March of Intellect“March of Intellect” by William Heath, c.1828. © Trustees of the British Museum.


Classisists versus Scientists in International Relations Theory

Last week, we discussed the First Great Debate—realists versus liberals. Today, we’ll discuss the Second Great Debate—classicists versus positivists. Again, these words are IR terms of art; they’re not used in their colloquial sense.

In the 1960s, a methodological debate erupted among academic IR scholars about the proper tools for the study of international relations. On one side were the positivists—also termed scientists or behavioralists—who held that academic IR was excessively dominated by historians, whom they termed classicists or traditionalists.[1]Positivism is a term due to the French intellectual August Comte, also credited with the term “sociology.” Positivism is not synonymous with empiricism; the positivist relies upon empirical … Continue reading Indeed, the first generation of IR scholars was dominated by historians, along with diplomats, lawyers, and journalists.

Particularly in the United States, however, a newer generation of academics trained in economics, political science, and even mathematics sought to advance the discipline of IR through the application of the methods of the natural sciences—particularly, through the use of quantitative methods to develop and test models. Claims about causality in international relations, they argued, were empty without the rigor of the scientific method.

And what is that method? In principle, it’s the one we all learned about in junior high school: First, we observe the system. Then we use formal modeling to develop theoretical propositions. We define and measure our variables. We subject our hypothesis to empirical testing. If the experiment falsifies our hypothesis, we abandon it. If it confirms our hypothesis, we replicate it. Whether this is in reality how the natural sciences proceed is debatable, but certainly, this is how they proceed in principle.

Ultimately, the positivists hoped, their models could be sufficiently refined to provide a comprehensive general theory of international relations. William Riker, who popularized the use of game theory in the study of political behavior, was a notable advocate of quantitative methods. So was the British statistician Lewis Fry Richardson, who pioneered modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting, then applied similar methods to study the inception of war. (His conclusions were striking and counterintuitive: He found that no conflict’s size can be predicted beforehand—indeed, it is impossible to give an upper limit to the series—nor can their outbreak be predicted, for the series follows a Poisson distribution.)

In 1966, Hedley Bull, speaking for the classicists, took on the positivists in a scathing (and really quite funny) article titled, International Theory: The Case for a Classical Approach. It will take you ten minutes to read, and it will be the best thing you’ve read all day. He argued that international politics simply were not amenable to any precise description of variables and their quantification. The scientific method, he wrote, “has contributed very little to the study of international relations, and in so far as it is likely to encroach upon and ultimately displace the classical approach, it is positively harmful.” He likened the new passion for such methods to a cargo cult.

“[L]ike the logical positivists when they sought to appropriate English philosophy in the 1930s,” he added,

or like McNamara’s Whiz Kids when they moved into the Pentagon, [the positivists] see themselves as tough-minded and expert new men, taking over an effete and wooly discipline, or pseudo-discipline, which has so far managed by some strange quirk to evade the scientific method but has always been bound to succumb to it in the end.

Not so fast, said Bull. It won’t happen. The analysis of international relations is necessarily interpretive. You can’t go in there without a trained historian, and preferably one with an elegant prose style.

In abstaining from what Morton Kaplan calls “intuitive guesses” or what William Riker calls “wisdom literature” they are committing themselves to a course of intellectual puritanism that keeps them (or would keep them if they really committed to it) as remote from the substance of international politics as the inmates of a Victorian nunnery were from the study of sex.

Bull argued instead for an approach based on philosophy, law, and history—one that took perceptions and intuitions seriously, and embraced moral judgment. “If we confine ourselves to strict standards of verification and proof,” Bull wrote, “there would be very little of significance that can be said about international relations.’’

Several months later, the most prominent champion of the positivist view, Morton Kaplan, published a rebuttal in the same journal in an article titled, “The New Great Debate: Traditionalism vs. Science in International Relations.” Kaplan argued that the classicists were, in fact, saying little of significance. The IR literature, he wrote, was “a great mass of detail to which absurdly broad and often unfalsifiable generalizations are applied.” The same generalizations were “applied indiscriminately over enormous stretches of time and space” and “sufficiently loosely stated so that almost no event can be inconsistent with them.”

A theory that isn’t falsifiable is no theory at all, he averred. It’s just a subjective intuition or a sensibility, and as such no better than anyone else’s. “Having read the criticisms of the traditionalists,” he quivered righteously,

I am convinced that they understand neither the simpler assertions nor the more sophisticated techniques employed by the advocates of the newer methods. They have not helped to clarify the important issues in methodology; they have confused them. The traditionalists have ac­cused those writers who advocate modern scientific approaches of using deterministic models despite explicit statements by those writers to the contrary. The traditionalists mistake explicitly heuristic models for dogmatic assertions. They mistake assertions about deductions within the framework of a model for statements about the open world of history. …

The traditionalists are often quite intelligent and witty people. Why then do they make such gross mistakes?

Read both articles, if you have the time; it’s a wonderful exchange that calls to mind Henry Kissinger’s dictum that academic debates are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

The debate continued. David Singer published “The Incompleat Theorist: Insight without Evidence.” Those offering insight without evidence, in his view, were the classicists. He called for testing any theoretical claim that its advocates believed to be generally applicable by means of the systematic collection of evidence.

The strict application of these standards, the classicists retorted, would mean excluding from analysis variables that are manifestly of massive significance but impossible to measure. Culture. Human emotions. Motivations. It would also exclude the development of prescriptive theories of international relations, since you can’t test what ought to be. The positivists, argued the classicists, were unable to grasp the main thing—the social and human aspects of relations among states.

Owing to the spectacular success of the scientific method in the hard sciences and the prestige those sciences acquired as a consequence, positivism came to dominate the academy. The prospect of funding offered a further incentive to portray academic IR as scientific, rather than impressionistic. Government agencies and private foundations were eager to support science in the service of the national interest. History? Not so much. Before the debate, most articles in major IR journals reflected historicist methods; since then, it has become growingly difficult to publish an article that isn’t embellished with a mathematical formula. (And the mathematics, I should add, is often no more than an embellishment.)

Supporters of the classical approach, still bitter, argue that positivism has won simply by virtue of asserting itself as scientific. Scientific inquiry is fine, they allow, but IR theory must integrate historicist methods if it’s to account for anything that truly matters to us.

Other methodological quarrels ensue from this debate. How useful, for example, is a case study? Must students of International Relations master Bayesian statistics, hierarchical modeling, spatial econometrics, network analysis? Should they learn to do interviewing and fieldwork and run focus groups? Or should they do archival research and study comparative history?

I will surprise no one who knows me when I say, “The latter.”[2]I advise anyone who asks me, in fact, that they should stay well away from the department of International Relations and conduct their research in the Faculty of Modern History, instead. Or Area … Continue reading

Nonetheless, some of the positivist claims are useful. In particular, the insistence that any theory of International Relations must be falsifiable is just common sense—yet very rarely, outside of IR graduate seminars, do people subject their intuitions about the way states behave to this kind of scrutiny.

Thus, again, we return to our original question. If you have a theory about why Russia invaded Ukraine, is your theory amenable to being falsified?

Claire Berlinski is the editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.


1 Positivism is a term due to the French intellectual August Comte, also credited with the term “sociology.” Positivism is not synonymous with empiricism; the positivist relies upon empirical data, but the larger positivist claim is that we can produce and test theories—often by means of statistical tools—in the social studies, and in this way draw conclusions that are not subjective. This in turn will allow us to formulate objective theories of human and social behavior, and even laws.
2 I advise anyone who asks me, in fact, that they should stay well away from the department of International Relations and conduct their research in the Faculty of Modern History, instead. Or Area Studies.

Be the first to comment on "THE SECOND GREAT DEBATE"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.