The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Uses of theory

November 19, 2007

There have been some interesting replies to my post a couple of weeks ago about the relationship between policymaking and scholarship. Well, when it started out it was a post about the idea that teaching IR ought to be about more than certifying the idealism of our students, but as it went on it morphed into a set of complaints about the very idea of a terminal MA degree in IR. And then a discussion ensued: Rob Farley weighed in, as did Dan Drezner, I replied (some of my replies were gathered here, others are in the comments on Rob’s and Dan’s posts), and now both Rob and Dan have replied again. So here’s #7 in this ongoing series of posts, in which I reply both to Rob and to Dan, as well as to some of the commentators who posted on their sites.

I’m not going to reply to each point individually, though. That would be pretty tedious, and open the possibility of missing the overall point amidst my counterpoint to, say, Dan’s misreading of my argument about sabremetrics (my point wasn’t that sabremetrics wasn’t important to the Red Sox’s World Series victories; my point was that sabremetrics wasn’t any kind of a grounding for the actual baseball operations of the Red Sox, and in a similar way IR theory ought not to be thought of as a grounding for the actual policy operations of any government or think-tank policy intellectual). See, even in that little digression, my overall point is already getting lost. So instead I am going to build a three-fold case that will hopefully flesh out my position a bit and, in so doing, respond to the various people who have raised critical comments. Since I am in fact writing on this topic at the moment, I am very grateful for the opportunity to do this!

With apologies for the fact this this is going to be more of an essay than a blog post, my basic argument unfolds in three steps: 1) there are different practical orientations towards politics; 2) those different orientations towards politics imply different meanings for and uses of “theory”; and 3) the issues I have with the terminal MA in IR, as well as some of my interlocutors’ arguments about the relationship between the university and policy worlds, derive from those differences in practical orientation and the different meanings of “theory” that they entail.

First things first. What I mean by a “practical orientation” is not the same thing as a substantive position; we’re not talking liberal versus conservative here. Rather, wht I have in mind is something more fundamental: how one comports oneself towards politics and the public sphere in general. Anyone who has talked to me for longer than about five minutes about this quickly discovers that I think that Weber is the appropriate place to begin thinking this through — especially Weber’s distinction between “scientific” and “political” orientations towards politics. The scientific orientation is about systematically producing knowledge about politics, while the political orientation is about entering politics and trying to do something concrete within that sphere of activity.

What Weber is getting at here, I think, actually goes far beyond politics. In just about every field of human endeavor we can find a split between generating knowledge about the field and doing something in the field. In material science this is physics versus engineering; in the economy this is economics versus business; in literature this is criticism versus creative writing. This split is not about people as much as it is about roles; actual people can oscillate back and forth, whereas the orientations themselves remain pretty clear and unambiguous. And both orientations are “practical” — it’s just that they are different practices, set up to produce very different products.

If we call these two orientations “contemplating” and “enacting,” this will hopefully clarify the distinction between them. To contemplate, to be a scientist and to incline towards “wissenschaft” in Weber’s sense, is to be dedicated to producing knowledge. To enact, to be a politician and to incline towards “politik” in Weber’s sense, is to be dedicated to producing results. The contemplative orientation is concerned with rigor, consistency, and elegance; the enactive orientation is concerned with outcomes, effects, and impact.

As a further wrinkle, consider the fact that these orientations manifest themselves relatively rather than absolutely. Contemplation looks contemplative only when contrasted to enacting, and vice versa. In this way, it makes little sense to talk about either contemplating or enacting in isolation as clearly defined practical categories; instead, it makes sense to talk about orientations as more or less contemplative or enactive in comparison to others. By the same token, there are more contemplative enactors and more enactive contemplators, even though the distinction itself remains logically pure and unambiguous.

I find it helpful to talk about splits like this replicating over time, an idea I borrow from Andrew Abbott: first we have a basic split between the two camps, and then each camp splits internally over the same issue. This presents us with a diagram of the contemplating/enacting distinction that looks like this:

We therefore have four ideal-typical positions combining contemplating and enacting in various ways. Pure contemplators — “scholars” — are only concerned with the production of systematic knowledge, while pure enactors — “professionals” — are only concerned with producing outcomes. The intermediate positions combine a primary orientation towards knowledge-production or results-production with a secondary gesture in the opposite direction, producing “experts” who are contemplators seeking to apply the results of their investigations to get things done, and “scholar-activists” who are reflective practitioners seeking to generate knowledge based very closely on their experiences in the political world.

It stands to reason that these four positions — and let me reiterate once again that these are ideal-typical rather than descriptive, which means primarily that actual people and organizations are probably going to be some combination of them; the point of ideal-typical analysis of this sort is not to describe, but to clarify the characteristic tensions and challenges that concrete individuals standing in concrete places will have to face — entail different ways of thinking about and using “theory.” To a “scholar,” theory means systematic, disciplinary knowledge, generally pretty abstract and focused on broad principles rather than on specific cases (even if theory might be constructed and refined through the analysis of specific cases). To an “expert,” on the other hand, theory means a set of relatively firm precepts the primary purpose of which is to answer specific questions about particular situations. “Experts” primarily use theory rather than primarily creating it, while for “scholars” it’s the other way around. But both “scholars” and “experts” are contemplators first, so they both are interested in theory from the outset.

Not so the other two positions, which as enactors first are more interested in results and understand theory as a tool or instrument for achieving those results. “Professionals” aren’t very interested in theory unless it can immediately point to some outcomes, and generally don’t see the value in excessive theorizing (and are probably the most likely position to say things like “that might be fine in theory but it won’t work in practice,” which is the kind of thing that drives “scholars” to distraction — especially if they’ve read Kant on the subject). “Scholar-activists” are more receptive to theorizing, but for them theory is more on the level of strategic advice and worldly wisdom, since it derives from and remains very close to their experiences of trying to get things done.

Note a couple of things here. First, “scholars” and “scholar-activists” have a relatively similar take on theory, at least in contrast to their local enactors: both are interested in systematizing experience, albeit for different purposes. Similarly, “experts” and “professionals” have a relatively similar take on theory in contrast to their local contemplators, since they both are interested in using theory to ground or inform their pursuit of particular goals. This means that these two groupings can talk to one another pretty easily. Second, “scholars” and “experts” are both comtemplators first, which gives them something to debate: “scholars” taking “experts” to task for not being nuanced enough, “experts” pressing “scholars” to get out of the realm of the abstract and into the realm of concrete implications. But as compared to “scholar-activists” and “professionals,” both “scholars” and “experts” are tremendously abstract and general — which gives them something to discuss. Ditto, but in the other direction, for “scholar-activists” and “professionals,” both of whom start from a rejection of any value to what the other two positions would call “theory” and “theorizing” for its own sake.

I want to be clear here: even though I myself am something of a self-caricature of a “scholar” in my own position, and as such may quite unintentionally be coming across as dismissive of the other positions, I am trying very hard not so. The bottom line for me is that these are different positions, not that one is better than the others. Of course, from each position that position looks to be the best one, and the others look more or less appealing on various grounds according to the positional alliance-patterns I have just sketched out. And I doubt that anyone but a scholar would have spent as much time as I have in fleshing this whole schema out; I’ve been using it in my IR theory courses for several years now, and it forms the foundation of a couple of other things I’m working on at the moment (so you’ll see that diagram showing up in print soon, I hope). But I do not want anyone to get the idea that I think that everyone ought to be a “scholar” or that only what scholars do is valuable, whether in IR or in other fields of human endeavor.

But I do think that thinking about things in this way helps both to clarify my debate with Dan and Rob, and to clarify my original stance about terminal MA programs in IR. Although somewhat wary of characterizing other people without a more detailed knowledge of their work, I would tentatively say that Dan and Rob are “experts” while I am a “scholar,” since they are interested in using theory to ground practice while I am interested in knowledge-construction pretty much for its own sake — but all three of us are considerably more open to theory and theorizing than the other two positions would be (after all, we’re all employed in academic positions where publication in peer-reviewed disciplinary journals is necessary for tenure and promotion). So the debate we’re having takes place in the left-hand-side of my diagram. Not so the comments on the various posts, some of which come from “professionals” and some of which come from “scholar-activists” (the clue here is the skepticism expressed some comments about the value of theory per se). Obviously I’m going to disagree with Dan and Rob about what theory is and what it can and should be used for, since I’m primarily interested in constructing knowledge regardless of its short-term use-value while they’re interested in using knowledge and refining it so as to make it into a better basis for action in a pretty tight time-frame. So that’s what’s going on there.

Notice that when I talked about positional alliances, I did not talk about any kind of easy connection between “scholars” and “professionals.” That was deliberate, and I think it really helps to explain my frustration with terminal MA degrees. In my experience, students enrolling in such programs, with very few exceptions, are “professionals.” They’re looking to improve and refine their professional practice, so as to make them better enactors; as such they can learn most easily from “scholar-activists” who have refined their enacting and come up with some lessons, and from “experts” who have a conceptual basis on which to place professional practice and perhaps to critically improve it. But what can an aspiring “professional,” let alone an established “professional” looking to advance in her or his career, learn from a “scholar”? What use to a “professional” is theory in the sense that a “scholar” would deploy it, as opposed to the way that an “expert” or a “scholar-activist” would? I can only think of two such uses:

1) a “professional” might learn from the “scholar” some of the basic vocabulary in which debates about courses of action are conducted. As in most of the social sciences, “professionals” use terms and concepts in their work that were for the most part designed by “scholars” at some point (a point variously made by Mill, Keynes, Dewey, etc.); it’s just that “professionals” use them very, very differently. It might be useful for a “professional” to learn some of that language from a member of the community that created it, bearing in mind that they are subsequently going to have to learn how to use it in a rather different fashion. “Scholarly” debate is simply out of place in the world of policymaking. I think of this as the Sam Huntington Problem: I would never, never teach Huntington’s civilizations book as a piece of scholarly theory, since it’s basically worthless understood in that light (if I were teaching about civilizations, I’d use something else — something like this, which ought to be out in paperback sometime next year); but by the same token it might be very helpful to teach to “professionals,” since there are serious policy debates conduced using the language that Huntington introduces in that book.

2) in addition to language-instruction, I can see only one other use to instructing a “professional” in scholarly theory, and it’s the same thing that I use theory for in my undergraduate pedagogy: seeing a perspective spelled out in unworldly logical purity can help to clarify one’s stance on that perspective. Weber called this “value-clarification,” and the basic point is to say “well, if you hold X, can you help but agree with implications Y, Z, and W?” This gets the student to really ponder what is at stake in her or his holding of X. But notice that what has happened in this pedagogical situation is not that theory has become a basis for action, as “experts” would like to do and as “professionals” would welcome; instead, theory has become an instrument of self-discovery. The result of such a pedagogy is to have students who are better able to articulate and defend a perspective on the world, not to have students who are somehow properly grounded in “the way that the world actually is” since from my perspective that’s a meaningless notion. All knowledge is perspectival, I would say, and pedagogy of this sort is about clarifying perspectives, and not about authoritatively selecting between them. (One of the commentators on one of the posts satirized my position by claiming that I was saying that my knowledge was no better than that of a chicken or an infant; in terms of its correspondence with something called “the real world,” sure, all knowledge-claims are equal, but that just means that we have to evaluate them on other grounds, like their logical coherence and comprehensiveness. In that case I’m petty sure I can beat both a chicken and an infant.)

Option #1 I could see that MA students might not have gotten in their prior education, and I can see the value in it since speaking the vernacular language is probably directly related to their employability. It’s just that I am not particularly interested in language-instruction, myself, especially since it’s very frustrating to me to see the concepts and principles that I work with in my way taken out of context and used for quite different purposes. (I know that this might be inevitable, and in the long term probably is, but it pains me to watch it up close.) That’s why I tend to take option #2 in my courses open to MA students, since that’s the value I think I bring to them. Of course, this raises another problem, since I think that option #2 is the sort of thing that a student ought already to have gotten from a competent undergraduate program. Maybe there’s value in re-doing that aspect of undergrad as an MA student, but it does make me wonder.

As for looking for prospective Ph.D. students: well, as a “scholar” it’s only natural for me to want to socialize others into my world, and that world is the world of the Ph.D. and academia broadly understood. This either means I find budding “scholars” and help to set them on their way, or I find budding “experts” and try to show them the subtlety of scholarly theory. Either way, those are easier conversations to have than the continual head-butting I find myself doing with “professionals” when I am doing anything other than pressing them to promote value-clarification.

I don’t think this analysis definitively answers any questions. But maybe it focuses the disagreement and makes it even more productive.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.