The Language of Theory, or, How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto

This morning I read an article by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon, titled “Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory.” This piece originally appeared in a 2009 edition of Internaionl Studies Quartlerly.

I like when people agree with me, so when I saw my words echoed across time (it’s as if Jackson and Nexon read my post, built a time machine, and told their former selves what a great idea they read on tdaxp). Yesterday, I said it was riduclous to describe the International Relations cliques of “Realism,” “Liberalism,” and such as paradigms. I wrote:

The highlighted passage, originally by Daniel Maliniak simply means that empirical research is increasing, and that non-empirical research is declining, within political science. But Maliniak, and thus Walt and Mearsheimer, bizarrely use “paradigmatic” to refer to less paradigmatic (that is, less capable of progress) fields, and “non-paradigmatic” to more to more paradigmatic (that is, more capable of progress) fields.

Political science has been in the fever swamp for so long that the notion of progress as an outcome of normal science has almost entirely been lost. If Walt and Mearsheimer had their way, it might be lost, and the field simply divided into a stationary oligarchy of old boys network.

As Jackson and Nexon write:

The terminology of ‘‘paradigms’’ and ‘‘research programmes’’ produces a num-ber of deleterious effects in the field. It implies that we need to appeal to criteria of the kind found in MSRP in order to adjudicate disputes that require no such procedures. In order to do so, we spend a great deal of time specifying the ‘‘boundaries’’ of putative research programmes and, in effect, unfairly and misleadingly holding scholars accountable for the status of theories they often view as rivals to their own.

Perhaps the most well-known instance of this kind of boundary-demarcation occurs in the debates surrounding ‘‘realism’’ in international relations theory. The proliferation of countless lists of the ‘‘core commitments’’ of a realist ‘‘paradigm’’—by adherents and critics alike—shifts the focus of scholarship away from any actual investigation of whether these commitments give us meaningful leverage on the phenomenal world, and instead promotes endless border skirmishes about who is and is not a realist (Legro and Moravcsik 1999), whether predictions of balancing are central to the ‘‘realist paradigm’’ (Vasquez 1998:261–65), and so forth. Such debates and demarcations not only distract us from the actual study of world politics, but also harm disputes over international relations theory by solidifying stances that ought to remain open to debate and discussion.

So I enjoyed Jackson’s and Nexon’s takedown of the so-called “paradigms” in International Relations.

But they don’t go far enough.

Their piece ends with an appeal to Max Weber (how non-progressive can you get?!?) and an unfalsifiable taxonomy that I won’t go into


A more useful conclusion to the paper would have been to recognize that statistics is the language of theory, the language of modeling. Instead of inviting international relations scholars to chase their own tale and bow to Max Weber and the dead, how much more useful would a positive theory of research programs in International Relations have been? For instance, consider a citation indexing method, such as PageRank [pdf] to determine if they are “clusters” PageRank sets in which certain articles were influential (exemplars?) and others were not. Did Jackson and Nexon really have no one availability to sketch even a proposed methodology for testing their claim?

The answer is probably “no.” My purpose isn’t to pick on Jackson and Nexon, but to point out the weakness of International Relations as a whole. In a related post by Patrick Musgrave, titled “The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses“, the following diagram showing is shown:


Which clearly displays a “humanities ghetto,” that includes political science.


How can this be, if International Relations is the disciplined extraction of meaning from data, which is the same focus as the high-paying, well-employed fields?

The obvious answer is that International Relations does not teach actually useful methods for the disciplined extraction of data. It does not teach critical thinking or logical reasoning. It teaches something that apes these skills, a rhetorical ability that impresses old scholars and does not help society.

International Relations is a non-progressive field where, by and large, it sucks to be young.


In an evocative comment that ties the article and the blog post together, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson states:

I don’t think that it is our job as university faculty to increase students’ future earning potential. Nor do I think that it is our job in teaching PoliSci undergrads to make sure that they can read APSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Our job is to teach students to think critically about politics, and while I am perfectly fine with the suggestion that some statistical literacy can be useful to that end, I am not prepared to give that higher pride of place than things like reading closely, writing cogently, and disagreeing with one another civilly.

The dichotomy that Jackson notes is entirely false. In his own piece, he was not able to express a constructive critical thought about paradigms — the original Nexon and Jackson article is devoid of the model specification or operationalization that would needed to turn his criticisms and taxonomy into something capable of progress. Any competent graduate from the humanities ghetto can read “closely” or write “cogently.” That’s needed is to think usefully, and for this statistical literary is required.

8 thoughts on “The Language of Theory, or, How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto”

  1. Hey, Dan. Thanks for the close read. I think you’ve misunderstood the purpose of the ideal-typical property space presented at the end of the paper. In our reading of the -isms, you wouldn’t test them as theoretical aggregates. They get a meaningful debates, but those debates are best addressed (when necessary) by relating the findings derived from empirical work to the wagers posed by the -isms (properly understood).

  2. Hey Dan Nexon,

    Thanks a lot for the comment! Sorry for the delay but I’ve been thinking about it a lot :-)

    I understand that nothing in the article calls for it to be directly tested. I think that is my criticism of it, at its core… Without operationalization a theory is just a spirit, waiting to be born…

  3. Should have specified–my problem with the graph is that you can’t tell what some of those majors are because they overwrite each other.

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