Definitions and Progress

A couple days ago a post on Duck of Minerva linked to a working paper called “I can has IR theory?” [pdf]. The title was funny, but something about the contents bothered me.

I Can Has IR Theory Appears to have tow components
1. It is an extended hit peace against “neopositivism,” which appears to be a methodology (or something) disliked by the authors. It is difficult to know if this is true, however, because the authors do not bother to define their terms.
1. It includes a discussion of “scientific ontology,” which likewise is never defined.

Unlike “neopositivism” though (the only thing I can tell about which is that the authors — Patrick Jackson and Daniel Nexon — dislike it, and that it appears to be related to quantitative methods), the article includes numerous descriptions of “scientific ontology.” It is these descriptions that bothered me.

“Scientific ontology” appears to be synonymous for “nomological network,” an antiquated and simplistic form of modeling that is prone to error.

First, some passages from Jackson and Nexon’s working paper:

To be more precise, we think that international-relations theory is centrally involved with scientific ontology, which is to say, a catalog—or map—of the basic substances and processes that constitute world politics. International-relations theory as “scientific ontology” concerns:
• The actors that populate world politics, such as states, international organizations, individuals, and multinational corporations;
• Their relative significance to understanding and explaining international outcome
• How they fit together, such as parts of systems, autonomous entities, occupying locations in one or more social fields, nodes in a network, and so forth;
• What processes constitute the primary locus of scholarly analysis, e.g., decisions, actions, behaviors, relations, and practices; and
• The inter-relationship among elements of those processes, such as preferences, interests, identities, social ties, and so on.

(Note how they are measured is left out.)

And this passage (as mentioned above, “Neopositivism” is never defined and only loosely described, so focus on the passage related to “scientific ontology”)

The Dominance of Neopositivism
This line of argument suggests that neopositivist hegemony, particularly in prestige US journals, undermines international-relations theorization via a number of distinct mechanisms:
• It reduces the likelihood that international-relations theory pieces will be published in “leading” journals because neopositivism devalues debate over scientific ontology in favor of moving immediately to middle-range theoretic implications; • It reduces the quality of international-relations theorization by requiring it to be conjoined to middle-range theorizing and empirical adjudication; and
• It forces derivative middle-range theories to be evaluated through neopositivist standards.

(Note that scientific ontology thus excludes “middle-range theoretical implications.)

In an earlier work, I wrote that :

As a measure of construct validity, nomothetic span is more inclusive than Cronbach and Meehl’s (1955) concept of the nomological network, as nomothetic span includes not only how a construct relates to other construct, but also how measures of the same construct relate to each other (Messick, 1989).

Because the undefined concept of “scientific ontology” appears to be more or less identical to the idea of nomological network, which was described a half century ago. Without incorporating measurement into a model, it’s impossible to a functional definition, a method of falsifying the model, or even a way to make useful predictions. And without this ability, it’s impossible to make progress.

Operational definitions are absent from Jackson’s and Nexon’s piece, both from their primary terms, and their view of “scientific ontology.”

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