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Theoreticians' obligation of transparency: when parsimony, reflexivity, transparency and reciprocity meet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2010


One way to describe the role of the social sciences (international relations included) is by relating to its function of rendering the social world transparent. This is a major conception of moral significance. The social world is a world of moral subjects. To render this world of moral subjects transparent involves exposing the inner states of the human mind. Moreover, according to the moral principle of reciprocity, those who make others transparent should be also transparent themselves. Furthermore, as facts do not order themselves objectively into parsimonious theory, the social scientist requires an extra-theoretical mechanism to classify and filter out data on the way to constructing theory. This extra-mechanism comprises the scientist's a priori assumptions of normative, ontological, and epistemological types: a priori assumptions that constitute the inner states of the theoretician's mind and necessarily precede theory. It is argued here that according to the moral and social principle of reciprocity, theoreticians have an individual and communal moral obligation to ensure that theory and theorising are transparent; an obligation attainable and preceded by strong individual and communal reflexivity. The extra-theoretical mechanism, and especially the ideological inclinations and normative convictions of theoreticians that allows parsimonious theory to be constructed from unbounded social complexity, should be made visible to the public.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2010

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1 See also autoethnography, Preez, Jan du, ‘Locating the Researcher in the Research: Personal Narrative and Reflective Practice’, Reflective Practice, 9 (2008), pp. 509519Google Scholar . Neo-pragmatism also seeks to locate knowledge in a particular perspective, see Baert, Patrick, Philosophy of the Social Sciences: Towards Pragmatism (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 136, 153154Google Scholar .

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3 Ibid., p. 405.

4 Ersel, Aydinli and Rosenau, James N., ‘Courage Versus Caution: A Dialogue on Entering and Prospering in IR’, International Studies Review, 6 (2004), pp. 511526Google Scholar . As will become clear below, I think Rosenau's position, while laudable, is too naïve in its expectations that theoreticians be fully aware of the assumptions, commitments, and convictions that inform their theories.

5 Standpoint theory, embraced mainly by feminist epistemologists, claims that all knowledge is situated. Standpoint theory is historically predisposed towards materialist analysis according to which standpoints are determined by the position of the knower in the social hierarchy and his or her corresponding social commitments. See, Potter, Elizabeth, Feminism and Philosophy of Science: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 131132Google Scholar ; Smith, Dorothy E., ‘Women's Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology’, in Harding, Sandra G. (ed.), Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 91Google Scholar ; Hawkesworth, Mary E., ‘Knowers, Knowing, Known: Feminist Theory and Claims of Truth’, in Laslett, Barbara, Kohlstedt, Sally G., Longino, Helen and Hammonds, Evelynn (eds), Gender and Scientific Authority (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 78Google Scholar ; Barbara Laslett, Sally G. Kohlstedt, Helen Longino and Evelynn Hammonds, ‘Introduction’, in Ibid., p. 192; Haraway, Donna, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), pp. 575599.Google Scholar

6 Parsimony is defined as ‘The principle that the best statistical model among all satisfactory models is that with the fewest parameters. Hence, more generally, the principle which asserts that if it is possible to explain a phenomenon equally adequately in a number of different ways, then the simplest of explanations (in terms of the number of variables or propositions) should be selected.’ Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd edition, edited by John Scott and Gordon Marshall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 477. According to this strict definition, not all IR theoreticians are committed to parsimony. Clearly constructivists do not seek the explanation with the fewest possible variables, and Hans Morgenthau's realism is not as parsimonious as that of Waltz. However, all theoreticians, including constructivists (as we see clearly from the Ned Lebow quotation below), seek simplified explanations; explanations that are much simpler and sparser than the complexities of social reality. This loose conception of parsimony is the focus of my analysis. While not as accurate as the strict definition, the loose conception is much more convenient and word-efficient than ‘simpler and sparser than the complexities of social reality’. I therefore invite the reader to understand ‘parsimony’ as I do, that is loosely.

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21 While this understanding is most explicit in the constructivist approach to the social science it is by all means not exclusive to it.

22 Most theories are attempts at establishing and explicating the causal patterned relations between phenomena, yet causality is not a necessary element of theory as theory can try to establish and explicate constitutional patterned relations.

23 Khunians would rather see the academic process as a continuous effort of shielding theory from falsification. For an engaging comparison of Popper and Khun, see Fuller, Steve, Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004)Google Scholar . Fuller favours Popper and sees his philosophy of science as companion to democratic politics and ‘the open society’. Ibid., p. 16.

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35 It could be argued that the existence of those ideological inclinations and normative commitments in theory may give good reasons for disclosure, for example out of decency and civility, or out of epistemological concerns for the quality of theory. But by itself the existence of those ideological inclinations and normative commitments does not generate a moral obligation for transparency. To ground transparency as a moral obligation we need to relate the existence of those ideological inclinations and normative commitments to principles of justice, such as the principle of reciprocity.

36 Ibid., pp. 463–4.

37 Riedel, Eibe, ‘The Human Right to Social Security: Some Challenges’, in Riedel, Eibe (ed.), Social Security as a Human Right: Drafting a General Comment on Article 9 ICESCR – Some Challenges (Berlin Heidelberg: Springer, 2007), p. 19CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

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39 Social capital is intimately linked to trust, which in the terms used here is a kind of inner state of human mind.

40 Ibid., pp. 97–8.

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63 Though once again, the particularity implied by Harding is very much socially and materially located. The particularity I imply is more idealist as it is centred around a priori assumptions of various kinds and various (and undefined) origins.

64 Hawkesworth, ‘Knowers, Knowing, Known: Feminist Theory and Claims of Truth’, p. 92.

65 Ibid., p. 96.

66 See also, Ish-Shalom, Piki, ‘Theorizing Politics, Politicizing Theory, and the Responsibility That Runs Between’, Perspectives on Politics, 7 (2009), p. 312Google Scholar ; Engelstad and Gerrard, ‘Challenging Situatedness’, p. 6; Weldon, Laurel S., ‘Inclusion and Understanding: A Collective Methodology for Feminist International Relations’, in Ackerly, Brooke A., Stern, Maria and True, Jacqui (eds), Feminist Methodologies for International Relations (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 6287Google Scholar .

67 Though those desires may be the motives and reasons for the action of theoreticians as sentient beings. As such, of course, they might be of interest to other theoreticians seeking to theoretically explain the social behaviour of the theoreticians as sentient beings.

68 Thus there is no acute breach of the privacy of theoreticians, and whatever breach does exists is proportional to the above-established obligation of transparency.

69 Ish-Shalom, ‘The Triptych of Realism, Elitism, and Conservatism’.

70 Ibid., p. 441. I want to repeat that this doesn't mean that theory is ideology.

71 Though strictly speaking the theory I advance is a moral theory, not a social science one. Thus, the full force of the argument for transparency is not applicable. However, I can safely argue that in this case the principle of reciprocity does apply, and that it is sufficient by itself. In other words, what I demand of social science theoreticians I must be willing to undertake myself, namely the practice of self-reflexivity and transparency.

72 Héritier, Adrienne, ‘Composite democracy in Europe: the Role of Transparency and Access to Information’, Journal of European Public Policy, 10 (2003), p. 819CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

73 Ibid., p. 824.

74 Dryzek, John S. and List, Christian, ‘Social Choice Theory and Deliberative Democracy: A Reconciliation’, British Journal of Political Science, 33 (2003), p. 26CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

75 Porta, Donatella della, ‘Deliberation in Movement: Why and How to Study Deliberative Democracy and Social Movements’, Acta Politica, 40 (2005), p. 340Google Scholar .

76 Ish-Shalom, Piki, ‘Theorization, Harm, and the Democratic Imperative: Lessons from the Politicization of the Democratic-Peace Thesis’, International Studies Review, 10 (2008), p. 690CrossRefGoogle Scholar .