An ‘Indonesian School’ of IR? Six Cautionary Notes

Recently, I noticed that several International Relations (IR) lecturers from both private and public universities in Jakarta have been holding workshops and discussions about the possibility of formulating (or constructing?) an ‘Indonesian School’ of IR. I’m in no way involved in the process so I have no idea what is really happening inside those meetings. And I’ve only managed to get glimpses of their topics and agenda from their invitations and announcements on facebook.

That said, while I find the idea of having a national-based school of IR (much like the English School, for example) intuitively appealing, my own experience back home suggests that these Indonesian IR scholars should be cautious in moving ahead. Here are six cautionary notes they should consider and address before sketching an Indonesian IR school.

#1 Ontological and epistemological.  Before formulating a distinct IR school, we should be aware of the debates within the philosophy of social science as it pertains to the IR discipline. What is the ‘reality’ of IR and what do we know about it? How do we know what we know and what we don’t know? Should we look for causal or constitutive effects, and why? What is causation in IR? Should we focus on the observables or non-observables, or both, and why? Should we strive for ‘explanation’ as opposed to ‘understanding’? Is such distinction even helpful, and if not, why? Are positivist ontologies and epistemologies better at capturing the world than non-positivist ones, and if so, why and why not? Understanding this debate–and more importantly, taking a stance–is important if we want to have a solid foundation under which a future Indonesian IR school might stand. It should be noted that many of the IR schools started with these ontological and epistemological debates and where they stand within them. Aside from the works of Alexander Wendt, a good recent intro book on the matter is Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations.

#2 Metatheoretical. Having an ontological and epistemological stance will help us better appraise the state of the IR discipline as a whole and where a future Indonesian School could fill a niche area and offer a valuable contribution. However, appraising progress should not be done arbitrarily or carelessly. While we can evaluate a single theory for its logical consistency and explanatory power, we can’t appraise a series of theories (or research programs) based on common sense criteria alone. We need metatheories–theories about the nature of theories. Granted, there is no one single perfect  metatheory at our disposal to do so. But if we want a future Indonesian School to have credibility and a distinct voice, we need to at least utilize the works of Lakatos, Kuhn, Popper, and Laudan as starting points. These ‘models’ are of course very difficult to apply in practice–some more than others. But a systematic understanding the field, appraising and critiquing it, and offering an alternative is how many contemporary IR schools came about. The best recent book on the matter is Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman’s Progress in International Relations Theory: Appraising the Field.

#3 Methodological. A firm stance on the previous two challenges would help us better approach the issues and problems that come with the pluralist nature of IR methodology and methods. While obviously having a single, dominant methodological approach and technique is counter-productive in the long run for an IR school, the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods need to be a part of the discussion. After all, the quality and credibility of a research program is shaped by the validity of the arguments proposed–and validity depends largely on methodology. The commensurability of the methodological choices is of course partially related to the first two issues above, and partially related to the puzzles that an Indonesian School seeks to tackle. On methodology, I still think these three are the best: Gerring’s Social Science Methodology, King, Keohane and Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry, and Van Evera’s Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science.

#4 Theoretical. A clear answer to the above issues will help us determine the theoretical direction of an Indonesian School. Is the school going to become a hodge-podge of different theories of IR without an alternative proposition? Will the school be able to ask and answer important and interesting puzzles in IR better than existing schools? Will the school be instead geared to simply ‘revive’ old cultural thoughts originating from Indonesia’s past to serve as a foreign policy guide? What exactly is the end goal here? If an Indonesian School says nothing or proposes no generalizable theory or series of theories of IR (applicable BEYOND just Indonesia), and instead develops an arbitrary, ad-hoc ‘combination’ of different existing IR theories, then it is not worthy of a school.

#5 Institutional. The history and historiography of IR as a scientific discipline suggests that the birth and direction of a research program or school have often been shaped in practice by specific individuals associated with their respective home institutions. As such, the different advanced training and personal experiences of those scholars matter as much as the intellectual support of their ‘home’. The relevance here is of course whether different universities in Jakarta fully supports a similar endeavor, and whether the different advanced trainings of the Indonesian scholars would make it difficult for them to reach a consensus on the four fundamental issues above. There is the also the challenge of the Indonesian IR teaching paradox, identified by Bob Hadiwinata: “On the one hand, while the discipline has been increasingly held in high esteem by students, marked by an increasing number of applicants to IR departments across the country; on the other hand, IR scholars show too little commitment to research and publication for the development of the discipline; and if they do publish, the quality of writing is generally poor.”

#6 Societal demands and scholarly relevance. The history and historiography of IR also suggest that the rise and fall of research programs often, though not always, follows specific “demands” or major events within the society. The experience of World War II and the policy challenges facing the US as it rose as a global power helped shape for example the rise of Realism during the first two decades of the Cold War. In other words, the scholars who founded specific IR schools were motivated to address the pressing problems of their time, and thereby making their research program relevant. The question that Indonesian IR scholars need to answer is this: why do we need a distinct Indonesian School of IR? Is there a need for it? What is the rationale or raison d’être for the effort? Is it the policy issues and challenges facing Indonesia’s rising regional and global profile in recent years, or is it the alleged decaying state of the existing IR discipline as a whole? Simply arguing that, “Well, we have something to say”,  is not necessarily a good enough reason to propose your own school of thought. After all, once again, a good research program should ask important and interesting questions, and should answer them as methodical as possible.

These challenges are of course very broad and seemingly herculean or even pointless. But given the stakes involved, they should be properly discussed and systematically assessed nonetheless if the effort is to have any credibility.

I want to emphasize here that these challenges are by no means an indication of my rejection of the effort. Au contraire, the fact that Indonesian IR scholars are thinking about a school of thought is commendable, and their effort should be supported. From 10 thousand miles away, I just want to slightly contribute to that effort by reminding them of the need to proceed cautiously and methodically.

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