“Theory is always for some one and for some purpose.” What is the significance of the above statement in theory building?
The social sciences have come a long way in trying to explain the workings of the world and its inhabitants. The statement above is testament to the evolution of human ought and the theories which we use to find causal explanations of social phenomena. This often-quoted statement by neo-Gramscian Robert Cox is an avowal that we are far from omniscient beings, and that all that we are and all that we think and believe are products of the environment and the conditions we live in.
The foundationalist (or rational) theories of the early days claim that there is an absolute truth out there to be discovered and unearthed by all-knowing theorists and scholars. While the scholar is the subject, “reality” is his/her object to be studied and explained. These “subjects” then make assumptions about the world we live in and base their actions on these “truths.” The danger of forming a view of the world through particular lenses is that of transmitting one’s own normative values based on one’s life experiences and interests. Consciously or unconsciously, according to the statement above, we as humans unwittingly transmit our own biases to the assumptions we make about the social world.
Rationalist/Foundational political theories such as realist and liberal thinking have even been accused by neogramscians of “maintaining the status quo,” the status being; there are people oppressed in the world and there are those who oppress them. If one dissects Realist theory of IR through this neo-Gramscian point of view then it certainly seems obvious that the discourse on world politics focuses on “great power” rivalries and says little about “non-powers” like the Philippines. Does this means that the 80 million inhabitants of this particular state matters little as well?
Non-foundational or reflectivist theories of the social sciences, curiously enough, trace their roots to the humanities. The “post-modern” turn began through the study of words, through linguistics. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure began the “revolution” in the 1920s by declaring that there is no “truth” and that language shapes truth. Meanings are intersubjective agreements in that definitions of words and concepts are agreed upon by individuals although the notion/idea behind the word or concept is not necessarily uniform. The word “suffering” triggers different connotations between you and I. My idea of suffering could radically differ from yours.
And so, with the revolution in linguistics colonizing sociology as well as the other social sciences, the Subject has been declared dead. If there can be no factual, observable reality out there from which we as subjects are separate, how can we form “objective” thoughts or opinions about the world we live in? How can we build theories that try to explain the world “objectively”?
All at has come before, all that has been written, al that has been believed are now put into doubt. All that was and is is questioned by reflectivist theories. Critical theorists (tracing their roots to Gramsci) claim that rational theories are simply problem-solving, uninterested with emancipation of those who suffer in the world today. The discourse on traditional international relations especially during the Cold War has marginalized the dispossessed. The “non-powers” are only studied in so far as they affect or figure in great power politics.
Feminist theories on the other hand questions the masculinity of IR. They claim that the discipline of IR itself has been formed by men, with the normative values and biases of men. The recognition that there is a female perspective different from and certainly not inferior to the male perspective is crucial to the “destruction” of what we thought was “real.” While feminism has many variants (Standpoint, Liberal, Marxist), all are essentially in agreement that there is urgent need to frame the world through female eyes.
The shift from the individual as a Subject to the individual as an object has implications that shake the foundations of our core beliefs. Questions like; “Is the God of the Aramaic bible the same as the translated English version of Henry VIII’s Anglican Church bible and has there been changes as the ‘word of God’ written by human beings been translated to many languages with different versions in the past 2,000 years?” These questions point to the profundity of the death of the Subject felt in various disciplines of knowledge-formation. Do we really “know” what we think we know?
Compared to the natural sciences, the social sciences have always been suspect. With no mathematical equations or reproducible experiments to back data, the social sciences seem to explain phenomena with nothing but air. With the arrival of reflectivists theories, this is even more evident. But the science of the social deals not with rocks or plants or atoms but with human lives, is it not reassuring that there be as many versions of truths as there are thinking individuals?