such metrics as hiring practices, the content of top-ranked journals, and the like.

While averse to making too much in the way of such pontifications here (after all, they will not have been tested and are but my interpretations) I would hazard to observe that it has been clear that one of the chief analytical constructs to emerge from Lapid’s ‘third debate’ – what has come to be known as constructivism – is a (if not the) chief contender in English-language IR debates to what has developed out of the positivist orthodoxy to be known (however accurately) as rationalism. Notably, there has not been a ‘fourth debate’ since of comparable scope across the methodological, theoretical and epistemological fronts but rather relatively more contained exchanges within those domains.  

Among the sortings out of the debates chronicled by Lapid has been the advent of methodological pluralism. This has cut several ways, however. An increasingly common format of Ph.D. dissertations at least in their North American variety (depending of course upon the research question), is for multi-method research designs that might have a large-N overview followed by case studies to tease out the causal or constitutive relations suggested by correlations. While on the one hand one could say this fosters diversity insofar as quantitatively oriented scholars are pulled to engage in more contextualized analysis, to the extent such multi-method designs become an expectation it conversely means that those who favour close contextual (including more interpretive) work may be judged lacking if they do not themselves also employ quantitative methods, re-asserting the influence of post-positivist positivism albeit in a different guise. But if one really believes in the value of intellectual diversity rather than just championing it instrumentally to create a space for one’s own preferred approach, then such an incarnation of perspectivism might be seen as a salutary outgrowth of the currents diagnosed and encouraged by Lapid, so long as it is utilized appropriately. One might see that development as something of a co-optation of qualitative methods by quantitative, though more generously a multi-perspectival analysis to a single subject matter would seem to be consistent with the pluralist epistemological underpinnings diagnosed by Lapid.

The call for a more reflexive intellectual environment announced a key task, but realizing this has proven challenging and even elusive. Increased intellectual diversity methodologically has also meant specialization and increased sophistication into silos. The deeper down those drill, the more difficult it is to communicate with others outside. I might liken this to the proliferation of languages – while it creates a richer and more varied environment, the ability to engage in genuine communication across them becomes a rare talent, and the community increasingly fractured.

Finally, while Lapid was generally optimistic about the intellectual gains of methodological pluralism, he warned that a set of guiding assumptions – if elevated – may lead to excessive preoccupation with marginal problems. The shift of attention to the explicitness of assumptions and their implications that characterized the third debate for Lapid has not proven to be sustained, insofar as it is all too common an experience to listen to a job talk – whether from a modeler or critical theorist or some other - that exhibits that preoccupation with rather marginal questions which are pursued as the mountain was climbed - ‘because it was there.’ To justify work as dealing with important problems requires a normative defense, yet normative international relations theory still has tended to take a back seat to empirical work, even as both are intimately informed by the other. 

Combined with the ongoing calls for engaged scholars and scholarship, a debate about which has yet again erupted recently, these two forces lend strong direction towards reigning in the relevance of nonetheless necessary theoretical and methodological sophistication and specialization. Calls for relevant scholarship have long been there, but perhaps are accentuated today with the variety of contemporary opportunities afforded by social media including blogs like this. While this was not something that Lapid was in a position to foresee, it is a terrain that in many respects is entirely facilitative of many of the currents he diagnosed, even as it is not without its own hazards and challenges. In that sense, Lapid's analysis might have been even more before his time than my own original engagement could possibly have appreciated.


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