Strategic Ontologies: Narrative and Meso-Level Theorizing in International Politics

Adam B. Lerner, Ben O'Loughlin

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This paper offers a theory of incremental theoretical evolution connecting the practice of international politics with disciplinary IR. It theorizes how international political actors engaged in strategic local decision-making exert productive power over dominant scientific ontologies of the international system. We refer to the narratives emerging from these processes as strategic ontologies, defined as gradual reformulations of the subjects, objects, and relational logics of the international system according to positionally determined priorities. As strategic ontologies gain acceptance, their innovations endure beyond the context of their utterance, leading to meso-level theoretical evolution. We substantiate this account with comparative case studies of contested strategic ontologies that have yet to become dominant in either the international arena or IR theory. Without strategic ontology as an analytical lens, scholarship might miss embryonic theoretical innovations in the process of gaining traction. First, we examine how Israel and West Germany engaged in strategic ontological contestation when negotiating a reparations agreement following the Holocaust. Second, we analyze how states have used vulnerability in climate negotiations in 2020–2021 to recast global policy priorities. Recognition of strategic ontologies across contexts illuminates theoretical innovations in real-time and opens a path for dynamic new bridges between the academy and policymaking.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbersqad058
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Studies Quarterly
Issue number3
Early online date8 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023

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