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Realism, empiricism, and causal inquiry in International Relations: what's at stake?

Humphreys, A. ORCID: (2019) Realism, empiricism, and causal inquiry in International Relations: what's at stake? European Journal of International Relations, 25 (2). pp. 562-587. ISSN 1460-3713

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1177/1354066118759179


Discussions of causal inquiry in IR are increasingly framed in terms of a contrast between rival philosophical positions, each with a putative methodological corollary – empiricism is associated with a search for patterns of covariation, while scientific realism is associated with a search for causal mechanisms. Scientific realism is, on this basis, claimed to open up avenues of causal inquiry that are unavailable to empiricists. This is misleading. Empiricism appears inferior only if its reformulation by contemporary philosophers of science such as Bas van Fraassen is ignored. I therefore develop a fuller account than has previously been provided in IR of Van Fraassen’s ‘constructive empiricism’ and how it differs from scientific realism. In light of that, I consider what is at stake in calls for the reconstitution of causal inquiry along scientific realist, rather than empiricist, lines. I argue that scientific realists have failed to make a compelling case that what matters is whether researchers are realists. Constructive empiricism and scientific realism differ only on narrow epistemological and metaphysical grounds which carry no clear implications for the conduct of causal inquiry. Yet insofar as Van Fraassen has reformed empiricism to meet the scientific realist challenge, this has created a striking disjunction between mainstream practices of causal inquiry in IR and the vision of scientific practice which scientific realists and contemporary empiricists share, especially regarding the significance of regularities observed in everyday world politics. Although scientific realist calls for a philosophical revolution in IR are overstated, this disjunction demands further consideration.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Politics, Economics and International Relations > Politics and International Relations
ID Code:74724


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