In Spring of 2006, I was nearing the end of data collection on my investigation into the human rights of children born of rape and exploitation in conflict zones, and I presented my preliminary findings on the topic atUniversity 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 empirical puzzles about the world and then goes
about solving them by applying or modifying existing theories. Theories, in this sense, are 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 born of war, 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. This was the working paper version of a longer book project exploring why children born of war rape had received so little attention from advocacy organizations aiming to protect war-affected children. 

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 senior faculty member. “Otherwise, before you know it, you will no longer have a puzzle to explain, because these children will be on the agenda.”  

Two things struck me about this comment. First was the suggestion that in researching the non-emergence of “children born of war,” I might in fact be engaged in a form of issue entrepreneurship that could alter the research findings. Second was the suggestion that 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. In this essay, I grapple with those two problematiques as a way of thinking about what we aim for when we choose political science as a vocation, and to what extent our answers to that question are implicated in the social constructions we study.

Thus begins my reflection essay in this month’s issue of Perspectives on Politics. This piece began as the concluding chapter of the my book on human rights agenda-setting, but I was asked to remove it by the Columbia University Press editor as the price of publication. The essay reflects on that maneuver and its meaning in the context of a wider set of ruminations about academic norms, scholarly inquiry and the ways we interface with and affect the world we study.  We do this both through our practices as scholars and through our many every-day interactions with the public, practitioners and policy-makers on the research frontier, but this dialectic is masked by our professional norms. I hope that’s starting to change.

This set of ruminations from my professional journey along theory-data-practitioner-policy-public-sphere continuum remains very relevant to my new book project. These days, I think of what I learned on the Bosnia project constantly as I navigate semi-structured interviews and informal conversations with human security elites in the areas of civilian protection, children’s health, and arms control. I hope that in my new manuscript I can find a way to acknowledge my embeddedness within these communities of practice as a methodological choice in a way that nonetheless passes academic peer review.

Along those lines, Stephen Walt reminds us in an new important essay that hanging out on the divide between academe and the real world is necessary, yet full of pitfalls. He proposes a menu of strategies by which academic institutions can incentivize an ethical, reflexive and transparent approach that encourages such bridge-building. But he also insists we must acknowledge and render transparent the academic and political significance of such interactions between scholars and practitioners, policymakers and the public. If we can find a way to do that without unhelpfully blurring the line between academe and the ‘rest’ perhaps we can rescue the discipline from what he calls the “cult of irrelevance.”

To do it, we need to rethink how we train and socialize students, reward our junior colleagues, and report on our consulting relationships, as Walt points out. But in my view we also need to change our publishing norms to include and honor scholarly reflections on one’s journey through one’s subject matter as a staple component of analytical presentations.

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