In What is at Stake in Building ‘Non-Western’ International Relations Theory?, Yong-Soo Eun offers a normative framework for broadening methodological and epistemological domains in the discipline of International Relations (IR). This insightful book seeks to stimulate a wider debate among IR scholars regarding the engagement of non-Western methodologies and the development of theories beyond the hegemony of the positivist paradigm. Faies Jafar recommends this book to scholars interested in exploring a wider methodological and epistemological scope in IR-related areas of study.
What is at Stake in Building ‘Non-Western’ International Relations Theory? Yong-Soo Eun. Routledge. 2018.
International Relations (IR) theory is often perceived from Western perspectives. This ‘Western perspective’ is characterised as placing major emphasis on scientific methods to explain a phenomenon. More specifically, it adopts positivism to determine methodological choices and articulate epistemological assumptions, determining how IR phenomena are understood. This issue has also become a governing ontology, motivating scholars to focus their normative criticisms on broadening the methodological and epistemological scopes of IR beyond the dominance of the Western/positivist paradigm (5). This criticism is normative because it argues for the need for a global response to Western/non-Western divides by pluralising and diversifying the engaged methodologies (6). It calls for the inclusion of non-state actors as important variables in the analysis and, more importantly, the need for shared empathy – so-called reflexive and collective solidarity – among scholars from different regions of the world.
Supported by statistics, in What is at Stake in Building ‘Non-Western’ International Relations Theory? author Yong-Soo Eun successfully substantiates the positivist/Western methodologies deeply embedded in IR studies. The emergence of different methodologies in the last four decades seemingly lacked the ability to bridge gaps between diverse post-positivist theoretical platforms and their practice. The main implications of such ontology are not only the consolidation of Western notions in IR and the dominance of positivism, but also increased dogma and a tendency towards institutionalising them. Therefore, alternatives beyond those normative suggestions may include methodologies specifically designed to incorporate indigenous knowledge based on region, ethnic groups and cultures.
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The author’s invitation to be region-specific in constructing IR theory seems problematic. His argument is based on the fact that different regions have different material and ideational characteristics which play key roles in shaping the understanding of scholars. These are certainly important factors influencing the epistemology of studies that differentiate them from those in other regions. However, the author needed to explain how regional attributes may play a role in inventing, exploiting or exploring new methodologies. The regional attributes are merely units/subunits of analysis that can be engaged through different research methods and methodologies.
In addition, Yong-Soo regularly identifies constructivism, which is a theoretically informed platform, as frequently part of the list of Western mainstream theories. This particular point deserves extra attention. The associated methodologies may not necessarily follow scientific approaches, and if ideation as a social construct can offer a framework for South Asian IR scholars, as the author suggests (73), then an epistemological question arises as to what are those differences between Western IR theories and those of South Asia?
The invitation to collective solidarity and self-reflexivity does not prevent the book from clearly laying out those objective/structural constraints that may hinder current and future attempts to go beyond Westernised IR theories. These constraints include the challenge of peer reviewers in scholarly journals; the necessity of learning new approaches; and, most importantly, critical self-reflection to motivate and encourage the inclusion of different disciplines in IR (91). The latter is highly important since the dogmatic position of adopting positivism in IR creates structural barriers and a governing behaviour that restricts possible opportunities to publish papers that encompass unique approaches.
Self-reflexivity as a normative project no doubt will face a ‘Semmelweis reflex’. John Mearsheimer’s insistence on American-centric IR (8) as a ‘benign hegemony’ and Gerard Van Der Ree’s claim of the serious problematic of plurality in IR (8), among the work of other scholars, may reflect resistance to new approaches that contradict shared beliefs and norms among intellectuals and scholars. This indeed may promote sameness and results in a reproduction of intellectuals rather than theory development (51).
In Yong-Soo’s view, part of this problem may be related to the failure of post-positivism in terms of clarity, the absence of epistemological synthesis, the provision of no alternative scientific approach to positivism (41) and being confined by meta-theoretical discourses (61). To overcome these and other potential areas of failure within the IR post-positivist paradigm, the engagement of other disciplines can be an important step (91). However, it is evident from IR literature that IR studies are already multi- and interdisciplinary in nature. As such, the reliance on neoclassical theories of economy, sociology and even cognitive theories is at its base, not its exclusion. What might be fruitful in this regard is deepening the engagement of disciplines that might seem remote from the norms of IR studies – for instance, biology (system evolution), complexity science, chaos and psychology among others – in the construction of theoretical and conceptual frameworks. This is not going to be without its challenges, since it necessitates the importation and engagement of fields and subfields that might be very far from the scholar’s disciplinary background.
What Is at Stake in Building ‘Non-Western’ International Relations Theory? is not only well-written, but also carefully conceptualised and intellectualised. The book engages the reader to reconfigure IR theories in terms of their epistemological and methodological underpinnings. Favouring these, the author placed less emphasis on controversial issues in IR, such as the theory position on subjective/objective realities. These issues play important differentiating roles between post-positivists and positivists and within the post-positivist paradigm itself. They form an integral part of theory formation apart from its epistemology and methodology and help to adopt/import many methodologies from different disciplines, as Yong-Soo anticipates (88).
Faies Jafar is currently a senior Instructor at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, Project Management and Civil Infrastructure Systems Group. He is also is a PhD candidate at the Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad. His areas of interests are international relations theory, small states behaviour, political psychology, foreign policy analysis and Middle East politics.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.