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Foundations of World Politics
Leoni Ansems De Vries, October 2004
Presentation - Week 2 - History and Theory in International Relations
Social, science, or social science? History, theory, historical theory? The position of
international relations among other disciplines is contested. Is or should International
Relations be regarded as a separate discipline, a social science with the emphasis on science,
or should as part of the social sciences, with an emphasis on social; informed by social
theory? This raises questions about methodology, as well as the relationship between theory
and history within the discipline of international relations. These interlinked issues will be
addressed in this presentation.
I have chosen not to summarise this weeks ‘Required Readings’, but rather refer to these and
some other authors and present their views as I go along.
I will start out by saying something about methodology in both IR and the study of history. I
will deal with the use of scientific method to produce general hypotheses, with universal
applicability. I will then look at several developments which have undermined the idea of
objective knowledge in both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. The implications this has for the
study of international relations, IR theory and the place of history within it, will subsequently
be discussed.
Evans traces the various ways in which the study of history has been approached during the
past few centuries. Can history present facts that produce explanation, or is it/should it be
concerned more with interpretation, leading to understanding? Even though less prevalent
today, the urge to be scientific appears well present, in history, as well as in other disciplines.
Distortion of history, using it as a means of propaganda is a real danger.
Furthermore, history can have practical value when generalisations can be made and lessons
can be learned. Carr stresses the importance of causation (81); history is a sequence of
causation from which a pattern of rational explanation can be derived. Those facts which can
be fitted into the pattern are historically significant (99-101).
However, different opinions about the same historical facts persist. There is no clear data
which can only be read in a single way; historical facts are open to very different
In the sciences, scientific method – rigorous, objective inductive or deductive research – has
produced rational explanations with universal applicability, which allow the sciences to make
progress. Scientific method is based on positivism, in this sense meaning that all knowledge
comes from observation, from what the senses tell us.
Not surprisingly there has been much interest in other disciplines to use scientific method in
order to produce objective results. (And to gain the same status as science enjoys.) Within
International Relations, the aim to be scientific, find general laws and be able to make
predictions, has led to historical evidence being used only to show the continuity and general
patterns in history, from which universal laws can be devised.
The question can be raised whether the methods of the so called ‘hard’ sciences can be used in
other disciplines. The social sciences do not concern themselves with molecules but with
Foundations of World Politics
human behaviour, with the social world. However, this argument can be left aside for now,
since developments in the philosophy of science have undermined the claim that objective
knowledge can be obtained in the sciences themselves.
Kuhn has argued that the work of scientists takes places within paradigms – theoretical
frameworks. In normal situations, scientists do not look beyond their own paradigm; only the
event of a scientific revolution will take scientists and scientific theory from one paradigm to
another. Successive paradigms differ from each other to such an extent that there is no
independent standard to judge them by for scientists within a paradigm. The history of science
as a continuous process of accumulation of knowledge falls apart. The absence of an objective
standard has relativist implications.
John Lewis Gaddis argues that a silent revolution has taken place within the hard sciences
about what it means to be a science. Einstein’s theory of relativity, which shows that the
aspect of things changes with the position of the observer, poses a problem of objectivity.
In practice, scientific method is not strictly adhered to by natural scientists. Post-modernists
such as Rorty point out that all sciences use rhetoric and persuasion to make their arguments.
Researchers in other disciplines should not – in order to be scientific – engage themselves in
methods that are not practised in the sciences themselves.
Returning to the study of history, Barraclough identifies contemporary history as a distinct
epoch, different in quality and content from the period of modern history. In other words,
structural transformation has taken place, implying discontinuity rather than the continuous
pattern that features the causal approach to history. Changes which mark the contemporary
era (the start of which he locates around 1960) are, for example, the new prominence of China
and the changing relations between the Communist and non-Communist world (38-39).
According the Barraclough, there is no sharp dividing line but rather a long period of
transition between the old and the new period. Therefore, the start and end, as well as the
character of a specific era can only be determined in retrospect. However, if the onset and
finish of an era cannot be precisely pinpointed, how do we know that we are actually looking
at it from the outside? And who decides which factors are decisive in marking a new era?
Similar to Kuhn’s scientific revolutions, the idea of structural transformations dividing history
into different eras without and ‘objective’ or outside standard to judge by has relativist
implications. As has been argued above, this is not confined to the human or social sciences.
If history cannot be regarded as a continuous pattern, but is marked by great transformations,
this has implications for the use of history in the study of International Relations. One of the
criticisms against orthodox IR theory is precisely that it is ahistorical.
Looking at methodology, the so called scientific methods used in the study of International
Relations, such as game theory and statistical analysis, are not as neutral as they proclaim to
be. As Woods argues in Explaining International Relations Since 1945, these methods must
rely on broader conceptualisations of international relations. Prior assumptions underlie, or
must be fed into the models used. They have a predilection towards specific theoretical
perspectives, especially realism, which has rational decision making as one of its main
features. Thus, disguised as neutral and ideology-free, these methods start out from the core
principles of realism. States as rational, unitary actors with power-maximising preferences
and the balance of power within the international system are regarded as unchanging,
universal elements. Furthermore, the domestic and international spheres are strictly separated.
Foundations of World Politics
Transformations in social structures and in the relations between states cannot be explained
through this approach which is ahistorical and maintains a separation between IR and other
social science disciplines. The latter is based on the separation of the domestic and
international spheres.
A number of alternative IR theories – critical theory, constructivism and postmodernism –
have criticised realism on these grounds, but offer diverging solutions. The discussion here
will be from the perspective of critical theory for the simple reason that Rosenberg’s historical
materialist approach was part of this week’s ‘Required Readings’.
Rosenberg argues that social relationships are historically specific rather than eternal and
unchanging. As has been argued above, realism cannot account for radical breaks and great
transformations. A more historical approach is therefore needed to identify what is distinctive
about social relationships of modernity. Rosenberg therefore contends that, in order to
uncover the historically specific structures of social relationships, the theoretical categories
used in the study of international relations, must be historical categories. These relationships
do have certain more fixed structural mechanisms (based on the relations of production) and a
theoretical understanding of these structures, as well as how they influence the reproduction
of geopolitical systems, must in turn inform historical research.
The importance of an historical perspective to identify structures of social relationships links
to the artificial distinction between the domestic and the international sphere in orthodox IR
theory, as it validates the view that IR is distinct from social theory more generally.
Rosenberg argues that the difference between the domestic and the international sphere,
where no superordinate authority exists is not an ontological difference one but merely a
different form of structured social relationship. The international sphere is a society too.
I do not necessarily entirely agree with historical materialism as IR theory. At this point –
after only one week of research into the subject matter of international relations theory – and
having a wide range of perspectives and approaches to choose from, I find myself unable to
offer a well-argued opinion on which of these non-traditional IR theories offers the most
fruitful way forward. However, I think that Rosenberg’s article makes a strong case for the
importance of both historical investigation and theoretical understanding in the study of
international relations. Moreover, it offers a strong argument for giving up the artificial
separation of the domestic and the international, which opens up the possibility of a more
interdisciplinary approach.
Which leads us back to the questions set out at the beginning, as well as into the conclusion of
this presentation. As has been argued, the concept of scientific method – producing objective
results – is problematic, in both the natural sciences and other disciplines. Resorting to
scientism, IR becomes ahistorical and deliberately neglects the social world, failing to give an
account great transformations and the historical specificity social structures. Historical
research should therefore be part of IR, in combination with theoretical understanding.
Furthermore, an interdisciplinary approach can provide insights not only from history, but
also sociology, politics and economics, giving a broader understanding of the links between
IR and other social theories. Thus, IR should be regarded as a discipline within the social
sciences, not with an emphasis on science, but rather on the social, informed by other social
science disciplines and social theory more generally.
Foundations of World Politics