Tag: theory/policy divide

Symposium — A Comment on Chris Brown’s “The Poverty of Grand Theory”

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by  David EdelsteinIt is the eighth installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post responds to Chris Brown’s article (PDF). His post appeared earlier today.  

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.

Every other year, I teach a field survey seminar in international security for doctoral students in Georgetown’s Government Department. The students are invariably engaged and, like all good graduate students have forever been, eager to eviscerate the work of others. What interests these students, however, has changed from when I was a graduate student in the 1990’s. This current generation studies grand IR theory because they are told they have to do so or because they anticipate needing to know the literature for comprehensive exams. What interests them more is the work that has come to be called “mid-range” theory. That is, work that tackles a more modest and manageable question that is amenable not only to theoretical study but also to using the latest and greatest methodological techniques. Continue reading

Guantanamo in the Rearview Mirror

Here at the Duck and elsewhere, there has been much discussion of the gaps between academia and the policy world.  I took part in a program that seeks to bridge that gap–the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship–which I have mentioned here before.   One thing I did not discuss here before is that such experiences can put one in morally challenging situations.   Whenever Guantanamo comes up in the news, I am reminded of this.  Why, see my tale belowe:

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Toward Pracademia

Among the assigned readings for my new doctoral seminar in Human Security this week are a number of pieces from last year’s International Studies Review Theory v. Practice Symposium. There are numerous fascinating pieces here, including Dan Drezner’s case study on the evolution of “smart sanctions,” Roland Paris’ discussion of “fragile states” as a case study in epistemic agenda-setting, and Kittikhoun and Weiss’ debunking “The Myth of Scholarly Irrelevance for the U.N.”

In particular, a quote from Jentleson and Ratner’s contribution jumped out at me:

“The profession-based incentive structure and other aspects of academia’s dominant organizational culture… devalue policy relevance. Doctoral students are cued early on that their program of study is more about the discipline than the world. Curriculua tend to feature courses on formal modeling, game theory and statistics far more than ones on policy areas, history or states/regions. Then when it comes time ot hit the job market, search committees give far more weight to a dissertation’s theoretical question than policy significance, and readily ignore, if not look down upon, policy oriented publications outside of the scholarly peer-reviewed domain. It thus is quite individually rational for so few graduate students to take on policy-relevant dissertations – rational for working within the system as it exists, but cumulatively irrational for the intellectual diversity and professional pluralism that a discipline such as political science and field such as IR should manifest. It is also out of synch if not in denial of job market realities… not preparing graduate students for this wider range of options borders on malpractice.”

We are beginning the term by thinking about “bridging the gap” for three reasons:

1) “Human Security” is, if neither a paradigm shift nor “hot air,” usefully understood as a specific policy domain, and human security policies of all kinds are being shaped by causal understandings percolating out of the academy

2) Therefore the course is based on understanding the classic empirical research on key human security topics (human rights, humanitarian affairs, humanitarian intervention, the laws of war, peace-building, etc) with a view toward understanding how to transmit the empirical insights of those literatures to policy-makers in those domain, as well as an appreciate of why this is so challenging

3) This pedagogy is in both respects a deliberate yet already uncomfortable attempt to buck the trend Jentleson and Ratner correctly identify. Doctoral students need both the skills to do policy-relevant, practitioner-oriented work if they choose AND the ability to write for comprehensive exams / compete in academia. The trick is going to be teaching both simultaneously, so I figure the first step is helping them to understand the difference.

Will be reporting back on my attempts through the course of the term. Meanwhile, pedagogical suggestions are highly welcome.

Scholarship and Advocacy: Bomb Iran Edition (UPDATED)

My colleague, Matt Kroenig, has generated a ton of buzz (and not a little vitriol) for his Foreign Affairs piece in which he advocates imminent US military action against Iran. What’s probably less well known, however, is that Matt and Mike Weintraub, a graduate student at Georgetown, have a working paper in which, as they write:

We argue that nuclear superiority, by increasing the expected costs of conflict, improves a state’s ability to deter potential adversaries. We then show that states that enjoy nuclear superiority over their opponents are less likely to be the targets of militarized challenges. Arguments that contend that a minimum deterrent posture is sufficient to deter militarized challenges do not find support in the data.

As I’ve been discussing with Matt on Facebook, I see a real tension between these findings and claims that a nuclear Iran poses such a grave danger to US national interests that Washington must, as soon as possible, launch a military strike against Iranian facilities. After all, if Matt and Mike are correct then we should expect both that the massive asymmetric nuclear advantage enjoyed by the US will deter Iran, and that Iran’s possession of a few nukes will not greatly alter its behavior.

If I am right, then Matt joins a long line of international-relations academics whose policy advocacy doesn’t entirely cohere with their scholarship. For example, a significant number of offensive realists signed letters opposing the Iraq war, even though their theories suggest that states should, and will, maximize power in the international system.

Given all this, I’m curious what other Duck readers and writers think should be the relationship between academic scholarship and policy advocacy.

Do we have an obligation to be completely consistent across both domains, or do the real differences between our political and academic roles suggest otherwise? How much “policy weight” we should give to any particular academic finding? If we are skeptical of extrapolating too much from one or more pieces of international-relations scholarship, does it matter if that scholarship is our own and we are making the policy recommendations? Does the methodology of the work matter, e.g., if the piece involves a linear regression such that we expect individual cases to be outliers? And what is the comparative “truth value” of our policy advocacy?

UPDATE: Matt weighs in below on the substantive merits. Someone also pointed to a draft of Matt’s forthcoming piece, which I think reinforces the questions I raise, insofar as it is an example of an academic paper with policy recommendations. For example:

Given that the most likely conflict scenarios between these two states would occur in the Middle East, the balance of political stakes in future confrontations would tend to favor Tehran. The brinkmanship approach adopted in this paper concurs that proliferation in Iran would disadvantage the United States by forcing it to compete with Iran in risk taking, rather than in more traditional arenas. On the other hand, the findings of this paper also suggest that the United States could fare well in future nuclear crises. As long as the United States maintains nuclear superiority over Iran, a prospect that seems highly likely for years to come, Washington will frequently be able to achieve its basic goals in nuclear confrontations with Tehran.

As we all agree, Matt’s model points to increased risk. But do such conclusions really support the notion that the United States must strike immediately or face apocalyptic consequences?

My challenge to the Drezner challenge: who would bother with us?

Stephanie has seconded below Drezner’s challenge to name three books most useful for a President-in-waiting. Please obey her.

These should not be academic in nature because, Dan implies, politicians are not up to it intellectually. It is true. Politicians are not a smart lot. Often when I hear a “strategic logic of…” talk, I use the same tried-and-true joke: have you ever met a Congressman? It always gets a laugh because it 1) is probably true: so many political scientists spend their careers avoiding the people they are writing about and vastly overestimate the latter’s cleverness, and 2) plays to the lowest-common-denominator: everyone hates politicians. In other words, it says something satirically while being coarse, kind of like South Park.

Nevertheless, we have a President in office who is not an idiot. Assuming that he had the mental agility and inclination, what would we have him read OF THE STUFF THAT ACADEMICS HAVE WRITTEN? This is my challenge to you. The problem is not only the sophistication of the audience; it is that practically every approach and research tradition I think of goes out of its way to minimize any role for agency in foreign affairs. We are telling them: you’re not important. My biggest complaint with the field is that there is so little politics in international relations.

Let’s go down the list.


Structural realism: There’s nothing you can do. Ride the structural wave. Let it buffet you. You have no free will. No one will remember you anyhow.

Classical realism: Be prudent, whatever that means.

Cognitive psychology: You cannot be prudent. You are not up to this job. No one is. It is too complicated for our brains. You will inevitably fail.

Rationalism: Follow your inner strategic logic. It will come to you when the time is right, like the force. Even if it doesn’t, you will act “as if” you were rational, and that will be fine.

Liberalism: Don’t badmouth multilateral institutions and the Council on Foreign Relations will write nice things about you.

Constructivism: Iran will stop being a threat if we stop treating them like a threat. Seriously, they say that.

The democratic peace literature: There are two types of states. Good ones and bad ones. Check the Polity score and go pick some fights. For help, consult Bruce Russett. Ideally, you’d like to expand democracy across the world. Good luck. We’re not sure how to do that. You could talk to Bush. He might have some suggestions.

The civil war literature: Partition leads to peace. No it doesn’t! Counterinsurgency can be defeated. No it, can’t! Move away, Mr. President, there is nothing to see here….

The humanitarian intervention literature: Don’t even think about it. I know you are well meaning, but you WILL f*@k this up.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few things that I would recommend, and I’d like to hear yours, if for no other reason to highlight good relevant research. You will recognize some names.

1) Charli Carpenter’s “Women and Children First.” I just used this in my undergraduate course today. Boy, is it good. it alerts us to our implicit gender biases and gives us something to look out for, with which we might make better policy.

2) Patrick Jackson and Ron Krebs’ “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms.” Some people can argue better than others. Let’s help them figure it out.

3) Jacques Hymans’ Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation. We think that everyone wants the bomb, but that isn’t really true. Let’s figure out who does and who doesn’t.

This is just a start. I’d like to hear yours.

Policymakers Just Don’t Understand

Erik Voeten, one of my colleagues at Georgetown, writes at the Monkey Cage that:

International relations, and especially (inter)national security, is the subfield of political science where the gap between policy makers and academics is most frequently decried. This is not because political science research on security is less policy relevant than in other subfields. Quite the contrary, it is because political science rather than law or economics is the dominant discipline in which policy makers have traditionally been trained. In short: there is more at stake.

Erik takes as his point of departure an exchange between Justin Logan and Paul Pillar at the National Interest (itself riffing on a forum surrounding Michael Mosser’s “Puzzles versus Problems: The Alleged Disconnect between Academics and Military Practitioners”).

I understand complaints that much IR scholarship does not seem relevant to the kind of questions policy-makers are struggling with. Yet, incessant complaints about the rigor or difficulty of scholarly work reveal more about policy-makers than about academia. IR theory is for the most part not very hard to understand for a reasonably well-trained individual. The possible exception is game-theoretical work, which constitutes only a small percentage of IR scholarship. My bigger worry is that foreign policy decision makers are avoiding any research using quantitative methods even when it is relevant to their policy area. There is a real issue with training here. My employer, Georgetown’s school of foreign service, at least requires onev quantitative methods class for masters students (none for undergrads). Many other schools have no methods requirement at all. By comparison, Georgetown’s public policy school requires three methods classes. It is not obvious to me why those involved in foreign policy-making require less methods training for their daily work. The consequence is, however, that we have a foreign policy establishment that is ill-equipped to analyze the daily stream of quantitative data (e.g. polls, risk ratings), evaluate the impact of policy initiatives, and scrutinize academic research.

I agree with Erik that policy students lack sufficient methodological training, but disagree with his sole focus on quantitative training. Policy makers are poorly equipped to deal with the daily flood of qualitative data they confront–including data best described as ethnographic, discourse-analytic, and narrative in character. They also need to better understand key social-scientific concepts, particularly those involving cultural phenomena.

Once we move beyond the relatively easy case that foreign-affairs students need better comprehensive methodological training, we really do confront a basic disconnect: many IR scholars–whether in Security or International Political Economy (IPE)–don’t adequately understand the difference between “policy implications” and “policy relevance.”

Showing that, for example, trade interdependence lowers the chances of war has clear policy implications, but it isn’t all that relevant to the specific challenges faced by policy makers.  No careful US decision-maker would ignore Chinese military power (or vice versa) because two states with market economies are less likely, in a statistical sense, to go to war with one another. Or, to take a different kind of example, Erik’s path-breaking account of how UN security council approval enhances the legitimacy of the use of force also has policy implications, but isn’t all that directly useful to policymakers.

Indeed, we need to be careful about the tenor of these arguments, which represent something of a spillover from the journalists-need-to-listen-to-Americanists genre so popular over the last two years. Journalists, and others charged with “making sense” of current events to the public, would do well to pay more attention to political science, sociology, history, and other disciplines. Much of what passes for journalist accounts of, say, electoral outcomes, amounts to repeating back knowledge gained from privileged access to elite conversations [and, to circle back to the need for better methodological training, from polls they don’t know how to interpret]. But those conversations themselves usually constitute flawed “standard stories” (PDF) about political causation.

Or, even worse, they rely on intellectually flabby pundits and “deep thinkers” better skilled at constructing pithy phrases, public marketing, and appearing on television than providing coherent analysis.

Policymakers, of course, also benefit from this kind of “making sense” — and academic knowledge can, and should, play a larger role in that process. But let’s not kid ourselves about the policy relevance of much of academic international studies. And in this context I personally worry more about the danger of the flawed study that makes it through peer review (but that would never, ever, ever happen, right?) and influences policy debates. As an academic based in DC — and one with a small amount of policy experience — I’ve seen firsthand how the lure of “making a splash” via “policy relevant” research distorts the production of academic knowledge. It isn’t a pretty sight for anyone involved.

Finally, I think academics underestimate the degree to which the policy apparatus already has, more or less, in-house academics (in the intel community, for example) that do the range of stuff we do, only with access to classified information. More connections between these de facto academics and de jure academics would probably benefit policymaking, insofar as it improves the range of methods, the implementation of methods, and the diversity of findings making an impact on the production of state analytic knowledge.

Irrelevance of the third kind

Lots of noise of late about the “relevance” question in political science, some of it thoughtful, so of it not so much. While this is obviously an old question — indeed, in some ways, it’s the oldest question in the discipline, dating back to the original efforts to place the study of politics on some kind of scientific footing in the early part of the 20th century — I find myself thinking about it a lot these days, both in the context of university administration (which is one-half of my day job) and as a result of the dislocatingly bizarre experience of attending the European SGIR conference last week almost immediately after the conclusion of APSA the previous week. To make things even odder, both conferences had similar themes (politics and hard times), but couldn’t have been much more different in terms of the content of the overall discussions. But neither, I think, featured much “relevance” of the sort that almost all of the participants in the most recent discussion seem to be focusing on — which is to say that there wasn’t much going on at either conference that was directly, or in many cases even indirectly, policy-relevant.

Readers of my previous missives on this subject will not be surprised to hear, once again, that I am no fan of policy-relevance as a criterion for whether we’re doing a good job as we study and produce knowledge about world politics. This extends to the kind of indirect policy-relevance that Jon cites; people may read and discuss his work in policy circles, but I would be somewhat shocked and a bit horrified if they spent much time discussing mine as they were trying to figure out the appropriate course of action to undertake in some specific situation. A clarification of the logic of social-scientific inquiry (my latest book) is not going to tell anyone much of anything about how to “go on” and act in the world, except in the negative sense of dispelling the mystical aura of certainty that sometimes surrounds particular scientific claims and appears to make them practical antidotes to the awful responsibility of committing to a course of action: science doesn’t actually solve the problem of how to live and what to do, and remembering that might help policymakers to recognize their own irreducible responsibility when it comes to selecting options. And a historical-configurational study of the specific combination of factors bringing about the reconstruction of postwar Germany (my previous book) is not going to do much to help policymakers either, except inasmuch as thinking about that case might create a certain sensitivity to factors of culture and identity in political life. So I would say that the most direct link between my work and the policy world is a linkage mediated by the intellectual disposition that critical-historical study imparts and strengthens, and has basically nothing to do with any logical implication of my substantive arguments.

That link, in turn, is strengthened not by the scholarly part of the other half of my day job (which is “teacher-scholar”), but by the teacher part — which works pretty closely with the university administrator part of my job in designing and implementing programs, procedures, and practices intended to inculcate just that critical intellectual disposition in students. “Critical” in this sense means something like a sensitivity to contingency and context, and a willingness to question assumptions no matter how firmly naturalized they are. I consider it a success if my students end up more willing and able to do that at the conclusion of their classes and programs. One of the best ways of doing this, as I’ve often argued, is to use the resources of the university to create a space for contemplation and reflection — a rock in the river, to use an image I’m rather fond of — and to provide a countervailing force pulling against the incessant drive to specialize, specialize, specialize (and then go get a job that follows from that specialization) that our students hear all the time from everyone else in the culture. Specialization, as Robert Heinlein famously put it, is for insects, and even the focus involved in doing a job well shouldn’t be allowed to overpower the main goal of education, which is to help students become fuller human beings and not just to train them to be a cog in a machine. I am forever telling my students to slow down, to take that poetry class, to join the astronomy club even though you don’t know much about astrophysics and just like looking at stars, and so forth — let their eventual jobs (because they’ll have many over the course of their lives) take care of themselves, and concentrate on getting better at reading, writing, and thinking.

But that only covers three-quarters of my day job. What about the “scholar” part? Contrary to almost everyone else weighing in on this issue, I’m perfectly fine with the irrelevance of my scholarship on world politics, for a certain definition of “irrelevance.” To clarify what I mean, I have to distinguish between (as my title might have suggested) three different species or modes of irrelevance, two of which are perpetual temptations of the academic form of life while the third precisely and clearly expresses the distinctive quality of the academic vocation. The first two kinds of irrelevance are things that we academics have to struggle against or maybe pass through from time to time; the third is something that we have to struggle to maintain against and in opposition to a world that continually pressures us to jump back into it and help it out. Ironically, the best way that we academics can help out is to to dwell in that third kind of irrelevance, since that is the best way to maintain and practice the criticism that is our distinctive contribution.

But first, the temptations. When people talk about the “irrelevance” of academics, and the irrelevance of political science and IR in particular, they often point to the titles of conference panels and papers that seem, to the uninitiated, like nothing so much as excessive self-indulgence and frivolity. APSA had a panel on the TV series Mad Men this year, and the paper that I presented at SGIR was on a panel (full disclosure: organized by me) on pop culture and IR; this is the kind of thing that regularly gets lampooned as an example of how out of touch the academic study of politics is. Now, this is not the place to make the case for studies of popular culture as a way of getting at important issues in world politics, although we’ve done so numerous times on this blog (just click here for a sampling) — and we’re not alone in maintaining this position. In any case, such attention to the substance of scholarship misses the more important ways that irrelevance plays out in academic work, ways that concern methodology rather than substance. Academic scholarship, at least academic scholarship on world politics, is continually tempted towards two forms of what our new Duck blogger Chris Brown likes to call “losing the plot,” and simply getting stuck in the middle of a process without a clear sense of either the end or the beginning.

The first temptation we might call “the irrelevance of technical-ism.” (I’d call this “method-ism” since it involves an obsessive focus on technique rather than on content, but that label seems to be taken for something else.) Abundant in American IR and prominently on display at APSA, technical-ism involves a shift of attention towards the minute details of procedure, so that we get panels on anti-Americanism that quickly devolve into discussions about the measurement of indicators and the modeling of diverse factors and leave the phenomenon standing outside in the hallway someplace looking for anyone who is willing to actually discuss the issue. And it might not be academics who are interested; it might be the catering staff, who don’t share this technical-ism, don’t really give a crap about coefficients of correlation, and are just interested in whether people around the globe hate America and why they do so. Any such uninitiated spectator who happened to wander into a panel like this would likely scratch her or his head and wonder when they took a wrong turn and ended up in the Math department, since the topic was supposed to be politics.

The second temptation we might call “the irrelevance of erudition.” Abundant in European IR and prominently on display at SGIR, the irrelevance of erudition involves a shift of attention towards the subtle intricacies of conceptualization, often in the form of extended exegeses of complex social theorists. So we get panels on the world community that quickly devolve into discussions about Heidegger’s notion of the world and whether “the political” is a meaningful expression, leaving the phenomenon standing outside in the hallway someplace looking for anyone who is willing to actually discuss the issue. And it might not be academics who are interested; it might be the catering staff, who don’t share this love of erudition, don’t really give a crap about Heidegger, and are just interested in whether there’s a world community and if so why there are still wars and terrorism. Any such uninitiated spectator who happened to wander into a panel like this would likely scratch her or his head and wonder when they took a wrong turn and ended up in the Philosophy department, since the topic was supposed to be politics.

These two kinds of irrelevance mirror one another in important ways. For one thing, both represent a tendency to get stuck en route to someplace, and to get stuck in a way that makes actually arriving somewhat unlikely. One might think of both of these kinds of irrelevance as manifesting an excessive interest in preparing to make a claim, rather than an interest in making a claim; this holds true whether the preparation is formal/mathematical or conceptual/philosophical. One of the most brilliant things I have ever seen a panel discussant do was when Bob Denemark walked over to one of his panelists and handed him a piece of paper with a large black dot on it during his discussant comments; Bob then explained that this was “a round tuit” (say it out loud … say it again …) and that the panelist obviously need to get this. Brilliant, I tell you. Bob then went on to point out that preparation is all well and good, but it has to serve a purpose, an explanatory purpose, if it is to have any genuine relevance. When I think of this move, which I’ve referenced on several occasions but never yet practically re-enacted, I feel like applauding, and it doesn’t matter whether the target of the gentle critique is being irrelevant by way of technical-ism or by way or erudition because both amount to the same thing in practice: a kind of aimless wandering without any clear implications.

Now let me be clear that this kind of aimless wandering is not necessarily a bad thing at a certain stage of a scholarly project. Working one’s way through the details — be they technical or conceptual details — is an essential part of doing good rigorous scholarship, and at various points in a scholarly career (especially, I think, when one is in graduate school, or in the process of re-tooling one’s arsenal for a new project) this kind of free-range exploration is wholly appropriate. And let’s be honest, academia facilitates this kind of thing, both by gathering up a bunch of really smart people and partly insulating them from the immediate pressures of the marketplace, and by evolving a set of internal-use-only standards that academics use to position themselves relative to other academics. Where but academia could you even have neo-orthodox Gramscians pitted against post-poststructural Bourdieusians, or people who swear by the agent-based modeling of complex systems as against the use of structural equation modeling? So the temptation to lose the plot and get lost in the details of the process of investigation can sometimes be overwhelming, and it can also be a useful step in achieving clarity as long as one remembers (or is reminded) to come back to the point eventually. And the point for us in IR is to make and evaluate claims about world politics, so all of this other stuff should be means to that end; if it becomes an end in itself, which it is almost always in danger of doing, then a mid-course correction is required.

However, such a mid-course correction need not and should not take the form of an appeal to “relevance” in the sense of plugging into the policy process or the everyday world of political activity. I’ll admit that when confronted with these two modes of irrelevance even I am sometimes tempted to take the cheap shot and ask about some current-events news story by way of pointing out the discrepancy between process and outcome. But we have to remember that notions like “relevance” are indexical and contextual, and mentioning actual political events to an academic scholar ought not to serve to collapse the distinction between academics and policymakers (and to those who serve as their mouthpieces in the popular media and the blogosphere). In fact, the antidote for both the irrelevance of technical-ism and the irrelevance of erudition is not “real-world relevance,” but a third kind of irrelevance vis-a-vis the everyday world of practical politics: the irrelevance of untimeliness, the irrelevance of adopting a position that is divorced and detached from the ordinary stream of events precisely for the purpose of gaining some perspective on them. Academic meandering through technical and philosophical issues ought to be “relevant” to this kind of untimely explication, and not to the policy process; as Max Weber put it so elegantly in “Science as a Vocation,” the sole task of academic scholarship is to “serve only the thing,” to be wholly devoted to one’s subject, to seek to explain and understand phenomena rather than seeking to change them in a preferred direction. Whether policymakers find this useful in the short-term is quite irrelevant; what matters is whether our comprehension improves — which includes our notion of “comprehension” itself. That’s our task; the rest is gravy.

Our job as scholars is not, and should not be, primarily about producing bits of information that are instrumentally useful for the running of the empire. Our job is to protect and preserve the untimely practice of criticism, the de-naturalizing sensibility in terms of which we can call seemingly obvious things into question and make them available for reflection and discernment. If you want to change the world, don’t go into academia, and in the name of all that is holy don’t go to graduate school to get a PhD in political science or IR with an eye towards an academic career. If you want to be “relevant” and make immediate changes in the course of events, go to law school, go to business school, go work for Apple Computer. But if you want to dwell in that kind of untimely irrelevance that makes the production of knowledge and criticism possible, even though the cost of doing so is a perpetual temptation to spiral off into technical-ism and erudition, then academia is where you belong, and irrelevance of the third kind is what you ought to be striving for.

Revenge of the Geeks

(A blog response to “The Academy Strikes Back” by Dan Drezner.)

Also, see here and here.

Storming DC

This weekend, I traveled to Washington with five of my “Global Agenda-Setting” students for their final exam. It consisted of an oral presentation of their collaboratively authored strategy paper at the headquarters of the NGO for whom the document was prepared, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. It was an extremely polished brilliant presentation, the culmination of an enormous amount of work, and I felt enormously tremendously proud watching it (and the CIVIC staffers’ positive reactions). I also shared the students’ relief that, after a month of late nights agonizing over their 74 Powerpoint slides and revising their paper, the project had come to an end and they (and I) could start focusing on their other end-of-semester necessities.

Every time I teach a class like this I start wondering if it’s worth the amount of time and energy it takes on the students’ part to put together something polished enough to present publicly. Afterward, I almost always think it is, because the outcome is so rewarding (and because by then I’ve caught up on my sleep). But I also wonder. In a sense, getting less than an A is not really an option under such conditions; yet is it fair to deny students’ the ability to minimax with their other competing obligations?

I wonder if other readers of this blog have designed similar service projects or theory-policy encounters as part of graduate seminars, and how to do it so that students can succeed at an acceptable cost. And I’d love it if International Studies Perspectives would publish a pedagogy piece that deals with how to structure such assignments in a way that maximizes the rewards and skillsets involved while minimizing burnout, while also maintaining a professional responsibility to the practitioners with whom we interface. Perhaps there is simply not a happy medium here, but if there is I’d love to hear about it.

UPDATE: In chagrin, after having stressed the importance of removing redunancies from the strategy paper all last week, I have edited several redundancies out of the above post.

Geneva 1.5 (Or, So You Want to Bridge the Theory/Policy Divide)

After rejections from two other policy journals and ten days of wrangling with the editors, my first policy-article on the rules of war has just appeared in The National Interest. In a nutshell:

“The arguments of the Bush administration when it comes to torture, prisoner-of-war status and extraordinary rendition have been met with outrage by the international community, constitutional scholars and human-rights organizations like Amnesty International, which has referred to Guantánamo Bay as the ‘gulag of our times.’ But the polarization of these two camps obscures the broad middle ground that exists between them.

The contemporary problem—for both governments and transnational rights advocates—is that neither sovereignty nor battle space is what it used to be. The solution is neither to blindly promote adherence to the letter of the law nor to continue to willfully flout its spirit. Instead, both the U.S. government and members of the transnational human-rights network should seek to update and clarify these rules through an international conference that would lead toward a new additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions.”

The title, “Geneva 2.0” is a bit of a misnomer, however, since I’m calling for an Additional Protocol, not a whole new convention. As such we are talking AP 5.0 (or perhaps, Geneva 1.5?), because the Geneva Conventions have already been addended four times previously. Nonetheless this title, the outcome of a last minute negotiation with the TNI editor, is far superior (in my admittedly humorless opinion) to her earlier suggestion: “Can Geneva Get Her Groove Back?” (My original title, “Reviving Geneva,” was apparently too stale and geeky to attract the attention of TNI’s readership.)

Though it’s pleasing to have broken into the foreign policy press (if only because I now have a shred of cred when I preach to my students about policy-relevant social science) I am left with mixed feelings. Translating serious research into something appropriate for a beltway journal turned out to be like knitting socks with fishline. Of course, I knew a bit in the abstract about the challenges of “bridging the theory/policy divide” from reading Steve Smith and Stephen Walt and listening to Joseph Nye ruminate at ISA. But that didn’t prepare me at all for the nuts and bolts of it.

Besides not getting to pick a title, here are some other things I now know to expect, should I ever try this again:

No Footnotes Required… or Allowed. As a social scientist, this really gave me pause. Particularly when crafting a fairly outside the box argument that is sure to attract criticism, how could I not cite my sources as backup for my claims? Fortunately for readers of the Duck, those with inquiring minds can access the fully-cited version of the article here.

Don’t Bother Acknowledging Your Priors. In scholarly journals one rarely takes sole credit for a piece, since it usually evolves from conversations, peer feedback and the intellectual legacy of earlier scholarship. Policy journals don’t waste space acknowledging such niceties. But since the article evolved largely from teaching my course “Rules of War” for the past four years at University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, it would hardly be appropriate to publish my insights without mentioning the contributions of my many students who refined, reshaped and challenged my thinking, particularly those who remain in touch with me. These include Jeff Smith, Roy Nickerson, Rebecca Wall, Betcy Jose-Thota, Justin Reed, Vanja Lundell, Ben Rubin, Andrew Blake, Chris Farnsworth, Irene Tzinis, Hans Brun, and Thomas Helms.

Editorial License is Par for the Course. I was completely unprepared for the loss of autonomy over one’s work you experience when you attempt to publish inside the beltway. Editors of academic journals offer iterated feed-back, declining to publish until the author produces a text in accordance with their guidelines, and they copy-edit the final draft for typos. Editors of policy journals take the original manuscript and rewrite/restructure/interpolate it to suit their own ideas, then put your byline on it. And, they believe they are doing you a favor by taking on the job of the “heavy lifting” the manuscript from misbegotten draft to publishable masterpiece.

Don’t Expect Time to Reflect. After all the above changes are introduced, the author may be offered as much as 24 hours to “approve” the changes. Compare this to the standard several weeks to review proofs or months to make revisions offered by academic journals. You’d better not be in the field doing interviews with your six-year-old in tow when a policy journal decides they want to “fast-track” your piece into the next issue. Or, prepare to subsist on Vivarin for several days. (One wonders how many aspiring policy-writers steeped in academic norms just give up at this stage – someone should study the clash of expectations as an impediment to bridging the theory/policy gap.)

Know Your Bottom Line. The only leverage you have in the end is to decline publication if you don’t like what the editor has done with your piece. As academics, we’re unaccustomed to dealing with that tradeoff, but it’s clear to me that aspiring policy writers must develop the skill to make ethical judgments about the content and language we associate with our byline. (I could live with “Geneva 2.0” but the other title was just too frivolous for a piece on something as grave as war crimes.)

Who knew it would be so tricky? Those with experience, of course, who are no doubt chortling at my cluelessness. (Also, the patient beltway editors who have the thankless task of tutoring us sheltered eggheads in their own rules and norms). Well, if the academy aims to bridge the theory/policy divide better, we should help budding political scientists cultivate this experience earlier in their careers. Perhaps instead of yet another methods seminar, we need policy-writing courses for our doctoral students that would help them develop their own skill-sets / strategies / codes of conduct before they throw their hat, haplessly, into the ring.

Kingdonian Activism?

This is none too pithy, but tonight (this morning?) I’m just going to toss up a whole stream of ideas that have been percolating since the first BioNote discussion and took shape while I was attending the ISA conference in San Francisco. They relate to a very problematic final chapter I’m struggling over now in which I attempt to account for the role I’ve played (by researching a non-barking dog) in inadvertently getting the dog to bark.

Many of us do this of course – interface with the real world in ways that put us inside the subject matter we’re studying – but there are not good formulas in IR scholarship for reflecting about this explicitly (much less analyzing one’s own actions as part of our dataset) as we write up our results.

(This ties into the earlier “Bionote” discussion in two ways. First, bionote norms, I’ve argued, are simply an example of how IR encourages people to think of themselves as observers rather than participants in the worlds we are studying. Second, the autobiographical nature of the ISA panel about which I blogged was due to, not a deviation from, this set of norms. The panel was organized as an autobiographical set of war stories from policy work by academics precisely because as Janice Gross Stein pointed out, autobiography is all we have to go on because we don’t bother to do empirical studies of how we “bridge that divide” and with what consequences.)

But why don’t we? I think it is due to the very trend I think I was trying to articulate before – IR scholars have some stake in keeping up the pretense that we exist separate from international affairs. We’re encouraged through various disciplinary norms to occlude a serious empirical analysis of the way our role in conducting research, especially if we do elite interviews, to say nothing of blogging, writing op-eds, or consulting, affects the processes we’re studying.

To be sure this is probably truer of some projects than others. I’ve concluded it’s quite true of my work on “dogs that don’t bark” in transnational advocacy networks (namely the absence of children born of war rape on the human rights agenda) and I’m trying with some difficulty to account for this as I complete my current manuscript.

Consider this anecdote from the concluding chapter:

“In Spring of 2006, I presented my preliminary findings regarding the non-emergence of “children born of war” at University of Pittsburgh’s Research in International Politics (RIP) monthly brown-bag. In such circles, heavily dominated by empirical approaches, one does not present normative theory – that is, value-laden arguments about how the world should look, or policy-oriented sets of recommendations about particular problems. Rather, one identifies puzzles about the world and then goes about solving them by applying or modifying existing theories. Theories in this sense being lenses said to explain and predict major patterns in world affairs.

Therefore, I had organized this particular paper not as a problem-focused human rights argument about children, but rather as an empirical study on “issue non-emergence” within advocacy networks. I presented the subject of “children born of war” as a negative case and demonstrated why, from the perspective of agenda-setting theory this might be considered an interesting puzzle. The case, I argued, showed that we needed a different understanding of the obstacles to issue emergence.

My colleagues provided a variety of suggestions on the theory, the methods and the structure of the argument. But one piece of advice particularly sticks out in my mind. “You’d better stop talking to international organizations about this issue until you publish,” said one of my senior colleagues. “Otherwise, before you know it you will no longer have a puzzle to explain, because these children will be on the agenda.”

Note two things about this comment. First: the idea that more attention to this population should have been less preferable to me (or anyone) than the ability to advance my career by publishing an interesting paper. Second: the acknowledgement by my colleague that in researching the non-emergence of “children born of war,” I was in fact engaged in “issue entrepreneurship” myself that could alter the research findings.

If the previous chapters illustrate anything, it is that the process of researching human rights is in fact intimately connected with the practice of constructing human rights in and around a variety of policy arenas. In other words, far from existing outside their subject matter, human rights intellectuals are part of the human rights movement and actively (if inadvertently) shape it. But my colleagues did not advise me to explicitly account for this factor in my research or discuss the academy as a source of momentum or resistance to new human rights issues. To do so would have been to breach certain professional norms within epistemic communities of political scientists, norms that suggest that “real” research is distinctive from advocacy.

As explained briefly in chapter one, I have sought to exploit the recursive relationship between academics and practitioners methodologically. The research process for me has consisted largely of poking around the human rights regime asking questions about what is not on the agenda and asking practitioners to justify their answers. This has provided insight into the regime itself, as well as its silences and the cultures within which different practitioners move.

However such a method does constitutes a notable, if modest, agenda-setting function in its own right. Simply raising a new issue in a conversational setting ‘makes people think’ and stirs up dialogue. Such communicative action can lead to organizational innovation. It also introduces the individual researcher to the network of gatekeepers who can stop an issue from emerging, as well at to those ‘true believers’ who might push for it. The practitioners may come to see the researcher, through these discussions, as an expert on the substantive topic. The researcher might be invited by true believers to consult or share findings with the practitioner community.

The choice of whether and how to exercise this role has implications both for the research and for the organizations under study, and eventually for the population of concern. It is therefore impossible and irresponsible to pretend that the research process itself has not influenced the very communities of practice we study. Acknowledging this has required me to reflect on my own role in the human rights network, and that of like-minded colleagues and of academia as a whole, as part of the subject matter of the book.”

But how to do so systematically? In developing a literature review to ground the remarks in this chapter, I re-read with some interest Patrick Jackson and Stuart Kaufman’s Perspectives on Politics piece “Security Scholars for a Sensitive Foreign Policy.” I liked this article because it represented an example of IR scholars self-consciously engaging with the real world, and theorizing about the process of doing so. To wit, the authors document their role in SSSFP, an advocacy effort led by IR scholars to illuminate cause and effect relationships regarding the Iraq war while remaining politically agnostic, thus maintaining scholarly credibility. According to Jackson and Kaufman: “Weberian activism… is an appropriate stance for scholars who wish to engage in debate on public issues.”

However I found their application of “Weberian Activism” too limiting to inform the problem I’m facing, since the authors’ careful incursion into political activism comes at a much later stage of the policy process. In other words, their model cannot inform the work of scholars studying cause and effect relationships in agenda-setting – that is, how “public issues” get constructed in the first place, and particularly why some get framed off the public agenda altogether. Any scholar who “pokes around” a policy domain trying to analyze this part of the policy process, even if s/he limits herself to standard methodologies and avoids “open advocacy” like the plague, will influence the thoughts of policy-makers and possibly affect the very outcomes s/he is studying despite his/her best efforts.

And yet the argument Jackson and Kaufman make reifies the very divide between academic and policymakers about which we might be so usefully explicit. The entire article is an exercise in finding some way to reconcile the authors’ different “hats” as researchers of world politics and participants in world politics. They come down on the side of privileging their scholarly identities (maybe because they were writing this article for a scholarly journal?), even though doing so meant essentially abrogating the possibility of being effective in their activist exercise. At any rate, such a solution would be impossible if they were seeking to “encourage broad acknowledgement of facts and problems” in an area where no policy debate already existed, because in such case the research itself would play an agenda-setting role that could not be summarily negated through the logic of Weberian activism.

Probably, what we need in such cases is to acknowledge what might be referred to, following Stephen Krasner as “Kingdonian Activism.” OK, I coined this term, not Krasner, but he inspired me this week at ISA. On the “Bridging the Theory/Policy Divide” Panel at ISA about which I blogged earlier, Stephen Krasner argued that bridging the gap is the wrong framework. Instead we should be using Kingdon’s garbage can model to think about how academia interfaces with politics. Krasner suggests academics are just one group among many contributing to what Kingdon describes as the policy “soup.”

The question of our moral responsibility as persons with civic identities to deliberately engage as activists in such cases is an important issues, but it is not the subject of this post. What I’m interested in here is our responsibility as scholars to account for our role, however inadvertent, in influencing the policy processes we are studying.

Here is a more recent example of what I mean. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), about whose work I blogged approvingly not so long ago, constitutes an excellent case study for my ongoing work on the dialectic between issue entrepreneurs and establishment advocacy organizations. Since I’m interested in why new ideas do or don’t get picked up by lead actors in advocacy networks, I’m curious to follow this campaign, trace CIVIC’s strategies over time and watch to see what works for them, what doesn’t and why.

However, insofar as policy elites or those within a degree of separation from them do read this blog, my blog post itself arguably has become part of the socio-political dataset on the construction of CIVIC’s platform. How / to what extent / must I account for this in my research? Do I analyze the post and comments to it as part of the total dataset? If so, should I interview myself or at least reflect on / be transparent about my motivations in posting, as I would interview others responsible for content I’m analyzing? Should I code myself as a issue entrepreneur or issue advocate for discussing this campaign, on blogs, conference panels or in the classroom? Or should I avoid any mention of such issues I’m studying in my personal or professional conduct until my research is complete?

It doesn’t matter, because even if I had never blogged about CIVIC, the very process of conducting interviews with people about issue construction plays a role in constructing issues. When I interviewed the CIVIC Executive Director, the conversation itself allowed her to think through the organization’s strategy in ways that may have changed her thinking. And interviews with gatekeepers about issues they’re ignoring force them to justify non-policies, which helps me understand their thought process but also places me momentarily in an issue-entrepreneur role. (I’ve noticed this particularly in my children born of war research – when I talk about my work on BBC, for example, I’m usually contributing to awareness raising about an understudied human rights problem, so my comments would arguably become part of the documentary record I’m then supposed to be tracing.)

Dan Drezner had an answer to this question in his comments last November at the “Who Are the Global Governors?” Workshop at George Washington University. His take on it is that researchers “just aren’t that important” in the global policy cycle. If true, then attempting to include our own impacts in the analysis comes off as vain and narcissistic (as many comments to an earlier post suggest).

But a lot of famous global norm entrepreneurs have been academics, and the whole epistemic communities literature documents the way in which scientists influence the policy process. Bridging the theory/policy divide may not be easy or prevalent in our discipline, but it is done, and in the absence of serious empirical studies of how it’s being done and with what effect/side-effect, it’s hard to know how to do it properly and where the methodological tradeoffs lie.

Perhaps those of us in this position should be trained to recognize it and to adopt participant-observation methods explicitly and transparently. This is standard practice in sociology, but rare in IR. For example, Peter Haas’ work on epistemic communities draws on conversations he has as a participant in global policy processes, but he does not spend time in his scholarly outputs discussing how his presence inside his subject matter influences his findings and impacts the politics he’s studying.

The problem is that people like myself (and, I think Peter) want to be reasonably positivist in our work – in other words, we’d like to observe phenomena and analyze them in a valid, objective, replicable way. But we also want to observe phenomena that we can only be observed from the inside out. Our observations of the phenomena itself may be reasonably empirical; but our observations of our own interactions will be necessarily interpretive.

I can see several possible solutions within our discipline to this seeming need to either degenerate into interpretivism or to deny our role in our subject matter in order to perpetuate an illusory dichotomy between positivist and reflectivist approaches.

1)Recognize and legitimate the complexities outlined above and incorporate ethnographic methods into standard IR methodology training. Some standard criteria would need to be developed for judging the circumstances under which a scholar should know they need to do this in order to retain credibility, since not all projects call for it.

2)Delegate the role of analyzing one’s own interface with one’s subject matter to a third party. In the case of my current manuscript then, I would write up the analysis of the human rights regime as I observed it as an academic, but I would turn over my field notes, published work on the topic, correspondence with political players, briefing notes and slides, consulting records, any evidence of an impact by me on the policy domain I’m studying, to one or more people – coders if you will – whose assignment would be to evaluate how much I had shaped the politics of an issue simply by researching it in such a way that the findings would be independent of my own subjectivity and, ideally, reliable across observers. Often the impact found would no doubt turn out to be minimal; but where significant the author could then refer to some evidence other than their own judgment.

Am I making any sense here, or are these merely the rantings of a seriously jet-lagged assistant professor nervous about including a “radical” book chapter in a manuscript to a university press, late at night, after a day of transitioning back from ISA with needy children, and too many glasses of red wine?

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