MARGINALIA: Religion and post-positivism in International Relations

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews / 20 March) – Way back in early 1990s in Mindanao State University, main campus, in order to facilitate easy memorization, we had to literally sing the ‘six principles’ of Hans Morgenthau’s neoclassical realism in International Relations (IR).

No doubt, alongside Keohane and Nye’s Power and Interdependence (1977) and Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979) that respectively represent two sides of the neoliberalism-neorealism divide, Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations (1960) had been the IR bible of the Cold War era.

IR as discipline

As a distinct discipline that was born out of the ashes of the First World War, IR deals with both substantial and methodological issues. In particular, it endeavors to identify which issues should be treated as the most important ones, and which method to use in studying a given issue.

State sovereignty, international anarchy, diplomacy, foreign policy, and international organizations and institutions are among the examples of substantial issues perennially dealt with in IR, and as such, countless written works are devoted to them.

Methodological issues encompass both ontological and epistemological questions. What is the nature of the social world which includes international relations? How is our knowledge related to that world? Is there an objective reality in the social world, or is everything there just a social construct of people? How can we acquire knowledge of that world? Is it through ‘explanation’ or ‘understanding’?

Gone were the days of IR positivism which used to privilege state-centric or inter-state substantial issues such as those mentioned above.

Gone also were the days of IR positivism which used to posit that ‘there is an objective reality out there’ (ontology) and that ‘explaining’ is the only way to acquire knowledge of the social world by means of building a ‘valid social science’ on the basis of verifiable empirical propositions (epistemology).

Religion

In positivist approaches in which secularism in the post-Westphalian international system is a given, religion is relegated to the fringes of domestic politics and private domain. In structural realism’s anarchical world, for instance, religious beliefs and ideological convictions are located at the bottom of the hierarchy of state interests.

This is no longer the trend in recent years.

Research works and studies about religion in IR – both in its positive and negative lights – are on the rise. Even in thesis defense sessions I sat either as a mentor or a panelist this month, the number of theses with religious underpinnings is quite conspicuous.

One thesis, for example, is about two Buddhist transnational societies that push for cosmopolitan causes such as humanitarian services, poverty reduction, universal education, nuclear disarmament, and environmental protection.

Another thesis is an analysis of Pakistan-Bangladesh diplomatic relations through the lens of faith-based diplomacy.

Yet another thesis is an assessment of Islamophobia in the U.S. media narratives and its impact upon U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Post-positivism

Alongside the surge of other substantial issues such as religion, women, and the environment, among others, which had been marginalized in IR literature for decades, there is also the entrance of post-positivism in the methodological debate within the discipline.

United not in what they commonly believe but in their dissatisfaction with the established IR theoretical traditions, post-positivist alternatives are challenging positivism’s postulates of an objective external reality, the subject/object distinction, and value-free social science.

Ontologically, post-positivist approaches reject any notion of an objective reality out there, for the social world is nothing but a product of intersubjective conception of people. Epistemologically, they lean toward ‘understanding’ (in contrast to ‘explaining’) as the means to obtain knowledge of the social world by comprehending and interpreting the substantive topic under study. In sum, post-positivism is anti-foundational in methodology, for, all theories make their own assumptions about the social world, and therefore, as Steve Smith argues, “There can never be a ‘view from nowhere’.”

In the aforementioned thesis about two Buddhist transnational societies, for instance, the researchers utilize the eclectic and middle-way International Society Theory, which is better known in the IR circle as the ‘English School of International Relations’, or the ‘English School’, in short. In particular, the thesis is informed of Barry Buzan’s concept of ‘world society’ (in contradistinction with the ‘international system’ and ‘international society’) which, according to him, is the “Cinderella concept” of the English School for receiving almost no conceptual development.

The second thesis which is about faith-based diplomacy employs Peter Katzenstein’s strand of social constructivism that highlights the internal makeup of states in affecting their internal behavior. Accordingly, the domestic normative structure of every state shapes its identity, interests, and subsequently, its foreign policy.

The last thesis mentioned above, which examines the influence of Islamophobia in American media narratives toward the U.S. foreign policy, is inspired by Anthony Giddens’ sociological theory of structuration, which is anchored in the analysis of both structure and agents, without giving primacy to either.

In conclusion, in today’s age of globalization, there will be a resurgence of substantial issues in IR, which for many decades were deemed peripheral or secondary in importance. There will also be parallel mushrooming of post-positivist theories that will pose as alternative lenses in methodologically looking at those substantial issues in IR.

Expect for a recurring saga of re-centering and de-centering in the years to come.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mansoor L. Limba, PhD in International Relations, is a writer, educator, blogger, and translator (from Persian into English and Filipino) with tens of written and translation works to his credit on such subjects as international politics, history, political philosophy, Islamic finance, jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (‘ilm al-kalam), Qur’anic sciences and exegesis (tafsir), hadith, ethics, and mysticism. He can be reached at [email protected], or http://www.mlimba.com and http://www.muslimandmoney.com.]