It has been some time since I sat down to punch out some thoughts on the good ol’ blog–in blog time, a week can seem like a lifetime. I originally started typing with the intent of writing some funny story about Black Friday, or seriously addressing the recent tragic events in Mumbai. For some reason, the writer and the quasi-intellectual in me wanted to address a different topic. I suppose if there is one key reason (among many I imagine) people become academics, it is because they instinctively are drawn to long-range perspectives in an age of instantaneous information and punditry. Perhaps that is one way I filter that information and allow myself to step back for a moment, take every bit of the action in, then proceed forward with greater long-range perspective. I admit there is a core part of me that sometimes makes better sense of the insane world we inhabit through quietly considering deeper and more abstract theoretical questions.
One such question I mulled over this week concerns how IR theorists address culture, identity, and norms in international relations, and secondly, how humans develop a collective intersubjective understanding of the aforementioned entities. The second part of the question asks: how does culture, identity, and norms influence collective behavior (or at a state level: how do states’ specific and generic identities shape their interests and thus, international outcomes?). Given the fact that I have asked myself these questions for quite some time, I also wondered: what makes the academic world of international relations (and of course, the social sciences in general) hang together?
I found John Gerard Ruggie’s essay (which I obviously riffed the blog title from) “What Makes the World Hang Together?” in his Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization (New York: Routledge, 1998) to be one of the best pieces I have read which clarifies the above issues from a constructivist perspective, but also does so through challenging ‘neo-utilitarian’ or rational-choice theoretical approaches to international relations.
Like Ruggie, I am also concerned with that same question, especially in an age where identity seems to take center stage in many top issues of the day: ethnic conflict, genocide, international terrorism, nationalism, political Islam, and even other social phenomena which might not seem to be identity-driven at first glance: interstate cooperation on economic agreements, the development of security communities, processes of state formation, and even shifts in cultural patterns of militarism to name a few.
From an academic standpoint, I found Ruggie’s work to be very significant due to the way IR is typically approached in terms of its ‘great debates’ (at least at an undergraduate level). Personally, I experienced this in terms of taking a few intro courses at my undergraduate institution where students were introduced to the realism vs. liberalism debate, then we moved on to neorealism vs. neoliberal institutionalism, then addressed both versus different versions of constructivism, feminist theory, world-systems theory, etc. What I find interesting in retrospect is the fact that a key (if not the most important debate at the moment in my view) is often not addressed in great detail (once again, at the undergraduate level): rational-choice theory or what Ruggie terms ‘neo-utilitarianism’ versus social constructivism.
More importantly, I am (and I assume many others as well) are increasingly realizing that different approaches in IR ultimately boil down to two key issues: differences in philosophical world views, and secondly, contending definitions of science, especially for the social sciences. I will hedge my bets an increasing number of social scientists will analyze the divisions in the discipline through addressing the above issues, especially since they arguably produced the divisions we can observe between rational-choice and constructivist theoretical accounts of IR (and political science in general).
Thus, one key problem with pinning neorealism against neoliberal institutionalism is that this overlooks their methodological and ontological similarities (there are still some differences in there, but I am willing to wager that through analyzing both approaches as ultimately, rational-choice theoretical accounts of world politics, they have much more in common than many students of IR initially expect.
Ruggie of course does an excellent job of succinctly summarizing how IR evolved until the present stage, and then proceeds to describe the neo-utilitarian/rational-choice similarities between neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism in particular. The final part of his essay proceeds to introduce a social constructivist research agenda through challenging existing ontological claims and methodological approaches of neo-utilitiarians/rational-choice theorists (to simplify, I will use Ruggie’s term neo-utilitarians for the remainder of this post).
Given that Ruggie’s article is quite dense (it literally took me a few reads to grasp the nuanced details of his proposals), I will briefly mention a few of his points then relate them back to my personal research agenda where applicable. Ruggie’s main arguments include the following points:
1) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists both assume states’ identities and interests are given (thus their convergence in terms of neo-utilitarian approaches); by contrast, constructivists ‘problematize’ states identities and interests and do not simply address ‘identity’ and ‘norms’ as ‘theory fillers,’ but address identities and norms as central components of their research agenda.
2) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists both are concerned with ‘regulative’ rules that are causal in nature and determine outcomes (examples include traffic rules and laws that prohibit illegal activity); by contrast, constructivists are mainly concerned with constitutive rules, or rules that provide noncausal explanations of social phenomena and define which set of social practices make up ‘consciously organized social activities.’ Ruggie especially emphasizes this point claiming that constructivists believe we can not explain international politics without constitutive rules (i.e., it is impossible to explain certain social phenomena like state formation and transformation merely through causal relationships and regulative rules). In other words, neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists can explain action sequences, but not how actors became constituted prior to conducting such actions. Their neo-utilitarian approach also neglects analysis of cultural and historical variation, and how social actors are constituted based upon variation in social frameworks across space and time.
3) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists do not adequately address the phenomenon of state transformation (Ruggie provided the great historical example of shifting from the medieval period to the modern state system–how can neo-utilitarians explain this shift without also accounting for corresponding identity and structural shifts as well?)
4) Neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists both have addressed ideational factors (or ideational causation), but have done so in a very restricted and limited manner.
To take all of Ruggie’s points one step further, he pretty much draws from the discplines of sociology, anthropology (esp. in the area concerning ‘intersubjective shared understandings’) and philosophy to argue that neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists neglect to analyze key components of international social realities (or they provide a distorted version of such realities) due to the following reason: both approaches do not address how humans collectively develop intersubjective understanding of social phenomena, how they proceed to ascribe meaning to that phenomena, and thus, how they construct constitutive rules which make sense of social activity. In IR terms, this means that neo-utilitarians can’t fully explain how entities like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘human rights’ acquired mutually accepted meaning over time.
Here is where I will add my two cents and try to connect Ruggie’s key points to my research interests:
I am personally interested in explaining how does a region like the Middle East fit into debates concerning international relations. Specifically, I ponder over three key issues that remain highly contentious to this day:
1) State formation and state identities: how did the state system in the Middle East emerge, then transform over time structurally and culturally? How did such transformations in state identities affect domestic political behavior and international outcomes?
2) Nationalism: how did collective actors (namely social movements) contest this state system and state identities? How did their constructed national identities influence state transformation and international political outcomes over time? How did their national identities transform in response to national/regional/international system transformations?
3) Social movements: how did non-state actors like political Islamist and/or nationalist movements increase their influence and power over Middle Eastern publics (and increasingly at an international level) through challenging the perceived legitimacy of the state and its specific identity?
4) Mutual constitution of identities: how did political Islamist movements develop their collective identities in relation to depiction of ‘the other’ (i.e., the American government, the secular Arab regimes in power that favored the status quo, Israel, other political rivals).
My main issue with any rational-choice neo-utilitarian account is that it does not problematize or question state identities or identities of non-state actors for that matter–thus, neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists would likely (in my view) not analyze or compare specific differences between state identity construction in Western Europe (or even the EU at a regional level) versus Middle Eastern states (or vice versa, between specific states in East Asia versus Latin America, etc. etc.). For this reason, historical and cultural variation is neglected analytically and methodologically speaking.
Secondly, by adopting state-centric approaches, non-state actors like Islamist movements may be addressed by neo-utilitarian accounts, but not to the degree states are addressed. The problem of course is that if a state lacks perceived legitimacy, then the question becomes: who are the ‘real’ actors in IR? Or, is this question determined through the social construction of reality (i.e., if we craft a shared narrative concerning who ‘we’ think the ‘actors’ are, then that shared belief will lead to changes in public recognition of different actors), or so a constructivist might say methinks.
An additional problem in regards to the above concerns ontological world views. Neo-utilitarians are not concerned with ‘how’ actors are publicly recognized or how they obtain public legitimation for their identity. Neo-utilitarians assume that identities and interests are a given and the ‘real’ actors on the scene (i.e. states) are the ones neo-utilitarians say they are. What is ironic is that whilst saying this, neo-utilitarians are constructing their own view of social reality through suggesting that states are the most important actors in international relations!
I sometimes wonder if any self-proclaimed neo-utilitarian took a short 5 minute walk in Cairo, or Islamabad, or Manilla and saw the public support for non-state actors or social movements in contrast to the state, would they revise such statements?
Finally, how can neo-utilitarians explain the rise in ‘anti-Americanism’? Is it because of America’s strong position in terms of material interests (military force, power over international economic institutions, etc.), or America’s hegemonic status? This ignores, as Ruggie put it, the importance of an American hegemony. This isn’t just economic or military clout we’re discussing, American hegemony actually entails….surprise surprise, an associated corresponding American identity.
Thus, political Islamist movements who would like to gain more power and influence in international politics are arguably successful when they are able to construct their collective identity in contrast to others (whether it be American, or their main political rival, the state which likely takes the form of either an unpopular monarchy or military dictatorship). The influence of identities is illustrated by the fact that if the U.S. government props up a corrupt regime in places like Egypt or Pakistan, one of the most effective ways an opposition group can politically mobilize popular support is through constructing their movement’s identity in polarized opposition to ‘the other’ or the other’s perceived unpopular identity. This whole complex process of identity construction and negotiation is ultimately ignored by neo-utilitarians.
My final analysis after an extensive post of ramblings: the academic world of international relations is currently held together by scholars with paradigmatic irreconcilable world views who will likely continue to duke it out for years to come. I just hope I can still join in the fun when (hopefully, or inshallah as some put it 😉 I can enter grad school.
Ok, and I seriously need to address the news soon methinks. Alas, I got my theoretical fill for the evening :-).