Posts Tagged With: IR theories

Navigating Human Rights in IR Methodological Landscape (part 2 of 2)

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MINDAVIEWS > MARGINALIA: Navigating human rights in IR methodological landscape (2)

Mansoor L. Limba on December 11, 2016

(Last of two parts)

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews /11 December) – Why are the theory of universal human rights and the everyday practice of human wrongs heaven and earth apart? Are human rights abuses a product of the mere failure of governments to observe universal human rights principles both in letter and spirit? Or, perhaps, is it due to the fact that the very search for moral universals is itself a foundationally fallacious business?

To answer these questions through an exploration of the methodological basis of the claims to universal human rights is the principal burden of this section, nay this column as a whole.

Historically, the idea of rights has embodied, inter alia, two fundamental claims. First, that there is a claim to some substance by an identifiable subject who has entitlements (object of right); and secondly, that the identifiable subject who has entitlements cites some particular ground in support of his or her claim (foundation of the right). In the context of human rights literature, the object of right is the ‘human’ rights as claimed by the human being while the foundation of the right is the human being’s ‘humanness’. Methodologically, the first element (object of right) is pertaining to the ontology of the subject while the second one (foundation of the right) is related to the epistemology of the same.

In this light, four human rights theories according to this ontology-epistemology categorization will be examined below, viz. (1) liberal natural rights theory, (2) traditional communitarianism, (3) communitarian pragmatism, and (4) cosmopolitan pragmatism.

Liberal natural rights theory

According to the liberal natural rights theory, the idea of human rights is that all human beings have rights by virtue of their common humanity. Individuals have certain kinds of rights as members of particular communities, but human rights belong to humanity and do not depend for their existence on the legal and moral practices of different communities. Thus, even if individuals were denied rights by the laws of a particular state, they still can make a claim to rights by virtue of their membership to common humanity. (J. Donnelly, Human Rights Working Papers Number 12, p. 2)

One attempt to provide a defense of common morality historically has been made by the natural law tradition. At its core, natural law maintains that there is a unity among all peoples of the world irrespective of cultural difference. Later society-of-states theorists recognized the intrusion of the ‘law of nations’ into the idea of a cosmic moral law, but nevertheless hold on to the idea that natural law provides an underlying moral foundation. While classical thinking on natural law placed duties at the center of its moral deliberations, the challenge for contemporary advocates is to show how natural law can support a theory of universal human rights. (“Human Rights,” Encyclopedia Britannica 2002 Standard Electronic Edition)

Claims to know what is right are founded on “those basic precepts of common morality [which] are accessible to human reason; they can be known by anyone capable of thought and action.” (Joseph Boyle, Traditions of International Ethics, p. 129) Thus, the faculty of reason which is assumed to be transcultural enables individuals to deduce the correct moral code by which to live their lives. As Tim Dunne and Nicholas Wheeler point out, this is an appealing idea but the fundamental weakness of ‘practical reason’ is that it cannot easily explain why moral practices vary within and between cultures. (Dunne and Wheeler, Human Rights in Global Politics, p. 5) The kernel of this natural rights position is that all individuals have certain basic rights because they share the same essential human nature.

Liberal natural human rights thinking has underpinned the development of the international legal regime in human rights. For evidence of the widespread acceptance of the discourse on ‘natural rights’, we need look no further than the United Nations charter which seeks “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights”. Similarly, the Preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” (Antonio Cassese, Human Rights in a Changing World, p. 189)

Be that as it may, the fundamental problem with defending the human rights regime in terms of natural rights thinking is the failure of its advocates to provide a convincing theory of human nature which would ground notions of human dignity. (See Donnelly, “The Universal Declaration Model of Human Rights: A Liberal Defense.”)

In an attempt to defend the liberal theory, Ken Booth identifies ‘three tyrannies’ that oppress the theory and practice of human rights: ‘presentism’, ‘culturalism’ and ‘positivism’. ‘Presentism’, according to him, views the social world as natural and immutable, whereas social anthropology propounds that humanity is constantly evolving and that appeals to human nature as the ‘clinching argument’ are always overturned by changing social relations. ‘Culturalism’ accordingly is the belief that cultures can be black-boxed ala billiard ball.  ‘Positivism’ is the tendency to claim objectivity in the social world. (Booth, Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 31-70)

Contrary to the cultural relativists and postmodernists who espouse toleration of diversity, Booth addresses the question, “How much diversity should be tolerated?” In retort to the question of what are the foundations for human rights, he asserts that it is wrong to torture, starve, humiliate, and hurt others. For him, human rights are not a matter of opinion, cultural prejudice or one society’s narrative vis-à-vis another; instead, they are a reply to these ‘universal social facts’. (Ibid.)

Like Booth, Donnelly identifies an important relationship between the ideas of human rights and human dignity. He shows how the idea of human rights emerged as a specific historical response to the challenges of modernity. Instead of resolving the meta-ethical foundations of human rights, Donnelly highlights the import of the ‘remarkable international normative consensus on the list of rights’ found in the human rights covenants and treaties. As a whole, the main problem confronting the contemporary human rights regime is the contradiction between the human rights commitments of states and their actual practices. (Donnelly, Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 71-102)

Traditional communitarianism

Traditional communitarianism holds the following core assumptions: (1) the liberal view of the individual as a bearer of rights discards or belittles the formative role of the community in constituting individuality; (2) the problem with the liberal position on human rights is that it assumes that rights-bearing individuals exist prior to societies whereas in reality it is societies that confer rights on individuals. (Chris Brown, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, p. 472) As such, different kinds of societies will produce different kinds of individuals, sometimes conferring rights, sometimes finding other ways of giving meaning to people’s lives. Anyhow, the rights of the individuals do not necessarily override the rights of the community.

Corollary to these assumptions is the tenet that there are many different ways in which human beings may lead dignified and fulfilling lives. The idea that dignity only comes with the possession of rights is peculiarly Western, with no claim to universal status. (Ibid.)

In other words, for the traditional communitarians, the existence of the standard is itself the problem. According to them, rights are a consequence of the civilized practices of liberal polities and not the cause of these. Any attempt by international society to close the compliance gap, therefore, is a ‘near-to-impossible task’. The communitarian perspective holds that human beings have rights by virtue of their community and not some abstract notion of ‘common humanity’. This is the argument that has traditionally been mobilized by cultural relativists. (Brown, “Universal Human Rights: A Critique,” in Human Rights in Global Politics)

The central claim is that morality is culturally bound, and values can only be grounded in tradition. The idea, then, of individuals possessing inalienable rights which they claim against the state is unthinkable in many societies where the individual is embedded in a complex network of communal duties and familial responsibilities. According to Molly Cochram, cultural relativism can be viewed as a form of moral discourse which ‘founds and enables the ethical discourse in which social judgments are possible’. (Cochran, “Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism in a Post-Cold War World,” in Boundaries in Question, p. 48)

According to Tim Dunne and Nicholas Wheeler, cultural relativists are often accused of being unable to judge between competing values. While ‘some kind of lowest common denominator’ might be present in diverse cultures, such a moral standard lacks a ‘critical cutting edge’ because it is reducible to these cultural practices. Nevertheless, certain human wrongs like genocide and mass murder will be caught by this moral minimalism. Although this ‘general moral standard’ provides a means to judge and criticize egregious regimes like Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Amin’s Uganda, it is unable to deal with more routine human rights abuses. (Dunne and Wheeler, “Introduction: Human Rights and the Fifty Years’ Crisis,” p. 8)

Communitarian pragmatism

Communitarian pragmatism involves recognizing that human rights are based on a particular culture and defending them in these terms rather than by reference to some universal cross-cultural code. The particular culture is what Richard Rorty called ‘human rights culture’. (Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality,” in On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures) This theory rejects the idea that it is possible to demonstrate that human rights exist; instead, it involves proselytizing on behalf of the sort of culture in which it exists. The fundamental point is that human life is safer, pleasanter and more dignified when rights are acknowledged than when they are not. (Brown, “Human Rights,” p. 481)

By transcending the debate between relativists and universalists, communitarian pragmatism argues that the problem with both positions is their dependence upon epistemological foundationalism: the problem with universal critiques of relativism is that they assume that there is some non-relativist position upon which to stand. (Brown, “Universal Human Rights: A Critique”)

For a pragmatist like Rorty, the idea that reason or science can access ‘justified true belief’ (epistemology) is nothing but a myth. Accordingly, our beliefs are no more than contingent preferences which help us to cope with the complexities of late modern life. Rights, for Rorty, are nothing more than a story that liberal societies have decided to ‘tell’ and as a consequence, it is only liberal societies which provide an epistemological context for human rights justifications. (Ibid.)

The pragmatists’ denunciation of all narratives which posit universal truths seems to imply a deadly blow for the defenders of human rights. However, Rorty argues that it is ‘we the twentieth century liberals’ who have the responsibility to nurture and strengthen the ‘human rights culture’ which is a fact of the post-Holocaust world. Momentously, for Rorty, this culture ‘seems to owe nothing to increased moral knowledge, and everything to hearing sad and sentimental stories’. (Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality,” p. 133) What human solidarity depends upon is the manipulation of the sentiments such that ‘we liberals’ come to realize that our differences with others are less important than our shared capacity to experience pain and suffering. (Brown, “Universal Human Rights: A Critique”)

Yet, Brown criticizes Rorty’s view for nothing to say to those societies which have not undergone a process of ‘education of the sentiments’. Thus, there is no knock-down argument against the Bosnian Serbs who choose to construct Bosnian Muslims as sub-human. He does not want to call these people inhuman or morally wrong as this implies the existence of a universal human nature; instead he wants to argue that they have been deprived of the condition in which to develop feelings of human solidarity. Rorty’s position ‘does not solve all the problems of relativism’ and sentimentality is an ‘inadequate’ response to human wrongs but reluctantly admits that ‘it is difficult to see what other moral vocabulary is available to us once we reach the limits of an ethical community’. (Ibid.)

Cosmopolitan pragmatism

Unlike traditional communitarianism and communitarian pragmatism, cosmopolitan pragmatism is more supportive of universal ideas but on a non-foundationalist basis. For instance, the moral philosopher Bhikhu Parekh argues for a conception of universal values which steers a course between the opposites of moral relativism and foundationalist claims of an essential and knowable human nature. For Parekh, the fundamental problem with relativism is ‘that we have no means of judging a society’s moral beliefs and practices’. At the opposite pole to relativism stands ‘moral monism’, a position which maintains that ‘we cannot only judge other societies but also lay down what way of life is the highest or truly human’. Both are equally unsatisfactory because it assumes an essential human nature which can be revealed after the superstructure of cultural embeddedness has been stripped away. (Parekh, “Non-ethnocentric Universalism,” in Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 128-159)

According to him, between these two extremes lies ‘minimum universalism’ which recognizes the fact of moral diversity but believes ‘that moral life can be lived in several different ways, but insists that they can be judged on the basis of a universally valid body of values.’

Although this theoretical position has more to commend it than the other two, Parekh opines that it does not overcome the following objections. First, it relies on an account of human nature which brings it perilously close to monism; secondly, it is questionable whether there is a normative consensus on prohibiting even the most cruel and inhumane practice; and thirdly, universal principles are either too abstract or too weak to provide the possibility of judgment across cultures.

Instead of the three approaches, Parekh advocates a theory of non-ethnocentric universal values which can be constructed by means of a dialogue between equals:

“The point of cross-cultural dialogue is to arrive at a body of values to which all the participants can be expected to agree. Our concern is not to discover values, for they have no objective basis, but to agree on them… Values are a matter of collective decision, and like any other decision it is based on reasons. Since moral values cannot be rationally demonstrated, our concern should be to build a consensus around those that can be shown to be rationally most defensible.” (Ibid.)

In sum, for him universal values can have no ‘objective basis’. Universal values are possible but have to be decided through argumentation. Thus, cosmopolitan pragmatism believes it is possible to recognize the reality of cultural embeddedness while leaving open the possibility for a transcultural consensus which is more than just ‘the lowest common denominator of different cultural traditions’.

Is the claim to universality masking the particular interests and values of its exponents, and is it increasingly contested as a consequence of the rise of new power centers in world politics?

In similar view, in exploring this question in terms of the relationship between human rights and power in the debate between the West and Asia, Andrew Hurrell argues that the ‘Asian values’ challenge to the West reflects the growth of the economic and political power of states like China, Malaysia and Singapore, which interpret human rights concerns on the part of the West as a maneuver in the competition for relative gains. (Hurrell, “Power, Principles and Prudence: Protecting Human Rights in a Deeply Divided World,” in Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 277-302)

Even if the discourse of Asia values is ‘manipulated and abused by governments’ as part of traditional power politics, Hurrell reasons out that the debate reveals ‘real and genuine conflicts over the nature of human rights’. As a consequence, he suggests that instead of worrying about the ‘foundations’ of our human rights claims, we should ‘build on and develop the human rights culture and community that has evolved in practice—the element of consensus visible in the actual practice of states. (Ibid.)

Summary and conclusion

Within the ontology-epistemology matrix, human rights theories can be generally classified into four classes, viz. (1) liberal natural rights theory, (2) traditional communitarianism, (3) communitarian pragmatism, and (4) cosmopolitan pragmatism. Liberal natural rights theory hymns the common ‘song’ that every human being has a set of universal rights by virtue of his or her membership in humanity. This theory represents the universalism-foundationalism ‘box’ in the ontology-epistemology matrix.

Representing the subjectivism-foundationalism subset, traditional communitarianism maintains that though human rights are universally acknowledged, there is no monolithic set of human rights values for all people. Thus, these values are community-based and thus, violation of which must be viewed from the framework of the particular society. This theory is commonly known as ‘cultural relativism’.

By arguing that the problem with both the liberal natural rights theory and traditional communitarianism is their dependence on ‘universal foundation’ and that human rights values are different from society to society, communitarian pragmatism is appropriately placed in the subjectivism-anti-foundationalism ‘box’.

Cosmopolitan pragmatism agrees with communitarian pragmatism in the denial of a common platform to which human rights can be based, but upholds that a sort of universal human rights values can be obtained through agreement among the people of the world.

From the foregoing sections, it is shown that side by side with the progress in the human rights norm cascade is the intensification of violation of the same rights. A methodological examination of the contending theories on the nature of these rights suggests that the debate on the causes of the wide gap between the idea of human rights and the practice of human wrongs goes back to the very question of human rights’ ‘universality’ being based on the ‘humanness’ of human being.

For the years to come, therefore, human wrongs cannot be expected to be sidetracked from the international scene unless these philosophical issues found their absolute settlement. Yet, a probable source of optimism is the fact that although none of the theories taken into account has finally resolved the human rights philosophical problematique, most people are not philosophers who reckon philosophy as master and not servant. As such, the future of human rights lies on the strength, or otherwise, of the popular backing for its universality in the years ahead.  These writings about a massacre, domestication, demolition, and the downtrodden are indeed an illustrious showcase of a continuously growing multidisciplinary trend in the academe.

 

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mansoor L. Limba, PhD in International Relations, is a writer, educator, blogger, chess trainer, 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, intra-faith and interfaith relations, cultural heritage, Islamic finance, jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (‘ilm al-kalam), Qur’anic sciences and exegesis (tafsir), hadith, ethics, and mysticism. He can be reached at mlimba@diplomats.com, or http://www.mlimba.com and http://www.muslimandmoney.com.]

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Navigating Human Rights in IR Methodological Landscape (part 1 of 2)

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Photo: http://www.arts.auckland.ac.nz

MINDAVIEWS > MARGINALIA: Navigating human rights in IR methodological landscape (part 1 of 2)

Mansoor L. Limba on December 10, 2016

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews /10 December) – Encyclopedia Britannica simply defines human rights as “rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human.” For John Vincent, this right consists of the following five elements: “a right-holder (the subject of a right) has a claim to some substance (the object of a right), which he or she might assert, or demand, or enjoy, or enforce (exercising a right) against some individual or group (the bearer of the correlative duty), citing in support of his or her claim some particular ground (the justification of a right).” (Human Rights and International Relations, p. 8)

They are a set of principled ideas about the treatment to which all individuals are entitled by virtue of being human. Due to the fact that one either is or is not a human being, human rights are held equally by all. Equally, since one cannot cease to be human being, regardless of his or her ‘inhuman’ conduct or condition he or she is currently in, these rights are said to be inalienable. (J. Donnelly, “The Universal Declaration Model of Human Rights: A Liberal Defense,” p. 2)

Human rights in IR

In due course, these ideas have earned general recognition as international norms defining what was necessary for humans to flourish, both in terms of being protected from abuses, and provided with the elements necessary for a life in dignity. Since a problem often becomes the subject of international action only after a dramatic event crystallizes awareness, Jack Donnelly argues that the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials (1945-46) at which leading Nazis were prosecuted under the new charge of ‘crimes against humanity’ crystallizes the world awareness on human rights as an international issue worth contemplating for—an issue which was reckoned before as a domestic affair within the cocoon of ‘sovereignty’. (Donnelly, International Human Rights, pp. 4-5)

While the Covenant of the League of Nations made no mention of human rights, the Charter of the United Nations’ Preamble stipulates a resolve “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” and its first article incorporates “encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all” as among the organization’s principal raison d’êtres. The day after opening for signature the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly (GA). Following the adoption of the seminal and most authoritative statement of international human rights norms, human rights continued to be discussed at the UN though this momentum was initially brought to a halt by the Cold War.

During the Cold War human rights widely became an arena of superpower struggle. Besides, both superpowers manifested a blatant disrespect for human rights. Derailing of work on further elaborations of international human rights standards is also an instance of arbitrary impacts of the Cold War. A case in point is the almost two decades time gap between the adoption of the UDHR and the completion of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—covenants that were envisioned as a single treaty in 1948. Though achieving only limited or partial success, in 1970s human rights norms saw a leap forward from standard setting to monitoring their compliance. As norms continued to be developed, multilateral, bilateral, and transnational human rights activities steadily increased through the 1980s. Then, with the removal of the Iron Curtain, the 1990 decade was a witness to “a most gradual, but generally positive, change as shown by a region-by-region review.” (Ibid., p. 13) These developments in the context of national, international and transnational normative deepening and the maturing of human rights as an international issue have been considered an indication of “a qualitative transformation of the international politics of human rights.” (Ibid., p. 17)

In sum, most international human rights treaties agreed upon after 1945 regulate the domestic behavior of governments towards their own citizens. With the significant expansion of such regimes within the last fifty years state actors face growing formal and informal limits to the policy choices they have. Human rights norms have experienced a norms cascade in the last two decades and are part of the transformation of the international system as indicated by the following facts:

“In 1975, only 33 countries had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, equaling 23 per cent of the UN membership at that time (144). By July 2001, 147 states had ratified the treaty (equaling 76 per cent of the total UN membership of 189) and 97 the Optional Protocol accepting supervisory powers of Human Rights Committee. In addition, 157 states have ratified the Convention against Racial Discrimination, 145 the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 168 the Women’s Rights convention, 125 the Convention against Torture, and 191 the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” (Handbook of International Relations, p. 524)

Nevertheless, it is proper to stress that the import of the origins, acceptance and evolution of norms depends on their ability to affect actual behavior beyond mere rhetorical commitment. This compliance on human rights norms can be viewed as a spectrum including (1) the ratification of a human rights treaty, (2) the fulfillment of reporting and other requests by supervisory bodies, (3) the implementation of norms in domestic law, (4) and rule-consistent behavior on the domestic level. (A. Kent, China, the United Nations and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance, p. 236)

Alongside internationalization of human rights norms, there has emerged a growing moral consciousness among world public opinion of human rights issues and concerns. Along this line, state behavior is now more closely monitored with respect to the gulf between the declaratory commitments of governments to protect and promote human rights and their compliance with these standards.

In the succeeding sections the different theories on human rights from the methodological (ontological-epistemological) perspective are presented. These theories give different answers to the following question:

Why the theory of universal human rights and the everyday practice of human wrongs are heaven and earth apart? Are human rights abuses a product of the mere failure of governments to observe universal human rights principles both in letter and spirit? Or, perhaps, is it due to the fact that the very search for moral universals is itself a foundationally fallacious business?

Methodology in IR

As an institutionalized academic discipline, International Relations deals with two fundamental kinds of issues. One kind of issues is the substantive one that refers to the questions of facts. What are the contributory factors that led to the Iran-Iraq war? Who are responsible for the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001? Is the computer technology an agent or product of globalization? What are the political and economic motives behind the US/UK aggression in Iraq? These are examples of substantive questions. The other type of issues is the methodological one. It pertains to conceptual and philosophical questions that are involved in the way the research in the discipline is carried out. Examples of methodological issues include the following: is the national interest of the state constitutive or regulatory, exogenous or endogenous? Is anarchy really what the states make of it? How plausible is the claim of Robert Gilpin that one can adopt realism as a methodological theory while adopting another normative view as he does? (Gilpin, Global Political Economy: Understanding the International Economic Order, p. 15)

Though students of the discipline are usually engrossed with the first kind of issues, it cannot be denied that the second affects the way how we view the former. In other words, substantive questions, including the ones stated above, also exemplify conceptual issues: What is ‘war’? What are the things that can be considered ‘contributory factors’? What constitute a ‘terrorist attack’? What is ‘terrorism’? What is ‘globalization’? What is the difference between ‘agent’ and ‘product’ of globalization? What are ‘political and economic motives’? What comprises ‘aggression’?

As far as methodological issues are concerned, two aspects usually come to the fore, viz. ontology and epistemology. Ontology is that branch of the philosophy of social science, which concerns with the nature of the social world. It is interested with the following question: Is there an objective reality ‘out there’ or is it a subjective creation of people? The extreme objectivist stance is essentially ‘naturalist’: the social world of international relations is basically a thing, an object, out there. (‘Naturalist’ in the sense that the natural and the social worlds are assumed to be the same and as such, the same types of instruments can be utilized to study them.) On the other end of the spectrum is the extreme subjectivist standpoint that is purely idealist: the social world of international relations is basically an idea or concept that people share about how they should organize themselves and relate to each other politically; it is constituted by language, ideas and concepts. (R. Jackson and G. Sorensen, Introduction to International Relations, p. 243) Thus, on the ontological axis we have subjectivism and objectivism.

As another branch of the philosophy of social science, epistemology pertains to the relation of our knowledge to that world. In other words, it is the study of how we can claim to know something: “how to know that we know what we know.” (O. Wæver, The Future of International Relations: Masters in the Making?, p. 16)

At one end of the continuum is the view of scientifically explaining the world. It is a matter of building a valid social science on a foundation of verifiable empirical propositions. In this light, IR theories are explanatory and foundational, i.e. the social world is external to the theory and the theory is based on a common and universally accepted platform. Besides, all truth claims can be judged true or false. The concern of the theory is to uncover regularities in human behavior and thereby explain the social world in much the same way a natural scientific theory does explain the physical world.

At the other end of the continuum is the idea of understanding the world. It concerns comprehension and interpretation of the substantive topic under consideration. Accordingly, historical, legal or moral problems of world politics cannot be translated into the terms of science without misunderstanding them. (Jackson and Sorensen, ibid.)

In this vein, IR theories are constitutive/reflective and anti-foundational, i.e. the theory actually helps construct the world and there is no universally recognized common denominator in which the theory can stand. The very concepts used to analyze the world help to make that world what it is. In addition, truth claims cannot be judged as such since there are never neutral grounds for so doing; each theory instead will define what counts as the facts and so there will be no neutral position available to determine between rival claims. Unlike the foundationalists who believe in the existence of meta-theoretical grounds for selecting between truth claims, the anti-foundationalists think that there are no such positions available, and that believing so is itself simply a reflection of an adherence to a particular view of epistemology. Hence, on the epistemological axis there are two types of classification, viz. foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. Corollary to this, IR theories are classified either as explanatory or constitutive/reflectivist.

Therefore, the social world or any social item (object/subject) such as international relations, world politics, or human rights occupies one of the following ontological-epistemological ‘box’: ontological subjectivism–epistemological foundationalism, ontological subjectivism- epistemological anti-foundationalism, ontological objectivism-epistemological foundationalism, and ontological objectivism-epistemological anti-foundationalism.

(Part 1 of 2)

 

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mansoor L. Limba, PhD in International Relations, is a writer, educator, blogger, chess trainer, 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, intra-faith and interfaith relations, cultural heritage, Islamic finance, jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (‘ilm al-kalam), Qur’anic sciences and exegesis (tafsir), hadith, ethics, and mysticism. He can be reached at mlimba@diplomats.com, or http://www.mlimba.com and http://www.muslimandmoney.com.]

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Retelling Tale of a Long Tunnel

Tunnel

This month of March brings a particular mirth and joy as we read in FB posts some friends finishing their graduate and post-graduate studies – not to mention the many graduation photos of FB friends’ elementary and high school kids.

With such feeling, I can’t help but retell my own tale of a long tunnel with the intention of sharing personal reflections and identifying moral lessons that may guide others before experiencing the same; hence, this marginalia…

Exactly within two years, I finished my master’s degree in International Relations at Shahid Beheshti University (formerly known as National University of Iran) located in northern Tehran.

During the oral defense for my thesis, one of my professors and members of the defense panel asked me to compare and contrast the impacts of a Middle Eastern political event, if there are any, upon a specific sociopolitical trend in Malaysia (a Muslim country whose official religion is Islam), Indonesia (a Muslim country without any recognized official religion), Thailand (a non-Muslim Buddhist-dominated country with considerable Muslim population in the capital and in the south), and the Philippines (a non-Muslim Christian-dominated country with considerable Muslim population in the south).

This question of Prof. Haji-Yousefi gave me an idea on what to write in my doctoral dissertation, and I really decided to deal on that topic. In fact, I had practically started gathering pertinent reading materials. After passing my two semesters of doctorate (2001) at Tehran University, however, I doubted if I could get any travel allowance to go to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to collect first-hand materials and conduct field interviews. Travel allowance for such purpose is not part of my scholarship grant, the concerned personnel of the Higher Education Ministry reminded me.

As such, I settled on pursuing a purely or largely library work for my dissertation. My keen interest at that time with post-positivist theories in International Relations seemingly augured well for this decision. The topics of my research papers in different courses illustriously expressed this personal interest in IR theories in general and post-positivist theories in particular: “Alexander Wendt vs. Kenneth Waltz: A Critique of Constructivist Theory’s Critique of Structural Realism;” “Human Rights in International Relations: A Methodological Survey;” “Iran vis-à-vis Other Regional and Non-Regional Players in the Post-Soviet Central Asia and the Transcaucasus: A Study of  Converging and Diverging Interests;” “The Globalizing Impact of Transnational Corporations (TNCs): The Case of Microsoft Corporation;” “Neorealist and Constructivist Accounts of Security Cooperation: A Comparative Analysis;” “Alexander Wendt and Kenneth Waltz on Power: A Comparative Study;” “Robert Gilpin’s Thought on International Political Economy: A Critique;” “Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism on Human Rights Norms: A Comparative Study;” and “The Principle of Self-Determination: Its Conceptual Shift in International Law.”

For the second time, I decided on what topic to deal with for my dissertation. This time I was determined to delve on the ongoing debate between Waltz’s 1979 magnum opus Theory of International Politics and Wendt’s 1999 major work Social Theory of International Politics that respectively represent structural realism and the positivist camp, on one hand, and social constructivism and the post-positivist camp, on the other. After taking up my two required courses in research methodology with an ultra-positivist and empiricist professor, however, I began to anticipate the difficulty for any post-positivist study such as mine to get approval from the septuagenarian professor who approves the methodological aspect of any thesis proposal submitted to the IR department. For this reason, even after taking and passing the required comprehensive examinations, I was hesitant to submit my dissertation proposal to the department.

As in previous years, I was able to buy approximately 100 book titles on various subjects at the 17th Tehran International Book Fair (May 4-14, 2004)—the biggest annual cultural event in Iran. A whole year of savings would make it possible to take this rare opportunity. Among this new collection of books, I first read An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari‘ati by a certain Ali Rahnema. Typographical errors of the book simply irritated my eyes which have been used then to proofreading voluminous books as part of my translation works at an international cultural institute. I then picked up Tim Jordan’s Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet (1999). Jordan approaches the discussion by highlighting what he calls “three levels or circuits” of power in the cyberspace, i.e. the power of the individual, the power of the social, and the power of the collective imagination or imaginary. He does so by adopting three concepts of power as his theoretical framework, viz. power as a possession by Max Weber, power as social order by Barry Barnes, and power as domination by Michel Foucault.

I finished reading this introductory book on the politics of the Internet in two days, without knowing then that it would catapult me to a final settlement of my dissertation topic but plunge me into a long dark tunnel of exploring a theory in sociology—and not IR—to account for a macro-phenomenon in the virtual world.

“Barry Barnes’ Theory of Power as Social Order: The Case of International Quds Day in the Cyberspace” is the tunnel.

Congratulations to all the graduates!

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