As one of the new Ducks, I will from now on be posting diversely on a range of topics including political violence, the status of critique in IR, and professional issues that will be of particular interest to early career scholars and PhD students. For my first post, however, I want to write about the style of writing IR and/or Political Science. This is something that has troubled me for some time now and on which – I think – I depart slightly from the mainstream view of things.
To begin, let me quote the author’s ‘style’ guidelines for the ISA journal International Studies Quarterly:
- Favor short, declarative sentences. If it is possible to break up a sentence into constituent clauses, then you most likely should do so.
- Avoid unnecessary jargon. Define, either explicitly or contextually, necessary jargon.
- Favor active voice, the simple past and present, and action verbs.
Favoring ‘clarity’ and ‘accessibility,’ the guidelines go onto state that “it is unreasonable to require readers and reviewers to read many pages into a manuscript before encountering its basic claims. It is unrealistic to expect that readers and reviewers are skilled in Kabbalah and therefore able to decode esoteric writing.”
These basic words of guidance are common across journals in IR and in the advice we give to our students, the reviews we write of articles, and the words we ourselves attempt to write. We seek to be clear. To the point. To report what we want to say and nothing more. This is the dominant ‘style’ of IR today.
I want to argue that the too-rigid enforcement of this Anglo-Saxon writing style creates problems for IR and – in fact – impoverishes its diversity, enjoyment, and ultimately its relevance to the world in several ways.
I broke up with Michel Foucault. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I sort of ghosted him. Let me explain.
When I was in grad school I fell in love with Foucault. He was just exactly what I was looking for- he made me see gender differently, and he helped me to finally piece together what I thought I was trying to say in my thesis. It was magical. He just really ‘got me.’ You know?
But then things changed. I was introduced to theorists like Judith Butler, bell hooks, Aimee Cesaire, and Frantz Fanon and I started to realise I just couldn’t be exclusive with Foucault anymore. He pretended class just didn’t exist and I hated that we could never talk about race. We would go out and talk abut gender with his friends, but when I took him to parties and my friends brought up patriarchy he got all weird. So I ghosted him. It’s awkward because he’s in so many old publications. I still call him sometimes, but we mostly don’t have anything to say to one another- he says I’ve changed, I say he hasn’t. Sometimes at conferences friends ask me about him. They’re like, ‘hey you’re close with Foucault, can you ask him x.’ And I have to politely tell them that Foucault and I don’t really talk anymore. I try to be nice and say ‘he’s great, but it was time to move on,’ or something like that. But what I really want to say is, ‘he’s really not that great. He turned out not to be as smart as I thought he was. And I got tired of everyone talking about him.’
Oh and since the break up a bunch of friends have tried to set me up with other theorists. They don’t understand that I’m happy just having solid friendships with a bunch of thinkers. Most of my Canadian friends tried to get me to date Georgio Agamben. ‘He’s amaaaaazing. Ask him about the camps and Zoe,’ they say. But we went out a few times and- between you and me- he’s a real misogynist jerk. Why do people love him so much? And don’t even get me started on Zizek. I’ve been set up with him a bunch of times by my white hipster friends and I finally had to tell them ‘yeah I know Zizek…and I’m just not that into him.’
So there it is. I ghosted Foucault and ended up happier for it. Sometimes at conferences I see academics with their theorist loves and I think they might be better off if they did the same.
*Inspired by the blog post ‘Fuck you Zizek‘
I don’t want to say too much about the Rathbun-Arena smackdown (smackduck?) taking place but I will say this: We often rely on maps that are not “true.” The Mercator projection is “wrong” if our criterion is “showing countries according to their relative size” but “useful” if our criterion is “helping to plot sea voyages.” Moreover, we sometimes explicitly distort maps to make them more useful:
As Wikipedia notes, the Tube map is considered a huge advance on earlier maps despite being flatly wrong about distance, train routes, and everything else.
When we consider theories, it may be that depicting actors’ behaviors as following rationalist behaviors are deeply false, but nevertheless useful. We shouldn’t be deluded into mistaking assumptions for reality but we should also not forego the power of simplification.
(And I have to say that every empirical researcher who’s ever used a parametric estimation method like OLS has used untested, and often blatantly wrong, assumptions in their analysis, unless they have a signed note from God that their errors follow a known distribution.)
Late Update: Similar and longer argument (read after posting).