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November 11, 2005


Dan Nexon

A word of caution: consider the way that the discipline lags behind contemporary developments - as well as the length of time it takes to publish a scholarly article. I did a similar exercise for discussions of "emprire." Given how hot this subject is, one would expect a lot more - and a lot more incisive - writing on the subject in mainstream IR journals... but there isn't much. Yet I know that a great many graduate students are working on the subject, and some of us scholars have pieces in process or under review right now. My sense is that the same may be true with Al-Q and terrorism; I see evidence that a number of graduate students are working on the subject.

Now, whether the dominant trends in IR theory make it difficult to deal with Al-Q and terrorism is another matter. You might also want to consider how much terrorism studies long operated as an independent field of analysis from IR.

the aardvark

Good points all.. I think four years is long enough to account for the lag effect, though, but there's not much of an upward trend. There should be grad students working on it, but I can only think of one or two who actually is (in IR, not in other subfields).

I do think that there's something about al-Qaeda and Islamism which make it very difficult for IR theorists to deal with it *and get published in IO, ISQ, et al*. Constructivism should be well-positioned to deal with it, though, as I'll be arguing, if its practitioners are willing to deal with a normatively unattractive, violence-using constructivist agent....

the aardvark

By the way, if you really did do a search on "emprire", I think I may see the problem!


Si Bou Aradvrek:
While admitting a contempt for IR theory and political science in general, the first question that comes to mind is, in effect, what would the potential relevance be?

A theory on non-state actors?

Dan Nexon

"if you really did do a search on "emprire""


Dan Nexon

Marc, are you suggesting that constructivism has a bias towards warm-and-fuzzy principled actors? Shocking.

Dan Nexon

BTW, one of the arguments we've been toying with vis-a-vis the "realist-constructivism" project deals with the same issue; realists ought to be comfortable with this sort of stuff, but their state-centrism makes it difficult; constructivists ought to be comfortable with this sort of stuff, but their liberalism makes it difficult.


Back in 1994, I attended a small conference on transnationalism at Notre Dame featuring a number of young, leading constructivist and social movement scholars, including Martha Finnemore, Thomas Risse, and Kathryn Sikkink, among others.

It was widely agreed that someone should be studying the "bad guys," such as neo-Nazis or terrorists.

It's hard to fault the people I mentioned given what they did produce in the next decade.

BTW, I put together a large packet of material on the so-called "wise use" movement (anti-environmentalists funded typically by TNCs)...but never wrote anything. Oops.


Terrorism is seen as the preserve of security types and policy wonks rather than academics in the US, and I'm actually not surprised that academics have been reluctant to get into the field given how politicised it is. Scholars who work on Islamism and try to offer any kind of normative or policy-oriented perspective get smeared as apologists or get caught up in American foreign policy politics. But I do know grad students who are working on this stuff (needless to say, the 9/11 effect) and there should be more publishing on it soon.

Another point to consider is that Middle East studies in the US has been so focused on national and regional politics that much of the scholarly writing on Islamism tends to be published in IJMES and other Middle East (rather than IR) journals, and a lot of these articles lean towards the historical. I suspect many IR and security studies people would sniff at these as being wishy-washy/apologetic/not policy-centric enough, in no small part because, as you mentioned, the incentive structure for IR scholars doesn't really encourage them to focus on history, language or culture. Though you'd think that would have changed in recent years with all the talk about second image reversed/interface between international and domestic politics.

Out of curiosity, Ustaz AA and others who teach IR, do people assign Juergensmeyer's Terror in the Mind of God in undergrad IR classes these days? And how do the students respond?


In 2000, I was told by a Security Studies professor that the study of terrorism was a "cottage industry" for people who couldn't engage the "real debates of the discipline." While I was frustrated by his inability to see the "realness" of these debates as fluid over time and space, was I "vindicated" by the growing interest in the academic study of terrorism since 2001?

No - he still sees it that way, and given what Marc's presented here, it's not surprising. Not only IS the study of terrorism functioning as a cottage industry, it's likely doing so because the many hacks who write about al-Qaeda would like to maintain their intellectual preserve and letting in the theorists (though I so thoroughly dislike IR as a subfield that I hate to apply this word to the incredibly narrow theorizing that they do) would threaten that monopoly.

But if we did think about it theoretically, where would al-Qaeda fit? There's recently been a debate about adding a course on terrorism at AUC. As one might expect, there's also a debate about what to call it, since "terrorism" is too loaded for most of the profs. Instead,some want to call it a class on "Non-State Actors." While at first I thought this was ridiculous (since people will relate it to international political economy and the study of transnational and multinational actors, NGOs, etc), we may need to say that's where al-Qaeda fits if we want to be theoretically honest about it.

[Lastly, Marc: Why do you persist in portraying constructivism as a paradigm (akin to Realism or Liberalism) as opposed to a method (recognizing its foundation in Critical Theory) with which to transform Realism and Liberalism? I see no "constructivist" research agenda that can't be better categorized as a constructivist methodological approach to a Realist/Liberal question. And while I'm not suggesting that this is what drives you, personally, I suspect that discipline-wide this is as much about IR scholars carving out a distinctive niche (e.g. "we are Constructivists") rather than acknowledging their intellectual endebtedness to critical theory (e.g. having something in common with the Anachronistic Theorists, whom the IR scholars only grudgingly suffer at faculty meetings...) This may be too far afield of the blog, but I couldn't help asking].

mark safranski

Theory is a good thing so long as practitioners remember it is a means to efficiently understanding the world not an end in itself.

When advocates of an academic theory come across a phenomena for which their paradigm does not account they have several options:

a)Investigate the phenomena on an empirical basis and reasses the theory in light of new evidence, if any.

b)Rationalize why the phenomena " doesn't count" and try their best to ignore it - to the point of making concerted ad hominem attacks on those who persist in raising the issue.

Islamist terrorism is an important subject that crossses many disciplines yet is at home in none - giving it enough topical traction to threaten many sacred cow abstract ideas while not yielding any career advantages to the untenured scholar who pushes the analytical envelope.

The problem resides with the culture of academia which has less to do with fearless, unconstrained, pure pursuit if intellectual inquiry than it likes to imagine.

Dr Victorino de la Vega

Yesterday, the man they call the videoconferencing el Presidente delivered his long-awaited Veterans Day speech on the fight against "Islamic terrorism" at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania- see link to official Federal News Service transcript below:

This turned out to be a fascinating speech full of true-blue Trotskyite/Noecon clichés about the eventual collapse of the Islamic Al-Qaeda “system” from the burden of “its internal contradictions” and the firm presidential belief that its leaders will soon be “joining the dustbins of history”…beyond the irony of listening to a right-wing Republican leader using 19th century vintage Marxist metaphors, Dubya’s delivery was clearly below (his own already sub-par) personal average, and the rehearsed hurrahs sounded less enthusiastic than usual- maybe because Karl and Scooter were busy elsewhere and didn’t have enough time to prepare properly for this staged show of martial masculinity.

Anyway, the following 2 points in Bush’s speech caught my attention as they perfectly capture the essence of “Neo-conservative” Pharisaic propaganda:

1) “…the militant network wants to use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against non-radical Muslim governments”

This type of talk is particularly racist and offensive: 1.4 billion Muslims around the world will be glad to learn that the US government has officially segmented them into two broad categories: “Radical/Al-Qaeda types” and “Non-radical Muslims” [sic]

2) “…our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life”

That’s an outright lie, which has been propagandized on a massive scale since September 11th 2001 by Wolfowitz, Perl, Libby, Sharon, Cheney & Co.

As veteran Middle-East experts such as former senior CIA officer Michael Scheuer have said repeatedly, this canard about “Bin Laden’s alleged desire to shatter the American way of life” was (and still is) the ultimate justification of the invasion of Iraq…simply because it was “market-tested” extensively by the White House and proved to fly well with focus groups and folks in the heartland.
See link below for more on Mike Scheuer’s sharp criticism of the Bush administration

Dubya’s mass repetition of the same failed arguments ad nauseam now threatens to unmask the dirty secrets of Neocon statecraft: in the future, he should keep his advanced Pharisaic talking points algorithm under wraps lest he reveal his intellectual edge to the enemies of freedom/democracy/Zion/McDonalds burgers/Philadelphia cheese/Alabama banana pudding/you name your favorite American dish and call the PR & Public Information Management department at the Israeli embassy in Houston so they can add it to the list of heartland gastronomic liberties that constitute the bedrock of culinary freedom on which this great nation was built!

We won’t let Jacques Chirac and Saddam Hussein destroy our way of life with their poisonous Gallic Gaullist soufflés and other radioactive “yellow cakes” cum hummus sauce cooked in the dirty Baathist/terrorist/evil/satanic/Islamo-fascist kitchens of Damascus and Tickrit.

Vive le Liberty!
Vive el Presidente!

Dan Nexon

[Lastly, Marc: Why do you persist in portraying constructivism as a paradigm (akin to Realism or Liberalism) as opposed to a method (recognizing its foundation in Critical Theory) with which to transform Realism and Liberalism? I see no "constructivist" research agenda that can't be better categorized as a constructivist methodological approach to a Realist/Liberal question.]

Stacey: why do you characterize realism and liberalism as "paradigms" in the first place? It strikes me that if they are paradigms, then so is constructivism - although I don't think any of the three really qualify.


Well, what exactly *is* a paradigm, anyway? Constructivism is an alternative to the "neo-realist/neo-liberal" debate, which was firmly ensconced in the essentially neo-realist/rationalist paradigm. The liberal/realist debate was never particularly useful, and essentially was the optimist/pessimist debate - these weren't paradigms so much as underlying dispositions. Yes, most constructivists are liberals in this broad sense in that they believe in progress, but certainly not (necessarily) in their ontological focus (i.e. they are typically not individualists a la Moravcsik). The constructionist aspect of constructivism (and to a lesser extent, given disciplinary history, its focus on ideational phenomena) are distinctive elements of the "paradigm".

Why is it not simply a "method" drawn from Critical Theory? Because while some degree of interpretation is ultimately necessary if subjective meanings are one's focus, it is not necessarily driven by a critical project (i.e., desire for change, exposing the hegemony), and it can be argued (if perhaps controversially, a la Wendt) that constructivism's ontological focus does not require a post-structuralist (or even interpretivist) epistemology or methodology. This is why constructivism is its own thing, even though there is significant variation within it.

Finally, it's been much more useful than most CT work ever was because of its empirical focus, which makes one wonder why it hasn't responded to the terrorism challenge. I think the answer *is* primarily the fact that most constructivists are liberal in a broad normative/motivational sense, and find security issues broadly speaking depressing (as do I) and choose to work on more interesting and less depressing fare. Also, most IR scholars being theorists, they will not possess the arabic language and cultural skills to actually assess things like "resonance" and "framing" pursued by non-western actors. The comaprativists and the area specialists who could do it hate IR theory.

Which just goes to show that the vast majority of IR theory and "IR" as a separate discipline is essentially useless on its own for the most part (and dangerous as a breeding ground for grand theorists like Waltz, the neocons, etc... who policy-makers decide actually make sense). This coming from a budding IR person... kinda depressing, eh? :>

David Brake

It would be interesting to see how long it took the same theoretical journals to come to terms with the fall of the Berlin Wall.


I"d like to comment as an outsider with an unusual perspective.

From the 1950's through the early 1970's, music theory became increasingly abstruse, finally to the point of sheer incoherence from the standpoint of many well-trained composers and instrumentalists (not only myself, but many others). This was satirized by composer Otto Luening who proposed an article "The Significance of the Note 'G' in the Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach."

Then, around 1974, the pianist Charles Rosen published "The Classical Style," a brilliant discussion of the techniques that unite Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven into a stylistic school. It was non-trivial - you had to know music, cold, as well as some very odd corners of the repertory - but also deeply immersed in musical performance practice. In short, it advanced a sophisticated, comprehensive theory of the classical style that was grounded within a shared, apprehensible reality. It was not "accessible" - ie dumbed down - it was simply reality-based. Speaking personally Rosen's "The Classical Style" was a revelation. I've read it so many times and so carefully, my two copies of the book have disintegrated into shreds with missing pages, etc.

Slowly, there has been a marked change in music theory, with many fine theorists acknowledging their depth to Rosen's masterpiece (who, by the way, never equalled The Classical Style again, and whose subsequent writing is often marred by unnecessary pomposity and obsessive-compulsive carping). I"m thinking of Walter Frisch's study of the early music of Schoenberg and Laurence Dreyfus's "Bach and the Patterns of Invention." This attitude has informed other fields within music leading, among other things, to a reconsideration of the origins of chant and even - in an oblique way - of the development of the Delta blues.

It seems like the time is ripe for a similar change in IR. Obviously paradigms like realism and idealism never fit the real world terribly well (even if it is challenging and enjoyable to argue about the nuances of their meaning when divorced from reality). I think you folks need to consider far more supple frameworks; what they could be is unclear to me, but some of the newer approaches to non-linear systems - chaos theory and the like, both as metaphor and as mathematical analysis - might spark ideas for approaching international relations in a systematic and intellectually interesting fashion. I think this has to be tempered by a heavy dose of commonsense, namely that there can be no formal algorithms that will generate an always-wise theory, but there are plenty of very useful rules of thumb.

I also think you need seriously to consider a point touched upon by AA in his response to a comment. There is a considerable lag time between current trends and analysis of those trends within your journals. That strikes me as a serious, but manageable, flaw. Among the necessary changes to the theory of International Relations should be an awareness that any analysis has a very short shelf life in the real world. Therefore, a new but intellectually robust theory will need to confront the knotty problem of effective theorizing under severe and constant time constraints. Other disciplines - medicine, for example, on the spread of a new flu virus - have to account intelligently for time and rapid changes of situation. IR should, too and find a way to respond quickly to the real world.

Dan Nexon

David suggests an interesting point of comparison.

- Major discussions of the end of the Cold War and its implications started in the more policy-oriented IR journals almost immediately. The implications of Gorbachev's reforms were a subject of debate from at least 1985 on.

- Arguments to the effect that the end of the Cold War directly challenged some prevailing notions about the dynamics of world politics appeared rather quickly in the more academic IR journals (there's a parallel here to the kind of piece Marc appears to be working on).

- But the really developed arguments, i.e., those that made use of good empirical evidence and took a more sophisticated view of the actual implications of the end of the Cold War, didn't start appearing until, at the earliest, the middle-to-late-1990s.

On the other hand, Mark S. highlights, in arguing for it, a premise here that might be faulty: that Al-Q is as significant as Marc assumes. I'm going to blog on this pretty soon, but the obvious counter argument would be this: we don't look back at the Anarchist movement and conclude that our accounts of the basic continuities in international politics (e.g., the realist approach and its claims about the centrality of power-political competition between states) are fundamentally flawed.

On still another hand, if the implications of Al-Q are that IR theory needs to adjust better to the rise of non-state actors... well, that's a very old argument and you can find people proposing alternatives at least as far back as the 1970s. I once had my students write essays applying complex-interdependence theory to account for terrorism (Keohane and Nye published the first edition of Power and Interdependence in the late 1970s) and some of them concluded that it worked quite well as a general framework.

Marc's questions are important, but I would hesitate before assuming that the absence of work in IR journals on these subjects reflects a bankruptcy of IR theory. A lot of IR theory looks a lot like how tristero describes it, but it isn't designed to deal very well with non-state violent actors.

mark safranski

Dr. Dan wrote:

"On the other hand, Mark S. highlights, in arguing for it, a premise here that might be faulty: that Al-Q is as significant as Marc assumes."

A good point. I think we are using " al Qaida" as a synonym for both " Islamist terrorism" and "Islamism the movement" as well as the concrete actions of AQ itself.

In the broader sense, I think "al Qaida" is significant as Islamism the revolt against the West and the ME status quo has been gestating for about 120 years, starting with al-Afghani and Mohammed Abdub. Some scholars would push it back to reactions within the Ottoman elite bureaucracy to the retreat from Vienna in 1689.

Secondarily, al Qaida fits with numerous and completely ideologically unrelated groups that are using a set of similar tactics and organizational structures that military specialists refer to as " 4GW", LIC and " open source warfare" to challenge the authority of established nation-states. That trend in warfare is,IMHO, important for policy makers in itself.

"...but the obvious counter argument would be this: we don't look back at the Anarchist movement and conclude that our accounts of the basic continuities in international politics (e.g., the realist approach and its claims about the centrality of power-political competition between states) are fundamentally flawed"

Let me turn that comparison around. No, Bakunin's followers specifically accomplished nothing that their popular menace circa 1880-1920 might have indicated but they were part of the turbulent international revolutionary socialist movement that did.

Even in failure, the anarchists were important as the Left S.R.'s helped the Bolsheviks cling to power after October. While the Left S.R.'s were themselves a fringe of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, that peasant based party was the largest by far in Russia and gave the regime a base of mass support beyond skilled workers and radical sailors in St. Petersburg.

And the incompetent coup/assassination campaign the Left S.R.'s launched against the Bolsheviks triggered the savage mass repression that permitted the Bolsheviks ( and ultimately the Stalinist state terror model) to triumph over their many enemies in the civil war.

al Qaida too could just as easily be the harbinger of something still worse - say apocalyptic Mahdism.

Hemlock for Gadflies

I think in general the problem of sub-state actors has been of more interest to Comparativists with a Security bent. Al-Qaeda is the "only" transnational and, though an important "only," to understand M-19 or the IRA or ETA (and etc.), one arguably needs more "area studies" than IR expertise.

John Penta

Agree with Hemlock.

I'm unsure that IR theorists are relevant in this "brave new world", to be blunt.

To actually grasp the issues of the day, I think throwing theory out the window would be...helpful, to say the least.

New theories will, inevitably, assert themselves. But in order for the new trees to grow, we need a nice big forest fire.


I agree. The problem with IR is, frankly, that it conceives of itself as "IR" - a wholly separate and special discipline (by virtue of the anarchy/hierarchy dichotomy between "domestic" and "international" spheres). True, a lot of recent theoretical and empirical work tries to break down this divide, but this only supports my point, since most attempts borrow a lot of theory from sociology, comparative, etc... Basically, IR needs to rethink itself as a diffuse subfield of social science (more a la "global politics") that defines itself according to substantive phenomena, rather than the theoretically monolithic and separate "IR" that's characterized much of its history. Otherwise it will continue to be largely irrelevant (in a social scientific sense).

Ben Friemdan

IS is a policy journal? Give me a break. That's patently absurd.

Rex Brynen

I'm reminded of a comment from a former boss in the Political and Security Policy Planning at Foreign Affairs Canada, who himself held a PhD in political science from a good university: "The problem with poli sci PhDs," he once remarked, "is that it takes us at least a year to unteach them everything they think they know about politics before they're any good to us."

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