Nassef is a lifelong learner of comparative study between Islam and International Relations. He co-founded the International Relations and Islamic Studies Research Cohort (Co-IRIS) and founded the Philippine International Studies Organization (PhISO).
Master in International Studies' Comprehensive Examinations
University of the Philippines-Diliman
August 10, 2009
Required question number ONE:
Scholars have classified theories of International Relations into Mainstream and Alternative theories. What is the basis of this classification? In what fundamental ways (ontological and epistemological) do the philosophies of social sciences of Mainstream theories differ from that of the Alternative theories?
International Relations’ theories have started to dominate the field of World Politics in 1930s when Utopian scholars failed to explain and justify based on their ontological and epistemological study of world events, e.g., the failed League of Nations, the First World War, and the Great Depression. Thus Realism particularly the work of Edward Hallett Carr on “The Twenty Years Crisis” (1946) attacked and criticized the idealist Utopians.
This series of event has marked the advent of Mainstream theories of International Relations (IR), that is, Realism and Liberalism, in World Politics. The classification of IR theories between Mainstream and Alternative theories is based on primarily the dominant criterion on its usage in the literature of International Relations, the quality in which these theories can submit the best explanatory power, and in conversely, which theories manifest a substitutive criterion from the existing ones. A quantitative factor may also be considered on what theories are oftenly or rarely used or referred by scholars from their works.
Mainstream theories can be classified as those which characterized influential and dominance in IR literature regardless of temporal (time) and spatial (space) elements. It also permeates an already established methodological framework and research, whether empirical (emphasized that all knowledge in the world is based on experience), positivist (suggests that there are ‘facts’ about the world whereby the observer is autonomous, independent, or value-free variable) and scientific (facts are objective) in nature.
Alternative theories characterized substitutive criterion, in which, are not encompassing through time and space. It was developed to address specific situations, moments, and instances by which it also considered as a sub-variant of existing mainstream theories. Robert Jervis in his work “Realism in the Study of International Politics” argued the relevance of Realism in contemporary trends of IR and contended that Constructivism still lacks the explanatory power that Liberalism and Realism had.
Mainstream theories lie on the positivist nature of ontology (what is out there?) which precedes epistemology (how do we know?). Liberalism and Realism have met the dual test of reason and science. Morgenthau’s three dimensions of metaphysics: 1) Biology 2) Rationale and 3) Spiritedness have all answered the introspection among the inductive of meaning, objectification of, and the dialectical historizations. Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, and Hugo Grotius conceived Liberal ideas based on the rule of law and of morality. Though the Grotian approach have emphasized power as a combination of force and consent, while Bentham and Kant regarded power as a bad element in the individual liberty of human being.
Alternative theories emphasized empiricism in their research; empirical ontology and epistemology. Vincent Poulliot’s “Sobjectivism: A Constructivist Theory” reify the importance of combination of ‘experience-near’ and ‘experience-distant’. In which the constructivist style of reasoning he used is based on the fundamentalist sphere of social creations in the international system. Empiricism on norms (belief on duties, obligations, rights, etc), principles (belief on ideals – idea all the way down), rules (more specific than norm, which it is proscribed or prescribed), and decision-making procedures are the determinants in the study of constructivism.
Robert Cox on ‘Critical Theory’ had emphasized culture, religion and other social forms that construct all knowledge, in which “facts” are nothing in the world – what is important is how we value and interpret the world. Other scholars need to be recognized; Alexander Wendt’s “The Social Theory of International Politics” and the new contribution of George Shani from Ritsumeikan University, Japan, in his work “Post-IR Westphalian Theory: The Ummah, Shan Phankhti, and Constructivist Theory” has included non-Western political ideas in deciphering a less-Eurocentric Critical IR theory by incorporating the Islamic Ummah (a community of all Muslims) and Shan Pankhti (a Sikhism political community with a new concept of sovereignty as against to Western interpretation).
Even there is a demarcation between Mainstream and Alternative theories, I submit to Cox’s idea that a theory is always for someone and for some purpose.
Nota bene: I used IR that refers to either International Relations (as the academic discipline) or international relations (as the practice of the discipline).