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Analytic Eclecticism in the Study of World Politics: Reconfiguring Problems and Mechanisms across Research Traditions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 June 2010

Rudra Sil
University of Pennsylvania
Peter J. Katzenstein
Cornell University
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This article defines, operationalizes, and illustrates the value of analytic eclecticism in the social sciences, with a focus on the fields of comparative politics and international relations. Analytic eclecticism is not an alternative model of research or a means to displace or subsume existing modes of scholarship. It is an intellectual stance that supports efforts to complement, engage, and selectively utilize theoretical constructs embedded in contending research traditions to build complex arguments that bear on substantive problems of interest to both scholars and practitioners. Eclectic scholarship is marked by three general features. First, it is consistent with an ethos of pragmatism in seeking engagement with the world of policy and practice, downplaying unresolvable metaphysical divides and presumptions of incommensurability and encouraging a conception of inquiry marked by practical engagement, inclusive dialogue, and a spirit of fallibilism. Second, it formulates problems that are wider in scope than the more narrowly delimited problems posed by adherents of research traditions; as such, eclectic inquiry takes on problems that more closely approximate the messiness and complexity of concrete dilemmas facing “real world” actors. Third, in exploring these problems, eclectic approaches offer complex causal stories that extricate, translate, and selectively recombine analytic components—most notably, causal mechanisms—from explanatory theories, models, and narratives embedded in competing research traditions. The article includes a brief sampling of studies that illustrate the combinatorial potential of analytic eclecticism as an intellectual exercise as well as its value in enhancing the possibilities of fruitful dialogue and pragmatic engagement within and beyond the academe.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2010

Three decades ago, Charles Lindblom and David Cohen lamented that “suppliers and users of social research are dissatisfied, the former because they are not listened to, the latter because they do not hear much they want to listen to.”Footnote 1 Recent advances in theory and method do not seem to have remedied the problem, at least if we are to believe Ian Shapiro: “In discipline after discipline … academics have all but lost sight of what they claim is their object of study.”Footnote 2 This article is motivated by the suspicion that these concerns about academic scholarship are at least partially valid, and that a part of the problem is the lack of adequate space in social science disciplines for what we call analytic eclecticism.

Analytic eclecticism does not constitute an alternative model of research. It is an intellectual stance a researcher can adopt when pursuing research that engages, but does not fit neatly within, established research traditions in a given discipline or field. We identify analytic eclecticism in terms of three characteristics that distinguish it from conventional scholarship embedded in research traditions. First, it proceeds at least implicitly on the basis of a pragmatist ethos, manifested concretely in the search for middle-range theoretical arguments that potentially speak to concrete issues of policy and practice. Second, it addresses problems of wide scope that, in contrast to more narrowly parsed research puzzles designed to test theories or fill in gaps within research traditions, incorporate more of the complexity and messiness of particular real-world situations. Third, in constructing substantive arguments related to these problems, analytic eclecticism generates complex causal stories that forgo parsimony in order to capture the interactions among different types of causal mechanisms normally analyzed in isolation from each other within separate research traditions.

This is not the first call for something resembling eclecticism. In addition to Lindblom and Cohen, numerous scholars have issued pleas for a more practically useful social science—or, following Aristotle, a “phronetic” social science—oriented more toward social commentary and political action than toward inter-paradigm debates.Footnote 3 In international relations, prominent scholars, some even identified with particular research traditions, have acknowledged the need for incorporating elements from other approaches in order to fashion more usable and more comprehensive forms of knowledge. For example, Kenneth Waltz, whose name would become synonymous with neorealism, argued in his earlier work: “The prescriptions directly derived from a single image [of international relations] are incomplete because they are based upon partial analyses. The partial quality of each image sets up a tension that drives one toward inclusion of the others … One is led to search for the inclusive nexus of causes.”Footnote 4 An ardent critic of realist theory, Andrew Moravcsik, would have to agree with Waltz on this point: “The outbreak of World Wars I and II, the emergence of international human rights norms, and the evolution of the European Union, for example, are surely important enough events to merit comprehensive explanation even at the expense of theoretical parsimony.”Footnote 5 Similarly, in an important symposium on the role of theory in comparative politics, several prominent scholars emphasized the virtues of an “eclectic combination” of diverse theoretical perspectives in making sense of cases, cautioning against the excessive “simplifications” required to apply a single theoretical lens to grasp the manifold complexities on the ground.Footnote 6

As far as programmatic statements go, these views are all consistent with the spirit of analytic eclecticism. Whether these positions are readily evident in research practice, however, is quite another matter. For the most part, social scientific research is still organized around particular research traditions or scholarly communities, each marked by its own epistemic commitments, its own theoretical vocabulary, its own standards, and its own conceptions of “progress.” A more effective case for eclectic scholarship requires more than statements embracing intellectual pluralism or multi-causal explanation. It requires an alternative understanding of research practice that is coherent enough to be distinguishable from conventional scholarship and yet flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of problems, concepts, methods, and causal arguments. We have sought to systematically articulate such an understanding in the form of “analytic eclecticism,” emphasizing its pragmatist ethos, its orientation towards preexisting styles and schools of research, and its distinctive value added in relating academic debates to concrete matters of policy and practice.

Below, we first offer a brief discussion of the benefits and limitations of research traditions and consider how analytic eclecticism complements existing traditions by seeking to leverage and integrate conceptual and theoretical elements in multiple traditions. In the next three sections, we elaborate on three distinguishing features of eclectic scholarship: its pragmatist ethos; its open-ended approach to identifying problems; and its expansive understanding of causal mechanisms and their complex interactions in diverse contexts. We then consider a small sample of work in comparative politics and international relations that illustrates the combinatorial potential of eclectic scholarship. The conclusion considers the risks and costs of analytic eclecticism, but views these as acceptable in light of the potential gains of accommodating eclectic approaches that complement and engage tradition-bound research in the social sciences.Footnote 7

Research Traditions in the Social Sciences

The evolution of fields and disciplines in the social sciences has been accompanied by the emergence of competing approaches or schools, each of which relies on distinctive metatheoretical postulates in establishing its boundaries. Such postulates frequently address questions such as: what kinds of phenomena and questions are amenable to social analysis; what concepts and methods are best suited for investigating these questions; what kinds of observations constitute evidence in support of arguments; and what factors are most relevant in assessing progress in the field. The necessarily abstract responses to such questions reflect programmatic, if implicit, epistemic commitments that frequently define and distinguish competing approaches or schools in a given field.

In identifying these competing approaches, we employ the concept of a research tradition, as articulated by Larry Laudan.Footnote 8 Following Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos,Footnote 9 Laudan emphasizes the significance of shared, enduring, foundational commitments related to the conduct and evaluation of normal scientific research. These include: “(1) a set of beliefs about what sorts of entities and processes make up the domain of inquiry; and (2) a set of epistemic and methodological norms about how the domain is to be investigated, how theories are to be tested, how data are to be collected, and the like.”Footnote 10 Unlike Kuhnian paradigms and Lakatosian research programs, however, Laudan's research traditions can coexist and compete for long periods of time, generating substantive claims that may overlap with those produced in other traditions. Laudan even acknowledges the possibility of a single scholar working in different traditions even though the foundations of these traditions may be considered by some to be incommensurable.Footnote 11 Laudan thus offers us a view of social science that is more flexible and consistent with the complicated histories of such fields as comparative politics and international relations.Footnote 12 More importantly, Laudan acknowledges the possibility that diverse scholarly practices and research products need not be shoehorned into one of a handful of mutually exclusive paradigms or research programs. This possibility, in turn, anticipates eclectic approaches that combine analytic elements drawn from separate research traditions.

Research traditions have crucial advantages in generating and organizing initial stocks of knowledge. Given the infinite complexity of social reality and the limited resources available to scholars, it is helpful to establish some common assumptions, parameters, vocabularies, and conventions to facilitate a focused examination of selected aspects of that reality. These common understandings also enable adherents of research traditions to establish a consensus on what criteria might be appropriate for assessing the quality of research and for evaluating progress in a given field. Moreover, “creative confrontations”Footnote 13 among rival scholarly traditions serve as models or foils that prod adherents of research traditions to apply concepts and theories to new arenas of research, demonstrating their relevance to substantive issues on which other traditions claim to have more insights to offer.

For example, in international relations, realism initially provided a common conceptual apparatus for framing and investigating problems related to the outbreak of war, the formation of alliances, and the distribution of capabilities among states. Similarly, modernization theory in comparative politics provided a common framework for formulating questions and generating comparable data on the relationships between economic, social, and political change across vast expanses of time and space. In both instances, shared boundary conditions and theoretical vocabularies employed by adherents of a research tradition facilitated the production and assessment of new knowledge claims concerning new phenomena. Later, these arguments invited challenges and became foils for newer research traditions, as in the case of neoliberalism and constructivism in international relations or of rational-choice theory and historical institutionalism in comparative politics. Each of these newer traditions distinguished itself by distinct sets of foundational assumptions that facilitated the creation of new problematiques and new analytic frameworks that helped to expand the range of substantive arguments and the stocks of empirical knowledge in its respective field. To the extent that this stylized process is a reasonable representation of the changes that have occurred in the two subfields, it reveals why the emergence of, and competition between, research traditions can expand the fund of ideas, concepts, observations, and theories for a field.

These intellectual benefits are valuable and should not be forfeited. However, they come at a high price in the absence of a counterweight in the form of eclectic modes of inquiry. Research traditions establish their identities and boundaries by insisting on a strong consensus on enduring and irreconcilable foundational issues. This, in turn, effectively privileges some concepts over others, rewards certain methodological norms and practices but not others, and places great weight on certain aspects of social reality while ignoring others. In fact, the battles among research traditions recur not because of hardened differences over substantive issues but over preexisting epistemic convictions about what kinds of social phenomena are amenable to social analysis, what kinds of questions are important to ask, and what kinds of processes and mechanisms are most likely to be relevant. Research traditions give themselves permission to bypass aspects of a complex reality that do not neatly fit within the metatheoretical parameters they have established by fiat. These aspects are either “blackboxed,” relegated to “context,” or treated as “exogenous.” Such simplifying moves, while helpful for the purpose of generating elegant knowledge claims about particular aspects of reality, are not independently capable of generating a more comprehensive understanding of complex, multi-faceted problems that interest scholars and policymakers alike. For this purpose, scholarly analysis needs to be more open-ended, proceeding from ontologies that, as Peter Hall notes, embrace “more extensive endogeneity and the ubiquity of complex interaction effects.”Footnote 14 This is where analytic eclecticism has a distinctive role to play alongside, and in engagement with, different strands of scholarship embedded in multiple research traditions.

Why Eclecticism?

Our defense of analytic eclecticism takes its cue from Albert Hirschman's famous observation: “ordinarily, social scientists are happy enough when they have gotten hold of one paradigm or line of causation. As a result, their guesses are often farther off the mark than those of the experienced politician whose intuition is more likely to take a variety of forces into account.” That is not to say that paradigms are not “useful for the apprehending of many elements” in the unfolding of large-scale social transformations; but, for Hirschman, the paradigm-focused social scientist tends to focus on only some forces and ignore others, thereby running the risk of “a particularly high degree of error.”Footnote 15

Hirschman's position is not without empirical backing. In a study of judgmental accuracy under different modes of decision-making, Philip Tetlock has suggested that grossly inaccurate forecasts are more likely to result when experts behave like “intellectually aggressive hedgehogs,” relying on a single parsimonious approach to explain many things and depending excessively upon “powerful abstractions to organize messy facts and to distinguish the possible from the impossible.”Footnote 16 Better forecasts are more likely when experts behave more like “eclectic foxes” who are able “to blend hedgehog arguments” and improvise ad hoc solutions in a rapidly changing world rather than becoming “anchored down by theory-laden abstractions.”Footnote 17

More recently, Scott Page has argued that long-term progress and innovation are more likely when a society or group depends less on singular solutions offered by brilliant individuals or like-minded experts and instead pools together a broader range of ideas generated by diverse groups of people. Based on his studies of a wide range of social and institutional settings, Page contends: “collections of people with diverse perspectives and heuristics outperform collections of people who rely on homogeneous perspectives and heuristics.”Footnote 18 In the context of Ancient Greece, Josiah Ober makes a similar observation in the process of analyzing how Athens emerged as the “preeminent Greek polis by a very substantial margin.” The key, Ober argues, was “the distinctive Athenian approach to the aggregation, alignment, and codification of useful knowledge … dispersed across a large and diverse population….”Footnote 19 What all of these authors are suggesting in quite different ways is that, whatever the immediate intellectual payoffs of employing a particular approach, reliance on any one perspective involves tradeoffs that become increasingly costly in the absence of complementary and countervailing efforts to draw upon multiple and diverse approaches. Analytic eclecticism is such an effort, a means for social scientists to guard against the risks of excessive reliance on a single analytic framework and the simplifying assumptions that come with it.

Importantly, the accommodation of analytic eclecticism does not imply the marginalization of scholarship embedded in research traditions. The value added by analytic eclecticism depends after all upon demonstrating how different sorts of findings and mechanisms emerging from existing research practices can be reconceptualized and integrated as elements of more complex explananda. Analytic eclecticism's distinctive utility stems from its awareness of the strengths and tradeoffs of the approaches employed by existing traditions, and from its recognition of the particular intellectual gains generated by these traditions in relation to substantive problems. In fact, what keeps analytic eclecticism from devolving into a perspective in which “everything matters” is the presumption that the analyses produced within research traditions are valuable for the purpose of identifying many of the factors that are likely to matter most. The objective of analytic eclecticism is to uncover how these factors matter in relation to specific research questions, not to generate an ever-expanding list of all imaginable causal factors that can influence world politics. Eclectic scholarship that is inattentive to theories embedded in research traditions runs the risk of missing important insights, reinventing the wheel, or producing analyses that appear idiosyncratic or unintelligible to other scholars. The distinctiveness of analytic eclecticism arises from its effort to specify how elements of different causal stories might coexist as part of a more complex argument that bears on problems of interest to both scholars and practitioners. This requires engaging and utilizing, not displacing, the well-organized research efforts undertaken by committed adherents of various traditions.

Of course, when drawing upon theories or narratives developed in competing research traditions, there is the danger of theoretical incoherence linked to the problem of incommensurability across traditions. The incommensurability thesis, as articulated by Paul Feyerabend among others, argues that the concepts, terms, and standards used in one theoretical approach, because they are formulated on the basis of distinct assumptions about knowledge in the context of distinct theoretical vocabularies, are not interchangeable with those used in another theoretical approach.Footnote 20 Thus, an eclectic theory drawing upon research traditions founded on competing ontological and epistemological principles can produce an artificial homogenization of incompatible perspectives along with a host of unrecognized conceptual problems that subvert the aims of the theory.Footnote 21

We recognize that much care needs to be taken to ensure that the relevant concepts, terms, and indicators employed in different research traditions are properly understood and translated before they are brought into an integrated analytic framework. The problem of incommensurability represents a challenge, but there are two reasons we see this challenge as less serious than assumed. First, as Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam and others have argued, there do exist possibilities for translation and redefinition. Putnam employs the parallel to languages to argue: “if the thesis were really true, then we could not translate other languages—or even past stages of our own language—at all.”Footnote 22 In fact, Feyerabend himself was primarily concerned with the idea of neutral testing protocols that could be invoked to compare different types of theories; he neither viewed incommensurability as implying untranslatability nor assumed that translatability was a precondition for theory comparison.

Second, when social science theories embedded in paradigms take on substantive research questions, they ultimately rely on empirical referents to operationalize various concepts, variables, and mechanisms. This provides one avenue through which specific elements of a causal story within one research tradition can be juxtaposed, reconceptualized, and possibly combined with elements of a causal story in a different tradition. It is also possible to break down competing explanatory logics into elemental segments in such a way that they become “abstractly compatible, such that we could imagine a world in which all were operating while we debate how much variants of each contributed to any given action.”Footnote 23 This implies that it may be possible to temporarily separate metatheoretical postulates from specific substantive claims or interpretations so as to enable direct comparison between, and greater integration across, the entire range of causal stories that aim to address similar or related empirical phenomena.Footnote 24 In any case, the challenge of establishing equivalence among concepts and mechanisms across research traditions is only somewhat greater than that of doing so across diverse strands of research traditions, once we consider that many of the key metaphysical divides in the social sciences—for example, between objectivism/subjectivism; nominalism/realism; materialism/idealism; or agency/structure—have proven to be “fractal distinctions,”Footnote 25 structuring narrower debates within competing traditions. The challenge may be greater when traveling across traditions, but it is not insurmountable if proper care is taken to consider the premises upon which specific analytic components are operationalized in relation to the empirical world.

At the same time, analytic eclecticism should not be confused with unified synthesis. Although some do use the term “synthesis” to refer to what we call eclecticism,Footnote 26 we view synthesis as a more ambitious project. It requires something extraordinary and unprecedented: a marked departure on the part of most scholarly communities from their original epistemic commitments, followed by a voluntary convergence upon a new, uniform set of foundational assumptions and analytic principles to guide research. In the absence of such a convergence, attempts at synthesis are likely to devolve into hegemonic projects in which a single metatheoretical framework generates substantive theories concerning diverse social phenomena, while marginalizing or subsuming the insights offered by preexisting traditions about many of these same phenomena.Footnote 27

Analytic eclecticism is more modest and pragmatic. It is intended to generate diverse and flexible frameworks, each organized around a concrete problem, with the understanding that it is the problem that drives the construction of the framework. Moreover, the value added by eclectic scholarship depends to a large extent on the continued success of existing research traditions. Neither aspiring to uncover universal laws, nor content with statistical associations or interpretations of specific phenomena, analytic eclecticism is best thought of as operating at the level of what Robert Merton called “the middle range.” Mid-range theories are designed to be portable within a bounded set of comparable contexts where certain cause-effect links recur. The task for a mid-range theorist is to recognize the conditions under which some of these links become more causally significant while others do not.Footnote 28 Such an effort is quite different from the construction of a grand theory or general law that is intended to be portable not only across spatio-temporal contexts but also across a wide range of substantive problems.

Analytic eclecticism may utilize but is not synonymous with methodological triangulation or multi-method research.Footnote 29 Any attempt to investigate the interaction between general macro- and micro-level processes and specific contextual factors would benefit from attention to different kinds of approaches employing different techniques of empirical analysis. Yet, it is important to note that analytic eclecticism does not require the acquisition or use of multiple methodological skills; it simply requires a broad understanding of the relative strengths and tradeoffs of different methods and an openness to considering causal stories presented in different forms by scholars employing different methods. The combinatorial logic of analytic eclecticism depends not on the multiplicity of methods but on the multiplicity of connections between the different mechanisms and social processes analyzed in isolation in separate research traditions. In principle, such a project can be advanced by the flexible application of a single method—be it formal modeling, multiple regression, historical case studies, or ethnography—so long as the problem and the explanandum feature efforts to connect theoretical constructs drawn from separate research traditions.

This combinatorial logic of analytic eclecticism is evident in, among other fields, the study of institutional change. The first point to note is that the path towards more eclectic styles of analysis typically begins with the relaxation of metatheoretical postulates and the broadening of analytic boundaries among discrete research traditions. Generally treated as competing alternatives, economic, historical, and sociological variants of the “new institutionalism” have all sought to explain a wider range of phenomena employing a wider range of analytic constructs.Footnote 30 Historical institutionalists have moved away from the emphasis they initially placed on institutional persistence linked to path dependence. They now seek to trace more incremental or gradual processes of change that can either generate novel institutional forms over long time horizons or produce unexpected breakdowns at critical thresholds.Footnote 31 Economic institutionalists have gone beyond the treatment of institutions as emergent self-enforcing equilibria produced by individual-level preferences. They now seek to make sense of institutional change by considering the implications of shifting parameters and iterated games, and by exploring how social norms affect the supply of information and the expectations of actors engaged in bargaining.Footnote 32 In addition, sociological institutionalists have generated more complex understandings of how shared worldviews, cognitive scripts, and normative templates may interact with discursive or symbolic practices to influence institutions and institutional actors in given contexts.Footnote 33 These shifts do not themselves constitute a full-blown embrace of eclecticism. However, by stretching the analytic boundaries initially established by each of the new institutionalisms, they open the door for more self-consciously eclectic approaches to the study of institutional change.

One example is Mark Blyth's Great Transformations, a comparative analysis of dramatic institutional change in the U.S. and Sweden.Footnote 34 Blyth challenges both historical and rational-choice institutionalism by demonstrating how the emergence and appeal of particular economic ideas under conditions of uncertainty alter existing preference structures, coalitions, and institutional orders. Parting ways with sociological institutionalists who treat ideas and symbols as mechanisms of stability, Blyth emphasizes the transformative potential of ideational mechanisms in situations of extraordinary uncertainty. At the same time, his analysis draws from all three of the new institutionalisms in examining the complex interplay of old and new ideas, individual preferences, coalition-building processes, and constraints related to preexisting institutional orders. For Blyth, individual interests certainly influence the construction and maintenance of institutions. However, economic crises create conditions of “Knightian uncertainty” during which existing institutions are ineffective and preferences are difficult to articulate, let alone act upon. In such an environment, new economic ideas have an opportunity to provide simplifying blueprints for stabilizing and coordinating expectations, helping to build new coalitions for change and providing scientific and normative foundations for this change. This approach enables Blyth to show how the United States and Sweden, typically viewed as sharply distinct types of capitalism, responded to crises by shifting policies in the same direction: by promoting embedded liberalism and accommodating the interests of labor following the 1930s' crisis, and then dismantling these arrangements in response to the demands of coalitions dominated by business following the 1970s' crisis.

John Campbell's Institutional Change and Globalization is also cognizant of the limitations of each of the three new institutionalisms, particularly in specifying the different configurations of mechanisms responsible for evolutionary and revolutionary processes of institutional change along different dimensions.Footnote 35 Significantly, Campbell is careful to note that he is not interested in a grand synthesis that will dissolve distinctions among paradigms and provide a unified approach to studying institutional change. Instead, he engages in a process of “bricolage” that involves “selecting various ideas from different places and combining them in ways that yield something new.”Footnote 36 Campbell's conception of agency severs the connection between self-interest and intentional action and makes room for ideational mechanisms, both cognitive and normative, that shape actors' preferences and enable them to creatively frame problems that emerge in various arenas of institutional life. Moreover, in Campbell's open-ended conception of institutional change, path-dependency in some dimensions coexists with processes in which old institutional characteristics are modified or recombined in other dimensions. The emergence or reproduction of specific institutional features reflects the diffusion of particular practices as well as the actions undertaken by institutional entrepreneurs in response to a given problem. This framework provides the basis for Campbell's substantive investigation of tax levels and tax policies. Whereas conventional accounts predicted a worldwide reduction in taxation levels in response to globalization, Campbell finds that the average tax burden actually increased and that neoliberal tax reforms proved to be politically less sustainable than reforms in other institutional arenas. Campbell's analysis accounts for this by tracing the processes through which complex interactions among ideational, regulative, evolutionary, and diffusion mechanisms mediate the effects of global economic forces on institutional change.

Further below, we consider a broader sample of eclectic scholarship drawn from comparative politics and international relations. For now, we elaborate on the significance of the three markers we employ to identify analytic eclecticism in practice. Each is defined in flexible terms so as to preclude specific injunctions, but each is also clear enough for the purposes of distinguishing eclectic from tradition-bound scholarship. The first is a broadly pragmatist ethos, whether implied or proclaimed; the second is an effort to formulate problems in a manner that seeks to trace rather than reduce complexity; and the third is the construction of causal stories focused on the complex processes through which different types of mechanisms interact. The next three sections address each of these features.

The Pragmatist Ethos of Analytic Eclecticism

Much research in the social sciences is founded on a positivist view of social knowledge. While disagreeing on certain ontological and epistemological issues,Footnote 37 positivists generally embrace a view of inquiry in which patterns of human behavior are presumed to reflect objective laws or law-like regularities that exist above and beyond the subjective perceptions of actors and scholars. Various kinds of interpretivist and subjectivist approaches also differ in terms of specific assumptions, objectives, and methods,Footnote 38 but they generally share a common skepticism about the possibility of inferring generalizations about human behavior and instead commit to an understanding of meaningful action among actors within the context of their immediate social environments. In view of the continuing heterogeneity of perspectives on the most fundamental questions concerning the goals, premises, and methods of scholarly inquiry, eclectic approaches tend to (at least implicitly) set aside metatheoretical debates in favor of a pragmatist view of social inquiry.Footnote 39

Pragmatism has its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century writings of American philosophers, most notably “the canonical trinity”Footnote 40 of John Dewey, Charles Pierce, and William James. Challenging the Kantian tradition that continued to guide European philosophy, pragmatists held that “philosophy should concern itself with the messiness of human meaning.”Footnote 41 This implied both a rejection of the positivist “dualism of a knowing subject and a known object” and a “refusal to embrace skepticism or subjectivism.”Footnote 42 Following a period of marginalization precipitated by the behavioral revolution and the ascent of analytic philosophy, pragmatism has experienced a resurgence, carried forward by Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others who have offered nuanced critiques of positivism without surrendering to relativism or subjectivism.Footnote 43 Although multiple strands of pragmatism and neopragmatism have emerged from quite different intellectual milieux,Footnote 44 they share certain basic tenets that we consider to be a loose philosophical grounding for eclectic research practice.

One of these tenets is seen in pragmatists' aversion to excessively abstract or rigid foundational principles in favor of a focus on the consequences of truth claims in relation to different strategies for addressing social problems. Following James, pragmatists seek to bypass “metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable,” and instead to “try and interpret each notion by tracing its respective consequences” in concrete situations.Footnote 45 In the analysis of world politics, a pragmatist perspective thus implies that competing approaches need to be reformulated to facilitate reflections on both how a problem is constituted and how it is to be solved.Footnote 46 Pragmatism also speaks to how scholars contend with the multiplicity and diversity of historical narratives, encouraging continuous engagement with different strands of historiography for the purpose of building a tentative consensus on “facts” that can be deployed to cope with contemporary problems.Footnote 47

A second principle concerns the creative process through which aspects of knowledge production are utilized and adapted in different situations. For Dewey, this process of “reconstruction” involves a rearrangement and updating of beliefs, habits, and practices in relation to efforts to maintain or restore equilibrium in social life.Footnote 48 As Dewey put it: “We take a piece of acquired knowledge into a concrete situation, and the results we get constitute a new piece of knowledge, which we carry over into our next encounter with our environment.”Footnote 49 In the context of social scientific research, this suggests that knowledge claims, however produced and defended, are always in need of reconsideration and reconstruction on the basis of engagement with the experiences of actors seeking to cope with real-world problems. In this sense, pragmatism not only requires a “spirit of fallibilism”Footnote 50 on the part of the scholar, but is also consistent with the aims of middle-range theorizing because it seeks to “clip the wings of abstract concepts in order to ground philosophy in the particularities of everyday life.”Footnote 51

A third pragmatist notion has to do with the relationship between inquiry and dialogue. Pragmatists understand that competing knowledge claims are frequently constructed within the context of scholarly communities with their own rules and methods. However, they place greater emphasis on the ensuing process of dialogue and reflection within a more open community in which participation and deliberation are counted upon to legitimize whatever consensus emerges in relation to specific problems.Footnote 52 The barriers that separate academic debate and public discourse are not always easy to break down in contemporary settings, but there do exist possibilities for “theorizing that is attentive to practical difficulties and latent possibilities” in society and in public life.Footnote 53 In the analysis of world politics, this implies that open deliberation is not merely a procedural commitment to improve the extent and quality of information available to policymakers. It is a reflection of the fact that the production of knowledge about world affairs is fundamentally a social and discursive activity, linked to the negotiation of consensual norms and the legitimation of institutions governing international life.Footnote 54

A fourth tenet, based largely on the work of George Herbert Mead, is its open-ended ontology. Mead offered an extensive account of the processes through which the evolution of the “mind” depends on its relationship with meanings shared with other “minds” in a social environment, and in which the “self” is constructed and reconstructed in continuous dialogue with others in that environment.Footnote 55 Mead's pragmatist social psychology serves as a point of departure for quite different intellectual perspectives in contemporary social science, including structurationist social theory, rational-choice approaches as well as constructivist approaches stressing the process and significance of collective identity-formation in international arenas.Footnote 56 It is likely to have even more appeal for eclectic scholarship, suggesting that how and why some agents choose to reproduce, while others redefine or transform, existing material and ideational structures are questions of empirical inquiry that cannot be settled by fiat.Footnote 57

These basic notions, while distilled in a manner that may appear oversimplified to philosophers of pragmatism, capture the ways in which analytic eclecticism represents a kind of pragmatist inquiry. As such, it may be differentiated from, but is not fundamentally opposed to, scholarship embedded in contending research traditions. In effect, pragmatism offers a reasonable basis upon which eclectic scholarship can meaningfully utilize elements of diverse research traditions while engaging substantive issues of policy and practice without becoming trapped in unending and unresolvable debates over epistemic commitments and analytic principles.

Widening the Scope of Problems

Problem-driven research is frequently opposed to method-driven research, although even the staunchest advocates of methodological rigor are increasingly eager to demonstrate the problem-driven character of their work.Footnote 58 The issue, in our view, is not whether the social sciences ought to be problem-driven or method-driven but rather how problems are identified and formulated. Projects embedded in different research traditions frequently address similar or related substantive issues but frame these issues in order to focus on specific aspects in keeping with their theoretical priors.Footnote 59 Such simplification of social reality is certainly understandable, even necessary. However, the extent to which and the manner in which large parts of that reality are simplified in the formulation of problems matter for the purpose of generating insights that bear on the choices and actions of actors coping with complex substantive problems. A pragmatist conception of analytic eclecticism invites us to consider how the problems as defined within research traditions might (or might not) relate to each other and to concrete dilemmas related to policy and practice.

For the sake of simplicity, we rely here on a distinction between substantive and analytic problems. The former relate to issues that exist apart from academic discourse and that constitute practical dilemmas facing social and political actors. Scholars are often interested in these issues but focus only on certain aspects in the course of formulating their own analytic problems. The latter are posed in such a way as to reflect the ontologies, epistemic principles, and theoretical vocabularies embraced by adherents of a given research tradition. What is worth problematizing for adherents of a research tradition may be a function of gaps in the existing literature within that tradition or of the particular features of a substantive problem that can be represented within its analytic confines. In the process, dimensions of the problem that have equal or greater significance in the realms of policy and practice may be bracketed out.

Following Lindblom and Cohen,Footnote 60 we see no reason to privilege exercises driven by such analytic problems over problems aimed at tackling substantive problems in political life. At the same time, the investigation of differently formulated analytic problems within contending research traditions frequently offer relevant insights for the purposes of solving substantive problems. The challenge is to compare and selectively integrate these insights so that they can be more practically useful in relation to substantive problems. This is where analytic eclecticism comes in. Eclectic scholarship does not provide “better” answers to problems articulated within a given research tradition. Its utility lies in recasting problems so that they have wider scope and can thus incorporate related aspects of more narrowly circumscribed analytic problems that adherents of research traditions prefer to tackle. Given their expanded scope, the kinds of problems addressed by eclectic scholars are more likely to have concrete implications for the messy substantive problems facing policymakers and ordinary social and political actors.

One area where we see efforts to broaden the scope of problems is the study of social movements. In the past, relative deprivation theory (e.g., Ted Gurr), macro-structuralist accounts (e.g., Theda Skocpol), resource mobilization theory (e.g., Charles Tilly), rational choice theory (e.g., Dennis Chong), opportunity-structure arguments (e.g., Sidney Tarrow), and “framing” approaches (e.g., Robert Benford and David Snow) have been presented as discrete traditions in the analysis of social movements.Footnote 61 Although usually presented as competing perspectives, these approaches are organized around related but different questions, each focused on a different segment of the process whereby grievances ultimately lead to a transformation of the status quo. Relative deprivation and rational choice theories are primarily concerned with the process through which individual grievances are aggregated into collective protest. They focus, respectively, on the psychological dynamics and cost-benefit calculations that spur individuals to commit to risky forms of collective action. What antecedent conditions created the choice situations facing these actors and what factors are necessary for a movement to succeed are not problematized. Structuralist approaches focus on the question of the preconditions that make existing institutional and social structures vulnerable to contentious politics. In Skocpol's approach, for example, international competitive pressures and pressures applied by a restive peasantry combine to weaken the state and facilitate social revolution. The issue of why grievances arose among peasants is not pertinent to the problem as she formulates it. Approaches focused on resource mobilization and political opportunity center on the processes through which a social movement is capable of sustaining effective collective action within a given set of institutional constraints. These efforts do not offer an answer to the question of what structural conditions or individual motivations permit the emergence of collective action. In other words, none of these approaches is intended or able to address the broader problem of identifying where, whether, when, and how grievances produce transformations of the status quo.

More recently, a number of scholars have sought to build more integrated frameworks intended to bridge different types of perspectives in order to generate a more comprehensive understanding of social movements.Footnote 62 This move is not being driven by a desire for a synthetic grand theory. It is being driven by a recognition of the multiplicity of processes, at the structural and individual levels, that need to come together in order for grievances to be converted into protest behavior, and for protest actions to be aggregated into a social movement that can carry out its transformative agenda. Karl-Dieter Opp's “structural-cognitive” approach, for example, reformulates various macro approaches (e.g. stressing environmental conditions or political opportunity structures) and micro approaches (e.g. stressing incentives or cognitive framing) related to the process through which individual protest actions emerge, coalesce into collective protest, and transform the macro-structural conditions, including shifting opportunity structures.Footnote 63 In effect, the scope of the problem has been widened to encompass more of the segments of the extended process through which initial conditions conducive to protest give rise to a transformation of the status quo. This does not suggest that the earlier studies of social movements are inconsequential or incorrect. Far from it. Precisely because these earlier studies yielded powerful insights into particular aspects and processes related to social movements, it makes sense to explore whether these insights can be integrated which, in turn, requires broader problems that subsume the specific aspects or processes targeted by existing traditions.

Of course, a research tradition may make assumptions and impose boundary conditions that make sense for some types of questions but not for others. Indeed, the competition among traditions is often as much about which questions are more important as about the relative utility of particular concepts, mechanisms, or methods. For example, neorealism trained its sights on questions related to how the balance of power in a given setting affects the likelihood of conflict or stability. It did not initially concern itself with the main questions on which liberalism concentrated its attention: the extent of economic interdependence and its effect on the prospects for greater institutionalized cooperation among self-interested state actors. At the same time, realist principles can be reformulated in creative ways to shed light on how the distribution of power affects states' economic policies and the conduct of international economic relations.Footnote 64 Similarly, the trade and conflict literature suggests that concepts and measures initially developed within neoliberal institutionalism to capture interdependence can be refined, reconstructed, and deployed to analyze the prospects of conflict in the international arena.Footnote 65 Thus, there need not be a one-to-one correspondence between research traditions and the analytic problems that initially inspired them. In fact, these problems can be reformulated and combined insofar as they are connected to a common substantive dilemma in the world of policy and practice.

Causal Complexity and the Multiplicity of Mechanisms

While research traditions generate quite varied research products—ranging from formal models and causal inferences to historical narratives and ethnographies—we follow Andrew Abbott in viewing all of these as offering causal stories based on particular “explanatory programs.”Footnote 66 These programs may differ in their fundamental aims and assumptions, but as Ernst Haas and Peter Haas note, it is possible to intersubjectively approach substantive phenomena with the aim of generating a “causal understanding of the interplay between forces typically analyzed by discrete schools.”Footnote 67 To explore this possibility and the barriers to it, we rely on the concept of mechanism, a key feature in causal stories cast at the level of the middle range.

Although eclectic research need not be framed in the language of mechanisms, the concept has heuristic value in distinguishing causal stories presented in eclectic accounts from those constructed within research traditions. The latter, proceeding on the basis of particular ontological and epistemological assumptions, implicitly or explicitly focus attention on certain types of mechanisms while ignoring or defining away others. Analytic eclecticism, by contrast, offers complex causal stories that incorporate different types of mechanisms as defined and used in diverse research traditions. That is, rather than privilege any specific conception of causal mechanism, analytic eclecticism seeks to trace the problem-specific interactions among a wide range of mechanisms operating within or across different domains and levels of social reality.Footnote 68 This section considers alternative conceptions of mechanisms that insist on particular defining characteristics, then offers a more open-ended definition that is consistent with the goals and requirements of eclectic scholarship.

Contemporary treatments of mechanisms challenge not only the quest for universal laws and general theories but also the empiricist position struck by Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba (KKV). In their view, causal effects are logically prior to and more reliable than unobservable mechanisms; the latter are significant mainly insofar as they induce new observations or influence the level of confidence in causal inferences.Footnote 69 Alexander George and Andrew Bennett, however, emphasize that mechanisms operate at the ontological level and should not be conflated with or subsumed under hypothesized causal effects.Footnote 70 Others see KKV as reducing scientific inference to a specific type of inference based on a “quantitative worldview,” resulting in a conception of mechanisms as mere “servants of inferences.”Footnote 71 Thus, if the concept of mechanism is to have a distinctive analytic function, it needs to be understood as a process link within, but potentially independent from, a more general explanatory model or descriptive narrative.Footnote 72 This suggests that all causal stories, however abstract or bounded, may be viewed as configurations of mechanisms that explain how some set of initial conditions in one or more contexts generates some set of outcomes or variations. Beyond this common view of how mechanisms are to be positioned vis-à-vis empirical observations and general laws, however, there is little agreement on what constitutes a causal mechanism.Footnote 73 Current debates over the nature and operation of mechanisms reveal at least three contentious issues.

First, there is the question of observability. Peter Hedström and Richard Swedberg emphasize the primacy of “unobserved explanatory mechanisms” in social scientific explanation.Footnote 74 Although George and Bennett acknowledge that new technologies may make “unobservable” elements “observable” at a later time, they nonetheless assert: “No matter how far down we push the border between the observable and the unobservable, some irreducibly unobservable aspect of causal mechanisms remains.”Footnote 75 On the other side, Barbara Reskin insists on observability as a defining criterion for all but intra-psychic mechanisms, whether interpersonal, societal, or organizational.Footnote 76 An even stronger position is staked out by Mario Bunge, who insists on a materialist definition of mechanism along the lines of what is assumed by natural scientists and engineers: “mechanisms are processes in concrete (material) systems, whether physical, social, technical, or of some other kind.”Footnote 77 This position dismisses a priori the possibility of mechanisms located within conceptual or semiotic systems that could directly affect outcomes without requiring the intervention of observable actions or processes.Footnote 78

Scholars also differ over whether mechanisms must necessarily exist at a level of generality that transcends singular spatio-temporal contexts. For Jon Elster, mechanisms, while less general in scope than laws, are “frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal patterns that are triggered under generally unknown conditions or with indeterminate consequences.”Footnote 79 Gudmund Hernes goes further, arguing that a mechanism is no less general than a causal law since it is essentially “an abstract representation that gives the logic of a process” unfolding in different contexts.Footnote 80 For others, mechanisms not only exist independently of theories and laws, but they may be unique to, and embedded within, a single temporal and spatial context. That is, the absence of portability does not make a mechanism any less causally significant since social action is often the result of individual calculations in which contextual factors play crucial roles.Footnote 81 Colin Wight emphasizes that, since the point of the concept is to capture a “sequence of events and processes (the causal complex) that lead to the event,” it is entirely possible to arrive at a configuration of mechanisms that is unique to a particular time- and space-bound context.Footnote 82

Perhaps the most heated arguments over the nature of mechanisms stem from the long-standing debate over methodological individualism/holism. For some, the search for mechanisms assumes an unequivocal commitment to reductionism. Thomas Schelling, for example, sees a mechanism as a set of “plausible hypotheses” that explain social phenomena so long as they incorporate an “interpretation, in terms of individual behavior, of a model that abstractly reproduces the phenomenon that needs explaining.”Footnote 83 In more recent years, methodological individualists have introduced different kinds of aggregation mechanisms to cope with the disjuncture between individual intentions and actual outcomes. This is evident, for example, in Timur Kuran's treatment of the social outcomes resulting from individual-level decisional dissonance, and in Roger Peterson's analysis of the role of tipping mechanisms that capture how the choices of a critical mass of individuals alter the pay-off matrices of larger groups of individuals.Footnote 84

At the same time, as George and Bennett note, even if agents are assumed to be necessary for mechanisms to take effect, uniformities in individual behavior suggest the possibility of mechanisms operating at the level of social structure.Footnote 85 These structural mechanisms are distinct from the aforementioned aggregation mechanisms. Their putative effects on outcomes do not require the intervention of individual agents. According to Charles Tilly, “relational mechanisms (such as brokerage) and environmental mechanisms (such as resource depletion) exert strong effects on political processes without any necessary connection to individual-level cognitive mechanisms.”Footnote 86 Relational mechanisms do not only operate through the structure of observable social interactions and networks, but can also take the form of collective ideas and symbols that directly engender or influence macro-level transformations.Footnote 87 Herman Schwartz also identifies system-level mechanisms drawn from economic geography that bypass agency in directly linking the spatial distribution of productive factors to macro-level developmental outcomes.Footnote 88 In all these cases, mechanisms posited at the collective level are viewed as generating outcomes at the macro-level without the mediation of individual choices or actions.

In spite of their differences over how mechanisms ought to be defined, many of the aforementioned scholars converge on the point that multiple mechanisms combine to generate social phenomena. From a materialist perspective, for example, Bunge argues: “Highly complex systems … have several concurrent mechanisms. That is, they undergo several more or less intertwined processes at the same time and on different levels.”Footnote 89 From a very different perspective, Tilly also notes that the cumulative effects of mechanisms “vary considerably depending on initial conditions and on combinations with other mechanisms.”Footnote 90 The problem lies less in the principle than in how it is translated into research practice given the epistemic commitments of research traditions. By focusing only on certain kinds of mechanisms and ignoring or defining away others, adherents of research traditions risk missing the complex processes through which diverse mechanisms relate to one another.

To offset this risk, analytic eclecticism is predicated on a definition of mechanism that is more open-ended than most. This is not because we are hedging our bets or refusing to take sides. It is because eclectic analysis requires a definition that minimizes a priori constraints on inquiry and leaves the door open to consideration of a wider range of causal processes operating in different levels and domains of social reality. Accordingly, we define mechanisms as all entities—whether individual actions or choices, social relations or networks, environmental or institutional characteristics, specific events or contextual factors, individual cognitive dispositions or collectively shared ideas and worldviews—that generate immediate effects through processes that may or may not recur across contexts and that may be, but often are not, directly observable.

Such a definition still covers the analytic function attributed to mechanisms as process links within causal stories. However, it would also permit traveling across diverse theoretical terrain to enable consideration of multiple causal forces operating in different domains of reality and across levels of generality. This definition allows for the possibility that unobservable mechanisms often account for the regularities we observe, but also sees no reason to insist on observability as a defining attribute of mechanisms, especially since it is always possible to “observe” analytical constructs via the indicators operationalizing them.Footnote 91 Our definition also does not insist that mechanisms be limited in scope vis-à-vis laws or that they must recur across multiple contexts. We grant that many interesting mechanisms operate across time and space, but we need to leave open the possibility of singular phenomena having effects in the same manner that recurrent phenomena can. Neither generality and constancy, nor specificity and complexity need to be intrinsic attributes of a mechanism.Footnote 92 On the issue of methodological individualism/holism, too, we resist the temptation to privilege either mechanisms that operate through individual cognition and action or ones that exert direct macro-level effects without the intervention of agents. For most substantive problems that have greater scope than those formulated within research traditions, useful causal stories are likely to incorporate the interactive effects of mechanisms operating across levels of social reality.

In sum, the pragmatist ethos and epistemological agnosticism of analytic eclecticism inclines it towards a more complex view of causality in which different types of mechanisms interact to generate outcomes of interest in different contexts. As noted above, this does not require an ever-expanding list of all imaginable causal factors. Given the time, energy, and attention that research traditions have implicitly or explicitly devoted to demonstrating the effects of particular mechanisms, it makes sense to focus one's attention on how to frame problems and analyses in ways that allow these diverse mechanisms to coexist and interact within comparable contexts. The result is likely to involve a more complex configuration of mechanisms than is typical in most social scientific research. But greater complexity is precisely what policymakers and ordinary actors contend with as they address substantive problems in the course of everyday politics. Scholars who wish to have their research speak to such problems must also be willing to contend with complexity.

Toward Eclecticism in the Study of World Politics

Although still comparatively rare in the social sciences, eclectic scholarship is beginning to make an impression in certain fields. Such eclecticism may be identified in relation to distinct strands within a broadly defined research tradition.Footnote 93 In the interest of brevity, we focus here on eclectic scholarship that cuts across research traditions in the fields of international relations and comparative politics. We neither pretend to offer an adequate summary of the arguments considered, nor assess their substantive accuracy or explanatory power. We do, however, view these works as meeting our three criteria for analytic eclecticism: they take on problems of broad scope, they develop complex causal stories at the level of middle-range theory, and they implicitly seek pragmatic engagement within and beyond the academe. To this extent, we regard these works as reasonable approximations of analytic eclecticism.

In the study of international security, Robert Jervis's American Foreign Policy in a New Era represents a creative move in the direction of eclecticism.Footnote 94 While the study is focused on the United States' policies in the post-Cold War era, the analysis is predicated on the assumption that a revolutionary transformation has taken place in the international system: A distinctive kind of security community has emerged, consisting of the most powerful and developed states in the world, each of which has forsaken the use of force in its dealings with other members (as evident in the absence of official war plans). Although many take this state of affairs for granted, Jervis points out that it is a novel phenomenon that needs to be problematized and explained. Even when security communities had emerged in the past, they did not include the most powerful and developed states in the international system. For Jervis, the current security community constitutes “proof by existence of the possibility of uncoerced peace without central authority,”Footnote 95 and thus requires scholars and policymakers to adjust their theoretical assumptions about states' perceptions, interests, and behavior.

For this purpose, Jervis notes the strengths and limitations of theories embedded in the constructivist, liberal, and realist traditions. These include: constructivist theories emphasizing the norm of nonviolence and an emergent identity shared by capitalist democracies; neoliberal theories stressing the pacifying effects of democratic politics, economic interdependence, and joint membership in international organizations; and realist theories focusing on the presence of external threat, American hegemony, and the logic of nuclear deterrence. Noting that none of these theories can independently explain the emergence or dynamics of the new security community, Jervis proceeds to adopt an eclectic analytic framework that reformulates and combines several causal factors: the belief that territorial conquest is difficult and unnecessary; the recognition of the costs of war, particularly in a nuclear age; and, rooted in the spread of democracy, shifts in identity that reflect a sharp decline in militarism and nationalism as well as a growing compatibility in values among the most advanced major powers. Interestingly, the significance of these factors and the complex manner in which they interact depends on ongoing historical processes. For example, the evolution of the international economy has been marked by a disassociation between territoriality and national prosperity, which has increased the costs of territorial acquisition in relation to potential material benefits. Similarly, the high degree of cooperation among the members of the security community is in part a function of enduring legacies of the Cold War when these states, as members of a common alliance, were socialized to behave as “partners” and set aside conflict as a means to settle their grievances vis-à-vis one another.

Significantly, Jervis does not treat his analysis as a purely academic exercise. He is also concerned about the practical implications of his eclectic analysis, specifically in relation to American foreign policy and the responses of other members of the security community. Jervis argues that, as a result of the Bush doctrine, “[w]e are headed for a difficult world, one that is not likely to fit any of our ideologies or simple theories.”Footnote 96 While pessimistic, the latter prediction is not simply a polemical statement. It derives from Jervis's reconsideration of the contours of the present international environment, which requires an urgent updating of conceptions of national interest and of the present course of American policy. In particular, Jervis cautions that unilateral actions by the US since 9/11 have begun to undermine the trust of members of the security community who are increasingly concerned about American hegemony. However, he also notes that other members of the security community, to the extent that they wish to check US hegemony, are adopting new styles of balancing that involve subtle, coordinated efforts to socialize and entrap the US to keep its behavior “within acceptable bounds.”Footnote 97 Whether or not one concurs with Jervis' implied prescriptions, his analysis enables a more open-ended discussion among scholars and policymakers about the foreign policy implications of the multiple dimensions of a new, evolving international order.

Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore note in Rules for the World that, until recently, even those who paid attention to international organizations (IOs) framed their debates in terms of the capabilities and interests of member states.Footnote 98 For Barnett and Finnemore, IOs are neither passive instruments of states nor mere facilitators of cooperation. They are Weberian bureaucracies and, as such, possess a bureaucratic culture that often spurs them to behave in ways that are not sanctioned by their members and that are clearly unanticipated by their founders. This behavior is not adequately problematized in the conventional literature. This is why Barnett and Finnemore launch their own efforts to analyze IOs in terms of their autonomy, power, dysfunctionality, and extent of change.

The eclectic character of Barnett and Finnemore's approach is evident in their effort to layer a bureaucratic-centered perspective over conventional state-centered accounts in order to generate a more complex analysis of IO behavior. They recognize that the power and interests of states are important and that IOs are rarely able to compel powerful states to act against their interests. In many circumstances, however, IOs act independently from (even if not in opposition to) states, generating unanticipated effects and sometimes shaping state preferences by taking the lead in agenda-setting. Barnett and Finnemore make another eclectic move by linking regulative mechanisms stressed in rationalist theory to constitutive mechanisms stressed in constructivist theory. Building on Weber's conception of bureaucratic power as “control based on knowledge,”Footnote 99 Barnett and Finnemore suggest that IOs learn to employ their authority, knowledge, and rules both to regulate the world and to constitute a world that appears to require further regulation. By creating categories, affixing meanings to these categories, and diffusing new norms and rules to guide political practice, IOs are in a position to create the political world in which they operate and in which states form their preferences.

To illustrate the distinctive utility of their approach, Barnett and Finnemore analyze and compare the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the UN Secretariat. The three cases cover substantively diverse issue areas, each of them associated with well-developed statist explanations that can be used as foils for Barnett and Finnemore's more eclectic approach. The three IOs also feature different types of authority claims, with the IMF relying more on expert authority, the UN Secretariat more on moral authority, and the UNHCR on a more evenly balanced mixture of expert and moral authority. By demonstrating common patterns across such diverse cases—for example, the tendency of IOs to steadily expand—Barnett and Finnemore are able to provide a tentative defense of their argument.

As with Jervis' book, Barnett and Finnemore's eclectic approach has practical implications for the world of policy and practice. In fact, Barnett, who has worked at the United Nations, and Finnemore, who has done research on the World Bank, note that their academic training and experience had not prepared them for “what international organizations were really like.”Footnote 100 Their analysis of how IOs grow in size and take on broader missions sounds a cautionary note about the power of IOs to reconfigure international and domestic social spaces, resulting in benefits for some and domination for others. Barnett and Finnemore also fear that the procedural legitimation of IO rules and the substantive legitimation attached to socially liberal values can reduce the scope for democratic participation and accountability as IOs grow in reach and power. These concerns prompt Barnett and Finnemore to point to the dangers of an “undemocratic liberalism” that can emerge within even the most well-intentioned IOs.

Leonard Seabrooke's book, The Social Sources of Financial Power, weaves together concepts and mechanisms drawn from research traditions in international political economy, comparative politics, the new institutionalism, and economic sociology.Footnote 101 Seabrooke sees the standard literature on financial power as excessively focused on the interactions among global economic forces, state economic policies, and big business. Little attention is paid to the everyday economic struggles of ordinary actors, especially those in lower-income groups, and to the ways in which their norms and practices can affect a state's financial capacity in the international arena. Seabrooke defines his problem in a manner that does not neatly conform to the parameters of typical approaches to state-society relations or international political economy; instead, his study self-consciously aims “to examine the mechanisms that link state and social groups in broadening or narrowing a state's social source of financial power.”Footnote 102

For this purpose, theories emphasizing either factor endowments or institutional logics are static; they recognize the opportunities generated when the circulation of credit is increased but fail to consider social responses to the manner in which this credit is allocated among different groups. Theories focusing on the constraints posed by financial globalization and different state structures offer partial explanations for variation in financial systems and policies, but they cannot explain why similar states may have quite different capabilities in projecting financial power and shaping the international financial order. Constructivists consider social norms and identities, but only a few studies consider the social foundations of financial institutions, and even these tend to limit their focus to elite actors or ideational entrepreneurs when discussing the locus of ideas and norms that pertain to financial and fiscal institutions.

Seabrooke employs the Weberian concept of legitimacy to build a complex analytic framework that incorporates mechanisms from multiple traditions in multiple fields. Specifically, he argues that the extent to which lower-income groups view patterns of credit access, property ownership, and tax burdens as fundamentally fair ultimately affects state influence in international finance in ways that conventional treatments of political economy cannot appreciate or explain. Especially important in this regard is the extent of positive state intervention on behalf of lower-income groups—the lowering of tax burdens and the expansion of access to credit and property—which serves to broaden and deepen the domestic pool of capital and subsequently to boost the international financial capacity of states. Historical comparisons of England and Germany (at the end of the nineteenth century) and the United States and Japan (at the end of the twentieth) provide empirical support for this argument. Whereas England's strong position was eventually weakened by challenges from lower-income groups responding to negative state policies, a similar form of contestation in the United States gave rise to positive state policies after the mid-1980s that increased the legitimacy of national financial policies and enabling the United States to extend its hegemony in the international financial order.

Seabrooke concludes: “if a state intervenes positively to legitimate its financial reform nexus for lower-income groupings, it can provide a sustainable basis from which to increase its international financial capacity.”Footnote 103 While this may not be the norm, particularly in rentier states, the analysis suggests that the legitimacy and financial capacity of states in the international arena are directly and significantly affected by the fundamentally domestic choices state elites make with regard to lower income groups. Seabrooke's eclectic analysis not only integrates mechanisms drawn from diverse research traditions to link domestic social policy and international finance but also provides a useful bridge between academic discussions of political economy and those involved in social policy, particularly in democratic settings, where lower-income groups have regular institutionalized opportunities to punish state elites.

Phineas Baxandall's Constructing Unemployment also aims to trace the operation of multiple mechanisms in different domains of social reality.Footnote 104 Rather than taking the concept and measurement of unemployment for granted, Baxandall seeks to historicize its meaning and political significance. Most students of political economy focus on what kinds of policies, institutional structures, and economic conditions might account for higher or lower unemployment, and most students of labor assume increases in unemployment everywhere to be a trigger for protest and contestation. Instead, Baxandall tackles the more complex problem of explaining how popular expectations about appropriate levels of unemployment are influenced by elites and policies, and how such expectations then produce different reactions among different social groups to similar increases in unemployment levels. As Baxandall puts it, the “threat of unemployment appears to constrain governments in some countries far more than others; and the same unemployment rate can arouse wildly different degrees of concern among the citizens of different countries.”Footnote 105

Focusing on Hungary, Baxandall describes the emergence of an “unemployment taboo” in the post-Stalin era, as the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries began to offer guarantees of full employment as a basis for a new “social contract.” This taboo survived under Hungary's New Economic Mechanism and made it difficult for factories to shed core workers. But during the last decade of communism, the Hungarian government sought to partially shift its responsibility for full employment to an informal economy in which individuals could hold second or third jobs. Hungarian communist leaders even allowed large-scale dismissals for many previously protected categories of employees while developing social policies intended to deal with the “unemployed.” The postcommunist Hungarian government thus had a relatively easy time in linking employment levels to the growth of entrepreneurship rather than to state policies, with surprisingly little social protest in the face of unemployment rates that skyrocketed to over 20 percent by 1993. In Poland, by contrast, the continued commitment to full employment through the official state sector meant that the unemployment taboo survived until the very end of the communist era, making rising unemployment a significantly more contentious issue in the postcommunist era. Baxandall also considers responses to unemployment in advanced industrial economies to demonstrate the broader applicability of his analytic framework.

Baxandall's case studies and comparisons suggest that the political salience of unemployment depends largely on three factors: existing ideas about what counts as success regarding unemployment; the sharpness of institutionalized distinctions between being employed and being unemployed; and the extent to which core workers are affected by unemployment. But these factors in turn depend on broader institutional, socioeconomic, and ideational mechanisms, including political calculations among elites in certain political settings, the effects of policy discourses on different segments of the population, and historical legacies related to the treatment of unemployment under previous regimes. Only by considering the interplay of these various mechanisms is it possible for Baxandall to explain the significant variation in popular responses to unemployment across similar groups of states and over different time periods.

Finally, a more self-conscious deployment of analytic eclecticism is evident in Rudra Sil's analysis of institutional borrowing among late-industrializers.Footnote 106 The problem Sil tackles concerns the prospects for legitimizing institutions designed on the basis of models originally devised abroad while enlisting the cooperation of subordinates whose expectations and behaviors are conditioned by more familiar local norms and practices. Sil argues that, in the context of belated industrialization, this challenge is exacerbated by the compressed timeframe for the promulgation of new institutions. In distinguishing the range of approaches to institutional borrowing, Sil emphasizes the extent to which elites count on the ability of novel institutions to incrementally transform the values, habits, and practices of recruited subordinates, and on the strength of narratives and symbols that tout either a seamless continuity or radical break with the past.

This problem is approached through a systematic “paired comparison”Footnote 107 of the large-scale industrial firms in twentieth century Japan and Soviet Russia. The comparison reveals that pre-World War II elites in both countries, in spite of their radically different worldviews and normative commitments, systematically adopted core elements of the Taylorist-Fordist model originally devised in American industry. This proved to be more problematic than expected in light of contradictions between, on the one hand, production practices focused on individual skills and performance and, on the other hand, official and popular discourses stressing a supposedly revolutionary ethos of egalitarian collectivism (in Soviet Russia) or a more traditionalist narrative of paternalistic benevolence (in Japan). These tensions, magnified by workers' economic anxieties, contributed to a crisis of legitimacy manifested in surprising instances of labor protest as well as everyday forms of alienation and resistance. In the course of post-war reconstruction, however, Japanese (but not Soviet) elites engaged in coordinated national efforts to creatively adjust production and employment practices in the interest of greater labor commitment and productivity. In the process, there emerged significantly greater congruence between standardized company practices (including “lifetime” employment and small-group work organization) and a reformulated ideology of company paternalism that incorporated norms and ideals informally articulated by workers and unions. This congruence provides a partial explanation for the increase in the legitimacy of employment practices in large-scale Japanese firms, at least relative to pre-war Japan and to Soviet Russia.

Sil's eclectic framework thus highlights the interaction of several causal mechanisms drawn from a wide range of research traditions. These include the competitive pressures of catch-up industrialization linked to the motivations of ambitious state elites and the transnational diffusion of institutional models. The long-term legitimacy of the emergent institution, however, depends heavily on the coherence between ideology and organization and on the extent to which both are congruent with the norms, practices, and social relations of subordinates recruited from a given social environment. The effects of these two dimensions of institutional congruence on subordinates are mediated by cognitive mechanisms, identified on the basis of research in occupational psychology, that link the familiarity of organizational environments to the cooperation and commitment of members. Finally, there are several contextually delimited mechanisms linked to the particular historical legacies and developmental objectives of specific countries insofar as these reinforce, diffuse, or deflect the effects of the more general mechanisms. This complex causal story does not lend itself to a general model, but it surfaces some of the less obvious challenges of institutional borrowing and lays out the practical utility of a syncretist approach in managing the global diffusion of ideas and practices. Such an approach, approximated by the post-war Japanese case, is one that features (i) the creative modification of borrowed institutional models alongside (ii) an abstract reconfiguration of preexisting local norms, values, and practices with the result that (iii) a novel institutional form emerges that is both capable of realizing standard developmental objectives and familiar enough to permit meaningful involvement in specific local contexts.

We discuss these examples of eclectic scholarship for the purposes of illustration only. Our hope is simply to have established here, in no more than a preliminary manner, the distinctiveness and potential utility of analytic eclecticism in fields in which there already exist established research traditions. The works discussed above take on socially important problems formulated so as to bypass or transgress the theoretical boundaries established by specific research traditions. Moreover, each of the works makes a conscious effort to transcend restrictive assumptions about which aspects of social reality are more fundamental, choosing to develop more complex causal stories featuring the interplay of a wide range of mechanisms. And each features a clear, if implicit, pragmatic engagement with substantive dilemmas that extend beyond the academe into the world of policy and practice.

Conclusion: The Challenges and Payoffs of Analytic Eclecticism

Eclectic approaches are not without costs and risks. We have already considered above the potential dangers of theoretical incoherence linked to the possible incommensurability of research traditions. These dangers, we realize, are serious. But, as we noted above, they are also ubiquitous in political science even when practiced more conventionally. Incommensurability can, in principle, exist across theories within research traditions as well as across applications of the same theory in different contexts. More importantly, as we noted above, the problem is not entirely insurmountable, at least in the context of pragmatist inquiry. Although caution is required, there are possibilities for the intersubjective translation of specific theoretical constructs once these are detached from the metaphysical principles or epistemic commitments associated with contending research traditions.

There remains the problem of how eclectic scholars can demonstrate the quality and utility of their work to those working in diverse research traditions. By its very definition, eclectic scholarship lacks a Lakatosian “protective belt” that can shield substantive analyses from questions about core premises and assumptions. It also lacks the kinds of epistemic norms and uniform standards that enable research traditions to evaluate individual contributions and proclaim some degree of internal progress. Equally problematic is the fact that an eclectic approach is likely to draw a wider range of criticism informed by the varied standards and practices of varied research traditions.

This does not justify forgoing eclectic inquiry, however. Rather, it puts the onus on eclectic researchers to demonstrate their attentiveness to standards and expectations associated with different research traditions. While the particular criteria employed by any one research tradition may not be appropriate for evaluating explicitly eclectic approaches, eclectic scholars do need to be clear about their own evidentiary standards for different pieces of their arguments, and about the reliability of particular sources in the eyes of the research communities that typically handle those sources. By self-consciously pursuing a broad understanding of the assumptions, practices, limitations, and objectives of alternative research traditions, a particular eclectic treatment can develop its own problem-specific set of “cross-epistemic judgments”Footnote 108 that can be used to assess the quality and reliability of the individual observations, interpretations, logics, and sources employed in an eclectic causal story. This differs little from the challenge faced by social scientists who rely on historical scholarship and who must make judgments about the quality of information in light of contending traditions of historiography.Footnote 109

There is also the question of whether the limited resources available for research should be expended on eclectic projects considering the number of potential leads that can be traced.Footnote 110 This criticism, however, fails to take into account the obvious. The kinds of theory cumulation and intellectual progress that adherents of a research tradition trumpet are rarely, if ever, recognized as such by adherents of competing traditions. The history of comparative politics and international relations to date suggests that there is no basis for deciding whether one set of evaluative principles is inherently more “correct” than its competitors, and whether the indicators of “progress” employed by one tradition can be employed to evaluate others.Footnote 111 That is, the track records of individual research traditions do not justify withholding resources from those willing to take on the challenges of eclectic inquiry as we define it.

Analytic eclecticism is neither a substitute for nor superior to approaches embedded in research traditions. Its role is to complement such approaches, and its contribution depends largely on continued engagement with these approaches. For two reasons, we have argued, it deserves greater space in social science disciplines than it presently enjoys. First, analytic eclecticism alone aims to problematize complex phenomena encountered by practitioners and ordinary actors, phenomena that are typically sliced into more narrowly circumscribed puzzles by adherents of research traditions. Second, analytic eclecticism alone is designed to simultaneously traffic in theories from multiple traditions in search of linkages between different types of mechanisms that are normally treated in isolation in separate traditions. In so doing, analytic eclecticism increases the chance that scholars and other actors will hit upon hidden connections and new insights that elude us when we simplify the world for the sole purpose of analyzing it through a single theoretical lens. This possibility justifies committing at least some of our resources to analytic eclecticism even as we continue to encourage the development of and competition between existing and emerging research traditions. A discipline that accommodates adherents of diverse research traditions as well as their analytically eclectic colleagues will not only expand “the fund of insights and understandings”Footnote 112 that all scholars can draw upon but also facilitate more fruitful conversations across and beyond the boundaries of the academe.


1 Lindblom and Cohen Reference Lindblom and Cohen1979, 1.

2 Shapiro Reference Shapiro2005, 2.

4 Waltz Reference Waltz1959, 229–30.

5 Moravcsik Reference Moravcsik2003, 132.

7 A more extensive discussion of eclectically oriented scholarship in international relations appears in our forthcoming book (Sil and Katzenstein Reference Sil and Katzenstein2010).

10 Laudan Reference Laudan1996, 83.

11 Laudan Reference Laudan1977, 104–110.

12 Both Kuhn Reference Kuhn1962 and Lakatos Reference Lakatos, Lakatos and Musgrave1970 offer insights that can be used to shed light on the evolution of comparative politics and international relations. See, respectively, Janos Reference Janos1986 and Elman and Elman Reference Elman and Elman2003. However, the visions of scientific progress they offer are difficult to square with the complicated history of the two fields. For one, not even the most popular approaches in these fields have enjoyed the staying power of those dominant paradigms considered exemplary by Kuhn (for example, Newtonian physics, which spanned centuries). Moreover, the metatheoretical divides underpinning competing schools in these fields have proven to be recurrent rather than episodic problems, suggesting that there is neither a clear sequence of normal and revolutionary science as Kuhn envisioned, nor any evidence that the progressive character of a research program will be recognized as such by any but its own adherents (Katzenstein and Sil Reference Katzenstein, Sil, Suh, Katzenstein and Carlson2004, 6–7; Sil Reference Sil, Sil and Doherty2000b, 9–14).

15 Hirschman Reference Hirschman1970, 341, 343.

16 Tetlock Reference Tetlock2005, 88.

17 Tetlock Reference Tetlock2005, 88, 91.

18 Page Reference Page2007, 10.

19 Ober Reference Ober2008, 39, 2.

20 Feyerabend Reference Feyerabend, Feigl and Maxwell1962. The thesis can be traced back to the writings of Pierre Duhem (Reference Duhem1954 [1906]) and others in the early twentieth century.

21 Harvey and Cobb Reference Harvey and Cobb2003, 146; see also Johnson Reference Johnson2002.

22 Putnam Reference Putnam1981, 115; cf., Oberheim Reference Oberheim2006, 28. This perspective is also evident in Donald Davidson's Reference Davidson1974 critique of the incommensurability thesis. For a detailed discussion of Feyerabend's nuanced views on incommensurability, see Oberheim Reference Oberheim2006, 123–205.

23 Parsons Reference Parsons2007, 3.

24 A similar position is also evident in Jackson and Nexon Reference Jackson and Nexon2009 and Moravcsik Reference Moravcsik2003.

25 Abbott Reference Abbott2004, 162–170.

26 See, for example, Hellmann Reference Hellmann2003, 147–50.

27 Lichbach Reference Lichbach2003, 116.

28 Merton Reference Merton1968, 43–44.

29 Discussions of triangulation and multi-method research include Brewer and Hunter Reference Brewer and Hunter2006, Lieberman Reference Lieberman2005, Capoccia Reference Capoccia2006, and Tarrow Reference Tarrow1995. For a more critical discussion of the pitfalls of multi-method research see Rohlfing Reference Rohlfing2008 and Ahmed and Sil Reference Ahmed and Sil2009.

30 Hall and Taylor Reference Hall and Taylor1996.

36 Footnote Ibid., 29–30.

37 See the discussion of empiricism and logicism in Shapiro Reference Shapiro2005.

38 This is evident in the wide range of approaches in Yanow and Schwartz-Shea Reference Yanow and Schwartz-Shea2006.

39 Some of the discussion on pragmatism builds on Katzenstein and Sil Reference Katzenstein, Sil, Rues-Smit and Snidal2008 and Sil Reference Sil2009.

40 Festenstein Reference Festenstein1997, 2.

41 Kaag Reference Kaag2009, 63.

42 Festenstein Reference Festenstein1997, 4–5.

43 See, for example, Bernstein Reference Bernstein1992, Rorty Reference Rorty1982, and Putnam Reference Putnam1981.

45 James Reference James and Menand1997 [1904], 94.

48 Meilleur Reference Meilleur and Monroe2005, 497. For the original discussion of reconstruction, see Dewey Reference Dewey1920.

49 Quoted in Menand Reference Menand and Menand1997, xxiii.

50 Isaac Reference Isaac2007, 30.

51 Kaag Reference Kaag2009, 70.

52 Bohman Reference Bohman1999. As Richard Rorty Reference Rorty1982 (165) puts it, pragmatism incorporates “the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones.”

53 Isaac Reference Isaac1999, 579.

56 See, respectively, Giddens Reference Giddens1984, Knight and Johnson Reference Knight and Johnson1999, and Wendt Reference Wendt1999.

58 See, for example, the contributions to Shapiro, Smith, and Masoud Reference Shapiro, Smith and Masoud2004.

59 Shapiro Reference Shapiro2005, 184.

60 Lindblom and Cohen Reference Lindblom and Cohen1979, 11.

61 See, respectively, Gurr Reference Gurr1970, Skocpol Reference Skocpol1979, Tilly Reference Tilly1978, Chong Reference Chong1991, Tarrow Reference Tarrow1994, and Benford and Snow Reference Benford and Snow2000.

62 McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly Reference McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly2001.

64 See, for example, Gilpin Reference Gilpin1987.

65 See Mansfield and Pollins Reference Mansfield and Pollins2003.

66 Abbott Reference Abbott2004, 26–30.

68 By “domains of social reality” we mean realms consisting of either material (concrete) elements that are directly observable or ideational elements the existence of which must be inferred through the interpretation of their observable consequences. “Levels of social reality” refers to the familiar distinction between the analysis of action and cognition among individual agents and the analysis of structures—rules, collective beliefs and practices, patterned social relations, or the distribution of roles and capabilities—characterizing various institutions or social environments. See Sil Reference Sil2000a, 360–9.

69 King, Keohane, and Verba Reference King, Keohane and Verba1994, 85–7, 225–7.

70 George and Bennett Reference George and Bennett2005, 138.

72 Mahoney Reference Mahoney2001; Mayntz Reference Mayntz2004, 243–5; Stinchcombe Reference Stinchcombe1991, 380–2. In the context of sociology, a focus on social mechanisms tends to reflect the shift toward a post-positivist epistemology (Gross Reference Gross2009).

73 Mahoney Reference Mahoney2001; Mayntz Reference Mayntz2004; Gross Reference Gross2009. See also the diverse perspectives in Hedström and Swedberg Reference Hedström and Swedberg1998b.

75 George and Bennett Reference George and Bennett2005, 143.

76 Reskin Reference Reskin2003, cf. Gross Reference Gross2009, 360.

77 Bunge Reference Bunge2004, 191.

78 Wight Reference Wight2004, 285–6.

81 Flyvbjerg Reference Flyvbjerg2001, 43.

82 Wight Reference Wight2004, 290.

85 George and Bennett Reference George and Bennett2005, 141–2, 137.

86 Tilly Reference Tilly2001, 24–25.

89 Bunge Reference Bunge2004, 193.

90 Tilly Reference Tilly2001, 25.

91 Mayntz Reference Mayntz2004, 243.

92 See George and Bennett Reference George and Bennett2005, 147; Wight Reference Wight2004, 290–1.

93 See, for example, Checkel's (Reference Checkel, Jøergensen, Pollack and Rosamond2006) discussion of “bridge building” across strands of constructivism.

98 Barnett and Finnemore Reference Barnett and Finnemore2004.

100 Footnote Ibid., vii.

103 Footnote Ibid., 173.

110 Sanderson Reference Sanderson1987, 321.

111 This is evident in competing assessments of realism (e.g., Vasquez Reference Vasquez1997 and Walt Reference Walt1997) and of rational-choice theory (e.g., Green and Shapiro Reference Green and Shapiro1994 and Friedman Reference Friedman1996).

112 Rule Reference Rule1997, 18.


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