Post Positivism Essay

Milja Kurki has commented that International Relations (IR) is a ‘divided discipline’, split between a ‘positivist mainstream…camp’ and a post-positivist ‘camp’, and she is not alone in this assessment.[1]  This essay will critically examine the benefits and disadvantages of post-positivism in light of this split, as part of what Yosef Lapid has called ‘the third debate’.[2]  In order to do this I will look at its genesis as a reaction against the positivist majority within IR, which I will locate more broadly within a reaction against positivism in the social sciences as a whole, thus agreeing with Jim George that IR is not independent of wider theoretical debate in the social sciences.[3]  Within the scope of this essay it is not possible to give a full overview of the breadth of post-positivist approaches, which include post-modernism, constitutive analysis and more, but I will outline the benefits of some of their corresponding characteristics, and particularly focus on ‘critical theory’.[4]  Firstly however, it will be necessary to briefly outline what we mean by positivism more generally.  I will then move on to question the relationship between positivism and post-positivism in IR by identifying positivism with the realist and neorealist paradigm most common in the discipline, demonstrating the comparative benefits of post-positivism for showing the myths that realism is built on.  I will then turn to some of the problems that arise from post-positivism itself.  This essay contends that IR can benefit from both positivism and post-positivism; rather than discussing the strengths and weaknesses of post-positivism in IR, it is best to consider the complementary strengths of post-positivism and positivism together.

Positivism has dominated the social sciences as part of the Enlightenment project to study social activity in a ‘scientific’ way.[5]  Positivism follows Hume’s radical empiricist conception of cause: knowledge does not exist outside of what we can observe, and thus what we claim to know is simply the associations or ‘conjunctions’ made on these observations.[6]    Kurki notes that ‘social scientists are still adamant that only careful observation of regularities (even if of ‘localised’ regularities) can give us an adequate understanding of human action and society.[7]  Thus in the context of this essay positivism is defined as following the Humean principles outlined above, with ‘the adoption of methodologies of the natural sciences to explain the social world’.[8]  It is noted that this is a loose definition of positivism, but for the purposes of a relative discussion of post-positivism, it conveys the key assumptions that post-positivism has reacted against.

Viewed uncritically, positivism has much force.  By presenting knowledge of the social world as similarly formulated as that of science, one can apply the same methodologies as used in the natural sciences to the social sciences and as a result find ‘scientific’ proof of one’s theories.

However, it is the critical analysis of positivist thought that is the main strength of post-positivism.  It encourages social science to think more critically towards the status quo, and the reaction against positivist epistemology, questioning its methodology and the claim to formulating ‘scientific’ theories, is what this essay views as ‘post-positivism’.  It is important to emphasise that there is no such thing as ‘a post-positivist approach, only post-positivist approaches’.[9]  Indeed, this too is one of its strengths: it has opened up the debate within social sciences and created ‘thinking space’.[10]  Whereas positivism is methodologically dogmatic, post-positivism encourages a ‘Socratic method’.[11]  Lapid points out ‘post-positivism is not a unitary philosophical platform’, but one can find some common and often’ inter-related’ themes amongst its adherents.[12]  These he identifies as ‘the preoccupation with meta-scientific units (paradigmatism), the concern with underlying premises and assumptions (perspectivism), and the drift towards methodological pluralism (relativism)’.[13]  The common ground above is the raising of questions regarding accepted practice: questioning paradigms, questioning perspectives, and questioning methodology, which invigorates the academic project, and as such I agree that there should be optimism as to what post-positivism can achieve in IR.[14]

One can easily trace positivist epistemology in IR, where ‘rationalist epistemology that relies on scientific inference… has been clearly articulated by the neo-realist and neo-liberal programmes of research.’[15]  Thus we can see that positivism has set the standard of how we ‘do’ IR.  However, this essay concentrates on the broadly realist school, because it ‘is the most venerable and persisting model of international relations, it provides a good starting point and baseline for comparison with competing models’.[16]  In response to the positivist realist programme, I will now argue that post-positivism is very important in showing relations of power in the disciple of IR, highlighting the relative strengths of the post-positivist position.

Critical theory rejects the ‘three basic postulates of positivism: an objective external reality, the subject object distinction, and value free social science.’ [17]  By denying the subject-object distinction, critical theory strikes at the epistemological heart of positivism.  Cox has stated that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’, and therefore where Hume argued that we find knowledge on what we observe, critical theory argues that human ‘needs’ and ‘purposes’ are the glue that binds these observations.[18]  The theories we postulate are therefore not ‘value-neutral’ as they purport to be.[19]   It is revealing to look at Waltz’s epistemologically positivist approach that ‘only through some sort of systems structure can international politics be understood’.[20]   The observables in IR (states) are ‘units’ in a structurally anarchical society.  All states perform same functions and are equivalent units in this system, but there is an uneven distribution of resources and capacities among states.  Fear of domination by other states is the main motivation for inter-state competition.[21]  However, as Agnew argues, this is in fact a normative approach:  ‘It is a dangerous world out there and if a state (read: our state) is not ready for a competitive environment then it is headed for disaster. This was a reassuring hard-headed message for Americans during the Cold War!’[22]  Thus, a benefit of the critical theory approach, and indeed the post-positivist approach in general, is considering who theory is working for.

The post-positivist position has responded to the changing nature of international relations in the post-cold-war period, demonstrating the political nature of positivist assertions as to how the world is.  Buzan and Little go so far as to say that one of the reason IR has ‘failed as an intellectual project’ is its failure to move beyond the traditional conception of relationships between states.[23]  The realist conception of world order constructed an ‘image of reality constituted in particular historical and political circumstances (the struggle with Fascism and the Cold War)… an ahistorical, universalized dogma’.[24]   In what sense, therefore, is realism, with it ‘ahistorical’ universal claims actually reflecting international security issues now?  Smith argues that failing to move past positivist dogmatism, cold war political assumptions etc…, and reconsider the implications of violence and development issues has had important consequences in international politics.  He goes so far as to say that affectations to impartiality and universality are implicated in post-war developments in international security where the ‘West’ (specifically Anglo-Saxon IR) sung ‘into existence the world of September 11, 2001’.[25]

The post-positivist approach is in better shape to understand this new reality by the very fact that is it not so ontologically dogmatic.  Importantly, the debate is widened and marginalized groups which have previously been denied agency in traditional IR are empowered, putting the ‘international’ back into international theory.  The Eurocentric model has been guilty of ignoring the constitutive voices that make up a conversation in IR, for example the failure to acknowledge the role of Cuba in the Cuban Missile Crisis.[26]     As Laffey and Barkawi say, ‘That the weak play an integral role in shaping world politics is harder to deny when a Southern resistance movement strikes at the heart of Northern power’.[27]

More importantly still, this type of analysis allows IR practitioners to see the power inherent in denying agency when universalizing Western values.  As Laffey and Barkawi say, ‘a Eurocentric security studies regards the weak and the powerless as marginal or derivative elements of world politics, as at best the site of liberal good intentions or at worst a potential source of threats.’[28]   This echoes Said’s post-modern approach to Western images of the East, where ‘Orientalism depends for its strategy on… positional superiority, which puts the westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand’.[29]  Barnett and Duvall conceive of a type of ‘productive power’ which refers partly to ‘the discursive production of the subjects, the fixing of meanings, and the terms of action, of world politics’ and this productive power is inherent in the positivist universality of assumptions based on conjunctions of Western experience.[30]  By casting non-state actors on the periphery, or by ignoring them as part of IR, the dominant remain dominant as they can produce what is to be a ‘them’, a ‘terrorist’, an ‘insurgent’, a ‘rogue state’; there are inherently normative judgements in what is legitimate and what is not legitimate: ‘the politics of Eurocentric security studies, those of the powerful, prevent adequate understanding of the nature or legitimacy of the armed resistance of the weak’.[31]  Therefore, it is possible again to see positivist value-free credentials deconstructed by post-positivists rejection of positivist assumptions.

However, whilst this essay argues strongly for the benefits of post-positivism in critiquing the positivist mainstream in IR, it must be noted that post-positivism has its disadvantages.  Firstly, Biestecker notes that ‘however desirable it may be to open international relations to methodological pluralism and relativism, post- positivist scholarship does not offer us any clear criteria for choosing among the multiple and competing explanations it produces’.[32]   Post-positivism may in fact lead to intellectual incoherence in IR.  Therefore, perhaps rather than invigorating the academic project it just confuses it.

Indeed, it is not just a case of numerous confusing explanations produced.  Within the broad post-positivist camp there is no consensus.  Whilst post-modernism and critical theory are both post-positivist in nature, postmodernism ‘eschews the very goal of critical theory’ and would argue critical theory itself is hegemonic, where ‘all conversation is power, and it is not possible to move beyond a place tainted by power’.[33]   We therefore have an example of post-positivism criticising post-positivism, which in the scope of this essay makes it difficult to discuss the relative merits of post-modernism and critical theory.  Perhaps, then, as George says, we should be careful to avoid ‘intellectual anarchy.’[34]

Secondly, this essay has devoted considerable time to the relative advantages of post-positivism to positivism, but that is not to say that positivism is no longer important.  Conversely, I agree with Holsti that the theories that positivism have given us are valuable, thatNo amount of meta-theoretical debate, or perspectivism, or post-modern relativism renders their work less theoretically useful. ‘[35]   Even critics of traditional positivist methodology in IR can be amongst its adherents, such as Buzan who insists on the benefits of realism, that it ‘possesses a relative (not absolute) intellectual coherence.  It provides a solid starting point for the construction of grand theory’.[36]  We should thus view positivism and post-positivism as complementary in strengthening the discipline of IR as a whole.  This essay does not seek to advance the benefits of post-positivism to do away with theory, nor all positivist methodology.  I agree, for example that we should be careful not to, as George says ’attempt to overcome universalized humanist premises (progress, dialectics, consciousness) [which may] deprive us of both baby (creative social agent) and bathwater’[37]

Finally, one can question how far post-positivism actually departs from the positivist perspective that it critiques.  Kurki argues that the Humean concept of cause is present in the work of critical theorists such as Cox.[38]  Thus, for Kurki what the post-positivists purport to reject is evident in their work.  Instead, she advocates ‘multi-causal’ and ‘complexity-sensitive’ IR theory.  Lapid’s statement that ‘the tragedy of international relations scholars was, of course, that they proved incapable of either fruitfully adopting or decisively rejecting the grail of positivist science’[39] is perhaps still true despite the Third Debate.

However, this essay argues that this is not a tragedy, but instead benefits the discipline.   ‘Our discipline, like other social sciences, should demonstrate a healthy and tolerant diversity: of theoretical approaches, of relations with policy-makers versus concentration on fundamental questions, of detailed studies alongside broad historical surveys.’[40]  This essay considered the strengths and weaknesses of Post-positivism in IR as relative to those of positivism.  As such, it has necessitated a discussion of the two in opposition.  However, one must not create a false dichotomy and this essay argues that the main strength of post-positivism is as a critic of the positivist mainstream in order to create a questioning, Socratic approach to IR.  Even in light of the criticisms of Bierstecker, Kurki and others, post-positivism has invigorated IR, added to its theoretical arsenal, and emphasised the need to remain relevant within the changing nature of the world it seeks to explain, much in the way other social sciences must.


[1] Kurki, Milja.  2006.  ‘Causes of a divided Discipline: Rethinking the Concept of Cause in International Relations Theory’, Review of International Studies 32(2): 194

[2]Lapid, Yosef.1989.  ‘ The Third Debate: On the Prospects of International Theory in a Post-Positivist Era’ International Studies Quarterly (33)3: 235-254 E

[3]George, Jim.  1989.  ‘International Relations and the Search for Thinking Space: Another View of the Third Debate’, International Studies Quarterly 33(3): 269 E

[4] Jackson, R, Sorenson, G Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches (Oxford University Press) 294

[5] George, Thinking Space, 279

[6] Kurki, Causes of a Divided Discipline, 192

[7] Kurki, Causes of a Divided Discipline, 194

[8] Smith, Steve.  1996.  ‘Positivism and Beyond’, in Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marsya Zalewski, eds, International Theory: Positivism and Beyond Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 11

[9] Smith, Positivism and Beyond, 35

[10]George, Thinking Space, 273

[11] George, Thinking Space, 273

[12] Lapid, Yosef, The Third Debate, 239

[13] Lapid, Yosef, The Third Debate, 239

[14] Lapid, Yosef, The Third Debate, 235

[15] Rytövuori-Apunen, Helena.  2005.  ‘Forget ‘Post-Positivist’ IR! : The Legacy of IR Theory as the Locus for a Pragmatist Turn’,Cooperation and Conflict40(2) 148

[16] Holsti, R Ole.  1995.  ‘Theories of International Relations and Foreign Policy:  Realism and its Challengers’, in Kegley, Charles W, ed, Controversies in International Relations Theory:  Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge (Macmillan Press Ltd) 36

[17] Jackson, R, Sorenson, G Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches (Oxford University Press) 232

[18] Linklater, Andrew.  1995. ‘Neo-realism and Theory in Practice’ in, Booth, Smith ed, International Relations Theory Today (Penn State Press) 281

[19] Linklater, Neo-realism and Theory in Practice 281

[20] Waltz, K.  2007.  ‘The Anarchic Structure of World Politics’, in Art, R, Jervis, International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues (Pearson Education Ltd) 30

[21] Agnew, John. 1994.  ‘The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations’ Review of International Political Economy, 1(1)

[22] Agnew, The Territorial Trap, 57

[23] Barry Buzan and Richard Little. 2001. ‘Why International Relations has Failed as an Intellectual Project and What to do about it’. Millennium – Journal of International Studies30(19)

[24] Cox, cited in George, Thinking Space, 274

[25] Smith, S. 2004.  ‘Singing Our World into Existence: International Relations Theory and September 11’ International Studies Quarterly, 48(3) 513

[26]Laffey, M; Barkawi, T. 2006 ‘The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies’ Review of International Studies 32, 329–352

[27] Laffey, M; Barkawi, T. The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies 336

[28] Laffey, M; Barkawi, T. The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies 332

[29] Said, Orientalism, Penguin, (2003) pp. 7

[30]Barnett, M; Duvall, R. 2005. ‘Power in International Politics’ International Organization59.  56

[31] Laffey, M; Barkawi, T. The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies 329

[32] Biersteker. 1989. ‘Critical Reflections on Post-Positivism in International Relations’ International Studies Quarterly33(3) 265

[33] Jackson, R, Sorenson, G.  2003.  ‘Methodological Debates: Classical Versus Positivism Approaches’, in Jackson, R, Sorenson, G eds, Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches (Oxford University Press) 165

[34]George, Thinking Space, 270

[35]Holsti, KJ. 1989. ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Which Are the Fairest Theories of All?’  International Studies Quarterly 33(3). 258

[36] Buzan, Barry.  1996.  ‘The Timeless Wisdom of Realism’, in Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marsya Zalewski, eds, International Theory: Positivism and Beyond Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 62

[37] George, Thinking Space, 276

[38] Kurki, Causes of a Divided Discipline, 198

[39] Lapid, Yosef, The Third Debate 246

[40] Wallace, W. 1996. ‘Truth and power, monks and technocrats: theory and practice in international relations’Review of International Studies 22. 303

Written by: Neil Loughlin
Written at: The School of Oriental and African Studies
Written for: Dr Polly Pallister-Wilkins
Date written: November 2010

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Let's start our very brief discussion of philosophy of science with a simple distinction between epistemology and methodology. The term epistemology comes from the Greek word epistêmê, their term for knowledge. In simple terms, epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge or of how we come to know. Methodology is also concerned with how we come to know, but is much more practical in nature. Methodology is focused on the specific ways -- the methods -- that we can use to try to understand our world better. Epistemology and methodology are intimately related: the former involves the philosophy of how we come to know the world and the latter involves the practice.

When most people in our society think about science, they think about some guy in a white lab coat working at a lab bench mixing up chemicals. They think of science as boring, cut-and-dry, and they think of the scientist as narrow-minded and esoteric (the ultimate nerd -- think of the humorous but nonetheless mad scientist in the Back to the Future movies, for instance). A lot of our stereotypes about science come from a period where science was dominated by a particular philosophy -- positivism -- that tended to support some of these views. Here, I want to suggest (no matter what the movie industry may think) that science has moved on in its thinking into an era of post-positivism where many of those stereotypes of the scientist no longer hold up.

Let's begin by considering what positivism is. In its broadest sense, positivism is a rejection of metaphysics (I leave it you to look up that term if you're not familiar with it). It is a position that holds that the goal of knowledge is simply to describe the phenomena that we experience. The purpose of science is simply to stick to what we can observe and measure. Knowledge of anything beyond that, a positivist would hold, is impossible. When I think of positivism (and the related philosophy of logical positivism) I think of the behaviorists in mid-20th Century psychology. These were the mythical 'rat runners' who believed that psychology could only study what could be directly observed and measured. Since we can't directly observe emotions, thoughts, etc. (although we may be able to measure some of the physical and physiological accompaniments), these were not legitimate topics for a scientific psychology. B.F. Skinner argued that psychology needed to concentrate only on the positive and negative reinforcers of behavior in order to predict how people will behave -- everything else in between (like what the person is thinking) is irrelevant because it can't be measured.

In a positivist view of the world, science was seen as the way to get at truth, to understand the world well enough so that we might predict and control it. The world and the universe were deterministic -- they operated by laws of cause and effect that we could discern if we applied the unique approach of the scientific method. Science was largely a mechanistic or mechanical affair. We use deductive reasoning to postulate theories that we can test. Based on the results of our studies, we may learn that our theory doesn't fit the facts well and so we need to revise our theory to better predict reality. The positivist believed in empiricism -- the idea that observation and measurement was the core of the scientific endeavor. The key approach of the scientific method is the experiment, the attempt to discern natural laws through direct manipulation and observation.

OK, I am exaggerating the positivist position (although you may be amazed at how close to this some of them actually came) in order to make a point. Things have changed in our views of science since the middle part of the 20th century. Probably the most important has been our shift away from positivism into what we term post-positivism. By post-positivism, I don't mean a slight adjustment to or revision of the positivist position -- post-positivism is a wholesale rejection of the central tenets of positivism. A post-positivist might begin by recognizing that the way scientists think and work and the way we think in our everyday life are not distinctly different. Scientific reasoning and common sense reasoning are essentially the same process. There is no difference in kind between the two, only a difference in degree. Scientists, for example, follow specific procedures to assure that observations are verifiable, accurate and consistent. In everyday reasoning, we don't always proceed so carefully (although, if you think about it, when the stakes are high, even in everyday life we become much more cautious about measurement. Think of the way most responsible parents keep continuous watch over their infants, noticing details that non-parents would never detect).

One of the most common forms of post-positivism is a philosophy called critical realism. A critical realist believes that there is a reality independent of our thinking about it that science can study. (This is in contrast with a subjectivist who would hold that there is no external reality -- we're each making this all up!). Positivists were also realists. The difference is that the post-positivist critical realist recognizes that all observation is fallible and has error and that all theory is revisable. In other words, the critical realist is critical of our ability to know reality with certainty. Where the positivist believed that the goal of science was to uncover the truth, the post-positivist critical realist believes that the goal of science is to hold steadfastly to the goal of getting it right about reality, even though we can never achieve that goal! Because all measurement is fallible, the post-positivist emphasizes the importance of multiple measures and observations, each of which may possess different types of error, and the need to use triangulation across these multiple errorful sources to try to get a better bead on what's happening in reality. The post-positivist also believes that all observations are theory-laden and that scientists (and everyone else, for that matter) are inherently biased by their cultural experiences, world views, and so on. This is not cause to give up in despair, however. Just because I have my world view based on my experiences and you have yours doesn't mean that we can't hope to translate from each other's experiences or understand each other. That is, post-positivism rejects the relativist idea of the incommensurability of different perspectives, the idea that we can never understand each other because we come from different experiences and cultures. Most post-positivists are constructivists who believe that we each construct our view of the world based on our perceptions of it. Because perception and observation is fallible, our constructions must be imperfect. So what is meant by objectivity in a post-positivist world? Positivists believed that objectivity was a characteristic that resided in the individual scientist. Scientists are responsible for putting aside their biases and beliefs and seeing the world as it 'really' is. Post-positivists reject the idea that any individual can see the world perfectly as it really is. We are all biased and all of our observations are affected (theory-laden). Our best hope for achieving objectivity is to triangulate across multiple fallible perspectives! Thus, objectivity is not the characteristic of an individual, it is inherently a social phenomenon. It is what multiple individuals are trying to achieve when they criticize each other's work. We never achieve objectivity perfectly, but we can approach it. The best way for us to improve the objectivity of what we do is to do it within the context of a broader contentious community of truth-seekers (including other scientists) who criticize each other's work. The theories that survive such intense scrutiny are a bit like the species that survive in the evolutionary struggle. (This is sometimes called the natural selection theory of knowledge and holds that ideas have 'survival value' and that knowledge evolves through a process of variation, selection and retention). They have adaptive value and are probably as close as our species can come to being objective and understanding reality.

Clearly, all of this stuff is not for the faint-of-heart. I've seen many a graduate student get lost in the maze of philosophical assumptions that contemporary philosophers of science argue about. And don't think that I believe this is not important stuff. But, in the end, I tend to turn pragmatist on these matters. Philosophers have been debating these issues for thousands of years and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to debate them for thousands of years more. Those of us who are practicing scientists should check in on this debate from time to time (perhaps every hundred years or so would be about right). We should think about the assumptions we make about the world when we conduct research. But in the meantime, we can't wait for the philosophers to settle the matter. After all, we do have our own work to do!

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