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date: 24 January 2020

Summary and Keywords

Balancing theory with evidence, in which we form and adjust our theories at least in part based on their performance, might seem to be a part of any social scientific enterprise. However, there are powerful epistemological tendencies, particularly in the field of international relations (IR), which lead many researchers in other directions. One is somewhat unique to IR—the role played historically by paradigms in the field. At their worst, paradigms put theory before evidence. They offer a set of core assumptions about the nature of international politics and lead their adherents to cherry pick evidence to support them. The other we find in many other social sciences besides political science and international relations—a commitment to deductive theorizing, particularly by practitioners of rational choice. Based on an instrumentalist epistemological position, deductive theory derives hypotheses from a set of assumptions that remain untested, and aims at uncovering general patterns of human behavior that are as generalizable as possible. This type of research, which rests on an instrumentalist epistemological approach, finds itself unable to follow the evidence because it is uninterested in testing its own assumptions with empirical data. When these assumptions prove faulty, it generates bad theory because its foundation is rotten.

International relations theorists have squabbled for decades over basic epistemological positions, with each side favoring a particular school in the philosophy of science that justifies their preferred approach to research. As Monteiro and Ruby have nicely argued in 2009, these disagreements cannot be resolved through argument, as each epistemological approach rests on its own set of assumptions that cannot be tested. While they are correct to argue that IR pick and choose their epistemology based on the kind of research they like to do, the viability of epistemological choices is to some degree subject to empirical testing.

Keywords: empirical international relations theory, theory, data, evidence, empirical testing

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