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theory death in political science

A definition: theory death is when some intellectual group tires of theory based on armchair speculation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people stop producing theory. Rather, it means that “theory” no longer means endless books based on the author’s insights. Instead, people produce theory that responds to, or integrates, or otherwise incorporates a wealth of normal science research. In sociology, theory death seems to have happened sometime in the 1980s or 1990s.  For example, recent theory books like Levi-Martin’s Social Structures or McAdam and Fligstein’s A Theory of Fields are extended discussions of empirical research that culminate in broader statements. The days of endlessly quoting and reinterpreting Weber are over. :(

Now, it seems, theory death is hitting some areas of political science. Consider a recent blog post by political scientists Stephen Saideman called “Leaving Grand Theorists Behind.” Saideman trashes a recent piece by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (“Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR“) that urges international relations scholars to downplay empirical work return to grand thinking. Saideman is pissed:

  • My first reaction was: Next title: why too much research is bad for IR….
  • As folks pointed out on twitter and on facebook discussions, it seems ironic at the least that someone who made a variety of testable predictions that did not come true (the rise of Germany after the end of the cold war, conventional deterrence, the irrelevance of international institutions, etc) would suggest that testing our hypotheses is over-rated or over-done.

And the critique goes on and on… My take: for reasons that I have yet to understand, political science has not completely washed out old style “theory” in the way that it happened in most other social science disciplines. Therefore you have pockets of people who hold that as their ideal, even in fields that are obviously empirical. When they are very senior and very respected, you get this sort of flare up.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 10, 2013 at 12:15 am

10 Responses

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  1. It’s even happening in economics. The kids are not nearly as impressed with the elegance of deductive-proof story telling, *especially* in macroeconomics, and are agitating for a return to science.

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    Graham Peterson

    January 10, 2013 at 12:27 am

  2. I find this divide within poli sci interesting as well – in my earlier years this “grand theorizing” was what first drew me to become interested in international relations (though I consider myself primarily a sociologist). I looked at these grand “big statement” theory books written by Waltz etc. and thought that they were continuing the tradition of the Charles Tilly’s and Barrington Moores. Of course, that comparison is not quite right…

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    Andrew B. Lee

    January 10, 2013 at 1:29 am

  3. I really don’t think that the kind of theory Mearsheimer wants to see has much to do with the persistence of “political theory” as a distinct subfield within political science, if that’s what you mean by ‘old style “theory.”‘

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    Jacob T. Levy

    January 10, 2013 at 1:57 am

  4. @Jacob: And the difference between a big fat book on global politics by Mearsheimer and one by [insert old dood from the 1800s] is …?

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    fabiorojas

    January 10, 2013 at 2:28 am

  5. ^. . .that the one from the 1800s is usually better written in clearer language, and actually said something novel at the time. (Disclaimer: one of my smartest mentors is a political theorist.)

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    Graham Peterson

    January 10, 2013 at 2:34 am

  6. Fabio, I think reports of the death of Grand Theory in social sciences are greatly exaggerated. You picked Fligstein/McAdam and John Levi Martin. What about, though, Isaac Reed, Phil Gorski, or Yours truly? The Latour and Bourdieu fads are certainly recent enough, arguably far from over, and essentially textual in character. Anthropology certainly pays close attention to Grand Theory too.

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    andrewperrin

    January 10, 2013 at 1:58 pm

  7. Along the lines of Andrew’s comment: Richard Swedberg evidently didn’t get the memo that “the days of endlessly quoting and reinterpreting Weber are over. :( ”

    Even if we grant that the proportion of sociologists engaged in Grand Theory — producing, critiquing, reinterpreting, endlessly quoting — has declined, I don’t see that it necessarily follows that Grand Theory is dead/in decline. Maybe what matters for the theoretical health of a discipline is that there are some well-respected people at well-respected places engaging Grand Theory, not that every top 100 PhD-producing department has at least 10% (or whatever) of its FTEs devoted to “theorists.” (Which I suspect was never the case, especially outside of the elite private schools and, arguably, the flagship publics.)

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    krippendorf

    January 10, 2013 at 2:32 pm

  8. I say, bring on the death of theory to narrative and rhetorical scholarship in management!

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    henri

    January 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm

  9. […] Rojas has a post up titled Theory Death in Political Science. It links to a post by Stephen Saideman, “Leaving Grand Theorists Behind,” which was […]

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  10. […] Rojas enters the “end of theory” […]

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