RCIR Debate on Theory and Methods in IR

The RCIR is hosting a debate on the ‘methods turn’ and its implications for theorising ‘the international’. The first piece is provided by Professor Anna Leander of the Copenhagen Business School, and emerges from a Roundtable held in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and including Claudia Aradau, Didier Bigo, Vivienne Jabri, Anna Leander and Mederic Martin-Maze. The fascinating aspect of the Roundtable was that a paper presented by Mederic on ‘mapping security practices in Europe’ generated a discussion on how sophisticated methodologies that seek to trace and map networks and controversies in what is a transnational terrain of security practices can turn the lens back onto ‘the international’ and its theorisation. We start with Anna Leander’s piece and hope to develop the debate further with other contributions to follow.                                      Prof. Vivienne Jabri, Director KCL Research Centre in International Relations


The “Methodists” and the “Theorists” in International Relations

By Anna Leander, Copenhagen Business School

I have just returned to my office from a very interesting visit to KCL which (amongst other things) included a roundtable on “Methods and the International”. The question of why we are now in International Relations (IR) so focused on methods is a question that merits attention in its own right. Is that perhaps a predictable consequence of the fact that as knowledge becomes increasingly secularized and uncertain, methods is the place where we look for Truth and certainty? Perhaps. Here, I want to tackle another question that also figured centrally in our roundtable discussions, namely the question of whether or not the current trend towards sociological practice approaches—and the focus on methods that has accompanied it—is helpful for understanding “the International as such”. Is there not a risk that the Big Important Questions disappear into a maze of empirical studies of various kinds that can in no way help us move forward in thinking about the important stuff at the core of international relations? Are we perhaps just reliving “the second debate” albeit in a very different version? Is the current flurry about methods especially from practice approaches echoing the behavioralist arguments of the 1960s? Are we again seeing as Sheldon Wolin put it in his famous plea for “Political Theory as a Vocation” the “Methodists” challenging the “Theorists”? I think not. On the contrary, the current methods debate is contributing to theorizing in three fundamental ways.

One way it does this is captured by the move from theorizing “the international as such” to theorizing “international relations”. The current methods discussion has incorporated the arguments made by feminist, post-structuralist, post-colonial, new materialist and historical discourse analysis (including Vivienne Jabri who participated in our roundtable) that when people refer to the “international as such” they are describing particular versions of it. Any particular version of course omits the many other possible versions. More than omit, they do violence (and sometimes enormous violence) by obliterating aspects of politics or political agency. For my own work, the way theorizings of “the international as such” has rendered military commercialization by and large invisible has been a core focal point and concern. Invisibility has hampered the analysis the politics of this commercialization, including as it touches upon the kinds of issues usually thought to be the heart of the international “as such” including sovereignty, war, or international law, as I have argued in different places and ways. Invisibility has also made it easier to entrench the commercialization of security. The current methods discussion has the virtue of focusing on how to avoid this kind of misrecognition by drawing attention to the constantly evolving plurality of the international. Asking the question about theorizing the international “as such” can only beg the question what/whose international? The current practice approaches take this on and therefore shift the focus from theorizing the international “as such” to theorizing international relations, in resolute and intended plural and with focus on how this plurality is produced. This is not a distraction from theorizing in IR. It is a contribution to it.

Second, methods are about how to study something. How is linked to what and hence to theorizing. At the heart of the current turn to practices methodologies there is also a how claim; namely a claim that looking at practices is helpful precisely because it makes it easier/possible to capture the plural and evolving politics of international relations is produced. Indeed, politics from a practice perspective has to be constantly re-enacted in embedded and embodied practices. Drawing attention to these is at the heart of the current methods discussion. Hence the interest in the significance of not only the unspoken habits and specific rationalities of situated people in reproducing versions of international, but also of affect, aesthetics, or of different kinds of technologies. At our KCL methods roundtable Claudia Aradau drew attention to one way she had used to study such practices, namely that of following specific objects. She had followed fences and looked at how they produced varying versions of the international politics of security in different contexts. For my part I have been interested in looking at how lists (of more accurately whitelists) tied to the many Codes of Conduct, Best Practices, Benchmarks, and Standards developed to regulate commercial security have transformed the politics regulating the use of force internationally. The purpose of these (and other forms) of practice methods following objects, tracing affect, writing genealogies, exploring the habitus or asking about aesthetics is to come to grips with “the international” in its multiple articulations, to understand how it is enacted and reproduced across many varying contexts and in varying ways. In that sense, the practice methodology is all about theorizing. It is not pitting Methodists against Theorists but underlining the unity of two sides of a persona that is sometimes rather artificially and schizophrenically spit up. It is a contribution to theorizing.

Finally, a core theme in the present methods discussion surrounding practice approaches is the insistence that methods are not just tools that we use to carve out and make some specific aspect of the world visible. They shape that world and are interventions in it. Methods have “social life” and accounting for the politics of this life is of essence also for theorizing international relations. Methods are never merely imposed and applied. They are constantly transforming and adjusting. Things don’t fit. They exceed the categories, boxes and filing systems we squeeze them into. Sometimes they don’t want to be studied at all. We therefore find ourselves negotiating and strategizing with “methods”. The nerdy methods questions become quintessentially political. Methods should be strong enough to deserve to be our enemy as Wohlin put it. As Didier Bigo and Mederic Martin-Mazé insisted on the roundtable, choices about whether to map “societal security” with the help of Social Network Analysis or Multiple Correlation decide how international relations are made visible and governable and how scholars might intervene with them. I chipped in insisting on the importance of methodological imagination including among well-intentioned practice methodologists. The invisibility granted military commercialization by conventional methods looking at the “international as such” is reinforced by dogmatic Practice Methodologists. Evans Pritchard was powerful enough to impose his presence on the Zande. Researchers of military/security matters are in a rather different situation. They would never get access even if their universities allowed granted them resources and time (which is most unlikely). So the methods discussion is also about the imagination required to find methodological alliances strong enough to work around these kinds of issues. When/if it works, it paves the way for more vivid, multifaceted and hopefully also sharper discussion about theoretical and methodological questions. This is a contribution to theorizing not a distraction from it.

To sum up, the current methods discussions should not be seen as a step back to the second debate in IR. Even less should they be considered a move away from theorizing. Rather, the conclusion I draw from our roundtable discussion at the KCL is that we are seeing a very interesting renegotiation of the boundaries between method and theory and between the respective place of political theory/philosophy and sociology/anthropology in our work. There is all reason to welcome this prodding and transgressing of boundaries; to see the current widening of methodological choices and analytical strategies as potentially tied to a widening of theoretical horizons. For Wohlin, the division between the Methodist and the Theorist is between “those [the Methodists] who would restrict the ‘reach’ of theory by dwelling on facts which are selected by what are assumed to be the functional requisites of the existing paradigm, and those [the Theorists] who believe that because facts are richer than theories, it is the task of the theoretical imagination to restate new possibilities”. The conclusion I draw from our KCL roundtable is that the “Methodists” have come to join the position Wohlin identified with the “Theorists” in the current Methods discussions (linked to practice theory turn). This is why we should see the current focus on methods in IR as contributing to ­the Theoretical development in IR, rather than as something undermining it.

Anna Leander is Professor at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at the Copenhagen Business School. Her research interests include Sociological Theory, International Politics, Commercial Security and Technological Politics.