European Studies. A 'normal' science?

Essay, 2018

9 Seiten, Note: 8/10


Can European Studies be considered a Normal Science?

The Crossroads of European Studies

With the upcoming elections in 2019 the future of the European Union will be put on trial once again. In recent years deep internal and external crises have shaken the unity of the European community and have pushed forward the question ‘whether the politics and dynamics of the European Union have failed to address the regional and global challenges of the 21st century. Recently, major events have initiated the present debate about the future of the European Union: the Schengen crisis and its unmanaged influx of refugees, the rise of Euroscepticism and national authoritarianism and the decision of the UK to leave the European Union. On top of this, the European debt crisis still influences political and societal structures in Europe with its invisible hand (Kelemen, 2017). At large, this has raised the question whether the EU's regulation between effects of globalization and a European social solidarity is rather pareto- sub-optimal than efficient (Majone, 2014).

These game changing developments bring into question how the academic discourse about the European Union can integrate the emphasized challenges in order to theorize and also solve major hindrances. Further, it elicits a long-term dispute within academia of European studies: Whether the EU should be acknowledged as N=1, as a unique political phenomenon, that requires a specific methodology and magnifying lenses to understand the processes behind the European Union and the recent existential crisis; or whether it should be acknowledged as political entity with comparable equivalents on national or international level.

Beyond this methodological dichotomy lies the concept of Thomas S. Kuhn's notion of ‘normal science' (1970). It brings into question, whether European Studies is a normal science in the Kuhnian perspective and can thus be integrated into a scientific field. In this regard I argue that European studies is not a normal science and more fundamentally, should never be a normal science. To fully comprehend this statement, a look on a broad definition of normal science, as well as on the theorizing progress in the field of European studies is elaborated upon hereafter.

Thomas S. Kuhn traced down the history of science in his book “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” where he conceptualizes how science usually is deduced. While many philosophers of science (e.g. Lakatos 1970, Karl Popper 1959) discuss how science should be done, Thomas Kuhn examines how science effectively is done and has evolved over time: “Science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries or inventions” (1970, p.2), it is rather the cumulative research of a scientific community working within a set of norms, rules and basic assumptions. In this close-knit environment research happens within the realms of a shared ‘paradigm'. A paradigm stands for the methods that are used to produce discoveries and the facts that are examined to undermine the theory. Furthermore, it frames the scientific endogenous activities and implies prior information to conclude theories and testify assumptions (Kuhn, 1970, p.42). Within the limits of these shared paradigms, the actual normal science “consists of empirical work undertaken to articulate the paradigm theory, resolving some of its residual ambiguities and permitting the solution of problems to which it had previously only drawn attention” (Kuhn, 1970, p.27). Thus, normal science does not aim to produce novelties, it is rather a ‘puzzle-solving' activity (Kuhn, 1970, p.35). In this regard, the demarcation of science from day to day experience and - to state it in a Kuhnian way, from ‘abnormal' science, is the puzzle-solving activity by scientists based on the idea that paradigms only become paradigms if there is a general scientific knowledge about their solubility (Kuhn, 1970, p.37). If, anomalies occur in substantial research and thicken to insurmountable anomalies that “subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice” (Kuhn, 1970, p.6), a scientific crisis will lead to a Kuhnian scientific revolution, and a shift from one paradigm to another. Kuhn (1970) states consequently, that the nature of the new paradigm is revolutionary and incommensurable to the old paradigm.

From this perspective important conclusions can be drawn. A normal science in the Kuhnian perspective means that scientists work on the basis of an indisputable consensus about fundamental assumptions, methods and questions that have already been solved. In this context, using the normal science as a standardized concept of how science should be constructed, the science of European studies will eventually result in a dilemma. To contrast this argument more precisely, a short history and the substance of European studies must be examined. The historical summary is based on the three phases of integration theory from Wiener and Diez, because they give a comprehensive overview over the distinguishable research activities within European studies between the early 50s and the beginning of the 21st century.

When the Treaty of Rome 1957 was built as legal fundament for the European Community, the academic community started to react to the integration process evolving between the countries in Western Europe. As such, the study of the European Union began with the theorizing of European integration. One of the pioneers to discuss the integration among the European Union as object sui generis was Ernst Haas. Belonging to the field of regional studies and influenced by societal developments and the idea of a transnational community and technocracy he promoted a theory of supranational path dependency for Europe. Haas describes integration as the process “whereby political actors in several, distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations and political activities towards a new centre, whose institutions possess or demand jurisdiction over the pre-existing national states” (Haas, 1958, p.16). To see the EU as an exceptional phenomenon, was soon challenged by International Relations theory, in particular by Intergovernmentalism. Building statements about integration from a distinguishable perspective, Intergovernmentalism integrates the European Union into their conception of international institutions (Diez & Wiener, 2018, p.14). Arguably, integration is a rational decision of nation states to form an institution as bargaining instrument to maximise benefits and their relative power. From this perspective on the European Union, instruments, methods and assumptions of IR can explain the integration process and European studies would be adapted as a subfield of IR. Thus, to integrate the European Union into existing theories of Intergovernmentalism is practically normal science.

Nevertheless, given that the European Community has immensely changed since then, the historical process of the establishment of the European Union led to further analysis on both sides - with hereinafter amplifications of Neofunctionalism, (Stone Sweet & Sandholtz, 1997) and Intergovernmentalism as liberal Intergovernmentalism by Moravcsik (1993). The events in the actual process of European integration and institutionalisation, e.g. the Empty Chair Crisis in 1965 or the implementation of the Single Market in 1989, all led to an instrumentalization by scholars to justify their perspective on Europe (Rosamond, 2007, p.237). In light of the Maastricht Treaty, Moravcsik stressed an equilibrium of the integration process, pointing towards the institutional stability through the creation of a clear institutional structure and an implementation of a procedural routine (2005).

This day-to-day routine initialized a different debate amongst the scholars focussing their attention on the European Union. Rather than debating on the determination of the integration process and it's dynamics and reasons, those political scientists integrate the European Union into their objective and put forward research on governance (Diez & Wiener, 2018, p.13). As a consequence, scholars like Hix, and Putnam introduced the European Union into the normal science of Political Science. The key questions of governance approaches are linked to the “Europeanisation of governance rules, institutions and practices across the EU” (Diez & Wiener, 2018, p.13) to examine multi-level governance, but also to address legitimacy, democracy and transparency within the day-today-politics (Diez & Wiener, 2018, p.13). Since then, as Rosamond and Manners argue, “the types of work that have prevailed in EU studies over the past 25 years have almost always been rooted in broader trends within Political Science and its constituent subfields” (2018, p.30). Thus, the Kuhnian normal science is the integration of EU studies in Political Science: Building upon inherent methods in order to compare the European Parliament to national parliaments, equalize the Commission as executive power and analyse corporations and activities of economic actors in a pluralistic debate within the realms of Political Science.

In the 90s a third group of scholars theorizing the EU started taking roots. With the development of a postmodern era social sciences were branded by an ontologically and epistemologically different approach: Social Constructivism. Challenging the rationalist idea, that the world has one reality that can be objectively perceived, critical theories started to be carried out in almost every field of social sciences (Diez & Wiener, 2018, p.14). Within IR constructivists, poststructuralists and critical theories aimed to theorize the “goal or finality of European integration, the competing ideas and discourses of European governance, and the normative implications of particular EU policies” (Diez & Wiener, 2018, p.14). Generally, in the Kuhnian perspective, these theories rank within a new paradigm in the broader social sciences, they are a phenomenon in many disciplines building challenging - however, not revolutionary and thus, incommensurable approaches.

Considering these three major developments, the statement that European studies is one normal science must be refuted. Not only does European studies have many facets and scholars but also different objectives: To explain regional integration (along with the focus on the EU's institutional character sui generis), to set the research subject on democracy, governance and efficiency or to question normative cornerstones of politics. There never existed just one underlying common consensus about the instruments and lenses through which the European Union can be fully analysed. European studies are in fact, not a normal science - but also should not become one. This argument lies in the Kuhnian idea of normal science and draws attention on two perspectives: First, towards critique of the concept ‘normal science' itself. Kuhn's history of science can be read as analysis how science in natural sciences has developed over the past centuries. As concept for social sciences his idea is not satisfyingly applicable. First of all, the terminology paradigm is not distinctive, and it is left open to whether a paradigm is a field, a subfield or a single theory. What history of EU studies has shown is, that we can see social science as broad paradigm, but we could also distinguish between rationalism and constructivism, or on smaller scale between Political Science and International Relations. A second critique points towards the idea of a ‘normal' science. Not only is the term ‘normal' loaded with value, but also the conceptualization of science as a puzzle-solving activity within a paradigm: Thomas Kuhn after all implies a normative idea on how science should be constructed. As such, this concept might lead to a reiteration of practices, that are not open to interdisciplinarity and inherent evolution. Indeed, this is the interface to European studies: As earlier stated, the European Union is currently underlying changes and challenges, partly even disintegrative processes. To understand European studies as part of one normal science, to even try to fit the EU and its processes into distinct categories - e.g. as solely that of an intergovernmental international institution or national political system, is too short sighted and rather theory-driven than problem-driven. It is clear, that instruments and methodologies from Political Science are inevitable and, that International Relations theories help to understand integration processes and behaviour of member states. However, what modern scholars are concerned with is to constitute theories about governance, democracy and legitimacy with perspectives on the reality of integrative and disintegrative processes. The scholar Ben Rosamond, writing for the Journal of Common Market Studies, concluded three main foci for the academical debate: First, the divide between a EU wide liberal market and social solidarity. Second, the abyss of a legal constitutional order and democratic decision policy. And finally, the tension between EU cosmopolitans and national communitarian regimes” (Manners & Rosamond, 2018, p.33-35).

The recent scholarly debate addresses these challenges: Francis Fukuyama (2018) for instance, does make claims from a sociological point of view and describes the ‘rise of identity politics' fuelled by European politics that further divide European societies into segregated groups. Within the realm of Global Political Economy, scholars debate the importance of a European Monetary Fund to imbalance monetary hindrances and strengthen the Euro against volatilities (Benner, 2018). Scholars of IR promote the idea of an active European military to counter external conflicts (Keohane, 2018), while researchers of legitimacy and democracy claim that Brexit is an opportunity to reform the European Parliament and create seats for pan­European parties (Hix 2006, McNamara 2018). As we see - these ideas and dynamics cannot be fully addressed by just one normal science.

Kathleen McNamara argues, that the “study of the EU may be cutting edge of a welcome collapsing of the subfields between International Relations, Comparative Politics, American Politics and Political Theory” (McNamara 2018, p.12). Subsequent to this argument, the study of the EU is a trans- and interdisciplinary field of research, that has the ability to integrate historical approaches, Political Science and International Relations, as well as Global Political Economy, Sociology and Cultural Studies.

The practice of normal science is a self-sustaining dynamic of a scholar, as raison d'être and therefore Kuhns' critique of some research as - ‘textbook' science is more than justified.


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European Studies. A 'normal' science?
Universiteit Maastricht
ISBN (eBook)
European Union, EU Studies, Kuhn, Normal Science, paradigm, philosophy of science
Arbeit zitieren
Helene Dötsch (Autor:in), 2018, European Studies. A 'normal' science?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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