The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


December 29, 2005

Interesting little flare up on the IR Rumor Mill “job-market discussion” thread over whether or not qualitative security scholars are “wasting their time” studying the British Emprie instead of doing work on “interesting” and “relevant” topics:

I was really nonplusssed by the offerings of qualitative research in the international security pool. For God’s sake, stop studying the British empire!

And later:

Rubbish, the post is not at all about methods-based hiring but exactly about substance-based hiring: we want people who work on interesting questions. MANY people, including people who do historical work in comparative or APD [American Political Development], think it is simply foolish to think we can learn more about contemporary problems of international order by delving ever more deeply into the intrigues of British empire: this is not the way to do history (and it is really hard to sell to anyone who doesn’t do IS). More relevant, though, is the question why so little qualitative work in IR (as opposed to comparative) deals with relevant contemporary questions. Why, for instance, has the civil war literature been dominated by quant types in IR even though it lends itself very well for structured case comparisons (we would have loved to hire someone who does that well).

Hmmm. In terms of what I usually do research on, the British Empire (at least the nineteenth-century variant) is downright contemporary. I guess I know where I would stand if I were to apply for a job at this person’s institution.

Most followups took issue with the anonymous scholar. Some pointed out the obvious relevance of the British Empire, while others talked about the important qualitative work being done on these topics. I have to say, nevertheless, that doing comparative-historical work remains a challenge in IR.

In my own work and research, I often feel trapped between realism – which treats historical cases as important because history is basically ‘the same damn thing happening again and again’ – and constructivism – which treats history as interesting because it shows how different (and by implication, non-comparable) the practice of international politics has been across time and space.[*]

Both are wrong. We can make contingent and limited generalizations across recent and distant history. Some aspects of international politics remain consistent, but others are radically different. It is the combination of these two facts that makes, in my view, comparative-historical work so interesting… and even, I dare say, relevant, but only so long as we draw that relevance in appropriately narrow ways. I think we could all agree on this, if we thought hard enough about it, but the truth is that it is a hard position to take in article-length manuscripts. There’s a kind of pressure to adopt one or the other position (with, perhaps, a few gesticulations towards the other extreme), and thus to either stress the complexity of historical difference or to write it out of your case narratives. I find that when I do neither, someone invariably gets quite unhappy.

So, dear readers, as we contemplate the New Year I ask of you: does history matter, and how?

*Feel free to substitute any number of other frameworks for “realism” and “constructivism,” such as “certain variants of rational-choice theory” and “interpretivism.”

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.