Since the publication of Yosef Lapid’s essay “The Third Debate” in 1989 (Lapid, 1989), the term “third debate” has become part of the basic lexicon of international relations (IR). But its contours remain disputed. It is generally assumed that IR as a discipline witnessed two moments of intense discussion before the 1980s: first, when the classical realist approach to international relations contested the liberal tradition, and, second, when the importation of the behaviorist guidelines into IR challenged the “unscientific” methods of both realist and liberal inquiries. Even if several scholars consider that the second debate was more a “phony war” than a genuinely inter-paradigmatic debate (Smith, 1987, p. 190), this story looks consensual up to the point that Ashley situates his contribution against the backdrop offered by these two “American revolutions”—“the realist revolution against idealism, and the scientific revolution against traditionalism” (Ashley, 1984, p. 228).
However, it is trickier to locate the “third debate” precisely on the IR theory map, and hence to demarcate it from other “debates.” Typically, the problem comes in two forms. First, many students of IR have their own view on what the “third debate” is about. It is indeed no easy task to clearly identify what exactly are the sources, components, contenders, and positions of this debate, because there are almost as many definitions as there are accounts of the phenomenon. In large part, this is due both to the eclectic character of the enterprise from which the debate originated and to the more or less conscious misunderstanding of this enterprise by some scholars working within the mainstream theoretical framework whose legitimacy was questioned.
Second, uncertainty clouds the number of debates that occurred in IR—and therefore their precise counting—and, in extreme cases, some scholars ask whether we can, or should, talk about “debates” at all (Banks, 1985; Bell, 2003; Schmidt, 2012). When students of IR count “debates,” most keep a tally of only three debates, but some accounts mention four. Echoing Maghroori and Ramberg’s claim (1982), Smith (2010) considers the emergence of transnationalism as launching the “third debate” and identifies the “fourth debate” as that between “rationalists” and “reflectivists,” suggesting that this last debate was sparked by Keohane (1988), subsequently published in International Studies Quarterly (ISQ). This classification is ambiguous, however, as Keohane holds that the transnationalist school constituted the first “real” inter-paradigmatic debate in IR, and suggests that a new (and therefore second) inter-paradigmatic debate was gaining impetus. Neufeld (1993; 1994) notes that different authors find different contenders animating the third debate (e.g., “realism,” “pluralism,” and “structuralism” for Banks; “realism,” “pluralism,” and “globalism” for Kauppi and Viotti), while Sylvester (1994) offers the simplest description possible, as the third debate is depicted as an attempt to move beyond positivism. Interestingly, Kurki and Wight (2010, p. 16) note that “although there is no consensus on the exact number of great debates, four are generally accepted to have played an important role in shaping the discipline,” and label the neo-neo discussion as the third debate, the fourth being “centered on deep-seated disagreements about what the discipline should study and how it should study it” (Kurki & Wight, 2010, p. 17). They recognize that this latter debate “is somewhat confusingly also referred to as the ‘third debate’ by some IR theorists” (Kurki & Wight, 2010, p. 20). This typology is identical to the one suggested by Wæver (1996). The picture gets even more complicated when one moves outside the English-speaking world. In France, for instance, scholars such as Roussel (2013, p. 99) claims that IR’s third debate was a triangular discussion between realists, liberals, and neo-Marxists. Finally, there are scholars who stop counting after the second debate, denying the presence or importance of a third debate (Navon, 2001, p. 622) as there are researchers less convinced by the existence of a first debate (Wilson, 1998).
These ways of framing disciplinary debates remain marginal, however. By and large, most students of IR treat the liberal-realist and the behavioral-traditional discussions as “debates” and do not seem to judge that the transnationalist challenge deserves such a label. Even those who propose an alternative numbering of inter-paradigmatic debates concede that their counting is “unconventional” (Wæver, 1996, p. 174). Moreover, in the 1989 ISQ special issue, contributors explicitly referred to the ongoing discussion as the “third debate.” Most IR scholars and books situate the start of the third debate in the mid-1980s, with its apex at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s (Cox & Sjolander, 1995, pp. 3–5). Thus, with these reservations in mind, it is possible to identify a scholarly enterprise called the “third debate,” though “traditions of thought [in IR] are never as internally coherent or self-enclosed as they appear” (Devetak, 2007, p. 8). The literature contains three reasons to fix the meaning in this way (Lapid, 1989; Locher & Prügel, 2001; Price & Reus-Smit, 1998; Monteiro & Ruby, 2009, p. 21).
First, a debate is precisely what scholars associated with this move wanted to (and did) create, much more than what purportedly happened in the first and second debates. Arguably, a prevailing idea in their contributions was to provoke a discussion with mainstream scholars by unleashing a multifaceted critique of existing theorizations, and not much to put forward a new, coherent theory of international politics in opposition to the established framework. For example, Ashley presented his contribution as a series of “warning shots, meant to provoke discussion, not destroy an alleged enemy” (Ashley, 1984, p. 229), and Kratochwil and Ruggie (1986, p. 768) similarly wrote: “let it be understood that we are not advocating a coup.”
Second, there is some degree of consensus on who, when, and through which articles the debate was initiated. Barnett (2006) identifies the four most influential contributions to the establishment of the constructivist agenda: Ruggie’s 1983 review essay on Waltz’s book Theory of International Politics, Ashley’s 1984 critique of neorealism, Wendt’s 1987 paper on the agent-structure problem, and Kratochwil’s 1989 book Rules, Norms and Decisions. In addition to these individual efforts, three special issues—of Millennium (1988, vol. 17, no. 2) and ISQ (1989, vol. 33, no. 3; 1990, vol. 34, no. 3)—were instrumental in connecting these and other interventions and have therefore been highly influential in the field, contributing to naming and characterizing this new discussion. What’s more, there has been a sense of group identification among these scholars, which makes them relatively easily classifiable. Studying IR scholarship as a social “field of struggles,” Hamati-Ataya (2012) outlines the performative nature of author’s assumptions about paradigms and theories in order to show how these claims were built in exact opposition to the supposedly monolithic characteristics of mainstream scholarship.
Third, a limited series of core elements are identifiable beyond this diversity as common components of a coherent debate. In his contribution to the 1989 ISQ special issue, Jim George identifies four “major themes to the agenda of dissent”: one, an attack on the positivist character of traditional IR; two, an emphasis on the constructed nature of knowledge in contrast with rational axioms; three, a dismissal of the foundational ideal of knowledge; and four, an insistent claim that language play a central role in the construction of reality (George, 1989, p. 272). Translated into the terms of this article, the third debate aims to deal with the following overlapping concerns: to engage established theories by calling for more diversity in IR; to contest the ontological and epistemological assumptions on which (neo)realism and (neo)liberalism are based (this corresponds to George’s four “main themes”); to refute the idea of IR as a value-neutral scientific field, endorsing instead the vision of IR as a critical, normative enterprise. In short, the “third debate in IR” is a discussion which, in the 1980s and 1990s, followed a composite claim for a more diverse, less epistemologically and ontologically naive, and more critical IR.
This article is organized as follows. It begins by tracing the development of the third debate, its intellectual influences and disciplinary moves. It finds that what unites proponents of the debate is less a clear set of assumptions than their commitment to a broad understanding of pluralism. The second section explores how this pluralism plays out in two of the most fundamental fields of disagreements, ontology and epistemology. This enables one to highlight the differences both among the third debate’s proponents and between the latter and positivists. The third section emphasizes the political characteristics of the third debate, in particular its promise to account for excluded and marginal voices. Here, the article turns to critique and reflexivity. Finally, the article charts the impact of the third debate on the evolution of IR and draws out the main challenges that it has yet to take seriously.
A caveat is in order. Because the third debate, as understood in this article, encompasses a diversity of approaches to IR (feminism, critical theory, constructivism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, etc.) this article aims to provide the background against which those strands can be examined, understood, and assessed. That is, the details for each of the approaches indicated above should be sought in other entries (see the reference list at the end).
Pluralism in a New Key: Questions of Origins and Essence
The most apparent change that scholars pushing for reform in IR in the 1980s wanted to bring about was an opening up of the theoretical field to previously neglected viewpoints. For the sake of intelligibility, we will call them “dissidents,” as most labeled themselves (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 263). Dissidents “have infused the ‘third debate’ in International Relations with an appreciation for previously ‘alien’ approaches to knowledge and society, drawn from interdisciplinary sources” (George, 1989, p. 269). In other words, the demand for diversity stems from the necessity to liberate the field from the neo-utilitarian tradition of thought. On the other hand, the call for diversity was meant to connect IR to the intellectual sources of humanities and social sciences. Der Derian stresses, for instance, the “variety of philosophical insurgencies” that traditional IR faces, and insists that these various contestations are wide-ranging, as they “call into question the very language, concepts, methods, and history (that is, the dominant discourse) which constitutes and governs a ‘tradition’ of thought in the field” (Der Derian, 1988, p. 189). As a consequence, Kratochwil and Ruggie see the opening up of the discipline as “the only viable option” (Kratochwil & Ruggie, 1986, p. 766).
It appears, therefore, that the variety of sources upon which “dissident” scholars draw their inspiration is impressive. The works of scholars as different as Foucault, Wittgenstein, Horkheimer, Habermas, Lacan, Derrida, and Bourdieu are sometimes evoked in single contributions. To take one of the most famous contributions, Ashley’s attack on neorealism (1984) heavily relies on Thompson’s critique of structuralism, but draws also upon Bourdieu, Habermas, the early Frankfurt School, Weber, Foucault, Popper, and Sartre. Kratochwil and Ruggie’s denunciation of the epistemology-ontology mismatch in international studies (1986) takes insights from Weber, Robert Cox, Foucault, and Habermas. Elsewhere, Derrida, Marx, Foucault, Ricœur, and Weber influence Walker’s critique of how change is conceptualized by realism (1987), while Der Derian’s introduction to the 1988 special issue of Millennium dedicated to the new approaches to IR mentions the Frankfurt School, Gramsci, Habermas, Sartre, Nietzsche, Barthes, Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva and Virilio, among others. George’s contribution to the ISQ’s special issue (1989) adds Gadamer, Bernstein, and Giddens to this list.
Equally, contributions to recent IR handbooks and textbooks reveal this diversity in inspiration (see, for instance, Dunn Cavelty & Mauer, 2009; Burgess, 2010; Peoples & Vaughn-Williams, 2010; Dunne, Kurki, & Smith, 2013). Examining the postmodern component of the third debate, Bleiker (2007) singles out Lyotard, Baudrillard, Vattimo, Harvey, and Jameson as the most influential sources, whereas Chernoff (2007) highlights the importance of the works of Saussure, Wittgenstein, and Foucault. For Burke (2010, p. 362), challengers have “synthesized key insights from the literature that developed and critiqued the semiology of Charles Pierce and Ferdinand de Saussure, the language-games of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and the early Michel Foucault.” Instead of piling up names, Campbell (2010) singles out four main “post-empiricist” influences on the challengers’ agenda in IR: the “linguistic turn” in Anglo-American philosophy, the development of hermeneutics in continental philosophy, developments in the philosophy of science, and the development of complexity science (chaos theory, etc.). Finally, in her paper on “reflexive approaches” to IR, Hamati-Ataya (2013) attempts to sort the “substantial variety of disciplinary and intellectual traditions in philosophy and the social sciences” that motivated this move and identifies as key sources the Frankfurt School, hermeneutics, Bourdieu, Giddens, Beck, and Bhaskar.
In sum, there are three main intellectual lineages that have been more or less coherently articulated, despite their internal variations: critical theory (from its initial exposition by Frankfurt School scholars to its contemporary developments by scholars such as Habermas or Honneth), the postmodern tradition, and post-Popper debates in the philosophy of science. This enables us to clarify George’s and Campbell’s original exposition of the two main sources of the third debate: new theories of language (from Wittgenstein to Foucault, plus Winch and Kuhn), and the Frankfurt School’s heritage of theory as resistance to domination. It is worth recalling that whereas critical theory has been developed more as a complement to than in opposition to “traditional theory” and typically insists on the need for a rational and interdisciplinary inquiry into situations of exclusion and domination, postmodern scholars have in common their doubt vis-à-vis the possibility of producing any sort of objective, “rational” knowledge, claiming instead that any discourse is constitutive of a power relation (Wight, 2002, p. 33). As Biersteker warned, however, critical theory and postmodernism are not easily combinable without being distorted or betrayed, as “the epistemological and ontological bases (and purposes) of their critiques are profoundly different” (Biersteker, 1989, p. 264). According to Mark Hoffman (1987), critical theory did not seek to dismantle but to decenter positivism (Habermas, 1988). A further difficulty has been to integrate the insights brought about in philosophy and sociology by the intense discussion on the logics of scientific inquiry launched by Popper and further sustained by Kuhn, Lakatos, or even Latour.
The consequence is that while this pluralism has enriched the field, it has also become a source of difficulty outside it. Indeed, as Smith diagnosed, the task was very “difficult because of the nature of the literature that is involved: the works of Habermas and Foucault are unlikely to prove popular reading for academics steeped in a traditional or behavioural literature. These works . . . simply do not fit with the prevailing US paradigm” (Smith, 1987, p. 202). These “communication problems” (George, 1989, p. 275) led Ashley to feel “the obligation to present (his) opinion in ‘familiar’ terms, that is, in a way that makes reference to the collective experiences of North American students of IR” (Ashley, 1984, p. 229). Moreover, this diversity in intellectual sources brought about a change—and sometimes confusion—in the terminology used by these scholars. Key concepts such as “critical,” “reflexive,” “epistemology,” and “deconstruction” received many different understandings. In this case, as Hamati-Ataya (2013) observes, “the first problem that faces a reader of ‘reflexive’ scholarship is terminological ambiguity.” For these reasons, the argument for diversity has inevitably provided an easy line for a counter-argument. The fuzziness that diversity produces here explains why at the end of the day “the reflexive turn seems so familiar as a ‘turn away from’ but simultaneously so difficult to identify as a clear ‘move toward’” (Hamati-Ataya, 2013). This echoes Lapid’s (1989, p. 237) warning against “the difficulty some have in identifying a coherent ‘debate.’”
Notwithstanding, diversity has consistently remained dissidents’ strongest statement, in opposition to the mainstream’s supposed monolithic character. Therefore, diversity has been recurrently endorsed in an explicit way and presented as a key component of the ongoing critical enterprise. Yet it is not regarded as a strategy that foregrounds a new paradigm. In other words, as its proponents argue, the third debate’s ambition was never to put forward a new, coherent, and fully fledged theoretical framework; rather, it strove to mount a multifaceted critique of “traditional” IR theories. Presenting the 1988 Millennium special issue, Der Derian explained that the contributions gathered therein “studiously and self-consciously defy any label” and serve “to open up the field” without the ambition “to anticipate ready answers” (Der Derian, 1988, p. 189). In the 1989 ISQ special issue, George similarly suggested to understand the third debate not as the emergence of a clearly identified new theory but rather “as a loosely framed and evolving set of attitudes toward theory and practice which takes into account a whole range of analytical approaches, some of which are not easily compatible with others” (George, 1989, p. 270). One year later, Ashley and Walker confirmed the idea that the concern was “not to announce a new and powerful perspective on global politics for which a discipline must make way,” but rather to offer a “celebration” of heterogeneity (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 264). In his recent review on the poststructuralist component of the enterprise, Campbell (2010, p. 216) confirms that “rather than setting a paradigm through which everything is understood, poststructuralism is a critical attitude, approach, or ethos that calls attention to the importance of representation, the relationship of power and knowledge, and the politics of identity in an understanding of global affairs,” and Bleiker insists that it would be impossible to offer a clear-cut picture, since “postmodern scholarship is characterized more by diversity than by a common set of beliefs” (Bleiker, 2007, p. 86). Similarly, Weber urges that the constructivist view, which emerged from this debate, “is not a theory, but should rather be understood as a framework according to which some general assumptions about the discipline are reconfigured” (Weber, 2007, p. 98).
Thus, the repertoire of intellectual sources available is seen as an essential part of the enterprise of provoking a renewal of IR theories. For dissidents, indeed, the most fundamental aim of the debate to open the discussion in IR from (and to) as many standpoints as possible, precisely because the state of IR theory is diagnosed as deeply problematic. Pushing the new reflexive, critical agenda forward, dissidents insist on the need for pluralism in IR because, so the argument goes, IR emerged as a discipline in a far too isolated way—hence failing to “update” and progress, and evolving into a monolithic, circular reasoning. This claim comes with two interrelated dimensions in the literature: on the one hand, it is argued that IR has grown in isolation from other social sciences and fields of philosophical inquiry. On the other hand, it is argued that it has developed in the United States in isolation from contributions put forward in other parts of the world.
To start with, dissidents depict traditional IR as a closed discipline that has often been impermeable to potentially enriching influences from other social sciences and philosophy. As a consequence, IR has missed several intellectual trains which profoundly modified—in a positive way—other disciplines such as sociology or philosophy. In particular, it has been argued that the social sciences have abandoned the hopeless objective of blindly adopting the principles of the natural sciences, and have consequently built complex accounts of their objects, modes of theorization, and logics of empirical inquiry (Campbell, 2010, p. 216).
The critique was not mostly aimed toward the very idea of developing a scientific approach to international relations (Jackson, 2011); rather, it usually targeted the supposedly naive conception of science that persisted in international relations in spite of its disappearance elsewhere (and even in the natural sciences). George rightly noted that dissidents appeared to have little alternative than to focus, somehow “ironically, on the anti-scientific tendencies of positivism which, its critics argue, has misrepresented and/or ignored some of the most sophisticated dimensions of scientific thinking since the 1920s” (George, 2007, p. 33). More specifically, IR is accused of having ignored two main critiques of positivism: the Popper-Kuhn-Lakatos debate in philosophy of science, on the one hand, and the Nietzschean lineage in the social science, best represented by Foucault, on the other.
Dissidents, therefore, primarily “know their activity as attempts to set up a series of relays” between IR and the other social theories (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 263), in view of “updating” IR theory. In one of the third debate’s first contributions, Ashley sharply observed that “just as the dominance of structuralist thought is waning elsewhere . . . North American theorists of international relations are proudly proclaiming their own ‘structuralist turn’” (Ashley, 1984, p. 277). Lapid (1989, p. 250) went as far as denouncing IR’s “posture of intellectual hibernation,” while George and Campbell stigmatized a “post-Cartesian amnesia,” that is, a “ritual forgetting” of the insights of all contemporary philosophers (George & Campbell, 1990, p. 289). Smith adopted a broader perspective, recalling that IR has always developed as an independent discipline, and from the very start, in a hermetic way in complete isolation to other social sciences. He claimed that this isolation from outside influences has always been secured by the theoretical content of realism, and was not due to the characteristics of the reality under scrutiny (Smith, 1987, p. 199). Ashley offered an alternative explanation of this closure, analyzing the previous great debates as constitutive elements of a myth-making process that both established neorealism as a dominant theory and justified its prominence, hence closing the space for contestation (Ashley, 1984, p. 230). This point of view was shared by Walker (1987, p. 69), who defined the liberal-realist polarity as “something like a founding myth” which cannot be called into question, and by George and Campbell, for whom the great debates “merely served to further isolate International Relations from debates developing elsewhere” (George & Campbell, 1990, p. 282).
The second feature of dissidents’ call for diversity is to problematize the “parochialism of American international political discourse” (Ashley, 1984, p. 229). There are two interrelated sides to this attack. First, dissidents regretted that being mostly based in the United States for various sociopolitical reasons, IR has disregarded theoretical and empirical investigations coming from elsewhere. That is, the need for alternative voices does not solely come from the theoretical failures of realism, but also from the “clearly defined pattern of thinking about this subject as it has developed in Europe and North America” (Walker, 1987, p. 69). In the final analysis, then, had IR developed with contributions from Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe, perhaps would it have been much richer and able to address crucial issues of world politics, in a more nuanced way. In his 1987 discussion, Smith clearly put forward his hopes that the opening up of the discipline would “allow the discipline to become more applicable to the concerns of scholars working in other countries . . . In this way, International Relations may become a non-hegemonic discipline” (Smith, 1987, p. 204). The upshot of this citation is that there is a normative dimension in the claim that closure to the rest of the world has been detrimental to the discipline as a whole. In effect, dissidents argue that only the most powerful political actor has been heard so far, whereas the less powerful ones have been marginalized. For George, the third debate had the specific purpose “to open some space within Western theory so that voices otherwise marginalized can be heard” (George, 1989, p. 273).
More recently, Bleiker considered that the new agenda sought “to challenge and uproot entrenched thinking patterns, such that we can see the world from more than one perspective, such that marginalized voices can be brought into the realm of dialogue” (Bleiker, 2007, p. 90); in the same vein, Campbell (2010, p. 216) explains the arrival of contestation by stressing that “(realism) failed to hear (let alone appreciate) the voices of excluded people and perspectives.” In this perspective, the instigation of the third debate is explained by both the will of a handful of US-based scholars to listen to foreign voices and by a parallel will of some foreign scholars to discuss with the US mainstream from their own foreign standpoint (Smith, 1987, p. 202). For many dissidents, IR has failed to develop into a complex social science precisely because of this US parochialism. For example, focusing on realism’s supposedly poor understanding and implementation of positivism, Ashley argued that “many American political scientists are unaware of its [positivism’s] rich currents of meaning in recent European, Latin American, and North American sociology, philosophy, and anthropology” (Ashley, 1984, p. 249; cf. Bilgin, 2007; Tickner & Wæver, 2009; Comaroff & Comaroff, 2012; Balzacq & Ramel, 2013). Other scholars, however, point to the political dimension underpinning the dissidents’ claim that IR was in need of a view from the outside, underlying their “straw man” strategy. Katzenstein and Sil (2010), for example, have suggested that the fragmentation of IR into various theoretical subfields, and hence its opening in the third debate, has less to do with real shortcomings and therefore disagreements than with sociological dynamics of recognition and identity within the academic field.
A second dimension of this critique of US parochialism concerns the accusation that IR has been subjugated to US foreign policy concerns. In other words, IR has been isolated from the rest of the world simply because most of its scholars were engaged in more or less normative policy-oriented projects. Smith’s 1987 intervention in “Paradigm Dominance in International Relations” exemplifies this approach, as it explicates the ups and downs of realism and liberalism—and the enduring dominance of realism—by linking these theorizations to changes in US foreign policy needs: “on the one hand, the US view of international relations as a social science has led to the subject strongly reflecting the US policy concerns; on the other, this US concern with policy-relevance has made it very difficult for the subject to evolve on a cross-national, cumulative basis” (Smith, 1987, p. 189). Realism’s and liberalism’s axioms and models can therefore be understood as tools towards a more hegemonic US foreign policy, as means towards a justificatory end. It is no surprise, therefore, that “challenges to the assumptions underpinning the study of IR emerged against the backdrop of a historical context where political actors were challenging the assumptions of the Cold War. As the Cold War ushered in a new decisive mood, further questions about these changes and the social construction of IR were formulated. The failure of IR scholars to predict or initially explain the end of the Cold War, on the basis of the dominant theories of IR, reinforced the importance of these questions” (Fierke, 2006, p. 178). Thus, the beginning of the third debate in the discipline coincided with the end of a long-standing era in international relations, and the inauguration of a more plural world.
Restructuring Ontology and Epistemology
Though epistemological and ontological issues were not absent from the first and second debates (George, 2007, p. 33), the charge is much more radical this time. The epistemological-ontological common ground of traditional IR theories stands at the very center of the dissidents’ attack, precisely because of their commitment to undermine “foundationalist discourses” (George, 2007, p. 37). George and Campbell (1990) put it thus: “The target of this dissent is the foundationalism and essentialism of post-Enlightenment scientific philosophy, its universalist presuppositions about modern rational man, its hidden metaphysics, its metatheoretical commitment to dualized categories of meaning and understanding, its logocentric strategies of identity and hierarchization, its theorized presuppositions about human nature, its dogmatic faith in method, its philosophies of intention and consciousness, and its tendency toward grand theory and the implications of this imposition” (George & Campbell, 1990, p. 280).
Dissidents strongly argued that as IR was impermeable to external influences, it never overcame its naive ontology and epistemology (Lapid, 1989, p. 236). As a consequence, Walker criticizes realism for becoming “less a hard-headed portrayal of international realities than a systematic evasion of the critical skills necessary for a scholarly analysis of those realities” (Walker, 1987, p. 67). Depicting a discipline rife with internal tensions and incoherencies, he argued that realist theorizing is plagued by seemingly clear-cut dichotomies, none of which resist serious inquiry. For dissidents, then, mainstream IR has not understood positivism properly and still implements an outdated, caricature version of a much more complex theory (Ashley, 1984, p. 249). In other words, the “debate in the late 1980s was a reaction against the dominant place of scientific method in the American context” (Fierke, 2006, p. 179). The third debate marked “a particular period of time when the positivist orthodoxy had begun to crumble in the philosophy of science, and the effects of this was felt throughout the social sciences” (Kurki & Wight, 2010, p. 24). Lapid concludes that “for many years the international relations discipline has had the dubious honor of being among the least self-reflexive of the Western social sciences” (Lapid, 1989, p. 249). In this context, (neo)liberal and (neo)realist approaches are accused of lacking “perspectivism,” that is, of failing to operate reflexively vis-à-vis their objects and modes of enquiry. They are seen as sharing the same questionable ontological and epistemological “unspoken presuppositions” (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 263), given that they consider their objects of study (such as the “state” or the “international system”) to be unproblematic and do not doubt the strength of positivist modes of empirical research (Weber, 2007, p. 96).
In the following sections, both the epistemological and ontological commitments of the third debate’s proponents are discussed. The fact that the investigation starts with ontological questions should not be interpreted as the article suggesting any sort of ontological primacy over epistemology. Instead, it is more about ease of exposition, as the epistemological part constitutes the centre of the third debate. As will become clearer, the subsection on epistemology connects more directly to the next section on implications and future developments.
To avoid confusion, it is important to clarify the way in which the concept of “ontology” is used in this article, and the extent to which it helps one understand some of the crucial stakes that underwrite the third debate. Patomäki and Wight (2000, p. 215) isolate two kinds of ontologies, scientific and philosophical. The first refers to the nature and existence of the objects, processes, and factors which are investigated by a field of knowledge. It is in this sense that it has often been used in the discipline of IR, for instance, in speaking of the “ontology of realism.” Ontology, then, is a set of things that are studied by a theory (Lowe, 2005, p. 670). In Tilly’s and Goodin’s words, “ontological choices concern the sorts of social entities whose consistent existence analysts can reasonably assume” (2006, p. 10). On the other hand, philosophical ontology pertains to “conceptual and philosophical basis on which claims about the world are formulated in the first place . . . our ‘hook up’ to the world” (Jackson, 2011, p. 28).
The importance granted to the relationship between the knower and the known enables Jackson to organize the field between theories that adhere to mind-world monism and those that follow mind-world dualism. It appears that scholars working within the third debate disagree on the type of philosophical ontology they subscribe to. While Wendt’s constructivism endorses mind-world dualism, radical feminists, critical theory, and poststructuralism adopt mind-world monism. In many ways, however, the third debate was primarily concerned with discussing scientific ontology, because, as Burke observes, “realist and liberal paradigms of international relations rest upon a set of core ontological givens, first among them being the normative and existential priority of the territorial nation state as a privileged container for being and a structuring fact of the international system or society” (Burke, 2010, p. 364).
There are many agreements amongst proponents of the third debate. But there are also disagreements, in particular between the rational strand of constructivism and more critical views (e.g., poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and radical/critical feminisms). At best, it is claimed that the objects of analytical enquiry do not resist any sort of destabilization and it is asked that their constructed nature should be recognized; at worst, it is claimed that treating these objects as givens reinforces IR’s role in processes of global political domination (Biersteker, 1989, p. 264; Bleiker, 2000). Put otherwise, dissidents seek to problematize some of the classical objects of IR and their status in IR theory. The contested “objects” range from sovereignty to identity through interests and norms (Bertelson, 1995; Walker, 1993; Weldes, 1996; Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). To Lapid, for example, the dissidents’ main purpose was “to reveal how problematic are the taken-for-granted structures (‘anarchy’ for instance) of our social and political world” (Lapid, 1989, p. 242), whereas others denounce (neo)realists’ and (neo)liberals’ tendency to build theory on simplistic binary oppositions such as domestic politics versus international politics or rational decision against irrational decision (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 264; Walker, 1987). In this light, dissidents claim that traditional schools of thought in IR had not been able to theorize change in a satisfactory way, precisely because a positivist epistemology is tailored for the study of permanent features and because an objectivist ontology understands objects to be stable in time. This was at the center of Walker’s 1987 debunking of realism: “the way in which change is conceptualized provides the most powerful point of entry into a critical analysis of claims to political realism in general, and to recent forms of structural or ‘neorealism’ in particular” (Walker, 1987, p. 66). To some extent, this is reminiscent of Ruggie’s 1983 contribution, which underlined the difficulty for IR scholars to account for change in international relations. This problem of change took a new importance as the Berlin Wall collapsed, provoking massive unexpected ruptures in international politics.
In many ways, dissidents emphasize the constructed nature of these objects and axioms because, for them, linguistic practices and overarching discourses in power relations are important if neglected aspects of IR (Debrix, 2003; Epstein, 2014). Such a stance does “not involve a denial of the world’s existence or the significance of materiality” (Campbell, 2010, p. 226); rather, it means that existence and materiality are always already understood and categorized through linguistic and social practices that are molded by overarching systems of thought. One can see here how Wittgenstein’s analysis of “language-games” and “forms of life,” Foucault’s early concept of “episteme” and later concept of “governmentality,” and Derrida’s technique of deconstruction combine in an attempt to challenge traditional IR’s key concepts and objects, not only in order to shed light on their constructed nature, but also to unveil their participation in systems of domination.
If scientific ontology deals with the emergence, evolution, and transformation of entities—observable or not—that populate global politics, epistemology asks what kind of knowledge claims can be made about these entities and the consequences, if any, they have on practice (Wight, 2006; Chernoff, 2007). Epistemology has stood as the third debate’s most important contribution to IR. As Lapid (1989, pp. 241−243) observes, epistemology underpins and informs the third debate of the discipline. In a different tone, but with the same conviction, Bleiker insists: “the third debate was waged around so-called epistemological questions, that is, questions about how we can know the realities of world politics” (Bleiker, 2007, p. 90). However, questions about epistemology express broader concerns over the “scientific” nature of the discipline as much as they are parasitic upon the philosophical foundations of the knowledge produced (Monteiro & Ruby, 2009). Cut to the bone, the discussion pitches positivists against post-positivists and anti-positivists. The problem, however, is that the concept of “positivism” itself has a complicated pedigree. In IR, its usage conjures up distinct but overlapping sets of ideas: epistemology, methodology, and behavioralism (Smith, 1996, p. 31). Less well understood is what legitimates those different views. For example, Kratochwil and Ruggie (1986, p. 767) lament that when it comes to epistemology, “alas, the positivist model reigns”! Frost (1986), by the same token, warns that IR should not rely on the positivist epistemology of the natural sciences. This is confusing. Wight (2002, p. 33) clearly indicates the extent to which it is unhelpful to regard positivism as an epistemology, as it substitutes the philosophical position for its entailed epistemology. This article next offers a pictorial understanding of the different positions in the philosophy of science, and their underlying epistemologies and ontologies, in order to clarify how contributions to the third debate stand in relation to one another.
Table 1. The Third Debate’s Main Positions in the Philosophy of Science
Neo-utilitarian theories (i.e., realism, liberalism, and their “neo” variants) are commonly defined as positivist approaches, just as critical theory and postmodernism are regarded, respectively, as post-positivist and anti-positivist. That is, the third debate’s philosophical landscape is extremely rich. But some of its theoretical offspring defy easy classification. Take constructivism; though constructivists work with largely similar basic epistemological assumptions, different strands emphasize alternative stances and inevitably discount others. Fundamentally, constructivists are united in an opposition to empiricism—that is, they oppose the view that experience is the final test for our knowledge claims—and behaviorism—meaning that the rationale that undergirds actors’ explanation of their behavior is of no relevance (Smith, 1996, p. 35). The vast majority of constructivists argue that “theory does not take place after the fact. Theories, instead, play a large part in constructing and defining what the facts are” (Zalewski & Enloe, 1995, p. 299). This erodes the difference, drawn by structural realists, between “real” and “perceived” facts (Buzan, Jones, & Little, 1993).
However, these commitments cannot bridge the gaps between modern and postmodern constructivism, as each invokes a specific epistemological argument. The postmodernist or critical variant is decidedly social, while the modernist encourages both a representational epistemology and a positivist model of science. Postmodernist constructivists develop a skeptical take on core notions of positivism such as truth, objectivity, and reason. Following this approach, to study world politics requires students to sort out the social discourse within which actions are designed and acquire meaning. The implication is that understanding, not explaining, constitutes the primary activity of social science (Hollis & Smith, 1990). Modernist constructivism, on the other hand, is compatible, though not coterminous, with a social epistemology. Thus, the conceptualization of causation in international politics has sparked discussions, because, as Chernoff (2007, p. 139) argues, the “major difference between naturalists and reflectivist theorists is the role they give to ‘causation’ in the social world.” For instance, Fierke (1998), Kratochwil (1989), and Onuf (1989) hardly adhere to the language of causality, falsity, or truth usually associated with conventional constructivism. They argue instead that explanation could be expressed in terms of reasons, not causes, i.e., in terms of “how possible” claims (Fierke, 2006). Within modernist constructivism, scientific realist and positivist strains occupy a distinctive epistemological space (Wight, 2006). On the one hand, those who adopt scientific realism (e.g., Wendt, 1999) attempt to explain both the causal and constitutive effects of unobservables in world politics (e.g., structures or processes). In this regard, ontology predates epistemology (Joseph & Wight, 2010). On the other hand, those who defend a positivist posture encourage the use of the traditional language of causality and covering-law techniques; they would then study only “mind-independent observable phenomena” (Monteiro & Ruby, 2009, p. 33). What distinguishes a realist from a positivist stance is thus essentially the fact that the former acknowledges the existence of unobservable entities, while the latter does not (compare Ruggie, 1998; Carlsnaes, 1992).
However, when it comes to the boundaries between scientific realist and positivist strands, the verdict is that they are permeable. In fact, many constructivists use scientific realism and positivism; sometimes interchangeably. Wendt (1994, p. 75) writes, for instance, that “constructivists are modernists who fully endorse the scientific project of falsifying theories against evidence.” More tellingly yet, modernist constructivists claim that it is plausible to mix a monist ontology with a positivist model of science. This has been dubbed the view media or middle ground (Adler, 1997; Wendt, 1999, p. 40). More recently, however, those who endorse a modernist constructivism feel increasingly uncomfortable with the “middle ground” orthodoxy. Thus, in search for appropriate mixture, Fierke (2006, p. 174) advances a “consistent constructivism,” which promotes the “inseparability of social ontology and epistemology.” This reformulation is useful, not least because it provides a new impetus to the study of IR, and demonstrates that a constructivism which is neither modernist—as it departs from an empiricist epistemology—nor critical—as it departs from poststructural analytics—is an achievable and promising goal.
Actually, the stakes are higher, because (neo)liberals’ and (neo)realists’ “shared commitment to rationalism” (Wendt, 1992, p. 391) was depicted as particularly ill-suited for the study of social phenomena. Noting this tension, Kratochwil and Ruggie (1986, p. 764) considered it to be “the most debilitating problem of all.” Indeed, the dissidents’ key claim was that one cannot study socially constructed objects with methods that reflect an epistemology which consider objects of analysis as uncontestable givens. “The recognition of social construction in world politics leads,” argues Hurd, “directly into a controversy over epistemology and the use of scientific methods in the field of international relations” (Hurd, 2010, pp. 306–307). Dissidents focus, therefore, upon the importation into IR of various interpretive methods that were already present in sociology, literary analysis, or philosophy, and which are supposed to provide a deeper understanding (in lieu of an illusory quest for explanation) of international politics—Derrida’s “grammatology” (“deconstruction”), Foucault’s “genealogy,” Weber’s “ideal-typology,” etc. In turn, this new social epistemology and its methods are supposed to further undermine traditional IR’s fragile ontological assumptions. Butler explains that postmodern dissidents have exposed “the limits of empiricist epistemology” precisely in order to reveal “the narrow range of ontological claims it permits” (Butler, 2010), while Reus-Smit and Snidal (2010b, p. 13) posit that dissidents jettisoned (neo)realist and (neo)liberal ontology primarily “because they are epistemologically unsustainable.”
Critique and Reflexivity
Despite the varying positions on ontology and epistemology, those who launched the third debate often shared an “overarching critical purpose” (George, 1989, p. 270). Indeed, the critique of traditional IR theory is part of a larger project, a “search for a broader and more complex understanding of modern society which accounts for that which is left out—the ‘other’, the marginalized, the excluded” (George & Campbell, 1990, p. 280; Wyn Jones, 1999; Booth, 2005; Booth, 2007). Perhaps it is in the field of security that the call for integrating the marginalized has been most forcefully articulated. Ken Booth (1991
Milja Kurki has commented that International Relations (IR) is a ‘divided discipline’, split between a ‘positivist mainstream…camp’ and a post-positivist ‘camp’, and she is not alone in this assessment. This essay will critically examine the benefits and disadvantages of post-positivism in light of this split, as part of what Yosef Lapid has called ‘the third debate’. In order to do this I will look at its genesis as a reaction against the positivist majority within IR, which I will locate more broadly within a reaction against positivism in the social sciences as a whole, thus agreeing with Jim George that IR is not independent of wider theoretical debate in the social sciences. Within the scope of this essay it is not possible to give a full overview of the breadth of post-positivist approaches, which include post-modernism, constitutive analysis and more, but I will outline the benefits of some of their corresponding characteristics, and particularly focus on ‘critical theory’. Firstly however, it will be necessary to briefly outline what we mean by positivism more generally. I will then move on to question the relationship between positivism and post-positivism in IR by identifying positivism with the realist and neorealist paradigm most common in the discipline, demonstrating the comparative benefits of post-positivism for showing the myths that realism is built on. I will then turn to some of the problems that arise from post-positivism itself. This essay contends that IR can benefit from both positivism and post-positivism; rather than discussing the strengths and weaknesses of post-positivism in IR, it is best to consider the complementary strengths of post-positivism and positivism together.
Positivism has dominated the social sciences as part of the Enlightenment project to study social activity in a ‘scientific’ way. Positivism follows Hume’s radical empiricist conception of cause: knowledge does not exist outside of what we can observe, and thus what we claim to know is simply the associations or ‘conjunctions’ made on these observations. Kurki notes that ‘social scientists are still adamant that only careful observation of regularities (even if of ‘localised’ regularities) can give us an adequate understanding of human action and society. Thus in the context of this essay positivism is defined as following the Humean principles outlined above, with ‘the adoption of methodologies of the natural sciences to explain the social world’. It is noted that this is a loose definition of positivism, but for the purposes of a relative discussion of post-positivism, it conveys the key assumptions that post-positivism has reacted against.
Viewed uncritically, positivism has much force. By presenting knowledge of the social world as similarly formulated as that of science, one can apply the same methodologies as used in the natural sciences to the social sciences and as a result find ‘scientific’ proof of one’s theories.
However, it is the critical analysis of positivist thought that is the main strength of post-positivism. It encourages social science to think more critically towards the status quo, and the reaction against positivist epistemology, questioning its methodology and the claim to formulating ‘scientific’ theories, is what this essay views as ‘post-positivism’. It is important to emphasise that there is no such thing as ‘a post-positivist approach, only post-positivist approaches’. Indeed, this too is one of its strengths: it has opened up the debate within social sciences and created ‘thinking space’. Whereas positivism is methodologically dogmatic, post-positivism encourages a ‘Socratic method’. Lapid points out ‘post-positivism is not a unitary philosophical platform’, but one can find some common and often’ inter-related’ themes amongst its adherents. These he identifies as ‘the preoccupation with meta-scientific units (paradigmatism), the concern with underlying premises and assumptions (perspectivism), and the drift towards methodological pluralism (relativism)’. The common ground above is the raising of questions regarding accepted practice: questioning paradigms, questioning perspectives, and questioning methodology, which invigorates the academic project, and as such I agree that there should be optimism as to what post-positivism can achieve in IR.
One can easily trace positivist epistemology in IR, where ‘rationalist epistemology that relies on scientific inference… has been clearly articulated by the neo-realist and neo-liberal programmes of research.’ Thus we can see that positivism has set the standard of how we ‘do’ IR. However, this essay concentrates on the broadly realist school, because it ‘is the most venerable and persisting model of international relations, it provides a good starting point and baseline for comparison with competing models’. In response to the positivist realist programme, I will now argue that post-positivism is very important in showing relations of power in the disciple of IR, highlighting the relative strengths of the post-positivist position.
Critical theory rejects the ‘three basic postulates of positivism: an objective external reality, the subject object distinction, and value free social science.’  By denying the subject-object distinction, critical theory strikes at the epistemological heart of positivism. Cox has stated that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’, and therefore where Hume argued that we find knowledge on what we observe, critical theory argues that human ‘needs’ and ‘purposes’ are the glue that binds these observations. The theories we postulate are therefore not ‘value-neutral’ as they purport to be. It is revealing to look at Waltz’s epistemologically positivist approach that ‘only through some sort of systems structure can international politics be understood’. The observables in IR (states) are ‘units’ in a structurally anarchical society. All states perform same functions and are equivalent units in this system, but there is an uneven distribution of resources and capacities among states. Fear of domination by other states is the main motivation for inter-state competition. However, as Agnew argues, this is in fact a normative approach: ‘It is a dangerous world out there and if a state (read: our state) is not ready for a competitive environment then it is headed for disaster. This was a reassuring hard-headed message for Americans during the Cold War!’ Thus, a benefit of the critical theory approach, and indeed the post-positivist approach in general, is considering who theory is working for.
The post-positivist position has responded to the changing nature of international relations in the post-cold-war period, demonstrating the political nature of positivist assertions as to how the world is. Buzan and Little go so far as to say that one of the reason IR has ‘failed as an intellectual project’ is its failure to move beyond the traditional conception of relationships between states. The realist conception of world order constructed an ‘image of reality constituted in particular historical and political circumstances (the struggle with Fascism and the Cold War)… an ahistorical, universalized dogma’. In what sense, therefore, is realism, with it ‘ahistorical’ universal claims actually reflecting international security issues now? Smith argues that failing to move past positivist dogmatism, cold war political assumptions etc…, and reconsider the implications of violence and development issues has had important consequences in international politics. He goes so far as to say that affectations to impartiality and universality are implicated in post-war developments in international security where the ‘West’ (specifically Anglo-Saxon IR) sung ‘into existence the world of September 11, 2001’.
The post-positivist approach is in better shape to understand this new reality by the very fact that is it not so ontologically dogmatic. Importantly, the debate is widened and marginalized groups which have previously been denied agency in traditional IR are empowered, putting the ‘international’ back into international theory. The Eurocentric model has been guilty of ignoring the constitutive voices that make up a conversation in IR, for example the failure to acknowledge the role of Cuba in the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Laffey and Barkawi say, ‘That the weak play an integral role in shaping world politics is harder to deny when a Southern resistance movement strikes at the heart of Northern power’.
More importantly still, this type of analysis allows IR practitioners to see the power inherent in denying agency when universalizing Western values. As Laffey and Barkawi say, ‘a Eurocentric security studies regards the weak and the powerless as marginal or derivative elements of world politics, as at best the site of liberal good intentions or at worst a potential source of threats.’ This echoes Said’s post-modern approach to Western images of the East, where ‘Orientalism depends for its strategy on… positional superiority, which puts the westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand’. Barnett and Duvall conceive of a type of ‘productive power’ which refers partly to ‘the discursive production of the subjects, the fixing of meanings, and the terms of action, of world politics’ and this productive power is inherent in the positivist universality of assumptions based on conjunctions of Western experience. By casting non-state actors on the periphery, or by ignoring them as part of IR, the dominant remain dominant as they can produce what is to be a ‘them’, a ‘terrorist’, an ‘insurgent’, a ‘rogue state’; there are inherently normative judgements in what is legitimate and what is not legitimate: ‘the politics of Eurocentric security studies, those of the powerful, prevent adequate understanding of the nature or legitimacy of the armed resistance of the weak’. Therefore, it is possible again to see positivist value-free credentials deconstructed by post-positivists rejection of positivist assumptions.
However, whilst this essay argues strongly for the benefits of post-positivism in critiquing the positivist mainstream in IR, it must be noted that post-positivism has its disadvantages. Firstly, Biestecker notes that ‘however desirable it may be to open international relations to methodological pluralism and relativism, post- positivist scholarship does not offer us any clear criteria for choosing among the multiple and competing explanations it produces’. Post-positivism may in fact lead to intellectual incoherence in IR. Therefore, perhaps rather than invigorating the academic project it just confuses it.
Indeed, it is not just a case of numerous confusing explanations produced. Within the broad post-positivist camp there is no consensus. Whilst post-modernism and critical theory are both post-positivist in nature, postmodernism ‘eschews the very goal of critical theory’ and would argue critical theory itself is hegemonic, where ‘all conversation is power, and it is not possible to move beyond a place tainted by power’. We therefore have an example of post-positivism criticising post-positivism, which in the scope of this essay makes it difficult to discuss the relative merits of post-modernism and critical theory. Perhaps, then, as George says, we should be careful to avoid ‘intellectual anarchy.’
Secondly, this essay has devoted considerable time to the relative advantages of post-positivism to positivism, but that is not to say that positivism is no longer important. Conversely, I agree with Holsti that the theories that positivism have given us are valuable, that ‘No amount of meta-theoretical debate, or perspectivism, or post-modern relativism renders their work less theoretically useful. ‘ Even critics of traditional positivist methodology in IR can be amongst its adherents, such as Buzan who insists on the benefits of realism, that it ‘possesses a relative (not absolute) intellectual coherence. It provides a solid starting point for the construction of grand theory’. We should thus view positivism and post-positivism as complementary in strengthening the discipline of IR as a whole. This essay does not seek to advance the benefits of post-positivism to do away with theory, nor all positivist methodology. I agree, for example that we should be careful not to, as George says ’attempt to overcome universalized humanist premises (progress, dialectics, consciousness) [which may] deprive us of both baby (creative social agent) and bathwater’
Finally, one can question how far post-positivism actually departs from the positivist perspective that it critiques. Kurki argues that the Humean concept of cause is present in the work of critical theorists such as Cox. Thus, for Kurki what the post-positivists purport to reject is evident in their work. Instead, she advocates ‘multi-causal’ and ‘complexity-sensitive’ IR theory. Lapid’s statement that ‘the tragedy of international relations scholars was, of course, that they proved incapable of either fruitfully adopting or decisively rejecting the grail of positivist science’ is perhaps still true despite the Third Debate.
However, this essay argues that this is not a tragedy, but instead benefits the discipline. ‘Our discipline, like other social sciences, should demonstrate a healthy and tolerant diversity: of theoretical approaches, of relations with policy-makers versus concentration on fundamental questions, of detailed studies alongside broad historical surveys.’ This essay considered the strengths and weaknesses of Post-positivism in IR as relative to those of positivism. As such, it has necessitated a discussion of the two in opposition. However, one must not create a false dichotomy and this essay argues that the main strength of post-positivism is as a critic of the positivist mainstream in order to create a questioning, Socratic approach to IR. Even in light of the criticisms of Bierstecker, Kurki and others, post-positivism has invigorated IR, added to its theoretical arsenal, and emphasised the need to remain relevant within the changing nature of the world it seeks to explain, much in the way other social sciences must.
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Written by: Neil Loughlin
Written at: The School of Oriental and African Studies
Written for: Dr Polly Pallister-Wilkins
Date written: November 2010