Since the 1980s, scholars disputing the hegemony of positivist methodologies in the social sciences began to promote interpretive approaches, creating discussions about methodological pluralism and enabling a slow, and often resisted, proliferation of theoretical diversity. Within this context, “interpretivism” acquired a specific definition, which encompassed meaning-centered research and problematized positivist ideas of truth correspondence, objectivity, generalization, and linear processes of research. By critiquing the methodological assumptions that were often used to make positivism appear as a superior form of social science, interpretive scholars were confronted with questions about their own knowledge production and its validity. If meanings could be separated from objects, phenomena and identities could be constructed, and observers could not step out of their situated participation within these constructions, how could scholars validate their knowledge? Despite important agreements about the centrality, characteristics, and intelligibility of meaning, interpretivists still disagree about the different ways in which this question can be answered. Scholars often use diverse strategies of validation and they objectivize their interpretations in different degrees. On one side of the spectrum, some post-structuralist, feminist, and postcolonial scholars renounce methodological foundations of objectification and validation as much as possible. This opens the possibility of empirically researching epistemic assumptions, which scholars interpret either as components of dominant discourses or as alternatives that create possibilities of thinking about more multiplicity, difference, and diversity. On the other side, a number of constructivist, feminist, and critical scholars attach meanings to social structures and view their interpretations as reflecting parts of intersubjectivities, lifeworlds, cultures, etc. Since they use their own strategy to objectify interpretations and they solve the methodological question of validity, the scholars on this side of the spectrum either tend to pursue empirical research that does not analyze epistemic dimensions or they generalize particular experiences of domination. This disagreement influences not only the kind of empirical research that scholars pursue, but also creates some differences in the definitions of key interpretive notions such as power relations, reflexivity, and the role of empirical evidence. Within these agreements and disagreements, interpretivism created an overarching methodological space that allowed for the proliferation of theoretical approaches. Since the 1980s, post-structuralist, feminist, constructivist, neo-Marxist, postcolonial, green, critical, and queer theories have sought to expand the study of meanings, uncover aspects of domination, listen to previously marginalized voices, unveil hidden variations, and highlight alternatives. Some of the branches of these theories tend toward the different sides of the methodological spectrum and they disagree about the epistemic strategies that they can use to validate their knowledge production, but the opening of this interpretive space has allowed for scholars to deconstruct, reconstruct, and juxtapose meanings, contributing to the field from different perspectives and within particular empirical areas of research. Moreover, this diversifying process continues to unfold. Approaches such as the decolonial perspective that emerged in Latin American Studies continue to enter International Studies, creating new transdisciplinary debates and promoting other possibilities for thinking about international and global politics.
Marcos S. Scauso
In the social sciences, IR included, the study of practices starts from a very simple intuition: social realities - and international politics - are constituted by human beings acting in and on the world. Their ways of doing things delineate practices that enact and give meaning to the world. When seen through these lenses, the concerns of other IR approaches – war, peace, negotiations, states, diplomacy, international organizations, and so on – are bundles of individual and collective practices woven together and producing specific outcomes. Rather than as a unified approach, the Practice Turn (PT) in International Relations Theory is best approached through a series of conceptual innovations and tools that introduce novel ways of thinking about international politics. The review article here first introduces the main conceptual tools in PT’s toolbox focusing on defining practices, the logic of practice, field, capital, and symbolic domination. It then situates PT within IR, and shows how it departs from both rationalism and constructivism. The article closes by focusing on the methodological, epistemological and normative debates among practice turners.
Brooke Ackerly and Ying Zhang
The study of feminist ethics in international relations (IR) is the study of three topics. The first is the feminist contributions to key topics in international ethics and the research agenda that continues to further that enterprise. Feminists have made important contributions to IR thought on central ethical concepts. They rethink these concepts from the perspective of their impact on women, deconstruct the dichotomies of the concepts and their constituent parts, and reconsider how the field should be studied. Next, there is the feminist engagement with the epistemological construction of the discipline of IR itself, by which feminists make the construction of the field itself a normative subject. Finally, there is the feminist methodological contribution of a “meta-methodology”—a research ethic applicable in the research of all questions and able to improve the research practice of all methodologists. The contention here is that ethical IR research must be responsive to the injustices of the world, hence feminists have also explored the connections between scholarship and activism. And this in turn has meant exploring methodologies such as participatory action research that engages one with the political impact of research and methods. Furthermore, contemporary challenges related to climate, globalization, shifts in people, and shifts in global governance are encouraging feminists to work from multiple theoretical perspectives and to triangulate across multiple methods and questions, in order to contribute to our understanding of global problems and the politics of addressing them.
Greta Fowler Snyder and Andre Hui
Even as work in the natural sciences has shown the Newtonian understanding of the world to be faulty, Newtonianism still pervades the field of International Relations (IR). Moved by the challenges to Newtonianism emanating from various fields, IR scholars have turned to complexity theory or quantum physics for an alternative onto-epistemological basis on which to build a post-Newtonian IR. This article provides researchers with a map that allows them to not only better see and navigate the differences within both complexity and quantum theory and the IR work that draws from each, but also to recognize the similarities across these bodies of work. Complexity theory highlights and engages systems (biological, social, meteorological, technological, and more) characterized by emergence, self-organization, nonlinearity, unpredictability, openness, and adaptation—systems that are fundamentally different from the self-regulating mechanic systems that comprise the Newtonian world. Complexity-grounded IR research, following complexity research more generally, falls into one of two categories. Through “restricted complexity” approaches, researchers use simulation or modeling to derive knowledge about the dynamics of complex social and political systems and the effect of different kinds of interventions. Researchers who take “general complexity” approaches, by contrast, stress the openness and entwinement of complex systems as well as unpredictability that is not exclusively the result of epistemological limitations; they offer critical re-theorizations of phenomena central to IR while also using qualitative methods to demonstrate how complexity-informed understandings can improve various kinds of practices. “Restricted complexity” seems to have gained the most traction in IR, but overall, complexity has had limited uptake. Quantum physics reveals a world with ineluctable randomness, in which measurement is creative rather than reflective, and where objects shift form and seem to be connected in ways that are strange from a Newtonian perspective. IR research that builds from a quantum base tends to draw from one of two categories of quantum physical interpretation—the “Copenhagen Interpretation” or pan-psychism—though more exist. Unlike the complexity IR community, the quantum IR community is ecumenical; given the deep ongoing debates about quantum mechanics and its meaning, embracing different ways of “quantizing” IR makes sense. Most quantum IR work to date stresses the utility of the conceptual tools that quantum physics provides us to rethink a wide variety of socio-political phenomena and hedges on questions of the nature of reality, even as the major theoretical tracts on quantum social science take strong ontological stances. Developing critiques and alternative positive visions for IR on the basis of either complexity theory or quantum work has been an important first step in enabling a post-Newtonian IR. To advance their agenda, however, the critics of Newtonian IR should start engaging each other and carefully interrogate the relationship between different strands of complexity and quantum theory. There are a number of key points of overlap between the work in the general complexity strand and the Copenhagen Interpretation–inspired philosophy of agential realism, and as of 2022 there exists only one major effort to bring these strands of quantum and complexity together to found a post–Newtonian IR. A coordinated post-Newtonian challenge that brings complexity-grounded IR scholars together with quantum-grounded IR scholars under a common banner may be necessary to wake IR from what Emilian Kavalski calls its “deep Newtonian slumber.” The pay-off, post–Newtonian IR scholars argue, will be a deeper understanding of, as well as more effective and ethical engagement with and in, a non-Newtonian world.
Changes in the environment can impact international relations theory, despite enjoying only a limited amount of attention from scholars of the discipline. The sorts of influence that may be identified include ontology, epistemology, concepts, and methods, all of these being related to varying perspectives on international relations. It is likely that the most profound implications arise at the ontological level, since this establishes assumptions about, for example, whether the world we wish to understand is both political and ecological. However, more recently the recognition of the practical challenge presented by the environment has become widespread, though it has not yet translated into a significant impact on the discipline of international relations, even when theoretical implications are noted. It is now almost obligatory to include the environment in any list of modern international relations concerns, as over time it has become necessary to include peace, underdevelopment, gender, or race, as they quite rightly became recognized as significant aspects of the field. Moreover, the environment, as a relatively novel subject matter, has naturally brought some critique and innovation to the field. However, studies of the environment are also subject to such descriptors as “mainstream” and “radical” in debates about how best to tackle the subject. As is often the case, the debates are sharpest among those with the greatest interest in the subject.
Jennifer Heeg Maruska
Feminism operates on various feminist epistemologies, methodologies, and methods. While there is no consensus on how to organize or label these, there are a few generalities that can be drawn between these epistemologies, particularly in the international relations (IR) context. Classifying these epistemologies generally under the umbrella (or in the constellation) of postpositivism makes clear the contrasts between positivist social science and more critical approaches. Moreover, within the many critical approaches in feminist IR are many points of convergence and divergence. Feminist IR theory also focuses on the complexities of gender as a social and relational construction, in contrast to how nonfeminist ontologies focus on the rights of women, but including those of children and men as well. Hence, the postpositivist ontology takes on a more complex meaning. Rather than trying to uncover “how things really are,” postpositivists study how social realities (the Westphalian system, international migration or trafficking, or even modern war) came to be, and also how these realities came to be understood as norms, institutions, or social facts—often examining the gendered underpinnings of each. Most feminist IR theorists (and IR constructivists) share an “ontology of becoming” where the focus is on the intersubjective process of norm evolution.
Behavioralism is a paradigm that became predominant in American social sciences from the 1950s until well into the 1970s. Although its reign did not last beyond the 1980s, it has transformed the fields of (American) political science and international relations (IR) so profoundly that it remains to this day an essential, albeit implicit, component of their identity. The article starts with the context in which behavioralism emerged, then engages the “Behavioral Revolution” in American political science and presents its main epistemic, ontological, and axiological tenets. It then moves more specifically to Behavioralism in IR, and to the terms of its “second debate.” The article concludes with an assessment of Behavioralism’s legacy.