The “scholarly mainstream” in German IR

[Alex Radelich/unsplash]

Given its object of study, one would think that the field of International Relations would be a particularly cosmopolitan and ecumenical discipline. In many ways it is. But in some respects it resembles a collection of warring tribes. This has probably declined somewhat since the Big Debates of the 1990s—the Neo-Neo Debate, epistemology wars between neo-positivists and ‘critical’ theorists—which still provide many of the key readings for students of IR theory. But these Big Debates didn’t really end in a definitive victory for one side. They mostly gave way to a Cold Peace amongst relatively insular scholarly communities. Well they maybe did – it’s hard to know for sure.

One of the interesting phenomena about how IR scholars talk about their field and their tribe is that they often refer to it as ‘mainstream’. Often, this is done by those who feel they are outside of the mainstream. (Interestingly, there does not appear to be an accepted metaphor to refer to those who are not part of the mainstream – backwaters? Counter-currents?) But what does this mainstream consist of?

If I were to imagine an ideal-typical ‘mainstream’ IR scholar, I would probably give the following incoherent checklist (if you answer yes to many of these, you might have mainstream-itis):

  • Quantitative methods
  • Rational choice
  • Positivism
  • Variables
  • Studies formal institutions, political economy, or conflict
  • Publishes in American journals
  • Game theory
  • Liberalism or realism

Basically, you would just need to turn to a random page of the American Political Science Review to see what the mainstream looks like. But to what extent is this mainstream really “mainstream”? Do the majority of scholars really conform to this ideal type? Probably not, you might think. And at least in Germany, you would be right.

The TRIP Survey

The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project have collected some fun data on this. According to their survey results, the ideal type I sketched above would appear to be in the minority.

According to TRIP data of IR faculty in Germany [1], more than three-quarters of those surveyed primarily employ qualitative methods, while only 12 percent primarily use quantitative methods.

For comparison, the UK also has around 12 percent quantitative scholars, while in the USA, the number is 25 percent. Interestingly, both qualitative and quantitative scholars in both countries are swamped by people who do ‘policy analysis’, which hardly exists in Germany.

Regarding rationalism, in Germany, most faculty claim to use both rationalist and non-rationalist approaches, although around a quarter do identify as rationalist or soft rationalist.

In the US the proportions are similar, although rationalism is a little stronger. In the UK, by comparison, the majority of scholars explicitly do not assume the rationality of actors.

In epistemological terms, the German IR community appears more divided: around 55 percent claim to be either ‘non-positivist’ or ‘post-positivist’, while 45% identify as positivist. Of course, one wonders what the respondents had in mind when they answered this question!

In the US, positivism has indeed captured the mainstream, with 61 percent identifying their work as positivist, with 39 percent either non- or post-positivist. In the UK, these proportions appear to be reversed.

Finally, what about theoretical paradigm? Do liberalism and/or realism constitute the German mainstream? Perhaps surprisingly, of those scholars who do think of their work as falling into a theoretical camp (which is around 70 percent of the total), almost half describe their work not as liberal or realist, but constructivist. Liberalism accounts for most of the rest. Interestingly, realism in Germany appears to be about as popular as Marxism – that is to say, not very.

In the United States, for comparison, it really does look like a fairly even split between the three kings of realism, liberalism, and constructivism (with the caveat that over 30 percent do not think of their work as paradigmatic). In the UK, proportions are similar, but smaller currents such as feminism and Marxism also get a fair shake. [2]


Based on TRIP’s survey data, I need to update my mental ideal type of ‘mainstream’ IR. At least in Germany, the mainstream appears dominated by:

  • qualitative methods
  • a soft or agnostic approach to rationalism
  • not really positivism
  • constructivism

So, does this mean we need to drastically reconsider our preconceptions, and modify our use of the term mainstream? Maybe not completely.

The ‘mainstream’ I sketched out before—the rationalist, quantitative, positivist mainstream—currently occupies many—probably most—of the major positions of privilege in the global discipline today. While the German IR community might be a special case, it still orients itself in many ways towards the American ‘mainstream’. Maybe mainstreams have less to do with numbers, and more with prestige and resources.

[1] They define this as „international relations scholars employed at a college or university who have an affiliation with a political science department or school of public policy and who teach or conduct research on issues that cross international borders“.

[2] Interestingly: in the UK, around 18 percent would have described themselves as either realist or Marxist at the start of their academic careers. This drops to around 6 percent later on. One can only speculate as to the drivers of this apostasy.

Share this:

One Reply to “The “scholarly mainstream” in German IR”

Leave a Reply

Feel free to comment on all the blog posts! We are happy to engage in a discussion with our readers and want to foster the dialogue with them. Any reasonable or constructive comment, including strong, but well-argued critique is welcome. To guarantee a fair and respectful discussion, we operate a propriety filter, which will route the comments to the Blog Team first. The comments will be published after they have been checked, so there might be a brief delay until your comment is posted for public view.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *