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What's at stake in the agent-structure debate?

David Dessler

International Organization, 1989, vol. 43, issue 3, 441-473

Abstract: Recent developments in the philosophy of science, particularly those falling under the rubric of “scientific realism,†have earned growing recognition among theorists of international relations but have failed to generate substantive programs of research. Consequently, the empirical relevance of much philosophical discourse, such as that centering on the agent-structure problem in social theory, remains unestablished. This article attempts to bridge the gap between the philosophy and practice of science by outlining a model of international structure based on the principles of scientific realism and by considering its implications for a structural research program in international relations theory. Appealing to Imre Lakatos's methodology of theorychoice, the article presents an ontological case for adopting a “transformational†model of structure over the “positional†model developed in the work of Kenneth Waltz. The article demonstrates that the positional approach offers no conceptual or explanatory hold on those features of the international structure that are the intended products of state action. In conclusion, the article argues that the stakes in the agent-structure debate include the capacity to generate integrative structural theory and the ability to theorize the possibilities for peaceful change in the international system.

Date: 1989
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Handle: RePEc:cup:intorg:v:43:y:1989:i:03:p:441-473_03