In my review essay on al-Qaeda (in progress), I note that mainstream International Relations theory has had virtually nothing to say about al-Qaeda, the war on terror, or anything to do with Islamism.
The dominant theoretical trends in the international relations field have been strikingly absent from the mountains of paper expended on analysis of al-Qaeda, Islamism, and the war on terror. Most of the dominant theoretical approaches were not so much wrong as irrelevant. Realism, with its emphasis on the balance of power among self-interested nation-states, had little to say about a non-state actor motivated by religion. Liberalism, with its various arguments about international institutions, trade, and democracy, similarly offered little traction. Rationalist approaches seemed initially stymied by an organization defined by intense religious convictions, and by individual suicide terrorism (though there were some game efforts to reconstruct a strategic rationale behind al-Qaeda’s terrorism). Of all the dominant trends within IR, constructivism seemed to be the best placed to account for such a religious, transnational movement. But constructivist analyses of al-Qaeda were few and far between. Whether because the Islamist movement espouses norms repugnant to the liberalism espoused by many constructivist theorists or because of a lack of interest in policy relevant research, constructivists have largely failed to rise to the opportunity of authoritatively interpreting al-Qaeda.
But is that true? Has IR theory been irrelevant to the debates? To find out, I just spent a few hours looking at the contents of the last four years of the six leading journals for International Relations theory (International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, World Politics, Journal of Conflict Resolution, European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies - see the end of the post for discussion of these choices), along with the American Political Science Review. I used an exceedingly loose definition of "about al-Qaeda" - i.e. I included everything about terrorism and counter-terrorism, even if it barely touched at all on al-Qaeda or Islamism itself; and I included review essays, even if they did not include any original research.
The results were even more striking than I expected. All told, these seven journals published 796 articles between 2002-2005. I found a total of 25 articles dealing even loosely with al-Qaeda, Islamism, or terrorism. That's just over 3% of the articles. Now, there's lots of important stuff out there in the world, and there's no reason for the whole field to be following the headlines, but still... 3%?
Details: International Organization, generally considered the 'best' journal for international relations theory, ran 116 articles between 2002 and 2005, only 2 of which even loosely touched on issues related to al-Qaeda. Of 150 articles in the American Political Science Review, only one dealt with the topic (Pape’s strategic analysis of suicide terrorism). International Studies Quarterly (journal of the International Studies Association) has published 2 articles out of 115 total, one a quantitative study of transnational terrorism prior to 1999, the other a postmodernist exploration of how al-Qaeda’s jihad and the American war on terror were mirror images of one another. World Politics has done slightly better, with five articles out of 43: one of those was a study of Islam’s relationship to authoritarianism, and another a response to it - so not really on al-Qaeda, but at least on Islam; two were extremely well-done review essays (Byman and Anderson), but not original research; and one (Philpott) explored the absence of religion from IR scholarship. The quantitative/formal Journal of Conflict Resolution did publish a 7 article special issue on transnational terrorism, but otherwise managed only 3 articles out of 146. Nor do the leading non-American IR theory journals do significantly better. The European Journal of International Relations has published only one article (out of 63), a look at the role of secularism in the field of IR. The Review of International Studies has published 4 articles on the topic, out of 163; of those one was a review essay on global Islam, one offered a detailed analysis of Taleban diplomacy, one used Edgar Allan Poe to reflect on the traumatic nature of 9/11, and only one (by Barak Mendelsohn) really looked at al-Qaeda itself.
One obvious objection would be that I excluded policy-oriented journals such as Foreign Affairs, International Security, and The Washington Quarterly, which do tend to publish much more on the topic. I did that intentionally, because that best captures the prestige value within the field of International Relations. The policy journals are generally undervalued within the International Relations profession, to the extent that many top Political Science Departments wouldn't even consider a Foreign Affairs publication suitable for a tenure file. In other words, the fact that there is a lot more on Islamism and al-Qaeda in those journals only strengthens my claim - even though political scientists have a lot to say on the subject, they can't or don't say it in the most prestigious, theory oriented journals.
Oh, and I didn't even say anything about the quality of those 25 articles... all I'll say is that of them, I would count about 7 of them as actually useful in any meaningful way (but I won't say which seven to avoid offending anyone, since it's Friday).
NOTE: see my response to comments in this post above.