The Duck of Minerva

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June 8, 2006

Daniel Drezner asks:

What is new and essential in international relations?

Tyler Cowen worries that after a burst of innovation in the late eighties, economics has gone a bit stale:

I see mid-1980s as the end of a great era in economic theorizing. Take game theory, principal-agent theory, and the economics of information, and apply them to everything, for better or worse. This was an exciting, indeed intoxicating, time to learn economics. While applications continue, we have run out of new ideas on those fronts. Experimental economics is completely Nobel-worthy, but it is now over forty years old. What are the next breakthroughs or the breakthroughs which have just been made?

Readers have requested more IR theory posts, so let’s take Tyler’s question and apply it to international relations. What has been written in the past decade that is essential reading for an up and coming IR grad student?

[What do you think?–ed. I’ll add my picks in a few hours. For now I’ll just observe that my thoughts run to books rather than articles, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.]

In the unlikely event that you read the Duck of Minerva and not Daniel Drezner’s blog and have ideas go post them to his comments section.

Dan’s comment that he’s not pleased that “his thoughts run to books rather than articles” raises a whole host of questions about what’s been going on with the major IR journals over the last few years. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that he’s right: major innovations in the field now take place in books. I think that’s contestable, but I’m not going to debate the merits of his off-the-cuff remark here.

There are a standard list of reasons why academic peer review doesn’t work very well (PDF)… and why it tends to work against the publication of innovative and original arguments. But that wouldn’t explain a downward trend in what Daniel Drezner considers to be “important” journal articles. So, here are a few hypotheses.

1) To borrow from Arthur Stinchcombe: the rate at which submissions to peer-reviewed journals increases is much faster than the rate of increase in “good” peer reviewers.*

I have no hard data, but I do know journals have a very hard time finding people willing to peer review. As this happens, innovative–and hence controversial–work is less likely to be published than work that, however brilliant, breaks little new ground. As Stinchcombe notes, rather bluntly, in his review of Andrew Abbott’s Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at 100 (in The American Journal of Sociology 105,6, p. 1762):

The market for refereed excellence seems to Abbott to be steadier than the market for Chicago departmental distinctiveness, though less backed by the production of new knowledge…. The growth of refereeing work in the discipline as a whole, and what that growth implies for the decline in the advantage in competence of referees versus authors, deserves more serious study than Abbott gives it. Everyone who has had a referee get the argument of his or her paper directly backward has wondering about calling it “peer” review.

2) The decline in length of journal articles precludes a great deal of innovative–or even well-developed–argumentation. Ever tried to develop a novel–at least for a particular field–set of theoretical claims and to test them empirically in, say, 11,000 words? I envy my colleagues who can pull this off.

3) The proliferation of journals makes it too hard for most of us to keep up with the discipline, and hence, like the proliferation of blogs, sends us to fewer and fewer sources. Thus, there’s innovation out there in journal land, but not so many people notice it when it happens.

4) IR is simply in, for good or ill, a “normal science” period; we’ll just have to wait for a new wave of research to come along, shake things up, gets everybody arguing with one another, and eat up space in journals. Not that I’m longing for, say, another “offensive vs. defensive realism” kind of debate (maybe I should say, “not that I wouldn’t run screaming from another ‘offensive vs. defensive’ realism kind of debate”), but I think you get my drift.†

5) Dan’s perceptions are warped by idiosyncratic factors. Dan can elaborate on what those might be, if he so chooses.

*I use the term “good” restrictively. Writing useful peer reviews is a skill that many of us, no matter how smart or accomplished, lack.
†Indeed, I’m hoping that a particular wave is just around the corner. But that’s a post for another time.

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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.