Millennium Reflections on International Studies

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Project Description

The number and size of subfields and sections has grown steadily since the ISA was founded in 1959. This diversity, while enriching, has made increasingly difficult the crucial task of identifying intra-subfield, let along inter-subfield, consensus about important theoretical and empirical insights. Aside from focusing on a cluster of shared research questions related, for example, to globalization, gender and international relations, political economy, international institutions, development, democracy and peace, foreign and security policy, etc., there are still few clear signs of cumulation. If the maturity of an academic discipline is based not only on its capacity to expand, but also on its capacity to select, the lack of agreement within these communities is particularly disquieting. Realists, for instance, cannot fully agree on their paradigm's core assumptions, central postulates or the lessons learned from empirical research. Similarly, feminist epistemologies encompass an array of research programs and findings that are not easily grouped into a common set of beliefs, theories or conclusions. If those who share common interests and perspectives have difficulty agreeing on what they have accomplished to date, or do not concern themselves with the question of what has been achieved so far, how can they establish clear targets to facilitate creative dialogue across these diverse perspectives and subfields?

As a community of scholars, we are rarely challenged to address the larger question of "progress" (however one chooses to define the term), perhaps because there is so little agreement on the methods and standards we should use to identify and integrate important findings. In their theme statement for the 2000 ISA conference, Michael Brecher (ISA President) and Frank P. Harvey (program chair) challenged proponents of specific paradigms, theories, approaches and substantive issue-areas to confront their own limitations. Since the ISA 2000 convention in Los Angeles offered an excellent opportunity to explore the theoretical, methodological and epistemological credentials and prospects of International Studies, we asked fifty senior scholars to engage in self-critical, state-of-the-art 'reflection' to stimulate debates about successes and failures, and to do so by avoiding the tendency to define accomplishments with reference to the failures and weaknesses of other perspectives. Participants on the ten millennium reflection panels were asked to focus on six thematic issues/questions:

  1. engage in self-critical, state-of-the-art reflection on accomplishments and failures, especially since the creation of the ISA over 40 years ago;
  2. assess where we stand on unresolved debates and why we have failed to resolve them;
  3. evaluate the intra-subfield standards we should use to assess the significance of theoretical insights;
  4. explore ways to achieve fruitful synthesis of approaches, both in terms of core research questions and appropriate methodologies;
  5. address the broader question of progress in International Studies; and/or
  6. select an agenda of topics and research questions that should guide the sub-field during the coming decades.

Participants prepared brief written summaries of their comments which were combined and forwarded to other panelists. After the conference, contributors were asked to expand on their ISA think-piece. These revised papers were combined with other contributions from an expanded list of participants who expressed an interest in the project. All of the papers address, in one form or another, one or more of the six theme topics.

Our call to assess the "state-of-the-art" of International Studies was not meant as a reaffirmation of the standard proposition that a rigorous process of theoretical cumulation is both possible and necessary. Not all perspectives and subfields of International Studies are directed to accomplishing cumulation in this sense. Some participants found the use of words like 'synthesis' and 'progress' suspect, declaring in their original papers that they could not, or were not prepared to, address these social science-type questions. We nevertheless encouraged these individuals to define what they considered to be fair measures of success/failure in regard to their subfield, and asked them to assess, in their revised papers, the extent to which core objectives (whatever they may be) have or have not been met, and why. We include here a selection of quotes and abstracts from several contributions to the volume.

Readers will no doubt derive different conclusions from the various contributions. Some will observe that divisions within and across subfields of International Studies are so entrenched that constructive dialogue is virtually impossible. Others will conclude that there is much more consensus than might have been imagined. In either case, the need for self-critical assessment among scholars of International Studies is imperative as we enter the next millennium.

Michael Brecher
McGill University

Frank Harvey
Dalhousie University

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