Posts Tagged With: post-positivism

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).


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.


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.


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Retelling Tale of a Long 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!

Categories: Education, International Relations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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