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Ceci N'est Pas Un Monde. It Is A Theory Of The World.

by Knud Erik Jørgensen 19th June 2019

Knud Erik Jørgensen shares his thoughts on where International Relations theory stands today.

How should we approach International Relations theory? Let’s talk about International Relations theory and art. Let’s talk about social and material realities, and representations of reality. Let’s talk about a noun (theory) and about a verb (theorizing).

Claim 1: Theorizing needs to be more innovative

My first claim is that it is high time to revitalize the craft of theorizing. While reports about the end of International Relations theory are greatly exaggerated, it is widely acknowledged that members of the methodologist church have abandoned theory, instead favouring the testing of free-floating hypotheses and hair-splitting exercises in substance-free research techniques.

It seems that critical theorists are determined to turn critical theory into a set of orthodox statements. Finally, it is a fact that the various so-called neo-IR theories – for instance neo-realism, neoliberal institutionalism, neo-Marxism – tend to be 30-40 years old and thus might be slightly out of touch with the new realities that characterize global politics and economics.

In short, we have an established body of IR theory but hardly any innovative theorizing. This state of affairs is nothing less than a paradox because, as Rosemary Shinko (2006) rightly claims, ‘IR theory is fun’ and, likewise, Richard Swedberg states in a well-chosen title ‘before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting’ (Swedberg 2016).

Claim 2: Painting is a useful metaphor

My second claim is that the craft or art of painting might help in getting theorizing international relations back in vogue. Donald Puchala hints at this option declaring that It seems to me that we can turn these characteristics into tools of theorizing. Hence, among other things, we will need concepts, symbols and abstraction. Concerning the latter, Kenneth Waltz (1990) is perfectly aware that concepts such as the market or the international system are not naturalistic paintings of reality but abstract constructions and exactly therefore useful theoretical concepts.

We should remember that just as Rene Magritte’s painting of a pipe is not a pipe, our theories of the world are not the world. We do not need to subscribe to the doctrines of surrealism to acknowledge similarity between painting and theorizing. Just as the map is not the territory, IR theories are more or less simplified abstract representations. We should also remember that both maps and theories can be everything between immensely useful and utterly useless.

Claim 3: To be innovative we need to interrupt

My final claim is inspired by two very different books, Robert Hughes’ Nothing if not Critical (1990) and Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (1979). The claim is that innovative theorizing is about interrupting intellectual path dependencies, thus countering inertia. However, we constantly experience the inherent tension between social science’s conservative nature (building on existing knowledge) and its progressive aspirations (building new knowledge). Among countless examples of vintage 1970s and 1980s theories, the following three observations illustrate the lack of innovative theorizing.

1. 40 years after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), we are left with a long pedigree of reproductions that foremost demonstrate limited interest in analysing or theorizing how the Middle East really was or is. Given the strong West-centric focus in the literature, there is also a limited interest in understanding Ottoman or Egyptian orientalism and, despite the ubiquitous references to the West, hardly any interest in theorizing occidentalist practices.

2. What do we make of the literature that uncritically reproduces Robert Cox’ theorem (1981) that theory is always for someone and for something? This is not suggested as a possibility but claimed as a truth claim. The decades-long history of the theorem demonstrates its efficiency in highlighting potential functions of theory. However, authors tend to be silent about cases where the special someone is the critical theorist. That is, cases when ‘critical’ functions as a blank cheque to practice certain politics. Given several decades of rapid proliferation of critical studies, the theorem seems to be a double-edged sword that future theorists should keep in mind. Indeed their theorizing enterprise might have consequences, including unintended ones.

3.Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism (1988) is also a dated 1980s vintage publication. Although his analysis did not enjoy much traction, the concept plays a role in numerous critiques of x, y and z, in short the unlimited evils of eurocentrism. Not even Slavoy Žižek’s A Leftist Plea for "Eurocentrism” (1998) managed to kick off novel perspectives on the disputed phenomenon.

In lieu of a conclusion, I have three questions. Why is it that we spend so much time introducing students to ‘the map’ and so little time on theorizing ‘the territory’? Why is it that we prioritize critiques of theories but do not prioritize active innovative theorizing? Why is it that we introduce students to theory but do not teach the craft of theorizing?
Featured image by Jason Leung. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash License.