The Duck of Minerva

Announcing “Methodology411”

5 March 2010

Spring is around the corner, which means that baseball season is finally getting underway. Amidst the spring training games and the speculations about the upcoming season, one can find the clear signs of the truly obsessed — the fantasy baseball players — ramping up their debates about how to select players in their fantasy league drafts, weighing the relative importance of slugging percentage versus base-stealing ability, and generally working to find the best strategy for success in this bizzare kind of second-order competition.

Yes, I’m among them. Guilty. I am a big fan of second-order competitions, second-order debates, and second-order concerns — heck, my new book is about philosophy of science and its methodological implications for the study of world politics, and how much more “second-order” can you get than that? But there is an art to conducting such debates well, to be sure a different art from the actual playing of the game itself, but an art — a practice, a sensibility — nonetheless. In the fantasy baseball world, there are a lot of charlatans peddling snake-oil, which makes a source of good strategic information all the more valuable. One that is a particular favorite of mine is the Fantasy411, which started life as a radio show and podcast and now also includes a blog and even some TV appearances. Fantasy411 consists of a small group of folks who weigh in on issues related to the playing of fantasy baseball, and who take questions from their listeners and viewers and answer them on the air or online; even if one doesn’t agree with the proffered advice, the discussion is usually engaging, and disagreeing can teach you as much if not more than agreeing can.

So it occurred to me that what works for fantasy baseball might work well for our own peculiar kind of second-order concern with social-scientific methodology: how do we produce knowledge about world politics? Sure, there are all kinds of neat little research manuals out there, but they are generally pretty narrow in their orientation, and even the best of them don’t really provide the same opportunity to collectively wrestle with the complex issues of research design appropriate to specific projects. And sure, all of us with Ph.D.s in Political Science had to suffer sit through some kind of methodology course in graduate school, but I am going to bet that it was a) boring; b) more of a class in technique than a class in research design; and c) dominated by some fairly easy statistical methods. (Yes, there are exceptions to that claim, but from the people I’ve talked to over the years that seems to be a pretty accurate description of what passes for a methodology course in most Political Science departments.) Besides which, who actually remembers what they learned in their graduate school methodology course that was helpful to them once they got into actually doing their own scholarly work? Anyone? Anyone?

Okay, so there’s an opportunity here. Duck gets a fair number of readers within the IR profession, and we’ve had some discussions about these issues here before — and I’m usually involved in them, because as anyone who knows me or reads my posts knows, I actually don’t really care as much about contemporary politics as I do about theory and methodology (and science fiction). So in establishing the Methodology411 here on Duck, I am merely giving formal expression to something that has been the case for a long while: I am most interested in and indeed passionate about those parts of the scholarly IR enterprise that bore most people silly. And I am also taking advantage of the fact that we have excellent people here at the Duck who have far more interesting things to say about actual contemporary world politics than I do most of the time — like I said, second-order concerns, that’s my thing — so I don’t feel compelled to try to generate posts about things that, frankly, aren’t my main interest.

Here’s how this is going to work: I have cleverly grabbed a gmail address for the Methodology411; you can probably guess what it is, but if you can’t, let me spell it out in such a way that trawling bots and spiders might miss it: methodology411 at-sign gmail dot com. Send me your queries and issues, send me things that you’d like to see answered or discussed, and I’ll post them once or twice a week with a few of my own thoughts and open a discussion-thread about them. If it’s a slow week I’ll look for something else to comment on from this point of view, like Andrew Exum’s little manifesto on the quantitative analysis of war, a manifesto which — quite problematically, in my view — combines rules appropriate for good statistical inference with indefensible assertions about the inherently non-statistical nature of the phenomenon of war. [The problem here, in a nutshell, is that “statistical” names a way of studying the world, and is not a commentary on the world itself: it designates a methodology, and says nothing whatsoever about the inherent character of any objects thus analyzed. The only limitation to studying something statistically and quantitatively is the imagination of the researcher; anything can be quantified, which doesn’t mean that it should be, but it does mean that if one wants to quantify or doesn’t want to quantify one has to actually provide reasons for doing so — reasons that aren’t about the nature of the object, but which are about the kind of research question that you’re asking and the techniques appropriate for answering it. Methodological reasons. And let’s not even get into the conflation of “statistical” and “quantitative” implicitly operative in many manifestos like this.]

See, it’s all too easy for me to go off about these things, because I actually get quite worked up about them — much more so than I do about contemporary politics. So in the interest of being a force for good, I offer the Methodology411 as a place where you can bring your questions for discussion, and I can geek out about philosophy of science and research design to my heart’s content. And hopefully, we just might learn something by talking together about these issues — something that might help us to produce better social-scientific knowledge. So bring your queries, and we’ll see what happens.