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Is nomothetic knowledge possible within International Relations?

Updated: Mar 23

King's College London 2022


In recent decades, the field of International Relations (IR) has seen an important transformation due to the growing recognition that the world of social science has become increasingly plural and complex. The role of knowledge has been crucial in the development of the field not only because it offers us the base for theoretical ‘road maps’ but also because it allows social scientists to abstract reality. While the plurality of theories in IR have enriched the current debates and research frameworks of the field, they have also opened the door to ontological and epistemological discrepancies. As such, “the dimension of IR’s methodical questions [has] enabled various new kinds of questions and knowledge pursuit”.[1] Addressing such controversy highlights two important questions: is obtaining complete knowledge possible? If so, is nomothetic knowledge possible within International Relations? This debate is vital as the pursuit of knowledge inherently determines both the theoretical possibilities and the limits of IR. To answer this question, we will first analyse the role of knowledge in IR and its effects on theory. This will allow us to understand the existing link between IR and nomothetic knowledge. Second, we will explore the extent to which IR is ontologically and epistemologically more prone to creating nomothetic knowledge than another important discipline such as History. Consequently, we will illustrate that IR continually pursues nomothetic knowledge as a means for understanding international politics. Third, we will examine the limits of positivism and its effects on achieving nomothetic knowledge in IR. This will help us highlight how positivism affects the maxims of nomothetic knowledge.  Overall, this essay argues that absolute nomothetic knowledge is impossible in IR.


Chronologically speaking, ‘the humanities trace their origins back to antiquity [and were] developed for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts, sometimes as an extension of contemporary culture, sometimes as a by-product of philosophy, and sometimes as a tool used by the state.’[2] Comparably, the pursuit of knowledge has been at the core of human evolution for centuries. Historically, knowledge finds its roots in the Greek word ‘episteme’, meaning understanding.[3] As the philosophy of understanding grew, so did the study of how we acquire what we know, also known as ‘epistemology’ and with time, ‘knowledge’ became the only way to search for truth. Since the development of IR as a field of social sciences, the idea of knowledge has found its pillars in the positivist science that assumes the existence of a ‘world out there’ that is completely different from the one in our own minds. [4] Nonetheless, the discipline of IR, like most social sciences, has been deeply divided on many issues throughout history[5]. These Great Debates which highlight the paradigmatic visions between and distinct IR school of thought have not only played an important role in shaping the discipline but have also determined the heterogeneous, and sometimes fragile, relationship between knowledge and theory. While the latter affinity may seem organic in nature, “each kind each kind of theory comes in a plurality of versions: there always seem to be different, competing accounts of why something happened, or what we should do, or what it means. There is rarely one single answer.”[6] Some authors such as Steve Smiths posits that IR theories are interchangeable lenses allowing us to look at issues differently.[7] Others such as Bolisani and Bratinau conclude that there is no defection that can grasp knowledge’s complexity (which includes rational, emotional, and spiritual sensory experiences.[8] Lastly, authors such as Jordanova consider ‘knowledge’ as diverse way to know, which relates to facts and information and implies a ‘deep grasp’ of events.[9] Even if these approaches differ, they all suggest  that theory “helps us understand the deeper causes of events, allowing us to tease out common patterns from history rather than seeing one event as completely unrelated to another.”[10] Overall, the plurality of theoretical perspectives and underpinning ontology/epistemology will inevitably shape knowledge, proving that truth and objectivity are only an ideal. As such, the relationship between knowledge and theory remains relevant due to its need to draw out laws from reality and the nomothetic process that aims to explore these processes.[11] Nomothetic knowledge would thus be “constituted of verified large-scale social patterns that compose the reality of international politics, this so-called reality being a complex blend of universal laws.”[12]  


As a result of the ontological and epistemological debate surrounding knowledge, one must ask another important question; is the field or IR more prone to creating monothetic knowledge than another important field such as History? Because “one of the central concerns of International Relations (IR), as well as International History (IH), is to explain how a given event came to occur”, it is important to understand the differences between idiographic and nomothetic approaches and how this may affect the field of IR.[13] The notion of nomothetic knowledge implies three important claims.  First, that “nomothetic research attempts to establish general laws and generalisations”.[14] Second, such an approach is considered scientific due to its “precise measurement, prediction and control of behaviour, investigations of large groups, objective and controlled methods allowing for replication and generalisation”[15] Finally, the method of investigation is based on scientific and quantitative data, such as quantitative methods and statistics. These points reflect the unique nature of nomothetic knowledge; its focus relies on general laws and not on the individual tendencies, as sought by the idiographic approach. According to Jack Levy, “the idiographic/nomothetic distinction best reflects the distinct "identities" of the two disciplines and the differences between them”.[16] If we consider two different social sciences namely Political Science and History the first tends to “generalize about the relationship between variables and construct lawlike statements about social behavior, while the latter will “interpret individual events or a temporally bounded series of events.[17] As such, there are enormous consequences for the nature of “their respective explanations, their conceptions of causation, their methodologies for validating explanations, and their criteria for evaluating those explanations”.[18] According to the same author, such differences can be seen in graduate programs, where students in political science would be more focused on methodology than their counterparts in historical programs.[19] Other authors such as Joseph Nye assert “that history is the study of events that have happened only once political science is the effort to generalize about them”[20]. Similarly, Bruno Bueno de Mesquita posits that “the social scientist is more likely to emphasize general explanations of social phenomena, while the historian is more likely to emphasize particularistic, unique features of individual episodes of social phenomena.”[21] Thus, since the adoption of the positivistic natural science by history, scholars have applied the idiographic and nomothetic concepts to distinguish between History and social sciences, such as IR.  Overall, the distinction between idiographic and nomothetic knowledge suggests an important conclusion; “the nomothetic orientation in IR is rooted in the general social science ethos of seeking knowledge useful for the management of social affairs”. Thus, one could argue that at its core “the IR discipline’s raison d’être seems to be the production of nomothetic knowledge – namely, law-like outcomes based on scientific methodology – ultimately meant for decision-makers.”[22]


While the nature of the field of IR is more prone to creating nomothetic knowledge, it is also true that “the influence of positivism as a philosophy of science has shaped not only how we theorize about the subject, and what counts as a valid question, but also what can count as valid forms of evidence and knowledge.”[23] This statement suggests an important controversy on the role of positivism in nomothetic knowledge due to the limits it poses on its process. While difficult to grasp, we can consider that the key assumptions of the positivist view of science and social explanation are based on three tenets. First, “science must be based on logical rigorous guidelines concerning appropriate methodological techniques and criteria for ensuring that knowledge claims are grounded in appropriate observations”.[24] Second, positivism posits that “the collection of sufficient data, generated through repeated instances of observation, will reveal regularity', which are indicative of the operation of general laws.”[25] Finally, positivism “emphasizes the importance of empirical observation, by avoiding developing ‘deep ontological’ conceptual systems that aim to grapple with unobservable entities such as ‘discourses’ or ‘social structures’”.[26] Overall, positivism has brought a sense of structure and objectivity to IR by making its study more tangible and by surrounding it by rigorous guidelines. As such, one could easily argue that the use of quantitative approaches to further research has pushed the boundaries of future predictions of global politics.[27] For example, Positivism, like Realist theories created the ground for understanding state behaviour which propelled the advent of the game theory or Thomas Schelling’s variable zero-sum game. However, as the field of IR grows in complexity and methodology, positivism has lost its place as the only valid account in science. In fact, new theories brought forward by the post-positivist wave reject the scientific method as it “hinders the ability to capture essential elements such as the meaning of identity, beliefs, and language in international politics”.[28] This argument can be illustrated by the recognition that Realism has proven to be ill-equipped to tackle unique geopolitical challenges such as the threat of non-state actors or the role of emotions play in international politics. However, despite the important role of positivism in the field of IR, its influence on nomothetic knowledge is one of ontological and theoretical boundaries. For positivists, causal relationships in social sciences exist only if rational behaviour can be measured by objective and rational behaviour which, as we have demonstrated, is not always the case. If nomothetic knowledge implies general laws, precise measurement, prediction, and quantitative methods, it is ill-equipped to address human subjectivity and non-rational behaviours of IR.


As we previously demonstrated, positivism limits the achievement of nomothetic knowledge within IR. However, denying other potential ways of achieving knowledge would only suggest that social sciences are strictly limited to objectivity. As such, one can only ask: what other possibilities can the field of IR rely on besides nomothetic knowledge? There are three approaches that could support different epistemological perspectives on knowledge within IR. The first option to consider is the rise of eclecticism in IR theory. This approach supposes that instead of focusing on Grand Debates, theory and thus, our ontological and epistemological perspectives, [we] should focus on “real-world problems and simply accept that different approaches have different criteria for success”.[29] The second concept to consider is the mid-level theory, precisely because ‘it is eclectic and focuses on what works while not inflaming the passions like alliance to this or that paradigm’.[30] While this approach may reflect post-positivist tenets, it is inherently linked to the reality of the different schools of thought within IR and the different debates they propose in international politics. The final approach to this epistemic debate concerns interpretivism. The latter “denies the feasibility of objective theories of social behaviour [and] unlike positivists, what counts is the meaning, not the law, it is to understand, not to explain”.[31] Together, these different approaches suggest two important considerations that prompt important deliberation from the field of IR; the idea that nomothetic knowledge can be conditional to its context and that IR may be more compelled to a form of subjectivity because of a constantly complex evolving reality.


Throughout this essay, we have sought to question and invalidate the idea that the field of IR can be studied under a unique stipulative definition, ontology, and epistemology. The application of the scientific method in IR has evolved significantly since the 20th century and one cannot deny that the scientific properties of most theories have paved the way for important research and findings in international politics. Following the arguments presented throughout this essay, pure nomothetic knowledge seems impossible to achieve given the need for context in IR. While many authors -and current students of the field- argue that the nature of IR is to provide nomothetic knowledge (or general laws) that could provide ways of explaining international politics, this has yet to permeate the borders of social sciences. As such, theory in IR and the limits of positivism demonstrate that nomothetic knowledge is not possible within international relations, not because of the lack of ontological or epistemological will, but because “what is required is that we explore the world of international relations from a number of different perspectives [and by] refusing to allow any single account to structure the whole”.[32] As we enter a shaky second decade of the 21st century, the debate regarding the nomothetic knowledge in IR will likely continue to expand. With this in mind, one question remains: is it a good time to stop highlighting nomothetic knowledge and start looking at the world that knowledge has created?

 

 

 

Unit 1,“The Main Approaches To Studying Human Activity”, Introduction to Critical Research  Methodology (class lecture, King’s College London, February 2022) https://keats.kcl.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/7893772/mod_resource/content/27/index.html


[1] Aaron McKeil, “IR and the Pursuit of Knowledge: Endless Theoretical Questions?,” E-International Relations, September 16, 2013, https://www.e-ir.info/2013/09/16/international-relations-and-the-pursuit-of-knowledge-endless-theoretical-questions/.

[2] Unit 1,“The Main Approaches To Studying Human Activity”, Introduction to Critical Research  Methodology (class lecture, King’s College London, February 2022) https://keats.kcl.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/7893772/mod_resource/content/27/index.html 

[3] Epistemology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/#WhatKnow.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Milja Kurki and Colin Wight. “ Introduction: International Relations and Social Science’ in International relations theories: discipline and diversity. Oxford Univeristy Press (2016), 14.

[6] Chris Brown, Understanding International Relations. (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 9.

[7] Steve Smith, “Introduction”, in International relations theories (Oxford: OUP, 2016), 11.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 90.

[10] David P Houghton,. Why theory? Defence-in-depth. https://defenceindepth.co/2015/09/28/why-theory/ 

[11] Hidemi Suganami, “Narrative Explanation and International Relations: Back to Basics,”Millennium: Journal of International Studies Vol.37 No.2, (2008): 340.

[12] Kevin Thievon. “ Is Nomothetic Knowledge Possible Within International Relations?” November 2021, E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/94601 

[13] Hidemi Suganami, “Narrative Explanation and International Relations: Back to Basics,”Millennium: Journal of International Studies Vol.37 No.2, (2008): 340.

[14] Louise Nichols, “Nomothetic research vs. idiographic research,” Psychology Blog, (2011). https://louisenichols.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/nomothetic-research-vs-idiographic-research/

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jack S. Levy, “Too Important to Leave to the Other: History and Political Science in the Study of International Relations,” International Security, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1997): 22.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Idem, 24.

[19] Ibid.

[20]  Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman. Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations. (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000); 45.

 

[21] Idem, 45.

[22] Kevin Thievon, “Is Nomothetic Knowledge Possible Within International Relations?”, November 2022, E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/94601

[23] Milja Kurki and Colin Wight. “Introduction: International Relations and Social Science’ in international relations theories: discipline and diversity. (Oxford Univeristy Press, 2016), 14.

[24] Idem, 21

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Johnson RB, Onwuegbuzie AJ, Turner LA. Toward a Definition of Mixed Methods Research,Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 2007;1(2):112-133.

[28] Arnaud Sobrero. “The limits of the Scientific Method in International Relations”. E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/95376 

[29] Chris Brown, Understanding International Relations. (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 55.

[30] David A. Lake, “Theory Is Dead, Long Live Theory: The End of the Great Debates and the Rise of Eclecticism in International Relations.” European journal of international relations 19.3 (2013): 567–587. 

[31] Kevin Thievon, “Is Nomothetic Knowledge Possible Within International Relations?” E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/94601

[32] Chris Brown, Understanding International Relations. (London: Bloomsbury, 2019) 13.



References

Books

Brown, Chris. Understanding International Relations. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019.

Evans, Richard J. In Defence of History. Newburyport: Granta Books,2012. 

Elman, Colin and Fendius Elman, Miriam. Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000.

Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Kurki, Milja and Wight, Colin. “Introduction: International Relations and Social Science” in International relations theories: discipline and diversity. Oxford Univeristy Press, 2016.

Smith, Steve “Introduction”, in International Relations Theories. Oxford: OUP, 2016.

Journals

Hidemi Suganami, “Narrative Explanation and International Relations: Back to Basics,”Millennium: Journal of International Studies Vol.37 No.2, (2008).

Johnson RB, Onwuegbuzie AJ, Turner LA. Toward a Definition of Mixed Methods Research, Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 1(2):112-133. (2007).

Lake, David A. “Theory Is Dead, Long Live Theory: The End of the Great Debates and the Rise of Eclecticism in International Relations.” European journal of international relations 19.3 567–587,(2013).

Levy, Jack S. “Too Important to Leave to the Other: History and Political Science in the Study of International Relations.” International Security 22, no. 1 (1997): 22–33.

McKeil Aaron, “IR and the Pursuit of Knowledge: Endless Theoretical Questions?,” E-International Relations, September 16, 2013, https://www.e-ir.info/2013/09/16/international-relations-and-the-pursuit-of-knowledge-endless-theoretical-questions/.

Sobrero, Arnaud. “The limits of the Scientific Method in International Relations”. E-International Relations, January 27,2022. https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/95376 

Thievon, Kevin. “Is Nomothetic Knowledge Possible Within International Relations?” E-International Relations, November 11, 2021. https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/94601

Websites

Epistemology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/#WhatKnow.

Houghton, David P. Why theory? Defence-in-depth. https://defenceindepth.co/2015/09/28/why-theory/     

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