Today, Dan Drezner pulled on my chain more effectively than damn near any other scholar I respect. I should keep quiet (not my strength) as I have an article* I am revising for resubmission that addresses this very argument–that big IR theory has gone away somehow. But I cannot help but respond, partly because this article may not make it past the next stage and partly because by the time it does, people will have moved on (or not, as this argument keeps coming up).
* The rejected draft is here. The revised version is, um, being revised. I have some better graphs in the new version that make this point in many different ways.
The basic realities in this area are this: the early 1990s were a rare moment in IR, where much of the focus was on big/grand theory (my old paper addresses perhaps inadequately how to define and think about “big”/”grand” and I do better in the new version that is nearly ready to resubmit). People are nostalgic not for how things used to be but for a blip in time. The producers of grand theory were never that numerous, although they made heaps of noise (grand theory is better cited than the rest of IR–which cuts against arguments about how professionalization deters grand theory).
The real thing is this: there has been a proliferation of outlets when it comes to IR articles (I have no idea if there are more or less IR books). That is, there is more IR being produced and published. In absolute terms, there is not less grand theory, there is not much less qualitative work, there is not less of much (perhaps less Marxist analyses). There is more of everything (well, realism is basically staying the same). Is there relatively less grand theory? Again, it depends on the point of comparison–compared to 1994? Yes. Compared to the mid 1980s? No.
There is something else that would never make it into a refereed journal: why should we give a rat’s ass about there being more “big” ideas? Is another relative gains debate going to help us much? How about medium sized ideas that help us figure out how to deal with the problems of today? There is plenty of stuff being produced that asks questions about how to win/lose counter-insurgencies, about the politics of alliances (oops, self-promotion), about coups, and on and on (I am sure there is good work on questions about the politics of international economic relations but that is not what I pay attention to). Dan always wonders whether we are policy relevant, and the answer is that the medium and micro work are quite policy relevant with the grand theory not so much.
Oh, perhaps the world would be better off with less big ideas like “clash of civilizations” which is not only bad social science but destructive social science.
So, Dan, thanks for producing this cathartic moment this morning even if it reduces my chances of publishing the R&R piece (if reviewers/editors read this).