Tag: ISA (page 2 of 3)

ISA Theory Section Call for Conference Paper Awards

The Theory Section seeks nominations for its new conference paper awards. All papers with a strong theoretical focus which were presented at the 2013 ISA conference in San Francisco are eligible. The Theory Section seeks to honor excellent work in theorizing international politics across the plurality of theoretical approaches. Two awards will be granted: one for a paper presented by a graduate student or other non-PhD holder, and another for a paper by a post-PhD scholar.

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Call for Nominations: ISA Theory Section Book Award

The International Studies Association Theory Section Book Award

The International Studies Association Theory Section Book Award recognizes the best book or edited volume published over the past two years that contributes to the theorization of world politics. The award is open to all forms and styles of theorization. Criteria include such considerations as innovativeness, quality of argumentation, and significance for the broad discipline of international studies.

Nominations should be emailed to the committee chair accompanied by a brief letter explaining why a work deserves consideration for the award. Authors may nominate themselves. A copy of each book must be sent to each member of the committee, with the line “Theory Section Book Award, c/o” at the top of each address.

Nominations  are due by 15 August, 2013 and books must be received by 30 August, 2013. E-book formatted submissions are welcome.

Officers of the Theory section and members of the committee are ineligible for the award.

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Talking Academic Journals: Publishing the “Best Work”

Note: this is the second in a series of posts opening up issues relating to journal process for general discussion by the international-studies community.

All journals commit to publishing “the best work” that they receive within their remit. All journals aspire to publish “the best work,” period, within their specialization. This raises special challenges for a journal such as the International Studies Quarterly, which constitutes the “flagship” publication of the International Studies Association (ISA). The ISA is incredibly diverse. It includes members from all over the world–nearly half are based outside of North America–who work in different disciplines and within heterogeneous research cultures.  Continue reading


Talking Academic Journals: Collecting Data

Note: this is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts opening up issues relating to journal process for general discussion by the international-studies community.

Although many readers already know the relevant information, let me preface this post with some context. I am the incoming lead editor of International Studies Quarterly (ISQ), which is one of the journals in the International Studies Association family of publications. We are planning, with PTJ leading the effort, some interesting steps with respect to online content, social media, and e-journal integration–but those will be the subject of a later post. I have also been rather critical of the peer-review process and of the fact that we don’t study it very much in International Relations.

The fact is that ISQ by itself–let alone the collection of ISA journals and the broader community of cognate peer-reviewed publications–is sitting on a great deal of data about the process. Some of this data, such as the categories of submissions, is already in the electronic submission systems–but it isn’t terribly standardized. Many journals now collect information about whether a piece includes a female author. Given some indications of subtle, and consequential, gender bias, we have strong incentives to collect this kind of data.

But what, exactly, should we be collecting?
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Theory Section Redux

I want to remind interested parties that we’ve posted a call for  suggestions for (1) the ISA Theory Section’s “Distinguished Scholar” of 2014 and (2) the wording of the book prize. Vocal parties at the 2013 business meeting called for democratizing the process via this kind of mechanism; it would be a shame if Schmitt trumped Habermas when it came to these issues.

Also of note….

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The Stupid Things People with a Ph.D. say on Airplanes

“My main job [as an assistant professor at insert-flyover-university-here] is advising presidential policy on public religious life.” I actually heard a Ph.D. tell his neighbor that on an airplane.

I know that there might be more worthwhole topics for my first post in months (I haven’t been a total slacker, I have been doing some programming), but none is more pressing …

I have made back-to-back trips to conferences (first ISA and then MPSA) this week, and have connected through Atlanta each time, providing me with the rare opportunity to ride the airplane with other political scientists who I do not know personally.

In these journeys, I have realized that political scientists are weird animals, and we say dumb things to strangers on airplanes. More examples below the fold.

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ISA Theory Section Book Prize

Despite the lack of an update at its website, I am now the Chair of the International Studies Association (ISA) Theory Section.

Obviously, all ISA members should join and contribute $5 to our budget. But the reason for this post is that we’ve promised public discussion of the wording of our new book award. I’ve set up a page for the section at the Duck of Minerva, but the comments aren’t working. So I’m putting the basic text here and inviting comments.

We also need to figure out if we are honoring a “distinguished scholar” next year. Suggestions on both the text of the award and possible honorees are welcome.

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ISA Survival Guide for Grad Students: the essential clothing, food, shelter, and networking dos and don’ts

blog1It is time again for the International Studies Association Annual Conference. With thousands of attendees, a phone book full of panels, and a slough of receptions, dinners, meetings, and opportunities, the whole thing can be a bit overwhelming as a grad student (and for everyone else too!). You’ve likely received advice on how to present your work in 10 seconds or less- but what about the rest of the conference? Here are a couple of key tips for surviving the four days and getting the most out of the experience.
Before we get to the real essentials (food, shelter, and clothing), let’s start with networking:
In addition to all the obvious tips (always wear your name tag, ask your supervisor to invite you along to some key dinners/meetings, hang out in the common areas and just generally act like you are speed dating, but for a job and contacts rather than for a mate) here are some more unconventional tips for making an impression:

  • Do get up and head down to the lobby if you have jet lag and can’t sleep at 4am. There is always the potential that you’ll be invited to join a tequila tasting/debate on the norm diffusion/poker game, or that you’ll see your academic idol passed out in the lobby- who wants to miss that for reruns of ‘What Not To Wear’ in the hotel room?
  • Do Google image all of your academic idols. If you end up behind Ole Waever in the Starbucks lineup you don’t want to miss the chance to (quickly) introduce yourself and tell him you use his work in your thesis. Also, if Ole comes to your panel, and you don’t recognize him, and he asks a difficult question about securitization (hey, it is possible!) you don’t want to a) accuse him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about b) go into detail about what an idiot you think Ole Waever is c) ask him if he’s related to Kevin Bacon because there is something familiar about him. On that note, Don’t (ever) use the coffee lineup, receptions, or the bar as an opportunity to ask someone like Ole to explain what they mean by social security or to tell them what aspects of their theory you think they got wrong. You may be right, and you may be brilliant, but there is a fine line between making an impression and burning a bridge/looking like a total douche.
  • Don’t follow the advice “ask a question at every panel, but start by talking about your research first.” People who tell you to do this want you to fail. Yes, you should ask questions if and only if you have a strong, relevant question- let’s be honest, that won’t be at every panel. And, yes you should always introduce yourself first. But no one wants the Q&A time hijacked by someone pitching their own research- save that for the bar or receptions.

Ok, on to the other essentials: Continue reading


ISA 2013 Blogging Reception

Blog Reception DraftThe good people at SAGE just sent this image along. It’s a mockup of one side of the reception postcards that will be handed out at ISA 2013. We will announce the winners of the awards at the reception.

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Quick Note on ISSS Elections

If you are a member of the International Security Studies Section (ISSS) of the International Studies Association (ISA) please remember to vote in its governance elections. And you should, of course, cast one of your votes  for the Duck of Minerva‘s own Jon Western.

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Note for ISA-NE Participants

The ISA-NE leadership is monitoring the weather situation. We hope that everything is cleared out in time for the conference. We will keep you all posted as to developments.

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A New Media Caucus at the ISA?

Should there be a blogging (or, perhaps, “New Media”) caucus at the International Studies Association (ISA)?

Despite being in the ISA-NE hierarchy and having served in various positions for the International Political Sociology (IPS) section, I’ve never paid that much attention to the internal structure of the ISA.

But now I’m involved in the creation of the Historical International Relations (HIST) section and a bid for International Studies Quarterly, so I’ve been on a steep learning curve.

It seems to me that there are good reasons to form a blogging caucus, but it also doesn’t fit well with the existing ones — Global South, LGBTQA, and the Women’s Caucus. They serve to ensure representation for those who struggle with discrimination and acceptance in the field. A New Media caucus would simply provide an institutional mechanism for coordination among those engaging in an increasingly important, but still fraught, dimension of international studies.



Historical International Relations: A Proposed Section for ISA

 Note: signatures are only valid for those who are members of International Studies Association at the time of review. Please do not sign if you are not, or will not, be an ISA member.

Below is a letter requesting support for a new section of the ISA on “Historical International Relations.” The section would be cognate to BISA’s Historical Sociology working group and APSA’s International History and Politics section. The idea came out of discussions among the co-signers of the letter below.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
For a few years now, many of you will have heard us mention the need for a new section at the ISA, one in which there would be a room for historical pieces which engage with international issues in a broad sense. We hereby ask for your support for a new section at the ISA entitled Historical International Relations by signing the online petition at https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/hir/, and forwarding this email to colleagues you think will have an interest in supporting the section. 

As you may all have noticed, there seems to be an increasing interest in historical scholarship in the discipline, an interest which is largely reflected in papers and panels presented at the conferences. However, these historical engagements appear in general in a host of different guises, sponsored (sometimes halfheartedly) by different existing sections. Some are sponsored by International Security, others by Diplomatic Studies, while more still have found shelter in the English School Section. While some may not see this as a problem, as it forces historical scholarship to engage with other sections of the discipline, we nevertheless think this situation requires a new section at the ISA. 

The idea of a new section is not for historical scholarship to colonize the ISA. We do not see such a section becoming one of the leading sections of the ISA. Rather, we see it as carving out a modest space for scholars who engage historically to work together, meet, and engage with each other’s work without having to pretend to be talking about something else. This common space would allow for conversations across sub-disciplinary boundaries, conversations which are difficult to carry out within many of the other sections of the ISA, and it should thus also increase the overall cohesiveness of the discipline. Rather than fragmenting the discipline, we think a Historical International Relations Section will contribute to increased intra-disciplinary dialogue. 

It is important for us to emphasize too that this is not meant to be a section for international history. What we think we have identified, is that to the extent that IR scholars engage historically, they do so as “merry amateurs” rather than professional historians. It is this spirit of collegial openness and inclusion as well as intellectual curiosity which we would like to foster by creating a new section. 

In short, we see the founding of a new Historical International Relations section as a way to create a space for this type of scholarship, but also legitimize efforts to address IR historically, as it would make these topics interesting in their own right, and not because of their potential relevance for the other sections.

Thank you for supporting the new section and for forwarding the email.

We look forward to seeing you at the inaugural section meeting in the near future. 

Best wishes,Benjamin de Carvalho, NUPIDaniel Green, University of DelawareHalvard Leira, NUPIDaniel Nexon, Georgetown UniversityAndrea Paras, University of Guelph


The ISA Drinking Game

The Duck crew getting ready for their
annual meet-up in 2011.

We are now two weeks away from the start of the annual International Studies Association convention in sunny San Diego. In 2010 the Duck developed the APSA drinking game. Here is the ISA version for your conferencing pleasure. (Oh, and if Tom Volgy asks, you haven’t seen me.)

The following, unless otherwise specified, result in the taking of one drink for every observation/sighting at the Annual Conference of the International Studies Association. The Duck of Minerva is not responsible for any liver damage or unfortunate choice of panel questions that may result after participating in this game.

  1. Watching the Feminist and Gender Studies section pick a ‘turf war’ with the Women’s Caucus at the ISA General Counsel meeting. +2 if already 4:45pm.
  2. Less than 6 European scholars in the hotel bar after midnight. +1 if no Brits
  3. Hawaiian shirt.
  4. Kony2012 shirt.
  5. Observing someone take more than 5 chocolates/mints from Keesing’s booth and managing not to speak to anyone. +1 if entire bowl.
  6. Bumping into your former PhD student who now has more publications than you. +1 if still doing PhD.
  7. Panel with discussant who obviously hasn’t read any of the papers. +1 if obviously doesn’t care. +2 if uses time to plug own book.
  8. Invitation to Phi Beta Delta Honor Society event. +1 showing up, +2 showing up by accident.
  9. Someone throwing leftover beads from ISA New Orleans 2010 Conference. +1 if at John Mearsheimer.
  10. Panellist saying “Well, I actually haven’t read the book” and then proceeding to discuss said unread book.
  11. iPad. +1 Samsung Galaxy. +10 Blackberry Playbook. +100 Apple Newton
  12. Performance of Lady Gaga Song at talent cabaret. +1 if in costume
  13. Someone commenting/retorting with “Well, as I wrote on my blog…”. +1 if “as I wrote on my MySpace”, +2 if Brian Rathbun
  14. Watching someone dive behind a table to avoid editor to whom they owe an overdue manuscript. +1 if knock over pile of Cambridge University Press books doing so. +2 if still unsuccessful.
  15. If attendee looking for the International Society of Automation. +1 International Submariners Association (+2 if have own submarine)

San Diego Bonus Round!

  1. Someone proposes holding panel at the Del Coronado. +10 if Tijuana
  2. Presenter eating burrito. +1 if with umbrella drink
  3. Reference to Anchor Man (easy!)
  4. Reference to Demolition Man (hard!)
  5. Reference to Top Gun (sexy! But must include “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and/or volleyball)
  6. Someone wearing their conference badge at 2am or more than a mile from the actual conference site. +1 if in Mexico.

For Only $3,000 You Too Can Read My Latest Piece

It sounds like a lot, but for 4,000,000 words and 12 volumes, the International Relations Encyclopedia is really quite an amazing deal for any independently wealthy intellectually astute student of world affairs. Dan Drezner has more about this exciting development in the discipline.

If you or your library buy access rights (or if you are happily already a member of the International Studies Association), you can check out my contribution with Valerie Hudson and Mary Caprioli on “Gender and Global Security.” Here we expound on points made recently that to mainstream gender into security studies one must meet the discipline on its own terms.

It’s about marketing, but of course the argument goes only so far.


ISA: Renewing my call for comedy

I’m just back from the 2010 ISA conference in NOLA, but I don’t have time for a full convention report right now. Among the highlights: First, I attended a panel on blogging featuring the Duck’s Charli Carpenter on a stage with Dan Drezner, Rob Farley and Steve Walt, among others. Later, over drinks, I got to meet a few of the newest Duck bloggers.

These events motivated me to blog more frequently. We’ll see, eh?

In any case, in addition to networking, a major purpose of ISA is for scholars to exchange ideas in a somewhat formal setting. Ideally, panel members present their latest research and then receive useful feedback from other academics. Since I wouldn’t mind getting more feedback on my latest projects, I’m using the rest of this post to highlight my two ISA papers. Sorry for the shameless self promotion — but I’m in a bit of a panic as I saw something at the conference that made me think that I should work faster.

Loyal readers may recall my 2007 ISA paper and related Duck post on “The Comedy of Great Power Politics.” At this ISA, I presented two papers related to my ongoing “comedy project.”

One was fairly directly on point: “Teaching Global Politics Through Film: The Role of Comedy.” Here’s the abstract:

Popular films can be employed very effectively to teach international relations theory. Indeed, film creates learning opportunities that are not readily available in more typical formats. As a mass medium, film provides potent access to viewers’ imaginations, even as it serves as a unique alternative text and mode of learning within the classroom. The paper first reviews the traditional realist concern with tragedy to cement the importance of dramatic narratives in the field and to stress the contours and limits of the typical story. The second section develops the case for studying comedy in world politics, emphasizing the importance of the concerns of ordinary people and highlighting the critical value of farce and satire. This section brief discusses the storylines or other cinematic elements of several specific films that illustrate each of these comedic forms.

I’m pretty sure that anyone can download the pdf, but let me know if you have difficulty and I’ll email it. The paper borrows a bit from my Duck series of posts on my film class, mixes in a bit of my 2007 paper, and provides something of a critique of IR theory and the way it is ordinarily taught.

My other paper (“Is Nuclear Deterrence as Dead as the Dodo?”) views nuclear deterrence as a long-established norm that is currently in the midst of an increasingly heated “norm contest.” For decades, some scholars have argued that deterrence is irrational, illogical, or contradictory, but a few have gone even further — arguing that the inconsistencies reveal nuclear strategy to be absurd, fantastic, ridiculous and far-fetched. You know, “not a tragedy but a ghastly farce.”

Since at least the early 1980s, many prominent political figures and former military leaders have taken up these points as well–calling often for nuclear disarmament based on the framing developed by the academics. When I teach Global Politics Through Film, I assign my students a speech by former SAC Commander General Lee Butler, who offered one of the strongest statements against nuclear deterrence in 1998 (perhaps poorly timed in a year of Indian and Pakistani proliferation). Butler noted SAC planning that “defied reason” and reflected “complete absurdity.”

My primary concern in the paper is whether the growing recognition of the contradictions, irrationalities, and even absurdities of nuclear deterrence might usher in the strategy’s demise—and potentially create the conditions for, and/or provide the impetus to, a world free of nuclear weapons. Critical theorists often argue that serious contradictions between public justification and policy action are logically unsustainable and suggest an opening for alternative, perhaps emancipatory, possibilities. Of course, it is possible that the death of deterrence might merely assure the life of preventive war and counterproliferation strategies like the “Bush Doctrine.” The paper looks at that too.

Before ISA, I posted the full abstract and link to the paper on my personal blog. Again: I’m trolling for feedback, so please let me know if you need an emailed copy.


An LGBTQA Caucus for ISA

I know most of you must have thought I disappeared from the blog world. Apparently, I’ve found something I am unreliable about. I’d tell you it has been a crazy semester, but that would be a bad excuse. I’d promise to do better, but its a promise I’m not sure I can keep. So, instead, I’ll just post (for the second time in one night) about something I’ve been doing some work on … helping to start the LGBTQA Caucus of the ISA.

The purposes of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, and Allies Caucus of the International Studies Association (hereafter the LGBTQA Caucus of ISA) are:

A. To promote fair and equal treatment of members of the Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered, Bisexual, and Queer (hereafter LGBTQ) community in the International Studies Association (hereafter ISA) and in the profession of international studies, in areas including but not limited to graduate school admission, financial assistance in schools, employment, tenure, and promotion.
B. To combat discrimination against and provide support for LGBTQ faculty, student, and professional members of the International Studies Association.
C. To encourage the application of the skills of scholars and students of international studies to combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
D. To promote the recruitment of new members to the Caucus specifically and ISA generally.

The Caucus will be voted on at the Governing Council Meeting on February 16, 2010. The petition with initial signatories (well more than the required 50) have been turned in already, but I’m posting this here both to let you know it is under consideration, and also to let you know that, if you’d like to express your support for the group, signatures are still being accepted. If you’d like to find out more, drop me an email.


More ISA reflections: Technology, IR, and the study of IR

To continue the theme of ISA follow-up, I wanted to mix in a few observations about the way the massive technical shift of stuff like Web 2.0 seems to be changing that which we study, how we study it, and how we conceive of what it means to study what we study. Of all, it feels as if our professional norms of what it means to study IR and how we ought to do so are the most lagging.

I attended several panels on discourse analysis. One panel focused on the study of images as discourse and featured two innovative graduate student papers investigating the discourse of photographs of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The two papers revealed just how powerful these images have been world-wide, impacting the understanding of the US occupation of Iraq and War on Terrorism. Gitmo, in part, has become such a powerful international symbol because of the images the world has seen of prisoners there. As a field, we have historically focused on discourse as text, privileging the primary discourses of speeches and archival records. As a discipline, we ask researchers to publish papers and present without access to LCD displays. The presenter of the Gitmo paper managed to put up some color overheads, which made her presentation significantly more effective. And my question to them was–why are you writing a paper about pictures?

It would seem to me that there is room in the field for us to innovate beyond the 10,000 word journal article and engage the Web and digital media. James DerDerian, who was discussant on one of these panels, is doing some remarkable work with documentary film. The two papers on images would be so much more powerful as multi-media enterprises but the field has no way to recognize that. And, ISA has no way to present that to a panel.

I was at another panel on Diplomacy (also with DerDerian…). Of note there was the way in which the military, especially in the US, is taking over traditional diplomacy. Counter-insurgency operations only serve to magnify this trend. And yet, I asked, why is it that the pragmatism of the military is willing to embrace these new forms of diplomacy while diplomacy looks so much as it did 30 years ago? Of all the agencies within the US government, the Pentagon is far and away the most innovative in using information technology resources. Imagine the State Department embedding journalists in the 6 party talks. Imagine the State Department’s public diplomacy program with the resources of the Pentagon’s information operations. Imagine the State Department with a website filled with cool photos like any of the .mil sites. Imagine a first-person interactive negotiating game on the state department’s website (like the Army’s first person shooter games).

Information technology is changing the stuff that we study. Information technology is changing the way we conduct our craft. And yet, some institutions seem slow to catch up. Alas, our own profession seems to be one of them.

For crying out loud, how hard would it be for ISA to just buy some wireless access for everyone already!!!

And, for crying out loud, how hard would it be to get a truly transformational diplomacy?


Meteoric causation

One of the most memorable sets of interactions I had at this year’s ISA conference came directly after the close of our impossibly-well-attended graveyard-shift panel on “The Relational Turn in the Study of World Politics.” (I say “impossibly-well-attended graveyard-shift” because it was in fact scheduled in the very last session of the entire conference, 4:15pm Wednesday afternoon; I and the other participants, including Dan, expected to outnumber the audience-members and were quite prepared to adjourn the panel to the bar. Instead, there were 64 people in the audience.) The panel was a deeply odd occasion for me in a number of ways, especially since I had the unenviable task of channeling our absent and very famous discussant — Alex Wendt — by reading aloud his written comments on the papers and the project. If you’ve never had the experience of reading aloud someone else’s sympathetic-yet-critical comments on a project that you’ve been involved with for years, and reading them aloud before a room full of your peers and colleagues . . . well, let’s just say that it’s tremendously odd to find yourself mouthing someone else’s words and having to forcibly restrain yourself from responding to the very comments “you” are making.

But enough about that for now. What I want to talk about instead is the interesting question asked of us by an Italian graduate student studying at the Sorbonne (if you’re reading this, do get in touch so I can add in your name — we were both out of business cards by that point in the conference so I cannot recall his name). The topic of conversation had by that point shifted to the problem of whether there were causal factors of interest to IR scholars that could not be captured by a focus on networks and processes of social relation/transaction — in other words, whether we needed to make a space for non-social factors in our analyses of the social world. His example was a meteor crashing into the earth, which he posited was clearly a non-relational factor: a meteor is clearly exogenous to all possible social networks, and its impact with the earth cannot be explained in terms of processes of social transaction. I replied that even a meteor’s impact would have to be socially mediated in order for it to assert causal effects on the social world; the physical impact needed to be made meaningful in order for the meteor to have any social impact, and that process of making-meaningful couldn’t be reduced to the physical act of the meteoroid hitting the planet. Hence, relational analysis could deal with even a meteor impact.

The questioner was not fully satisfied, and we started chatting after the panel. He tendered the following claim: the 1908 meteor impact in Siberia caused the next several winters to be harsher; those harsh winters contributed both to the demoralization of the Russian military; and hence the meteor caused a social outcome (the Russian Revolution, and hence the outcome of the First World War) without the mediation of social relations — much like, he claimed, the AIDS virus and global warming, both of which exerted effects whether anyone noticed them or not. If true, this claim would present a bit of a challenge to relational social theory, since it would appear to affirm the importance of essential physical dispositions in the face of social arrangements, and even to discount those social arrangements to a large extent.

Fortunately for relational theorists, I think that the questioner’s challenge is relatively easily met. I offer the following three points — basically the same three points I made in conversation with the questioner — in reply, in the hopes that some of our readers might find them of interest.

1) the purely physical causal claim is rather tenuous to begin with. Scientists have been investigating the 1908 event — usually called the Tunguska event — for almost a century, and the results remain somewhat inconclusive. The basic problem is that there are no pieces of the meteorite that one would normally expect to find at the site of such a collision between an extraterrestrial object and the earth. Nor is there any obvious impact crater to be found at the site of the blast, and debate continues as to whether Lake Cheko could in fact be that crater. So although scientists generally agree that the explosion was caused by some kind of collision with an extraterrestrial object, it remains unknown whether that object was an asteroid, a comet, a small black hole, or whatever (although most contemporary scientists say asteroid or comet; gone are the days when anyone reputably claimed that this event involved an alien spacecraft, except in various fictional works). So we still don’t quite know what the event itself was.

Regardless, scientists are also still debating precisely what the effects of the Tunguska event were. The questioner’s claim about harsh winters, though sounding plausible at first, does not seem to be echoed by any of the published research on the event; there are some claims that global warming might have been kick-started by the Tunguska event, and also some evidence that the event produced some cooling (about 0.3 degrees C) in the Northern Hemisphere relative to the Southern Hemisphere — but “volcanic activity during this period also contributed to the cooling.” So the physical effects of the meteor collision, if meteor it was, remain ambiguous.

2) but grant the meteor’s posited effects for a moment. Even if the meteor impact made things a bit colder, it does not necessarily follow that the meteor impact is somehow responsible for everything that came after that minor decrease in temperature. For one thing, the estimated decrease in temperature is so small — 0.3 degrees C! — that it probably wouldn’t even be noticed in the middle of a Russian winter. So in order to argue that this drop in temperature actually caused anything, one would have to somehow establish that dropping 0.3 degrees C crossed some kind of threshold from the ordinary “really fracking cold” series of Russian winters to an extraordinary “so fracking cold that we feel like having a social revolution” series of Russian winters. For another thing, we have to keep in mind that extremely cold and harsh winters are not exactly unknown in that part of the world; there is, after all, a famous old saying about how Russia is protected by General Winter and General Snow, and there are numerous other anecdotes that reflect that basic fact that it’s always harsh and bitter during the winters in Russia. Nonetheless, people have adapted to living there, which suggests that extreme cold is survivable given the proper preparations — in other words, that it’s impossible to reduce “the Russian winter” to a set of physical constraints without also focusing on the survival strategies that people have adopted in order to get through them.

Indeed, we can push this point a bit further. What makes the Russian winter so devastating for invading armies from the west is, I would posit, the lack of preparation for and familiarity with the local conditions that those armies bring along with them. Similarly, what makes the Russian winter manageable for those who live there are their coping strategies. Put together, these observations strongly suggest the inseparability of “the Russian winter” from a whole panoply of social arrangements and practices surrounding and reacting to a set of environmental conditions. Hence, as social studies of science have been telling us for years, it makes little sense to try to isolate the “social” versus the “non-social” aspects of a phenomenon, since what we have in practice is a complex tangle — Andrew Pickering calls it a “mangle” — of various aspects. Sorting through these aspects is both pointless and practically impossible.

3) but further, grant even that we could determine that the 1908 meteor impact has certain environmental effects that could be traced definitively in purely physical terms. The problem that we run into at this point is that to say that these temperature fluctuations caused the Russian Revolution is to imply that absent these temperature fluctuations the Russian Revolution would not have occurred. Such a counterfactual is, however, rather implausible, since the other things that scholars conventionally think of as having produced the Russian Revolution would operate completely irrespective of whether the temperature was a bit colder. That other combination of factors — virtually all of which are clearly more social than not, such as governmental oppression and economic dislocation — is, as Max Weber might put it, “adequate” to cause the outcome. In fact, Weber’s procedure is instructive here: if we can imagine a scenario in which some causal factor changes but the outcome does not, then that factor probably isn’t all that important to the overall causal account. Conversely, if we can’t imagine things going the way that they did without that factor, then it’s probably important. We can easily imagine the Russian Revolution with a series of colder or warmer winters, so that’s probably not all that important; we can’t imagine the Russian Revolution without, say, the economic problems that led to food shortages, or the leadership of someone like Lenin, so those are probably important.

Note the importance of “imagination” here; Weber is very clear that the only way that we determine whether something mattered is to test the limits of our ability to conceptualize a plausible alternative without it, and that is simultaneously a comment on the event and on our present-day cultural resources that we use to grasp the event. But this is not a problem for Weber, since social science for him is not about grasping how things “really are” (whatever that means) but instead about the analytical ordering of experience — both our experience and the experience of the people that we are studying. Imagining a counterfactual scenario is a good way to do this.

Note also that the argument I’ve sketched here stands up even if the 1908 meteor impact did alter the temperature. Because of the mediation of physical facts by social practices — because of the ways that physical facts have to be made meaningful in order to exert social causation — whether the meteor impact changed the temperature is, strictly speaking, irrelevant. That fluctuation would have to be made meaningful in order for it to matter, and social relations would remain implicated in any such process. And while it’s even possible that the temperature fluctuation did exist and was made socially meaningful (people commented on it, etc.), the fact that we can easily imagine the outcome without it is a good sign that it probably wasn’t all that important.

The only way around this would be to say that all social relations are reducible to non-social factors: that even the making-meaningful of temperature fluctuations has to do with biological facts about our species, and that we’re basically assembled such that we find certain kinds of temperature fluctuations of interest. By the same token, the only way to make those fluctuations that (in such an account) we cannot help but notice cause a change in the way that a society is governed is to link governance practices to non-social factors, such that our noticing the temperature and being physically affected by it would have a necessary spill-over effect into how we think about the government. It’s all or nothing: either social factors (including the making-meaningful of natural events) cause social outcomes, or the social is reducible to the natural. And you can’t have it both ways. On those grounds, even if a meteor does crash into the earth and alter the climate, I will continue to insist on the analytical priority of social relations, as I did on the panel.


Some of What I Picked Up at ISA This Year

A series of short posts will follow with targeted reflections on what I learned at panels and dinners this past week, and how it ties into my take on world events. For now however, let me share a few random things I learned while attending this year’s International Studies Association Annual Meeting in Manhattan:

1) “Lead pencil shavings” is, according to some but not others, apparently a coveted flavor for modestly expensive Italian wine. Who would have thought.

2)…Edward James Olmos is licensed to perform marriages in the state of California; a triplicate chant of “so say we all” is apparently quite a good substitute for the traditional wedding march.

3) The View Restaurant on the roof of the Marriott Marquis is “the only revolving roof top restaurant in New York.” And the Marriott Marquis proudly advertises this on a big sign by the elevators.

4) I am now in the market for an IPhone. This became glaringly obvious to me when, while drinking with my former doctoral students in a wireless cold-spot (that is, pretty much the entire Marriott if you weren’t one of those independently wealthy IR scholars), I noticed on the television across the bar that two nuclear submarines had “collided”, and only by appealing to a nearby colleague’s IPhone could I determine whether or not to stay put or ditch the Dogfish Head and start immediately blogging. (My lack of posting during ISA should make it obvious what I decided. However, see Sam Leith’s sardonic take on the whole “nuclear submarine fender-bender.”)

5) I will not be acquiring many of the available IPhone applications. Any tool designed to convince me that I have a 27.9 percent chance of being killed by “wildlife” in the Harmony View pub in Times Square is… well.

6) The impact of Web 2.0 on the actual profession of IR is unmatched by the impact of Web 2.0 on our professional association’s logistical planning. For more, see Peter’s post. Perhaps I should reconsider the article I was about to start cooking up with Dan Drezner about how Blogger and Facebook are changing everything in the discipline. It starts to seem a little silly throwing that idea out at a professional conference where you can barely obtain a Powerpoint projector.

7) A number of graduate students I met this year are apparently of the view that if they critique an established scholar’s writing, they need to apologize in advance, at least as long as they expect to be able to carry on a civil conversation with that scholar (me) over a drink. Let me disillusion all of this: engagement is flattery in academia, and part of our job is to include in our work a few targets for the next generation. Besides, if we can’t knock glasses at the end of the day with our epistemological adversaries, what fun is it to be surrounded by 4,000 political scientists?

8) In case this post leads any one to think that all I did at ISA is drink alcohol and geek out over gadgets and science fiction shows, let me assure you I imbibed a fair amount of coffee as well, and just to prove it check out this quote by Po Bronson, fresh off a $6 Starbucks cup:

“Failure is hard but success is harder. If you’re successful @ the wrong thing, the combination of money, praise and opportunity can lock you in forever.”

As I looked around at grad students hob-nobbing and junior professors like myself lurching from panel to lunch to coffee to workshop peddling our modest proposals, I began to hope that we’re all trying to succeed at the right thing, and wondering how we would know.

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