The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Being there


June 2, 2008

In the latest incarnation of the Iraq war issue in the general election, John McCain is criticizing Barak Obama because Obama hasn’t been to Iraq in some time, and therefore, he’s not qualified to comment on Iraq policy because he hasn’t “been there” to “see it for himself.”

Rhetorically, it’s a slick move by McCain. Take a widely perceived negative, his support of the war, and turn it into a positive by emphasizing experience and criticizing Obama’s capacity for sound judgment. There was some press speculation that Obama might now need to visit Iraq as a candidate to blunt this line of attack, which plays into McCain’s hands because its debating the issue on his turf.

This, however, raised a larger issue for me, one with implications not just for the election, but for research methods in the social sciences. Namely, how important is it to be there (or have been there) in order to make an argument and draw a defensible conclusion about a thing. We seem to have a fetish for certain types of experience, thinking it leads to insight about how certain things work. But such doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Take, for example, baseball. You’ll notice that the world of baseball analysts, managers, and team executives is replete with former players who supposedly “know the game” having been there and played it. For a long time this kind of claim to expertise ruled the day, until the “stat-heads” came along and showed that much of what the “baseball people” thought didn’t quite work that way. Hall of Fame player Joe Morgan is celebrated by some as one of the best baseball commentators for his work on ESPN’s Sunday Night baseball. He also has inspired a fantastic blog that revels in point out how foolish most of his comments are when subjected to statistical analysis. Can Bill James, who never played the game, know more about baseball than someone with a Hall of Fame career?

Back to Iraq and the election—can John McCain really “know more” about the war because he 1) served in the military and 2) has visited Iraq many times when compared to Obama who has 1) not served and 2) visited rarely, and not for some time? Does being there really matter? Can one develop and claim expertise from non-experiential research?

Now, before this becomes a stats vs. anthropology argument (as the baseball analogy might portend), I want to suggest that both McCain and Obama have an important point. It is important to be there, but being there alone does not necessarily mean that your evidence, evaluation, and conclusion is any more valid. I’m reminded of an ISA panel I attended, maybe this year, where a number of critical security scholars were discussing the state of the discipline, and one prominent senior member of the panel talked about how important it was to ‘be there,’ to get the mood of the place, to write from that perspective.

Just being there, however, doesn’t mean that you have greater access to “fact” or “Truth” than anyone else. Take McCain in Iraq. He goes on a CODEL. He meets with select troops, who are probably on their best behavior for the famous Senator. He meets with members of the Iraqi government, who probably ask him for stuff, hoping to work the levels of US political power. He tours a marketplace, with a brigade providing security. There’s no way he can get “out” to see the rest of the country, there’s no way he can meet with many of the forward deployed troops out on the FOB—a more representative sample is simply impossible for him. Its just too dangerous (and rightly, not worth the risk to him). Is it important that he goes? Sure. Does this mean that his assessment and evaluation of Iraq is fundamentally superior to Obama’s? Not really.

So, when McCain criticizes Obama, and when those in the “field” criticize those back at the desk, and those who played criticize those who haven’t, they have a very important point to make. Being there does shape and deepen your analysis about certain things in certain ways. But not everything, and not always in the most appropriate way. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you saw the whole picture while you were. Just because you were there doesn’t mean you paid attention to the things you later comment on as an expert. Just because you were “there” doesn’t mean that you are able to understand how “there” is now relevant “here.”

In the social sciences, we arbitrate these disputes with our methodology. We ask—what did you do while you were there, in the field? What did you read while sitting in your office? The methodology gives us a standard for what counts as enough knowledge about a thing or place on which to offer meaningful analysis.

In the campaign, it looks like we might have “We’re winning, can’t you see?” vs. “You were wrong then and you’re wrong now.”

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.