> Dialogue > Dialogue

Tang Shiping:between grand theories and real issues

| 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today


Tang Shiping, professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, is a leading Chinese international relations (IR) scholar with a worldwide reputation. His research covers international politics, institutional economics, political theory, and philosophy of social sciences. He is the author of A Theory of Security Strategy for Our Time: Defensive Realism (Palgrave Mcmillan 2010), A General Theory of Institutional Change (Routledge 2011), and The Social Evolution of International Politics (Oxford University Press 2013). He has also published numerous articles in leading journals. He shared his views on his work with our reporter.


 CSST: You have had a very prolific career; looking back, what would you say are some of the key insights you have gained from your experience?

Tang Shiping: I have certainly learned some life lessons both from past failures and through sheer practice, and I would also say I’ve learned a lot from the giants in my field. Looking back on my research after so many years, I think one thing is especially important, and that is, focusing on significant—even fundamental and foundational—issues.


To a certain extent, theoretical research is extremely dull and painful. However, if you grasp and appreciate the significance of your research question and become passionate about solving it, your work becomes fun. In fact, everything has some fundamental underlying problem, and those problems are definitely interesting. For a scholar,  if he or she can discover and then resolve an important issue—an issue that has not yet been grasped, or an issue that has not been adequately resolved for a long time—his or her life would be a “happy one”. Indeed, each good question is an opportunity, and one of the lessons I’ve learned is “to cherish each opportunity as if it were the last one”.


I strongly believe that social sciences need to keep pushing their theoretical frontiers forward and provide new theoretical insights. We shall not just focus on “local knowledge”, but should always strive for big questions because only by doing so we can contribute to the improvement of human welfare.


Take international relations for example, I think Robert Jervis has provided us with a powerful theoretical paradigm in System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life. Some say this book didn’t offer any (particular) theories, but in fact Jervis has offered us with a paradigm, a way of thinking that is applicable in all fields of social sciences. Similarly, the “social evolution paradigm” that I have advocated is also a very powerful paradigm that is applicable to international politics and all other fields of social sciences.


 CSST: As an IR scholar and a social scientist committed to “big theories”, what factors have played an important role in shaping your work?

Tang Shiping: First of all, I should qualify that I am by no means exclusively devoted to “grand theories” because I have also worked on middle range theories and even micro-level theories, say social psychology. Methodology has been important to me too. As for the factors that have shaped my research, there are probably four of them.


Foremost, a decent mastery of research methodologies (broadly speaking) is a must. Only with necessary tools, can one pursue any in-depth inquiry into a problem. I am not saying that I have mastered all methodologies, but I do think that I have some unique understanding of social science methodologies that may have something to do with my life experience. For instance, I was trained in natural sciences for a very long time and my understanding of the theory of biological evolution certainly has laid part of the foundation for my social evolutionary theorizing of international politics.


Secondly, one must have a noble concern for reality. The quintessential goal of the social sciences is to improve the well-being of humankind by providing knowledge that will help solve social issues. As such, social sciences are anything but some ivory tower frivolity; rather, they should address fundamental problems. What I mean by “concern for reality” is that social sciences should address both concrete problems and fundamental problems in social reality. For empirical social scientists, the two foundational problems are conflict and cooperation, and the rise and fall of nation or organization. For me, the most exciting thing is to solve fundamental problems. Although I am not a genius, I am willing to spend ten years pondering over a problem in attempt to solve it. Studying essential problems can render us happy and make us appreciate the beauty of scientific research.


In addition, it’s incredibly important to keep learning—to keep broadening our knowledge. A social scientist should have a working knowledge of politics, economics, sociology, history, anthropology, social psychology, and even a bit of natural sciences. Almost without an exception, powerful research has to integrate a wide body of knowledge. 


Of course, a “flash of light” is also vital. A “flash of light” is pivotal for theoretical breakthroughs, and we may realize an opportunity by following the guide provided by the “flash of light”. For example, after  I entered the field of IR in 1997, I was puzzled how leading IR scholars could have drawn so different conclusions by looking at the same world. Then one day in 2002, it just hit me that the underlying cause may be about a matter of evolution through time. As the international political system is in a state of constant change, theories can become outdated; a theory that may fit with one system becomes irrelevant because the system has evolved into a new and different system. Following this idea, and with almost a decade of more research, I advance a social evolutionary interpretation of international politics. And naturally, I then had to complete this project of grand theorizing with an in-depth explanation of social evolution as a phenomenon and as a paradigm.


CSST: Are there any problems with the practice of international relations as an academic discipline in China today?


Tang Shiping: With China’s rapid development, we need to pay attention to diplomatic strategies and policies at the academic level. That being said, I think role of scholars isn’t just to provide concrete advice on diplomatic policies; rather, I think they should also offer theoretical knowledge and develop instruments for analysis, helping the government improve its strategic behavior. It’s safe to say there’s a general consensus—among people, among governments—on many of the world’s fundamental problems. This what academics have to work with; it’s the crux of what they should be trying to solve. Scholars should not be limited to just explaining policies.


In the past, approaches to strategic research had great limitations. Look at this way: there are four components involved in strategic research: a) understanding of the basic strategic behaviors, including deterrence, diplomatic pressure and “cooperative construction”—It is unwise to begin strategic research without understanding them clearly; b) mastery of some approaches and theoretical frameworks for analysis; c) knowledge of concrete facts; and d) mastery of relevant historical events and facts. International relations scholars frequently overemphasize c and d at the expense of a and b.


Another big thing is that so much IR research is pretty constricted in its argumentation—scholars just give a lot of examples and think that does the job. Referencing and citing examples alone, no matter how extensively, is no substitute for scientific evidence (even Jervis’s works have little such inclination).  


Interviewed by Zhang Ping, a reporter from Chinese Social Sciences Today

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 437, Apr 10.


Chinese link:


Translated by Jiang Hong