Tag: structure-agent

The New Structuralism in International Relations and its Discontents: Prefatory Remarks

Some years back I participated in a series of workshops that culminated in a book on New Systems Theories of World Politics (value priced at $115). PM and I have been working, somewhat haphazardly, on a review essay dealing with contemporary imperial formations that deals with what I’ve called the “New Hierarchy Studies.” There’s also a draft blog post hiding somewhere or other on that subject. But I think that renewed interest in hierarchy might better be characterized by, for lack of a better term, the “New Structuralism” movement in International Relations.

Thomas Oatley’s recent posts exemplify a major trajectory of the new structuralism. The first revisits his “Reductionist Gamble” article in International Organization. In his account of why he feels compelled to devote blogspace to explaining his argument, he notes:

It has been met with some puzzlement and it has been misunderstood. I can understand both reactions, as the paper asks people to think differently about the world, and yet it does so by using terms and concepts in ways that depart from more typical usage. I say reductionism, and people hear Waltz. I say system, people here system level.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t just a matter of Waltz’s use of terms like “system,” “structure,” and “reductionism” dominating analytical discourse in the field. Waltz’s use of these terms aren’t even very well understood. They’ve been ripped from their historical and intellectual context. They’ve become fetishized, such that Waltz’s interventions in older disputes now enjoy ex ante definitional status. The importation of social-theoretic alternatives during the 1980s and 1990s should have improved matters, but in the end they’ve only muddled the conceptual waters.

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Must Men Be Pigs? The C*jones Conundrum

Last week was full of bad news for those of us with c*jones:  One of my co-genders, who just happened to run the IMF, caught redhanded (or something) after assaulting a chambermaid; another, the very model of a manny-man rather than a girlie-man, fessing up to having sired a child with an employee over a decade ago. This week a one-time Presidential front-runner facing indictment for using campaign money to cover up news about his own love-child.

Maybe I’ve just missed it, but it seems that most of the justifiably angry responses to these events have come from the distaff side:  Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, etc.   Deservedly so.  But men, especially those of us in the social sciences, should have our say too!  Silence does not mean that the vast majority of us condone these actions.  More likely, it indicates our embarrassment, even shame.  Let me take up the sword and kick these men while they are down.
There is no defense for what they have done.  (OK, admittedly DSK is innocent until proven guilty, but the many stories circulating about his past “exploits” paint a pretty damning picture.)  They thoroughly deserve all the opprobrium and ridicule they are getting.  The fact that they are put in electronic stocks for all the world to see is somewhat satisfying. 
But somehow, despite all the social punishments they receive, these appear to have only modest deterrent effects.  One might have thought that Bill Clinton’s protracted, worldwide disgrace would have scared off even the most reckless of the lot.  But of course Bill has long since been rehabilitated, and it’s obvious that his case has done little to deter. 
The world cries out for a better policy solution!  But first, of course, we need a few reams of high quality social science research.  So let me throw down the gauntlet here too.
To begin, a research question:  Not to put too fine a point on it, why can’t these men keep it in their pants?  Or to put this in social science terms:  Are they outliers?  Of course, I shouldn’t pick on DSK or the Sperminator.  There are so many more out there, from Sacramento to Rome, that it would be tedious to name them.  They’ve even given legitimate activities a bad name.  How many of you no longer dare stroll the Adirondack trail blithely smoking a stogie?   So, to put this in broader terms, given the right situation, is any man likely to do what these Bozos have done?  (Take that, selection bias!)
Some might say these are questions important only to psychologists—or tabloids.  But I see them as questions of politics—even international politics!  I once believed that a politician’s personal life should not be an important basis for deciding who to vote for.  But I have to say that the accumulated peccadilloes and outright crimes of the last decades are making me re-think that belief.  Bad judgment, risk-taking, and an inability to defer fulfillment in one field seem likely to spill into others, if you will.  Of course, that’s not to say that politicians with seemingly tranquil personal lives will not also make extremely bad decisions, as several of our recent Presidents amply attest.
But back to my research questions.  These come down to critical theoretical issues that social scientists must concern themselves with!  Thinking out loud (or, as we at the Duck are fond of saying, en blog), they concern the respective weight of identity (as married), networks (jointly formed during marriage), and the political institutions that new (and old) institutionalists are so fond of writing about.  How strongly do the bonds of trust, respect, and love created in marriage shape one’s identity?  To what extent do the broader networks in which married couples–even political couples–become enmeshed, keep them in line?  Or does institutional position so affect/infect the personality that those in lofty political, entertainment, or business positions are at higher risk of infidelity than others?
As a brief digression, let’s not forget our own institutions, fellow academics.  Anyone who works at an undergraduate teaching institution understands that, given students’ diverse dressing habits these days, even the most pointy-headed scholar faces daunting occupational hazards too.  (I’ve often considered contacting the producers of Most Dangerous Catch to suggest that they broaden their concept to the most perilous jobs in America—and film an episode in a typical college classroom devoid of the high school “nurse’s office” where the scantily clad can be sent for wardrobe refurbishment.)
Feminist scholars:  note that the prior two paras are written in gender neutral terms.   Are there examples of women in powerful offices, especially political offices, who have gone astray?
But back to my research questions!  Fundamentally, these go to the heart of the agent-structure debate, even if this glaringly obvious fact has only dawned on the most enlightened of the disciplinary cognoscenti.  Does the presidency (or governship) of your choice make the man–or does the man make the presidency?  Are people like DSK hapless victims of circumstance/structure/institution, as his lawyers seem likely to argue?   (Poor Arnold!)  Or, hard as it seems to believe, can they actually make choices, notwithstanding the structural conjuncture in which they find themselves?   Indeed there is a good chance of solving that hoary social science chestnut with a concerted, multi-year, multi-million dollar research thrust into these issues, if you will.
But back to my research questions!!  Perhaps they are misconceived, if you will.  Is there a hidden variable I am missing?  For instance, perhaps the inflated egos that typically go along with the quest for high office are coupled with a higher likelihood of super-charged libidos?  If so, we men may be fated to endure these kinds of embarrassing events perpetrated by our more successful members–from here to eternity?  

Most pressingly of all, why hasn’t political science paid attention to the c*jones conundrum?  For future research proposals, scholarly articles, and bestsellers, I hereby bleg your insights, theoretical perspectives, research designs, etc.

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Structural explanations are not always sexy or gratifying, but they typically explain a lot

In the days after the US midterm elections cable news outlets, radio programs, political pundits, newspapers, and activists on both sides of the ideological spectrum have exerted a great deal of blood and sweat to explain the nationwide drubbing of the Democrats. Democrats are predictably covering their behinds—conceding voter anger, but cautioning that the country has not lurched to the right in just two years. Republicans are claiming validation of their position and a greater ideological alignment with the American people. Activists and enthusiasts of all stripes are weaving narratives that use the election results to validate their personal political perspective. The question, of course, is whether any of this is correct or meaningful. Was this election a mass repudiation of Democratic policies? Was it a validation of the Republican platform and/or Tea Party-style conservatives?

Elections are like Rorschach bots—everyone sees something different, and often times what they see is what they want to see. Particularly with elections, people like to place causation in the hands of people—agents—whose efforts, words, thoughts, etc, drive the outcome. And to be sure, individual agents can and do wield a great deal of influence on events. But an overemphasis on agents can lead to spurious conclusions about why something happens. You must also look at structural or environmental factors.

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Snides has a great piece precisely along these lines. Snides and his colleagues looked at which factors where the best predictors of voter choice:

If you had one thing, and one thing only, to predict which Democratic House incumbents would lose their seats in 2010, what would you take? The amount of money they raised? Their TARP vote? Their health care vote? Whether they had a Tea Party opponent? A Nazi reenactor opponent?

Not surprisingly, it’s none of those.

As is typically the case, the partisan makeup of a politician’s district mostly determines which candidate will win.  Snides and his colleagues found that the 2008 Presidential vote in a district explained 83% of the variation in the 2010 vote share (see graph below).

This data does not negate agent-centered factors, but it certainly dulls them.  Additionally, many of the theories being thrown about (the vote was a referendum on Obama, on Democrats, on “Big Government”, etc) just don’t have the explanatory power that the partisan makeup of a district has.

What’s clear is that, structurally speaking, the Democrats were set up for a shellacking.  Historically, the President’s party takes a big hit in the midterms, incumbents are punished in a poor economy (regardless of their control over it), and incumbents in swing districts will be the first to go.  Many of the seats Democrats gained in 2006 and 2008 to take a commanding majority in the House were obtained by targeting vulnerable Republicans in swing districts.  Conservative Democrats ran and won in those districts, meaning they faced a center-right electorate.  Given these structural factors, it is no surprise that the Democrats lost so many seats.

Structural explanations are not very sexy.  They don’t allow a ton of room for debate and analysis after the initial work is done.  By their nature, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to alter the conditions (i.e. a reduced role for agency).  And they don’t really allow people to indulge in great philosophical and ideological satisfaction.  But, at the end of the day, they can be powerful explanations.  Democrats in 2006 and 2008 were overzealous in their interpretation of what those election results implied, and the same may happen to Republicans in 2010.  Savvy politicians and operatives should take heed.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

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