Marc Maron, on his popular WTF Podcast, made an offhand remark that he does not prepare for his comedy performances. He feels that preparing is for cowards, that you need to be ready and willing to fail in your work since there is a fine line between a unique achievement and total failure. Skirting this line led him to ruin many times in his career, but it has also led him to the transcendent place he is at now. He has reached the heights of his field by putting it all on the line and risking total devastation by focusing on his Podcast, a new and untested medium at the time. Now he has one of the most popular podcasts, a TV show, and is more popular than ever on the comedy circuit.
Maron’s path to success reminds us that we need to think a bit about this frame in our own work in Political Science. Are we really willing to fail? Are we cowards? Do we skirt that fine line between success and ruin?
All too often in our field, scholars take the conservative path. Our work is riddled with caveats and conditions. Quantitative scholars sometimes focus on incremental modifications to past work to make a statement; rarely do they start from scratch, building new models and methods of inquiry. Qualitative scholars can be no better, they sometimes seek to examine their theories with a few cases, not seeking comparability and generalizability, but focusing cases that they are familiar with. The field is littered with the dead trees that make up journal articles reporting to test “crucial cases.” Critical scholars are not immune; they seek to expand an emancipatory framework with little movement towards emancipating anything.
Who really takes chances anymore? All of us are safe. Of course there are rare examples of those that do better, there are people to admire and emulate, but they are few and far between.
We need to push for research that might encompass what I call political science without a net. This is what I like about my research on cyber security. I can be wrong in an instant, one massive global destructive cyber attack almost invalidates my theory of restraint and regionalism in cyberspace (yes, I know one case does not disprove a theory, but it can sure terminally harm it). The easy path would have been to articulate a frame of the future where cyber conflict dominates the system. I could write about the notion that we will see continued and constant netwar that will change how we interact, how nations rise and fall, and how states conduct strategy. These sorts of claims are easy to make, clouded by caveats and qualifications, and the frame can successfully be employed to describe one view of the cyber world or even applied to research about drones, airpower, and other frames of future war.
These frames that suggest massive changes to the system are largely inaccurate. We have failed to see cyberwar really proliferate in the decades since the ubiquity of digital communications. Russia has failed to use the tactic in Ukraine and Crimea, even after using it liberally, if in a restrained manner, during the Georgia invasion of 2008 and in Estonia in 2007. The United States rejected the widespread use of cyber tactics in Iraq (2003), Afghanistan (2002), and Libya (2011). Cyber terrorists and non-state actors use the tactic, to little actual effect and impact. Cyber technologies have changed our daily lives, but to argue that they have and will change our foreign policy and military strategy are ideas that are too easy to claim and very difficult to prove wrong when the theory is articulated with unlimited time horizons. Taking a new weapon and arguing that it will change the world is a simple case to make; taking a new weapon and suggesting this is just more of the same, like ancient espionage practices, is difficult. In fact, it is important to take this position because arguing for the coming cyber threat risks provoking escalation and conflict. The frame becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because the idea is so simple; people believe it to be true because it seems logical. Who does not feel vulnerable when they lose internet access and cell phone service?
It sometimes feels as if our field of International Relations is becoming stagnant. Not because we are not asking big questions or are not doing policy relevant research, but often because we do not take big risks. Defying conventional wisdom is wonderful, even liberating. We need to insert more fear in our work; otherwise, as Maron says, we are cowards. Ask yourself, are you taking chances in your scholarship? Are you pushing the boundaries of what is known and possible in your field?
Dare to be wrong, be fearless, do something different
*Obviously taking this route is dangerous for this untenured, but then again, I don’t think there is really a safe path to tenure anyway. I am living proof of that.