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Theory Synthesis in Sport and International Relations Research

16 3 0
26.05.2019

The main focus of contemporary ‘sport & international relations (IR)’ research is on the hosting of mega-sporting events as campaigns that may help the host country enhance its international image and status. The research uses Nye’s (2008) neoliberal concept of soft power (see Grix and Lee, 2013; Grix and Houlihan, 2014; Grix et al., 2015; Grix and Brannagan, 2016). But, the soft power template is only one element of the neoliberal paradigm, so the analysis remains devoid of theoretical significance. In addition, it overlooks or downplays the importance of studying international affairs in hostile environments, where countries are faced with conflict and the need for rapprochement.

Is There Another Way?

The central question is whether a single theory, let alone a single component of that theory, can supplement ‘sport & IR’ research. To answer this question requires searching for an approach that would incorporate the roles of domestic actors and non-government organizations (NGOs), avoiding the weak points of state-centered IR paradigms. During the last three decades, the strict adherence to single theories – so-called monism – has led to a debate around the possibility of synthetic approaches being a viable alternative in IR research. In a special forum of experts in the early 2000s, Moravcsik (2003b) proposed that synthesis in IR research is straightforward, so long as it comprises a set of discrete IR theories intertwined coherently at some essential level (e.g. some overarching assumptions) but not the full range of each theory’s fundamental ontology. By now, IR scholars including Andreatta and Koenig-Archibugi (2010) and Checkel (2010) have proposed three models of theoretical synthesis: (1) domains of application, (2) temporal sequencing and (3) subsumption. In the domains of application model, the attempt focuses on combining different theories specified independently, e.g. neoliberalism and constructivism, in the hope that together they may enhance our understanding of the real world. It deals with different empirical domains within a one-time frame. If the result is successful, the composite theory is deemed more comprehensive than each of the separate theories. This combination works best when the aim is to explain similar phenomena and the explanatory variables are complementary, i.e. they have little overlap – not interacting to influence the outcomes. The temporal sequencing model is similar to the domains of application but synthesizes theories that are temporally dependent, working together over time to explain a given domain. In this way, one theory is allowed to fill in the gap in the explanatory power of the other. In subsumption, one theory subsumes another when the latter constitutes a special case of the former so there is no scope of carrying out research under either of them separately.

In search of theoretical syntheses that could incorporate the role of domestic actors, a brief review of IR paradigms indicates the following. Neorealism or structural realism remains a state-centered theory. It focuses on the never-ending struggle for power among sovereign states, viewing them as the sole IR actors – and thus units of analysis – in an ‘anarchic’ (anarchic meaning lack of a world government) global system. However, an invigorated realist view, neoclassical realism, does pay attention to the dire role of domestic level variables such as public opinion and political culture in the formulation of effective foreign policy (Ripsman et al, 2016). Neoliberalism also remains a state-centered model. Although it maintains that international political institutions and global powers can help states avoid ‘anarchy’, it does not explain how the state aggregates societal preferences in order to formulate its foreign policy. Princeton’s liberal theorist Moravcsik (2003a) dismisses neoliberalism altogether, arguing for a ‘non-utopian’ liberal approach in which individuals and private groups comprise the set of fundamental actors in international politics, with governments and other political institutions being only a subset. Constructivism sees ‘anarchy’ as a concept socially constructed (Guzzini and Leander, 2005). Social construction implies the creation of world politics through a process involving the interaction between individuals, states and non-state actors, on the one hand, and the structure of the global system on the other. Constructivists do not see states as the sole actors in IR and consider that the individuals of a country with their ideational attributes and norms impact on IR, while NGOs hold a significant role in the diffusion of these ideas and norms to the population. The English School, finally, a ‘middle-ground’ approach in itself, provides a view of IR as a whole and advances three key concepts: International system, international society and world society (Murray, 2015). The first one incorporates the realist’s view of anarchy, while the second approximates the neoliberal approach by stressing the importance of norms, rules, and institutions for maximum shared interests among states. Its third concept, world society, places individuals, the global population, and non-state actors as the center of analysis.

A Cautious Step Forward and Some Case Studies

Thus far, the only known empirical study on ‘sport & IR’ which follows a multi-theoretic approach is by Giulianotti et al (2017) on Kosovo’s quest for international recognition through membership in international sport governance organizations. In presenting their methodology, Giulianotti et al defend their approach as follows:

We situate our overall analysis within international relations theories, more specifically within the selective usage and integration of four main perspectives: realist, liberal, constructivist, and critical. Our overall emphasis is on a mix of critical and constructivist approaches. While this synthesis may appear excessively diverse for some scholars, we consider this to be essential in order to register conceptually both the........

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