Tag: career suicide

It’s All Our Fault

I’ve had it. Recently I was asked to review a book that will not be named for a journal that will not be mentioned. It was by an author with a pretty good reputation with an excellent press on a subject that I am well informed on. (I won’t mention names. Dan can take him or her to the woodshed later.) I thought I would be doing the field a service and forcing myself to read what I thought would be an entertaining book that I might not otherwise have the time to read. The problem: it is f&ck*ng mess.

Actually that really isn’t the real issue. The real problem is that I am absolutely positive that this book will receive great reviews and probably win a prize. It has glowing blurbs on the back by luminaries in the field that are entirely unjustified and indicate either 1) they have not read the book, or 2) they have read the book but are friends with the author, or 3) they have not read the book, are not friends with the author but have all suffered major brain injuries within the last year. But it is the kind of thing that passes for good qualitative research in international relations right now. And that sucks.

I will be more specific, presenting what I see as the faults of this book, but which really characterize many if not most books in this vein. I will offer them in a positive light, as admonitions for young scholars to do better work, with enough profanity to capture my indignant rage and serious intent.

1) Do not be a bad historian. If you are going to do macro-historical work that relies on comparative case studies, be ready to read at least one goddamn primary document. I am really, really tired of seeing book after book that relies on secondary sources. This is academic hearsay. It is not admissible. And do not, under any circumstances, quote some historian’s conclusion as evidence for your argument. Get off your ass. Do the work. Historians’ work has all the problems that ours does. They are not the Pope.

If you write a book in international relations on a subject where the country’s official secrecy act is no longer in effect and you do not use primary sources, you have no excuse. And even if there is such a law, that probably means it is a relatively contemporary subject. People do have mouths. They can be interviewed. So unless your subject is how it feels to be part of a mass genocide or the politics of public policy towards the deaf and mute, this rule applies to you.

2) Do not be a statistician, much less a bad one. Show causality. The whole point of doing qualitative work, as opposed to statistical, is usually to trace a process. So get out your pencil and trace it. Don’t simply engage in some kind of half-assed correlative argument that this factor is present when this factor is present so you are right. We want to see not just the smoking gun, but the casings, the bullet, the body, and the hand on the trigger. This will probably require some reference to primary documents. See #1. If you ‘t do that you are just a statistician with a small N and no math skills.

3) Do not fall in love with your own ideas. This way your theory and evidence will match. Almost every book or article starts with an idea that is interesting to its originator, and the problem is that idea is a hard one to break up with. Almost any initial hunch is wrong in some way, even if there is also probably something to it. My first book looked for a common partisan alignment on foreign policy across countries. Didn’t exist. My second book looked for the role that identity played in U.S. multilateralism. None.

But it is very clear when you read a lot of academic work that that love never dies and authors will do anything to maintain that relationship. They will twist the truth, ignore obvious inconsistencies, or make excuses for their argument. Don’t do that. Marry. Get divorced. Marry new trophy spouse. Let the initial idea take you into unchartered waters and see where it takes you because that is inevitably somewhere new, but also more interesting.

4) Do a proper literature review. Make sure you have exhausted all the different ways that someone might go about explaining your explanandum and deal with them. Decisively. Do not pretend they are not there. It is rude and also lacks academic integrity.

5) Avoid the two-by-two table. It is a common joke at academic talks that all the great arguments involve two-by-two tables. I am instantly skeptical of every piece I ever read with a 2×2. 90% of the time they are terrible. I think that qualitatively-oriented academics are sensitive about the criticisms they get for lacking parsimony and generalizability and seek to armor themselves by creating simplistic typologies instead of learning math. That is stupid. Embrace context or go to stats camp.

I do both quantitative and qualitative work, but my best work is the latter. We can complain all we want, and I have, by the dominance in the field of certain ‘isms’ and methodologies, but we have to bear part of the blame. They have a point about our fuzzy conclusions and lack of rigor. We do a lot of really bad work, and we have to get better.

This has to be a personal code. The fact that I am reviewing a book with one of the best presses in the business that makes all of these mistakes indicates that there is no professional incentive to do any of this. Only Dan checks people’s footnotes. It must come from your own sense of personal integrity. But I will be watching…..

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Papa Don’t Preach: Rationalism is an Ism


Just yesterday I cautioned a graduate student not to get on the wrong side of some powerful people for the sake of principle if he could not truly effect change. And yet here I sit typing this right now, about to begin a rant on David Lake’s new ISQ article: “Why ”isms’ are evil: Theory, Epistemology, and Academic Sects as Impediments to Understanding and Progress.” Nexon started it. It is his fault.

The piece is taken from David Lake’s keynote address as ISA president and identifies five pathologies with dividing our field up the way we do, along ‘ism’ lines. We reify research traditions, reward extremism, mistake research traditions for actual theories, focus on the things that our approach is best at explaining so as to confirm our biases, and insist that our approach is the genuinely scientific one. I am going to assign this to my graduate seminar. I agree with every word. That is why it drives me so crazy.

It is not the message. It is the messenger. More than most other scholars, Lake has been part of the rationalist turn in international relations theorizing. His approach is wonderful, but not eclectic. It is simple applied microeconomics to problems of international relations and cooperation. I know Entangling Relations like the back of my hand, as it is the primary target of my forthcoming book on Trust in International Cooperation and my recent piece in IO. In his, there are no counterarguments, nothing to test his argument against. There is only rationalism.

Yet I don’t think Lake ever uses the word rationalism in that book, and probably only sporadically elsewhere. This is because, like others, he insists that rationalism is not an ‘ism.’ Realism, liberalism, constructivism, even feminism — these are part of the problem. But rationalism might as well be the Loch Ness monster. It is myth, a legend, something that you scare your kids with as you read them to sleep but not something that actually exists in daylight. And yet your dogs keep going missing…..

Stop right there. You are going to tell me that rationalism is a methodology, or an approach, not a substantive theory of international relations, that all rationalists assume is transitivity in preferences. You are wrong. In fact, Lake along with Robert Powell, lay out its fundamentals in an edited book called Strategic Choice and International Relations. This is a marvelous book, one of my all time favorites, precisely because it lays out the ontology of rationalism so well. But just because you change the name and call it an approach does not mean it is not rationalism and a proper ‘ism,’ just like the rest.

Like other isms, rationalism has a particular vision of the world, of individualist utilitarian maximizers engaged in a constant strategic interaction with others individualist utilitarian maximizers. Individual units are only held together by common interest, and those common interests could diverge at any time. There is no deep and abiding trust, no common identity, only these rapacious little units. This is why the rationalist revolution has been so revolutionary. It points out how states might make disastrous decisions about whether to go to war or how long to fight that are perfectly rational for the leaders who make them because those leaders are interested primarily in saving their own hide. This might just be cynical folk wisdom dressed up in academic garb, but I cannot think of a more compelling criticism of and comparison to realism. It was a useful corrective. We should be forever grateful. But let’s not pretend it is not an ism.

Stop right there. You are saying that the utility function is left open by rationalists, that it is capable of accounting for say, altruism. True, in theory. But in practice, name more than five articles or books that actually assume anything other than naked self-interest on the part of international actors, at whatever level of analysis. There is a reason for this. The strategic view of the world is a cynical view of the world, and a cynical view is a selfish view. That is fine, but I’m calling a spade a spade. Have you ever given a talk and had a formal theorist, for instance, ask if you aren’t being too cynical, if the political actors you are discussing aren’t more concerned with the public good than you give them credit for? I didn’t think so.

Lake no longer teaches ‘isms’ in his course, he tells us. Instead he relies on his strategic choice approach, which, as we have established, is not an ism. He advises us to focus our intellectual efforts on pragmatic problem-solving, of which three elements are of prime importance — interests, institutions and interactions. These are, of course, the basic building blocks identified in his book with Powell. Surely we can all agree on that.

For his part, Lake acknowledges his own part in these pathologies, in a footnote. And maybe he is having some mid-career Road to Damascus moment. His recent article in International Security advised us to develop behavioral theories of bargaining informed by psychological factors. Those psychologically minded who saw that might have rejoiced, had we not been doing that for several decades already with barely a nod from the other side of the aisle.

So, the more that I think of it, I don’t agree with Lake at all. Yes, paradigms have these pathologies. But the paradigm problem was one of the 1980s and 1990s more than it is today. Today we have hegemony, and worse, a hegemony that claims not to be coherent or even to exist. I think the complaint that many have is not that they can’t get into some of the bigger IR journals because they are constructivists or liberals or whatever, it is because they are not rationalists.

I want people to put their money, literally, where their mouth is. If diversity of viewpoints is important, then I’ll be happy to announce, on this very blog, UCSD’s search for a new junior line in critical security studies. You heard it here first! Of course California needs a budget first…..

If Lake is serious about such a project, I’d be the first to get behind him. When someone tells me, “I am a realist” or “I am a constructivist,” they immediately lose all credibility to me as a social scientist. Saying that means you know the answer before you start looking, which is the very opposite of science. You might as well say, I am a liberal. Or I am a conservative. I think paradigms can be destructive, too. But first we have to be honest about the current state of the field and the real substantive cleavages in it. We are not there yet.

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