RSS Feed

Posts Tagged ‘realism’

  1. Old Wine in New Bottles: Realism, Neorealism and No-Realism

    July 10, 2012 by Fan


    Old Wine in New Bottles: Realism, Neorealism and No-Realism


    Fan Zhang


    An intellectually exciting era is an era when the dust hasn’t’ settled and when thinkers don’t just wait for the dust to settle, thus, it is a relief for me to notice the chronology of this week’s readings: some of them seem to be responding to arguments made later. For example, Brown’s 2006 defence of the IR discipline (based on his 2001 presentation), in a way, is an answer to LaMonica’s 2010 call for new paradigms we read last week. It’s true Lemke responded directly to Brown in defence of neo-realism (some five years later), but both of their arguments have been answered  in 2001 when Clark justified the traditional realism and its philosophy of regime security.  The debate, it seems, is still in the air.

    This, to be honest, wasn’t my earlier impression of political sciences (which I believe IR belongs to). An aura of over-confidence, most saliently in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1993) but also in the writings of many human rights scholars such as Jack Donnelly and Rhoda Howard, seems to be prevailing in the discipline. A clear distinction of everything and everybody, to paraphrase Brown (Brown 2006:136), predominates. Nuances, ambiguity and ambivalence appear to be as rare in political sciences as in politics. The “either/or” dichotomy rules.

    The necessity of this dichotomy in the IR discipline is a myth, Brown tells us in his discussion of statehood and anarchy: there are many shades of grey between the black and white. The key is to leave the lofty theoretical ground and goes deep into particularities. We need to pay “some serious attention to the particular ways in which political authority is constructed [and] the particular claims to sovereignty” (Brown 2006:133). More importantly, we shall see socio-political constructs not as elemental but relational, thus, we may find that statehood is a matter of degree rather than present or absent (ibid), and there is fluidity between anarchy and hierarchy such as interdependence (ibid.:137-138).

    What’s particularly interesting is not Brown’s argument per se but how he makes it, namely, his appropriation, subversion, misunderstanding – and probably unconscious insight – of anthropology.

    One glaring example is his use of the relationality concept. In combating essentialism, Brown declares that “once one moves away from neorealist assumption of statehood to a more relational understanding , a greater opening up of the potential for change becomes possible” (Brown 2006:126, my emphasis). But relationality, according to Brown, is also the culprit leading to the misconceived dichotomy of Western statehood and African anarchy when earlier anthropologists such as Fortes, Nadel and Evans-Pritchard, in a bid to assist colonial authorities’ indirect rules, replaced African individual particularities with abstract roles, just like words are replaced by grammar and syntax (Brown 2006:140, my emphasis).  How do we understand the discrepancy?

    A look at the history of anthropological thoughts, which Brown uses to refute Waltz (ibid), provides us with possible answers. Brown’s relationality concept corresponds to the structure concept in anthropology. Not unlike what happened in Brown’s argument, this concept is a source of confusion for anthropologists. For earlier champions of rigorous fieldwork such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, structure means relationality within a particular community. For what is known as structural anthropology, however, structure denotes underlying mental pattern or patterns of universal humanity. The word’s ambiguity ensures the tensions between different approaches throughout anthropology’s history which in my humble opinion give the discipline necessary energy: the local and the global; the empirical and the speculative; induction and deduction; the study of materiality and the study of symbolism; data-oriented approach (ethnography) and theory-oriented approach (ethnology).

    The discrepancy between Brown’s early and late uses of relationality concept mirrors the inconsistent use of structure concept in anthropology, an inconsistency Claude Levi-Strauss  devotes the entire volume of Structural Anthropology to change. His solution is a vast topic of its own. The gist of his argument, to put it in an extremely simple manner, could be summed up as such: 1. a community must be studied in its totality; 2. to understand the meaning of this totality, one must compare; 3. this comparison will inevitably leads us to the universal human mental pattern. It’s not difficult to see that Brown is operating on the same mechanism. The first Levi-Strauss statement corresponds to Brown’s local relationality. The second statement is what Brown tries to refine – from discontinuous dichotomy to continuous change of degrees2. The third statement about mental pattern leads us to the Lemke and the Clark articles.

    Both Lemke’s defence of neorealism and Clark’s defence of traditional realism depend on the legitimacy of mental patterns they employ. Lemke’s mental pattern is that of assumed scientific model while Clark’s mental pattern is that of political psychology, both of them are of Western in origin. Both patterns are claimed to be universal by their respective authors.

    For Lemke, Brown’s accusation of a lack of nuances in neorealist analysis of African states is largely due to the insufficient dataset, not because of absolute dichotomy. Thus, more data from intro-national study of IR in Africa would solve the problem (Lemke 2011:67). Would it be good enough? Levi-Strauss probably would say “no”, because IR will thus engage “an undertaking so vast” (Levi-Strauss 1963:12) that African states in its current form might have evolved into other things before any meaningful conclusion has been reached.

    The difference between Clark’s realism and Lemke’s neorealism, to use C. P. Snow’s famous phrase, is a battle between “two cultures”, which is to say, between humanities and science. Clark’s regime security paradigm is a psychological and overtly European one which he demonstrates with concrete examples its validity. But this validity is arm-chair validity without “scientific” data – his cases are anecdotal at best. How useful it is to solve the real-life problems, diplomatic or otherwise, is also not demonstrated. But for the same reason, it is not to be easily debunked neither.

    If we look closely, Brown’s new concepts of sovereignty and anarchy, as accommodating as it seems to Third World reality, are also based on European historical experiences: they are borrowed from Michel Foucault’s “beheading of the king” about “a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (Foucault 1980:121). Foucault, an historian interested in European political history, becomes a darling of anthropologists who study the Third World and “primitive societies”. This trend in contemporary social sciences doesn’t really divert from their old routes at all.

    Probably we shall not get excited too soon. Dust, sometimes is just smoke screen.





    1. A comparison of Claude Levi-Strauss’ study of community patterns and mythology will serve the purpose.
    2. See Levi-Strauss Do Dual Organization Exist? (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163) for a far more rigorous treatment.







    Brown, William

    2006. Africa and International Relations: A Comment on IR Theory,

    Anarchy and Statehood. In Review of International Studies 32:1.


    Clark, John F.

    2001. Realism, Neo-Realism and Africa’s International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Foucault, Michel

    1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester.


    Lemke, Douglas

    2011. Intra-national IR in Africa. In Review of International Studies 37:1.


    Lévi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.