Leaving theory behind: What’s wrong with IR scholarship today

Here’s a puzzle for all you academics and IR theory mavens out there. On the one hand, the most distinguished scholars in the IR field are theorists. Think of names like Kenneth Waltz, Alexander Wendt, or Robert Keohane, whose reputations rest on theoretical ideas rather than empirical work. Or look at the recent TRIP surveys, ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
615616_130104_97815776667072.jpg
615616_130104_97815776667072.jpg

Here's a puzzle for all you academics and IR theory mavens out there. On the one hand, the most distinguished scholars in the IR field are theorists. Think of names like Kenneth Waltz, Alexander Wendt, or Robert Keohane, whose reputations rest on theoretical ideas rather than empirical work. Or look at the recent TRIP surveys, where virtually all the scholars judged to have had a major impact on the field are theorists. And most of the classic works in the field are also works of theory; by contrast, few empirical works have proven to be of lasting scholarly value

But on the other hand, the amount of serious attention that IR scholars in the US devote to theory is declining. (Interestingly, the same trend seems to be true of economics as well). The field is moving away from developing or carefully employing theories and instead emphasizing the testing of empirical hypotheses through some combination of quantitative or qualitative analysis. Such work is not purely inductive or atheoretical, but theory plays a relatively minor role and most of the effort goes into collecting data and trying to draw reliable causal inferences from it.

Hence the paradox: theory is the most esteemed activity in the field, yet hardly anybody wants to do it anymore. John Mearsheimer and I explore this paradox in a new paper, and argue that this shift away from theory is a mistake. A revised version will be published later this year in the European Journal of International Relations, but you can read a working paper version here.

Here’s a puzzle for all you academics and IR theory mavens out there. On the one hand, the most distinguished scholars in the IR field are theorists. Think of names like Kenneth Waltz, Alexander Wendt, or Robert Keohane, whose reputations rest on theoretical ideas rather than empirical work. Or look at the recent TRIP surveys, where virtually all the scholars judged to have had a major impact on the field are theorists. And most of the classic works in the field are also works of theory; by contrast, few empirical works have proven to be of lasting scholarly value

But on the other hand, the amount of serious attention that IR scholars in the US devote to theory is declining. (Interestingly, the same trend seems to be true of economics as well). The field is moving away from developing or carefully employing theories and instead emphasizing the testing of empirical hypotheses through some combination of quantitative or qualitative analysis. Such work is not purely inductive or atheoretical, but theory plays a relatively minor role and most of the effort goes into collecting data and trying to draw reliable causal inferences from it.

Hence the paradox: theory is the most esteemed activity in the field, yet hardly anybody wants to do it anymore. John Mearsheimer and I explore this paradox in a new paper, and argue that this shift away from theory is a mistake. A revised version will be published later this year in the European Journal of International Relations, but you can read a working paper version here.

Here’s the abstract:

“Theory creating and hypothesis testing are both important elements of social science. Unfortunately, in recent years the balance between theory creation/refinement and the testing of empirical hypotheses has shifted sharply toward the latter. This trend is unfortunate, because insufficient attention to theory can lead to misspecified models and overreliance on misleading measures of key concepts. In addition, the poor quality of much of the data in IR makes it less likely that these efforts will produce useful cumulative knowledge. The shift away from theory and towards hypothesis testing is due mostly to the professionalization of academia, and this trend is likely to continue unless there is a collective decision to alter prevailing academic incentives.”

Enjoy!

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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