global politics, relationally

Divorcing Ontology and Method in IR


In a new article in the Millennium Special Issue on Quo Vadis IR: Method, Methodology, and Innovation, Sammy Barkin and I make the argument that IR’s “methods matching game” is fundamentally flawed – the scholarly equivalent of a dysfunctional relationship. On the one hand, the dating metaphor (made in the article and played up here) is trite. On the other hand, the suggestion that IR scholars’ choices of methods are often “matched” to people, projects, and paradigms in a haphazard and problematic way is meant seriously, and at the heart of our argument.

Our article, “Calculating Critique: Thinking Outside the Methods Matching Game,” makes the argument that IR scholars of all stripes often assume that certain methods belong with certain paradigmatic or substantive approaches to the field, so choosing their research approach of research subject chooses the methods that scholars are trained in and go on to use. There tends to be a linear path, ontology –> epistemology –> methodology – -> method. We argue that this pattern is simple, and often easily accepted across the field, even without reflection or when reflection might produce a different result. We also argue that it is completely wrong.

The substance of the article, and of the edited volume that it is meant to introduce (Interpretive Quantification, which is under contract and about to be sent for review) is the use of quantitative, computational, and formal methods to explore questions in constructivist and critical IR research – that is, traditionally positivist methods being used for traditionally non-positivist work.

But this is not an attempt to bridge the positivist/post-positivist divide (whatever that is) or the qualitative/quantitative divide. It is, instead, the promotion of two arguments: 1) the methodology by which IR scholars choose methods is fundamentally flawed; and 2) quantitative methods are interpreted too narrowly, and often incorrectly, in IR.

When we make the second claim – that IR misinterprets quantitative methods – we are arguing that there are several mistakes in the association of “quantitative methods” and “positivist science” that many if not most IR scholars on all sides of these divides or debates assume. First, they incorrectly associate “quantitative” and “statistical,” where statistics are just a small part of the vast toolbox of quantitative, computational, and formal methods that are available to scholars, of IR or otherwise. Second, in so doing, they ignore methods from mathematics, modeling, and computation that are not originally or primarily deployed in service of positivist empiricism. Traditions like mathematical constructivism and mathematical formalism are built on conceptualizing a world that might be rather than a world that is, and engaging in thought experiments to learn from it. Heuristic modeling can be used to engage, rather than explaining. Even statistics can be used to show relationships, rather than causes. Third, they are ignoring the quantitative claims of non-positivist IR. For example, Cynthia Enloe’s question “where are the women?” is a question that carries with it an implicit quantitative claim (that there are women) and a quantitative research question (to see where women are located in what frequency). These questions, though, do not necessarily call for the running of multivariate regressions to determine what variables predict where women live for the purpose of identifying causes. But they do call for counting, or accounting for women in some way.

Given these problems with contemporary approaches, we propose that quantitative methods can be used with interpretive methodologies in service of broadly post-positivist or social constructivist research agenda. In the book, chapter authors use statistics, heuristic models, agent-based modeling, computational sequencing, and theoretical geometry, to name a few methods, in service of constructivist and critical research ends, detailing the potential advantages of those methods for their particular research questions.

We are interested in this argument on its own terms, and insomuch as it advances constructivist and critical research agendas in IR. But, as I mentioned at the outset, as we focus on in the article, we are more interested in it as an example of the flaws that we see in the methodologies with which scholars choose their methods. Rather than a dysfunctional matching game or purely method-driven research, we suggest that IR scholars can, and should, evaluate the potential of methods to address research questions, outside of the straightjacket of equating “quantitative” to “positivist” as well as the indoctrination of the idea that certain orientations are limited to certain methods. For more of this argument, read the article. And look out for the book!