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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


Gavan Duffy

At a 2013 ISA roundtable in his honor, Nick Onuf asked a startling question. He wondered aloud why rule-oriented Constructivism had not gained more adherents than it had already I was then and now remain unsure of the population he had in mind. Was his concern that too few Constructivists had adopted his rule-oriented formulations? Or was he concerned that too few students in the wider community of students of world politics had parked themselves under his banner? No matter, I thought, the answer was the same. I encountered Nick later in the exhibit hall and expressed the view that rule-oriented Constructivism would gain adherents only to the extent that it generated falsifiable variants and tested them empirically

Protective belt

To this day, I do not know why I used such falsificationist vocabulary I agree with Paul Feyerabend’s (1970) negative assessment of Imre Lakatos’s (1970) effort to save rationality from Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) critique of Karl Popper’s (1959; 1970) falsificationism. My impression is that many who hold fast to Lakatos’s mechanistic notions - hard cores of unassailable assumptions, protective belts of auxiliary hypotheses, problem shifts, and empirical shifts - do for a simple reason. They do not disagree with Feyerabend that Lakatos’s methodology of scientific research programs fails to provide a rational standard for theory choice. Rather, they fear the prospect of Feyerabend’s practical conclusion - that the absence of such a rational standard means that “in science, anything goes” - methodological anarchism.

I believe we can acknowledge the force of Feyerabend’s critique of Lakatos’s falsificationism without following him into cloud-cuckoo land. Pragmatism, as championed most recently by Hilary Putnam (1987), offers a rational standard without all the Lakatosian mechanics - we accept (always provisionally, of course) those propositions that maximize the global coherence of our knowledge. These include our empirical observations as well as our collective body of knowledge. We seek goodness-of-fit. On very rare occasions, we choose collectively to reformulate knowledge closer to the core in order to account for our most recalcitrant observations. These are what Thomas Kuhn termed “scientific revolutions.” Normally, however, we set for ourselves the more mundane task of managing coherence somewhere along the knowledge periphery.

So, I could have responded to Nick by saying that empirical studies of international political interactions based on the conceptual terms and relationships expressed his theory would improve the global coherence of our knowledge. As such, we would be reticent to give it up unless and until some other formulation appeared that rendered our global knowledge even more coherent.

I suppose, though, that I chose the Lakatosian terminology because its twin heuristics succinctly depict Nick’s dilemma - the success of rule-oriented Constructivism as a research program requires the development of a “protective belt” of refutable variants of rule-oriented Constructivism. These empirical studies attract adherents to the research program (the positive heuristic) and they simultaneously protect the research program from external attack. Defenders of the program can point to the empirical fruitfulness of the program to counter attacks on the hard core. I was suggesting, then, that rule-oriented Constructivism would, by producing a stock of empirical studies, simultaneously gain adherents, and indemnify itself against critiques of its hard core.

This task may prove less straightforward than it might seem. Inquiry is to some extent a path-dependent process. The behavioral revolution produced generations of scholars convinced of the rightness of naturalism - the idea that social inquiry can and should be constructed on the model of natural inquiry. Consequently, most contemporary social scientists would expect the empirical products of rule- oriented Constructivism to employ modeling techniques borrowed from natural science. These methods, however, contradict the central Constructivist commitment concerning the co-constitution of agents and structures. As soon as one declares herself a Constructivist, she regards operationalization as the imposition of a particular world-construction. Behavioral studies seem circular, as conclusions tend to reinforce perspectives that motivate the study and are embedded even in the data (Duffy 1994).

Causal explanation differs across the natural and social sciences at least in one respect. In the natural sciences, one may draw upon a covering law (e.g., x causes y) to explain an event. Life is messier for social scientists. For them, it matters also whether agents situated at crucial choice points in the flow of events believe the generalization that x causes y. Because agents do not necessarily interpret situations similarly, social scientists must reconstruct the practical reasoning of those agents. They cannot otherwise hope to explain why history has turned out the way it has (Fay 1994).

Constructivists cannot presume that agents would produce similar choices under similar conditions without contradicting their “hard core” commitment concerned with the co-constitution of agents and structures. Consequently, when they do address empirical questions, they tend to employ historical/hermeneutic methods. More specifically, they tend toward the practice of inquiry that John R. Hall (1999) terms “specific history” That is, they endeavor to reconstruct social choices from the perspectives of the actors who made those choices in order to account for historical outcomes. This understanding of those choices enable these historians to explain why events turned out as they did and not in some other way

However enlightening one might find historical works in the vein, they can never satisfy the naturalists. Most of us have heard the apocryphal story of two historians tasked to research the same question. Each returns from the archives with very different accounts. Naturalists do not trust the conclusions of historical analysis because they are not replicable. Statistical methods force analysts to specify each inference they make. Anyone motivated to dispute the conclusions of such a study can thereby point to what they take to be the analyst’s inferential misstep. Replicability focuses criticism on the point of actual disagreement and thereby accelerates the advance of knowledge.

Please understand that I value historical work, as I’ve learned much from reading it and doing it. But at the same time there is some merit to the naturalist non-replicability argument. Historians acknowledge the difficulty as they seek to limit the influence of their own effective histories (personal, biographical experience) and critique their pre-understandings while at the same time relying on them inferentially. Constructivists, for their part, recognize the difficulty as well. The two historians produce different accounts because, however much they overlap, each historian approaches the archival research with a differing world construction.

So, what is to be done? How can rule-oriented Constructivists construct a protective belt of empirical work to gain adherents and forestall attacks on the hard core of the research program? They cannot rely on the chief naturalist method, quantitative hypothesis testing, because this would be incompatible with the Constructivist hard core. They cannot rely on the chief humanist method, specific history, because the non-replicability of specific history prevents the naturalists’ acceptance of conclusions thereby produced.

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