A Sociological Analysis of the Decline of American IR Theory
In recent years the centrality of grand, paradigmatic theory in American IR has eroded, with the vacuum being filled by largely atheoretical “hypothesis-testing” research. Although a heated debate has emerged on whether it is good or bad for IR, hardly anyone has tried to analyze this trend. I offer an analysis grounded in a conceptual framework elaborated by sociologist Richard Whitley. In the 1980s and 1990s IR approximated the type of social organization Whitley labeled “polycentric oligarchy”—a hierarchic structure dominated by leaders of competing schools, toward which scholars orient their research. In recent years the field has become more of a “fragmented adhocracy.” Its reputational hierarchy has become more fluid and, concomitantly, its intellectual output has become more fragmented, more empirical, and less oriented toward a theoretical center. To account for this change, I discuss three external forces that reduce American IR's “reputational autonomy”: the corporatization of American higher education; a surge in the availability of research funding from the Pentagon and other defense agencies; and the enduring embeddedness of American IR in the political science discipline. To strengthen my argument, I compare American IR to its Australian counterpart on these three dimensions.