What’s Killing the Study of International Relations

January 4, 2013
By Jenny Li Fowler, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

When it comes to international relations (IR), Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Stephen Walt would suggest less testing and more conceiving. Walt and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago believe “downgrading theory and elevating hypothesis testing is a mistake,” when it comes to IR. The authors even call it “the road to ruin” in their working paper, “Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR.”

IR has long been a study shaped by “isms.” The authors point out that realism and liberalism still comprise of more than 40 percent of all introductory IR courses among U.S. universities and colleges. But rather than developing or carefully employing theories, IR is following a trend among the academic world – emphasizing what the authors call simplistic hypothesis testing.

“Theory usually plays a minor role in this enterprise, with most of the effort devoted to collecting data and testing empirical hypotheses,” write Walt and Mearsheimer. “Our bottom line: deemphasizing theory and privileging hypothesis testing is not the best way to gain new knowledge about international politics. Although both activities are important to scholarly progress, the current overemphasis on hypothesis testing should be reversed and greater attention devoted to the more fundamental role of theory.”

What could happen if the study continues down this path? The authors argue IR scholarship would become less relevant for debates in the policy world.

What can be done to reverse this trend? The authors advocate a shift within the academic discipline. “Emphasizing quality over quantity in a scholar’s portfolio might help. If faculty understood that hiring and promotion depended on evaluating only three or four publications, they might focus on producing scholarship of greater significance instead of maximizing the total number of peer-reviewed articles.”

Without the foundation of good theories the findings are a house of cards.

Walt presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies. He also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press, and was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005.

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Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs

“Our bottom line: deemphasizing theory and privileging hypothesis testing is not the best way to gain new knowledge about international politics," write the authors.