ISA Book of the Decade

Jul 10, 2009


Dan Drezner offered his picks. The crazy people on Political Science Job Rumors fought a series of flame skirmishes over it. But I can’t imagine the conversation’s tapped out. Let’s take a look at the announcement:

The International Studies Best Book of the Decade Award honors the best book published in international studies over the last decade.In order to be selected, the winning book must be a single book (edited volumes will not be considered) that has already had or shows the greatest promise of having a broad impact on the field of international studies over many years. Only books of this broad scope, originality, and interdisciplinary significance should be nominated.

We can cut into this in any number of ways.

First, we might offer some picks. Drezner understands the criteria this way:

Hmmm…. which books published between 2000 and 2009 should be on the short list? This merits some thought, but the again, this is a blog post, so the following choices are the first five books that came to mind:

1. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001)
2. G. John Ikenberry, After Victory (2001).
3. Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill (2003).
4. Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales, Savng Capitalism from the Capitalists (2003).
5. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms (2007).

I don’t agree with everything in these books — but they linger the most in the cerebral cortex.

But I’m not sure “linger in the cerebral cortex” is quite the right standard. I take Dan’s more important point as being that “broad impact” is not necessarily the same as “great” (more on this below). So, in that spirit, I’ll list five of the works that have crossed my mind as strong contenders:

1. G. John Ikenberry, After Victory (2001)
2. Charles Tilly The Politics of Collective Violence (2003)
3. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (2004)
4. Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore, Rules For The World: International Organizations In Global Politics (2004)
5. Alexander L. George and Andrew Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (2005)

Second, we might question the criteria. Let’s reflect on the wording again: “the winning book must be a single book… that has already had or shows the greatest promise of having a broad impact on the field of international studies over many years. Only books of this broad scope, originality, and interdisciplinary significance should be nominated.” But “broad impact” is not really the same thing as “broad scope, originality, and interdisciplinary significance.”

For example, my number two pick (Politics of Collective Violence) easily satisfies the second set of criteria, but runs into some trouble in the first: while it has been cited a lot, it hasn’t had that dramatic an impact on international studies writ large. I can think of plenty of books that score very highly on originality and scope–such as PTJ’s Civilizing the Enemy: German Reconstruction and the Invention of the West (2006)–that haven’t received the amount of attention that they deserve.

Third, we might question the timing of the award. As a number of commentators have noted, it seems odd to run an award that covers 2000-2009 in 2009/2010. Sure, Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics (1999) won the last award, but it was pretty darn obvious that this was a Big Book(tm). Moreover, one might argue that giving him the award provided a way to recognize the impact of his prior writings on international-relations theory and scholarship.

But, regardless, how can one really make such a judgment at this stage? Wouldn’t a “Book of the Decade” award be better offered with the benefit of hindsight–say, in 2015 or 2020? And no, I’m not just saying that because my first book came out in 2009. I don’t see my book as a contender. But certainly some books in 2008 or 2009 might turn out to be more important than anyone could guess right now?

Fourth, we might ask what this means in a “post-paradigmatic” era. The last decade simply hasn’t been a period marked by major, disciplinary wide debates. Instead, the field is more fragmented than it has ever been. Perhaps that narrows the list of contenders. Or perhaps it makes it difficult to justify giving the award to any specific recipient.

Fifth, we might ask what interests and functions awards like these serve. In many ways, I think, that kind of question is far more relevant than arguing over what book deserves the award, and involves issues of greater significance for the field than the contents of whatever book actually wins. I don’t have any obvious answers right now. But I bet some members of the Duck community do.

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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.