EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by  Dan ReiterIt is the fourth installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post responds to John J. Mearsheimer’s and Stephen M. Walt’s article (PDF). Their post appeared earlier today.  

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.

Thanks to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for writing such an important and provocative article. I agree with many of their central assumptions, especially the importance of building rigorous theories, and of executing appropriate and sound empirical tests of theories. I also agree that at this juncture we need more theoretical development, especially (in my view) in emerging areas such as neuroscience and conflict, gender and conflict, and networks.

Here, I lay out a few of my many reactions to their article.

Though I agree with Mearsheimer and Walt that empirical work is most powerful when it is well-executed and well-grounded in theory, I fear there is a potentially dangerous inference from their observation that some empirical work, what they call simplistic hypothesis testing, suffers from flaws. Specifically, we should avoid the inference that the existence of flawed empirical work should push us away from empirical work. Given their bedrock assumption that science requires empirical testing as well as theory building, if one observes flawed empirical tests, the appropriate reaction should be not to do less empirical testing, but rather to do better empirical testing. If data are flawed, fix the flaws. If data measure some theoretical concept poorly, collect better data or improve the measure.  If a model is specified poorly, improve the specification.

The intrinsic value of empirical testing aside, Mearsheimer and Walt underestimate the two major contributions hypothesis testing, even simple hypothesis-testing, makes toward theory innovation and development.

First, empirical work, even atheoretical empirical work, sometimes pushes theory forward by making controversial claims. The democratic peace literature is a good example of this dynamic. Essentially the first scholarly article on the democratic peace was a 1976 Jerusalem Journal of International Relations article by Melvin Small and David Singer (PDF).  They noted (atheoretically) that democracies fight wars, but not against each other. That empirical observation led to a burst of important theoretical work fleshing out a positivist, liberal theory of international relations. Key theoretical works in this area included Michael Doyle’s early 1980s articles (e.g., PDF), formal work connecting domestic political institutions with conflict behavior (such as Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and David Lalman’s War and Reason), and Bruce Russett’s landmark works Grasping the Democratic Peace and Triangulating Peace, to name a few. Continue reading