Talking Across Disciplines in the Study of Peace and Security: Epistemology and Pragmatics as Source of Division in the Social Sciences

How can scholars translate knowledge concerning problems ofpeace and security across the boundaries of academic disciplines and intellectual frameworks? By what standard should one judge such knowledge? In a rich essay, which may be read fruitfully on many levels, David Dessler argues that we must look beyond epistemological differences between positivist and non-positivist approaches and focus on pragmatics: the purposes for which, and context within which, knowledge is generated. Dessler distinguishes between predictive knowledge, which seeks to identify causal relationships with general validity, and reconstructive knowledge, which explores critically the categories, assumptions, and purposes of predictive theory. Neither form of knowledge can claim precedence; both are crucial for a holistic understanding of phenomena from which social scientists can never fully divorce themselves. Dessler substantiates this distinction by showing the utility of six works in the area of peace and security: Jack Snyder's Myths of Empire, Charles Hale's Resistance and Contradiction, Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work, Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer's The Great Arch, James Ferguson's The AntiPolitics Machine, and David Holloway's Stalin and the Bomb.

Dessler concludes with a warning: the social relevance of research can never be fixed since the audience for the research is not under the deterministic control of the scientist. Dessler's essay stands as a beacon for those seeking to forge a broad-based and responsible science of peace and security.

An earlier version of this essay occasioned a workshop, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation Consortium on International Peace and Cooperation, on "Talking Across Disciplines in the Study of Peace and Security." A summary of the discussion follows the essay.