Home News IR Idea and The Ontological Depth of the Materials-Ideational Debate

IR Idea and The Ontological Depth of the Materials-Ideational Debate


The questions that prompted the writing of this essay might be rephrased as follows: Is there a job to ideational elements within the research of Worldwide Relations (IR)? In that case, is it potential to reconcile them with materials elements in explanations of worldwide politics? Being an advocate of theoretical pluralism, it was clear ab initio that I might be arguing for reconciliation whereas demonstrating the clear position of ideational elements in IR. However, the analysis accomplished as a way to present knowledgeable solutions to those questions, led me to conclude that an specific deal with to the ontological depth of the material-ideational debate may very well be probably useful to the research of IR.

The relevance of this type of metatheoretical evaluation is evident. First, no IR evaluation, or any theoretical evaluation for that matter, has ever been ‘ontologically impartial’ (Hay, 2013). Ontological assumptions, i.e., ‘specification[s] of the item beneath research’ (Dunne et al., 2013: 415) are implied and logically precede any principle, no matter whether or not we explicitly deal with them or not. Due to this fact, and since IR analyses and theories are not any exception, explicitly addressing the character and depth of its ontological assumptions is sure to be an insightful mental train.

What’s the world of worldwide politics really fabricated from? Is it bodily or materials? Is it ideational or summary? Is it each? Are adjustments in worldwide politics brought on by materials or ideational elements? These basic questions should not ‘finest left for the philosophers’ (Monteiro and Ruby, 2009: 19). They’re finest explicitly addressed and answered by IR students. Certainly, an a priori exposition of 1’s metatheoretical assumptions or ‘philosophical foundations’ (i.e., the ‘ontological and epistemological beginning factors for inquiry’ – Monteiro and Ruby, 2009: 25) can solely additional elucidate the theoretical place and arguments being put ahead.

The primary arguments of this essay might be logically summarized as follows: 1) Abstractions (information and concepts) are actual and the social world consists by a material-ideational entanglement, which means that 2) in explanations of social phenomena, the fabric and the ideational should not opposites nor discrete. Thus, 3) ideational elements should not solely related, however ontologically indispensable in explanations of worldwide politics, together with these claiming in any other case. 4) If each elements are inextricably linked in actuality and on the metatheoretical degree (ontological actuality), then there may be logically nothing to reconcile on the theoretical degree. There may be solely the popularity that the material-ideational dichotomy is misconceived, which 5) is the rationale behind the rise, usefulness and enhanced explanatory energy of pluralistic or eclectic approaches in IR.

Framing the controversy

In Worldwide Relations, the material-ideational debate revolves round figuring out which set of things supplies the premise for explanations of worldwide politics. But, this debate transcends (or precedes) the self-discipline of IR. Certainly, it plagues all social disciplines: whereas some argue for the position of historical past, economics and know-how, others argue for concepts, norms and identities (Raudino and Rendon, 2005). The explanation for that is easy: resulting from its foundational character, this metatheoretical debate is imported from the Philosophy of Science to different educational fields, and IR isn’t any exception. Foundations, on the ontological degree, ‘outline the sorts of issues that exist on this planet, which develop into the essential constructing blocks on which theories rely to elucidate phenomena’ (Monteiro and Ruby, 2009: 25).Certainly, as we will see, unrecognized and missed ontological assumptions on the foundational degree translate into ‘unrealistic analytical assumptions’ on the theoretical degree (Hay, 2013).

In mild of the above, I shall ontologically interact with the material-ideational debate specifically and extra typically try to show the worth and significance of explicitly addressing one’s philosophical foundations to the research of IR.

Basic concerns

The ‘essence of theorizing’ is, in line with Reus-Smit (2020: 54),‘using assumptions to make sense of complexity’. The self-discipline of IR, in flip, ‘offers with the most important and most complex social system potential’ (Lake, 2011: 467). Thus, it comes as no shock that the hunt to unravel such complexity has given rise to completely different theories with completely different units of assumptions. Typically taken as the principle unit of research in IR theories, are states – the principle actors on this planet of worldwide politics (Lake, 2008). In explaining state behaviour, IR theories are sometimes grouped into two classes: rationalist theories, which understand states as equally self-interested and goal-oriented actors; and constructivist theories, which understand states as distinct actors with differing pursuits, objectives and identities. Whereas rationalist theorists assume materials elements, akin to army and financial energy, as the principle motivators of state behaviour; constructivist theorists take ideational elements, akin to concepts and norms, as a substitute. Within the rationalist camp, neorealists like Mearsheimer (1995: 91) assume that ‘state behaviour is basically formed by the fabric structureof the worldwide system’, which signifies that the ‘distribution of fabric capabilities amongst states is the important thing issue for understanding world politics’. In distinction, from the standpoint of constructivists akin to Wendt (1999), concepts are vital as a way to outline the which means of fabric forces. Although they’re known as purely materials – ‘issues which exist and have sure powers impartial of concepts’ (94). Nonetheless, each camps appear to agree that each materials and ideational elements are related to the research of IR (Sørensen, 2008).

In abstract, there may be consensus in that each elements matter in explaining state behaviour, however rationalists isolate materials elements (army and financial energy) that allow states to outlive and thrive within the worldwide anarchy; and constructivists isolate summary ideational elements (concepts and norms) that allow states to fulfil their identities and pursue their very own socially constructed pursuits on the worldwide degree.

Positioning the essay

The place being put ahead on this essay is dialectical or dualist within the sense that it considers the social world (together with the world of worldwide politics) as being composed by each supplies (i.e., bodily objects) and abstractions (i.e., human information[1]), however idealist or constructivist within the sense that ideational elements have clear primacy over materials ones in explaining worldwide politics. In step with Wendt’s constructivist view, I preserve that although ‘materials forces should not constituted solely by social meanings’ (1999: 111), it’s on these meanings or ideational elements that we discover the determinant causal energy for explaining change within the social world. Put merely, human information and concepts are the important thing elements in explaining social phenomena, together with worldwide politics. Nonetheless, and in contradiction with many social constructivists, I defend that ideational elements and their causal energy exist independently of our conceptualization of them. That they’re substrate-independent[2], which is to say that information and concepts have the ‘intriguing capacity to tackle a lifetime of their very own that’s slightly impartial of their bodily substrate’ (Tegmark, 2017). And that their ‘causal mechanisms can exist independently of our information of them’ (McAnulla 2005, 32). Certainly, as Joseph (2007: 354) concludes in his case for scientific realism in IR, ‘maybe the reply to the query of the ontological standing of objects, concepts, relations and buildings is to say that they’re all actual’, that they ‘exist independently of our conceptualisation and have actual powers, liabilities and causal results’.

Ontological realism and the fact of abstractions. Following this thread, the philosophical foundations of this essay are thus in keeping with scientific realism. In essence, that is the concept actuality exists, and that information of it might probably exist too (Deutsch, 2011). Thus, it isn’t a purely constructivist view as a result of, as Wendt additionally concludes, ‘it can’t be concepts all the way in which down as a result of scientific realism exhibits that concepts are based mostly on and are regulated by an independently current bodily actuality’ (Wendt, 1999: 110). Ontological realism is, then, the popularity that ‘at the least part of actuality is ontologically impartial of human minds’ (Niiniluoto, 2002: 1). Logically, this interprets into 1) the pure world exists exterior and independently of human minds; 2) the latter relies on the previous; and three) the social world relies on each. Nonetheless, as alluded above, advanced materials techniques (human brains and computer systems) have causally impartial summary phenomena (concepts and software program applications, i.e., human information) instantiated in them. Certainly, as Deutsch (2011: 114) factors out ‘in case your laptop beats you at chess, it’s actually the program that has overwhelmed you, not the silicon atoms or the pc as such’. That is to say that materialism is correct within the sense that every part consists of or depending on matter, however incorrect in assuming that matter is the one actual and causal property on this planet. Information and abstractions – the by-products of human brains and computations, are actual; and, as I shall argue, this perception has profound implications to 1’s notion and understanding of the social world. Not least as a result of this intrinsic entanglement between the summary and the bodily, and thus between the ideational and the fabric, exposes using the time period ‘materials’ when referring to social phenomena as ill-conceived. Certainly, as many constructivists have concluded, on this planet of worldwide politics even elements or forces which are known as ‘materials’ have an summary or ideational element hooked up to it – their ‘social loading’ (Dessler, 1999).

Reductionism and Causality

Ontological reductionism. One of many core arguments of this essay is, then, that there isn’t any such factor as pure materials forces (i.e., bodily; atomic) in IR. That these forces, that are certainly related in explaining IR phenomena, should not merely ‘materials’ but in addition laden with which means. That with regards to the social world, and particularly to the macro-level of worldwide politics, there isn’t any avoiding information and concepts in its explanations – even when one claims in any other case. Human information is a power of nature able to reworking the world (Deutsch, 2011), and, resulting from its substrate independence, these transformations should not explicable by sole reference or discount into their materials constituents. As Deutsch (2011) cleverly demonstrates, even when we diminished Sir Winston Churchill’s statue to the copper atoms that compose it and have been one way or the other in a position to predict and describe their precise trajectory – from the copper mine to the sculptor’s studio, and so forth… – that may inform us nothing about why these copper atoms are there. Due to this fact, provided that causality within the social world is just not explicable by atoms or materials forces as such, however slightly by human information and concepts, we arrive on the idea of ontological individualism: ‘the view that human people are the only real, distinctive, and supreme constituents of social actuality to which all else is reducible’ (Hay, 2013: 2). In different phrases, with out people or, to be extra exact, human minds and the information they create, there could be no social world. Including to Jon Elster (1989: 13) ‘the elementary unit of social life is the person human motion’ and the elementary (or causally related) unit of human motion is human information.

Put logically into context, because of this: if explanations of human behaviour require reference to ideational elements (information and concepts), and if the elemental driver of state behaviour (or of every other worldwide actor) is human behaviour, then explanations of worldwide politics that solely discuss with materials/bodily elements (or at the least declare to) are misconceived and ontologically orthogonal to the fact they purport to elucidate.

Particular person-group and agent-structure relationships. Evidently, this isn’t to say that explanations of state behaviour lie on the particular person degree, as that may be akin to the ontological or materials reductionism being criticized above. On this case, the misunderstanding arises by disregarding the idea of ranges of emergence: ‘units of phenomena that may be defined nicely when it comes to one another with out analysing them into their constituent entities’ (Deutsch, 2011: 123). As Lake (2008: 45) explains, state behaviour can’t be diminished to the sum of its elements, as ‘no particular person or group essentially has direct curiosity within the systemically fascinating actions that states are known as upon to carry out’. It could actually thus be stated that the ‘group’, ‘complete’ or ‘home construction’ that’s the state, can’t be diminished to its constituent ‘people’, ‘elements’ or ‘brokers’ which are human minds. But, as Hay (2013: 12) notes, ‘dismantle the entire and we’re left with the elements and “not them and a few mysterious property which previously held the entire thing collectively” (Ryan 1970, 181)’. Certainly, this ‘mysterious property’ is just not mysterious in any respect. It’s information. Human information and concepts that, not not like genes[3], unfold by means of human interplay and communication (verbal, written or in any other case). Given the substrate independence of data, bodily instantiations of it should not solely in brains but in addition computer systems, official and unofficial institutional paperwork, books, and so forth. And, so long as human interplay and communication subsists, the emergent social buildings of shared information shall persist as nicely. Relating to the agency-structure drawback, this suggests that construction has no impartial causal powers. That ‘brokers and interplay are important to the causal powers of construction; [and] to suppose in any other case is like pondering the thoughts exists or has results aside from the mind.’ (Wendt, 1999: 146). Lastly, it have to be emphasised that greater than a fabric construction, the worldwide system is a construction of shared information. And that solely by taking the ‘shared’ element away, would the construction collapse into one thing that might (arguably) be thought-about strictly in materials phrases.

The social world can thus be regarded as the pure world was the ‘playground’ or ‘testing floor’ of human information and concepts, which is the causality behind materials transformations enacted by people. Due to this fact, explanations of fabric adjustments within the construction of the worldwide system lie not within the materials construction itself, however within the construction of shared information that lies beneath. Furthermore, there may be nothing in a given attribute of the fabric construction of the worldwide system that presents an advert eternum inevitable constraint to information creation and human progress[4]. Certainly, as Wendt (1995: 78) famously famous: ‘An anarchy of mates differs from considered one of enemies, considered one of self-help from considered one of collective safety, and these are all constituted by buildings of shared information’. Evidently, as a result of the social world is bodily instantiated within the pure world, any vital change to the latter shall not directly have an effect on the previous. A easy instance could be a pure catastrophe, which by straight affecting the territories of some states, not directly impacts the shared information construction of the entire worldwide system (e.g., by triggering different states to make donations)[5]. However, then once more, to elucidate any occasion of state behaviour (together with a donation in response to a pure catastrophe) reference to its (ideational) causality is required.

Examples in Worldwide Politics

Canada/Cuba. Illustrative of the issues recognized above is the ‘paradoxical’ distinction in U.S.’s perceptions of, and actions towards, Canada and Cuba. Certainly, as Reus-Smit (2020: 62) factors out ‘to the north of the US lies Canada, a wealthy center energy with vital army capacities, and to the south lies Cuba, a tiny impoverished creating state. But the US has lengthy seen Cuba as a dire enemy.’ Evidently, by the neorealist’s logic of distribution and stability of fabric capabilities, this phenomenon is absurd and inexplicable. That is exactly because of the ontological assumption that the world of worldwide politics ‘might be talked about irrespective of values, causes or ideological elements’ (Joseph, 2007: 348). Certainly, by counting on an ontological fallacy that reduces and considers causality in worldwide politics as materials, neorealism confines itself ab initio right into a misconceived understanding and notion of the fact it purports to elucidate. An ontological realist, nonetheless, is ready to perceive this phenomenon. Certainly, no matter materials capabilities, a threatening notion of Cuban missiles, tanks and all different supplies that compose its army energy is created by the information and meanings that the U.S. holds and attaches to Cuba itself. In distinction, and regardless of its considerably superior army energy, an unthreatening notion of Canada is created. Thus, what creates these perceptions is the information the U.S. has; and what explains U.S. behaviour is just not the variety of missiles and tanks, however the meanings hooked up to them. Lastly, as argued above, it’s apparent that materials change not directly impacts its related meanings, nevertheless it doesn’t decide them, nor does it make them predictable. Even when each Canada and Cuba instantly elevated their army energy by 50%, the reason of how the U.S. would understand and act upon these materials adjustments would nonetheless mirror the aforementioned logic.

In impact, this exposes the ontologically mistaken ‘materialistic’ and oversimplified world view espoused by neorealism, which is rooted on the false and illusory concept that the fabric and the ideational are dichotomous and removable elements in explanations of worldwide politics. Nonetheless, and regardless of this ontological fallacy, the clear explanatory energy that rationalist theories maintain on many analyses of worldwide politics deserves consideration. Certainly, typically states act like rational actors in a survival recreation; typically they act on what might be stated to be their very own utilitarian self-interest and, after they do, it makes good sense to make use of rationalist explanations. Nonetheless, to suppose and declare to have discovered a hard and fast and inevitable sample of state behaviour and/or a legislation of the fabric construction of the worldwide system that one way or the other allows IR students to foretell and clarify the way forward for worldwide politics, is to be fully mistaken concerning the very nature of the social world. Sarcastically, in a wonderful critique of the privileging of ‘simplistic speculation testing’ in detriment of principle in IR, Mearsheimer and Walt (2013: 434), each proponents of neorealism, rightfully argue that ‘theories will produce sound hypotheses and helpful explanations provided that their parts precisely mirror the actual world’ – together with the ‘unobservable’ within the principle’s ‘causal story’. This suggests {that a} principle’s underpinning assumptions, together with ontological ones, should even be (or, at the least, suggest to be) correct reflections of actuality. And thus, regardless of title similarity, their theoretical standpoint within the research of IR (neorealism) is contradictory and ontologically incompatible with their philosophical standpoint (scientific realism). However, certainly, as Hay (2013: 12) factors out, ‘rational selection theorists appear ready to simply accept the ontological irrealism of rational selection assumptions, defending such premises when it comes to their analytical utility not their correspondence to an exterior actuality’.

Nonetheless, the sheer variety of inexplicable phenomena (exemplified above) and of failed predictions (exemplified beneath), ought to suffice to point that rationalist assumptions have clear limitations in analyses of worldwide politics. And this recognition is, I argue, a part of what explains the rise of pluralism and eclecticism in IR.

NATO’s Publish-Chilly Struggle trajectory. Maybe the quintessential instance of a failed prediction in IR was NATO’s post-Chilly Struggle trajectory, which has been the topic of many (unsurprisingly pluralistic) IR analyses.[6] Within the early 1990’s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent, the standard knowledge in IR relating to NATO’s future was fairly pessimistic. Neorealists specifically, predicted that NATO would lose its function and dissolve or, as Kenneth Waltz famously asserted, stay in existence however solely on paper. Certainly, some students even went so far as arguing that European states would begin ‘balancing’ towards the U.S. The premise for these predictions was alliance principle, which posits that alliances are ‘fashioned as a stability towards energy or exterior threats, and when energy shifts or threats disappear, so too do the explanations for alliances’ (Rauchhaus, 2000: 11). Logical as this will appear, its prediction was in full opposition to the fact that unfolded. Certainly, for the reason that finish of the Chilly Struggle, NATO has not solely survived but in addition thrived in lots of respects (Duffield, 2018). Unsurprisingly, the reason of this failure lies within the ontological limitations of neorealist thought. By myopically specializing in the ‘materials’ capabilities of states and their shifts within the worldwide construction, neorealists see NATO as a mere cluster of states that have been inevitably introduced collectively by the construction by which they’re instantiated in.

Constructivists, then again, place their emphasis on the promotion of transatlantic values (democracy, capitalism, and so forth.); on the instructing of norms and the way they form state preferences. Due to this fact, as Rauchhaus (2000: 17) concludes, ‘constructivists could be the least stunned by NATO’s post-Chilly Struggle success’, as they take into consideration not solely NATO’s organizational attributes, but in addition the truth that it’s nested in a transatlantic safety group. Thus, by explicitly emphasizing ideational elements, constructivism takes an ontological place that higher displays the world of worldwide politics, enabling it to transcend ‘materials’ elements and obtain additional explanatory energy. Certainly, ‘if we’re to know path-shaping institutional change we should acknowledge the impartial causal and constitutive position of concepts’ (Marsh, 2009: 684). In impact, that is demonstrated by Gheciu’s (2005) evaluation of NATO’s post-Chilly Struggle enlargement the place she rightfully concludes that, opposite to any rationalist logic, NATO’s post-Chilly Struggle trajectory was a ‘advanced technique of projecting liberal democratic norms – thus extending the Western group – into Central and Japanese Europe’ (232). In different phrases, the unfold of (good) concepts and alter in buildings of shared information.


Within the mild of the above, the principle argument of this essay is that ideational elements don’t merely matter in explanations of worldwide politics – they’re basic to them. The reason of causality and alter within the social world is within the information and concepts that convey them about, not within the supplies the place they’re bodily instantiated in (vide chess program instance), not within the supplies affected by them (vide Churchill’s statue instance), and never within the supplies that they discuss with (vide Canada/Cuba instance). Due to this fact, although explanations of worldwide politics naturally discuss with observable materials elements, their explanatory energy and the causal story they inform are primordially about ideational elements (vide NATO instance).

The observable materials floor evidently supplies vital cues for us to moderately conjecture what is going on and, maybe extra importantly, to rule out what is just not occurring within the unobservable summary depth. However to cut back the latter to inevitable patterns of utilitarian behaviour, and to attribute the causal energy of social phenomena to the construction of the previous, is to grossly oversimplify the complexity, significance and inventive nature of human beings and their social world. The results of this dire view is, as Finnemore and Sikkink (1998: 917) level out, ‘politics with out ardour or ideas, which is hardly the politics of the world by which we dwell’. Certainly, and thankfully, empirical analysis on norms has proven repeatedly how folks’s concepts on what ought to be develop into an is in political actuality (Finnemore and Sikking, 1998).

The Ontological Case for Theoretical Pluralism

In arguing that materials assumptions in IR theories are, in actual fact, ‘materials’ this essay additionally meant to convey forth an vital level on the rise of eclecticism in IR. Certainly, it’s no coincidence that theoretical pluralism is a useful asset to IR analyses, and that each rationalist and constructivist approaches have explanatory energy even when referring to the identical phenomena in numerous methods. NATO, as an illustration, might be conceptualized in three other ways: as an alliance, as an establishment and as a group, which, in flip, is respectively related to neorealism, neoliberalism and constructivism (Webber, 2012: 9). Hyde-Worth (2016: 31) concludes that it is because NATO, ‘just like the worldwide system inside which it’s embedded, is stratified into varied layers and domains that require completely different ideas, assumptions and ideas of clarification’. In impact, this attributes the compatibility between completely different theories to the complexity of the worldwide system. And to say that the item beneath research is advanced, means, theoretically talking, ontological complexity. It follows then that the compatibility between IR theories lies on the ontological degree. That regardless of having completely different units of assumptions, IR theories are ontologically appropriate. But, if rationalists isolate materials elements and constructivists isolate ideational elements, how are they ontologically appropriate? The frequent reply is that each are proper. That the complexity of the worldwide system is such that to elucidate its phenomena one requires two basic causal powers (materials and ideational). However I argue in any other case.

As a substitute of arguing that each are proper, I argue that solely constructivists are proper in what they explicitly say. I argue that the worldwide system is explicable by reference to 1 basic causal energy alone (ideational), and that regardless of labelling it as ‘materials’ rationalists additionally discuss with it. What occurs is that rationalists implicitly personify and endow supplies with powers that may solely be attributed to human information, however then explicitly discuss with them as in the event that they have been purely materials.

Thus, albeit implicitly and explicitly, each rationalists and constructivists are referring to ideational elements to elucidate change in worldwide politics. The supply of causality – human information – is similar. Due to this fact, nothing is inevitable or unchangeable on this planet of worldwide politics (together with its construction). Certainly, the one legal guidelines relevant to each supplies and information are the legal guidelines of physics. And the legal guidelines of physics inform us nothing concerning the anarchical construction of the worldwide system.

Due to this fact, the compatibility and complementarity of IR theories; the rise and analytical superiority of theoretical pluralism; and the truth that ‘the dictates of realism’ (Mearsheimer, 1995: 337) solely work typically, is all explicable by the ontological assumption that IR theories and explanations inevitably discuss with the identical unpredictable supply of causality – human information.

In conclusion, ‘materials’ and ideational elements should not reconcilable in IR principle as a result of there may be nothing to be reconciled within the first place. It’s the alleged dichotomy itself that’s irreconcilable with the ontological actuality of worldwide politics. Due to this fact, ‘reconciliation’ comes not on the theoretical degree, however on the metatheoretical degree by adopting ontological realism and understanding that materials elements in IR are ‘materials’. Solely then, given the unpredictable and complicated ontological nature of IR phenomena, comes the cheap conclusion that IR theories is superior to IR principle. For there isn’t any technique to predict which principle shall be helpful subsequent.


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[1]Concepts and norms = Human information.

[2]Coined by Alan Turing who proved the substrate-independence of computations, this intriguing idea has been utilized to aware processes (Tegmark, 2017) and to information (Deutsch, 2011).

[3] This concept of perceiving the unfold of concepts (‘memes’) as akin to the unfold of genes by means of processes of variation and choice was made well-known by Richard Dawkins in his e-book ‘The Egocentric Gene’.

[4] As Deutsch (2011) factors out, information creation is sure solely by the legal guidelines of physics.

[5] This additionally serves for example of how shared information buildings transcend territorial and materials boundaries.

[6] As an example, Barany and Rauchhaus (2011), Webber (2012) and Hyde-Worth (2016).

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