The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Irrelevance of the third kind

September 19, 2010

Lots of noise of late about the “relevance” question in political science, some of it thoughtful, so of it not so much. While this is obviously an old question — indeed, in some ways, it’s the oldest question in the discipline, dating back to the original efforts to place the study of politics on some kind of scientific footing in the early part of the 20th century — I find myself thinking about it a lot these days, both in the context of university administration (which is one-half of my day job) and as a result of the dislocatingly bizarre experience of attending the European SGIR conference last week almost immediately after the conclusion of APSA the previous week. To make things even odder, both conferences had similar themes (politics and hard times), but couldn’t have been much more different in terms of the content of the overall discussions. But neither, I think, featured much “relevance” of the sort that almost all of the participants in the most recent discussion seem to be focusing on — which is to say that there wasn’t much going on at either conference that was directly, or in many cases even indirectly, policy-relevant.

Readers of my previous missives on this subject will not be surprised to hear, once again, that I am no fan of policy-relevance as a criterion for whether we’re doing a good job as we study and produce knowledge about world politics. This extends to the kind of indirect policy-relevance that Jon cites; people may read and discuss his work in policy circles, but I would be somewhat shocked and a bit horrified if they spent much time discussing mine as they were trying to figure out the appropriate course of action to undertake in some specific situation. A clarification of the logic of social-scientific inquiry (my latest book) is not going to tell anyone much of anything about how to “go on” and act in the world, except in the negative sense of dispelling the mystical aura of certainty that sometimes surrounds particular scientific claims and appears to make them practical antidotes to the awful responsibility of committing to a course of action: science doesn’t actually solve the problem of how to live and what to do, and remembering that might help policymakers to recognize their own irreducible responsibility when it comes to selecting options. And a historical-configurational study of the specific combination of factors bringing about the reconstruction of postwar Germany (my previous book) is not going to do much to help policymakers either, except inasmuch as thinking about that case might create a certain sensitivity to factors of culture and identity in political life. So I would say that the most direct link between my work and the policy world is a linkage mediated by the intellectual disposition that critical-historical study imparts and strengthens, and has basically nothing to do with any logical implication of my substantive arguments.

That link, in turn, is strengthened not by the scholarly part of the other half of my day job (which is “teacher-scholar”), but by the teacher part — which works pretty closely with the university administrator part of my job in designing and implementing programs, procedures, and practices intended to inculcate just that critical intellectual disposition in students. “Critical” in this sense means something like a sensitivity to contingency and context, and a willingness to question assumptions no matter how firmly naturalized they are. I consider it a success if my students end up more willing and able to do that at the conclusion of their classes and programs. One of the best ways of doing this, as I’ve often argued, is to use the resources of the university to create a space for contemplation and reflection — a rock in the river, to use an image I’m rather fond of — and to provide a countervailing force pulling against the incessant drive to specialize, specialize, specialize (and then go get a job that follows from that specialization) that our students hear all the time from everyone else in the culture. Specialization, as Robert Heinlein famously put it, is for insects, and even the focus involved in doing a job well shouldn’t be allowed to overpower the main goal of education, which is to help students become fuller human beings and not just to train them to be a cog in a machine. I am forever telling my students to slow down, to take that poetry class, to join the astronomy club even though you don’t know much about astrophysics and just like looking at stars, and so forth — let their eventual jobs (because they’ll have many over the course of their lives) take care of themselves, and concentrate on getting better at reading, writing, and thinking.

But that only covers three-quarters of my day job. What about the “scholar” part? Contrary to almost everyone else weighing in on this issue, I’m perfectly fine with the irrelevance of my scholarship on world politics, for a certain definition of “irrelevance.” To clarify what I mean, I have to distinguish between (as my title might have suggested) three different species or modes of irrelevance, two of which are perpetual temptations of the academic form of life while the third precisely and clearly expresses the distinctive quality of the academic vocation. The first two kinds of irrelevance are things that we academics have to struggle against or maybe pass through from time to time; the third is something that we have to struggle to maintain against and in opposition to a world that continually pressures us to jump back into it and help it out. Ironically, the best way that we academics can help out is to to dwell in that third kind of irrelevance, since that is the best way to maintain and practice the criticism that is our distinctive contribution.

But first, the temptations. When people talk about the “irrelevance” of academics, and the irrelevance of political science and IR in particular, they often point to the titles of conference panels and papers that seem, to the uninitiated, like nothing so much as excessive self-indulgence and frivolity. APSA had a panel on the TV series Mad Men this year, and the paper that I presented at SGIR was on a panel (full disclosure: organized by me) on pop culture and IR; this is the kind of thing that regularly gets lampooned as an example of how out of touch the academic study of politics is. Now, this is not the place to make the case for studies of popular culture as a way of getting at important issues in world politics, although we’ve done so numerous times on this blog (just click here for a sampling) — and we’re not alone in maintaining this position. In any case, such attention to the substance of scholarship misses the more important ways that irrelevance plays out in academic work, ways that concern methodology rather than substance. Academic scholarship, at least academic scholarship on world politics, is continually tempted towards two forms of what our new Duck blogger Chris Brown likes to call “losing the plot,” and simply getting stuck in the middle of a process without a clear sense of either the end or the beginning.

The first temptation we might call “the irrelevance of technical-ism.” (I’d call this “method-ism” since it involves an obsessive focus on technique rather than on content, but that label seems to be taken for something else.) Abundant in American IR and prominently on display at APSA, technical-ism involves a shift of attention towards the minute details of procedure, so that we get panels on anti-Americanism that quickly devolve into discussions about the measurement of indicators and the modeling of diverse factors and leave the phenomenon standing outside in the hallway someplace looking for anyone who is willing to actually discuss the issue. And it might not be academics who are interested; it might be the catering staff, who don’t share this technical-ism, don’t really give a crap about coefficients of correlation, and are just interested in whether people around the globe hate America and why they do so. Any such uninitiated spectator who happened to wander into a panel like this would likely scratch her or his head and wonder when they took a wrong turn and ended up in the Math department, since the topic was supposed to be politics.

The second temptation we might call “the irrelevance of erudition.” Abundant in European IR and prominently on display at SGIR, the irrelevance of erudition involves a shift of attention towards the subtle intricacies of conceptualization, often in the form of extended exegeses of complex social theorists. So we get panels on the world community that quickly devolve into discussions about Heidegger’s notion of the world and whether “the political” is a meaningful expression, leaving the phenomenon standing outside in the hallway someplace looking for anyone who is willing to actually discuss the issue. And it might not be academics who are interested; it might be the catering staff, who don’t share this love of erudition, don’t really give a crap about Heidegger, and are just interested in whether there’s a world community and if so why there are still wars and terrorism. Any such uninitiated spectator who happened to wander into a panel like this would likely scratch her or his head and wonder when they took a wrong turn and ended up in the Philosophy department, since the topic was supposed to be politics.

These two kinds of irrelevance mirror one another in important ways. For one thing, both represent a tendency to get stuck en route to someplace, and to get stuck in a way that makes actually arriving somewhat unlikely. One might think of both of these kinds of irrelevance as manifesting an excessive interest in preparing to make a claim, rather than an interest in making a claim; this holds true whether the preparation is formal/mathematical or conceptual/philosophical. One of the most brilliant things I have ever seen a panel discussant do was when Bob Denemark walked over to one of his panelists and handed him a piece of paper with a large black dot on it during his discussant comments; Bob then explained that this was “a round tuit” (say it out loud … say it again …) and that the panelist obviously need to get this. Brilliant, I tell you. Bob then went on to point out that preparation is all well and good, but it has to serve a purpose, an explanatory purpose, if it is to have any genuine relevance. When I think of this move, which I’ve referenced on several occasions but never yet practically re-enacted, I feel like applauding, and it doesn’t matter whether the target of the gentle critique is being irrelevant by way of technical-ism or by way or erudition because both amount to the same thing in practice: a kind of aimless wandering without any clear implications.

Now let me be clear that this kind of aimless wandering is not necessarily a bad thing at a certain stage of a scholarly project. Working one’s way through the details — be they technical or conceptual details — is an essential part of doing good rigorous scholarship, and at various points in a scholarly career (especially, I think, when one is in graduate school, or in the process of re-tooling one’s arsenal for a new project) this kind of free-range exploration is wholly appropriate. And let’s be honest, academia facilitates this kind of thing, both by gathering up a bunch of really smart people and partly insulating them from the immediate pressures of the marketplace, and by evolving a set of internal-use-only standards that academics use to position themselves relative to other academics. Where but academia could you even have neo-orthodox Gramscians pitted against post-poststructural Bourdieusians, or people who swear by the agent-based modeling of complex systems as against the use of structural equation modeling? So the temptation to lose the plot and get lost in the details of the process of investigation can sometimes be overwhelming, and it can also be a useful step in achieving clarity as long as one remembers (or is reminded) to come back to the point eventually. And the point for us in IR is to make and evaluate claims about world politics, so all of this other stuff should be means to that end; if it becomes an end in itself, which it is almost always in danger of doing, then a mid-course correction is required.

However, such a mid-course correction need not and should not take the form of an appeal to “relevance” in the sense of plugging into the policy process or the everyday world of political activity. I’ll admit that when confronted with these two modes of irrelevance even I am sometimes tempted to take the cheap shot and ask about some current-events news story by way of pointing out the discrepancy between process and outcome. But we have to remember that notions like “relevance” are indexical and contextual, and mentioning actual political events to an academic scholar ought not to serve to collapse the distinction between academics and policymakers (and to those who serve as their mouthpieces in the popular media and the blogosphere). In fact, the antidote for both the irrelevance of technical-ism and the irrelevance of erudition is not “real-world relevance,” but a third kind of irrelevance vis-a-vis the everyday world of practical politics: the irrelevance of untimeliness, the irrelevance of adopting a position that is divorced and detached from the ordinary stream of events precisely for the purpose of gaining some perspective on them. Academic meandering through technical and philosophical issues ought to be “relevant” to this kind of untimely explication, and not to the policy process; as Max Weber put it so elegantly in “Science as a Vocation,” the sole task of academic scholarship is to “serve only the thing,” to be wholly devoted to one’s subject, to seek to explain and understand phenomena rather than seeking to change them in a preferred direction. Whether policymakers find this useful in the short-term is quite irrelevant; what matters is whether our comprehension improves — which includes our notion of “comprehension” itself. That’s our task; the rest is gravy.

Our job as scholars is not, and should not be, primarily about producing bits of information that are instrumentally useful for the running of the empire. Our job is to protect and preserve the untimely practice of criticism, the de-naturalizing sensibility in terms of which we can call seemingly obvious things into question and make them available for reflection and discernment. If you want to change the world, don’t go into academia, and in the name of all that is holy don’t go to graduate school to get a PhD in political science or IR with an eye towards an academic career. If you want to be “relevant” and make immediate changes in the course of events, go to law school, go to business school, go work for Apple Computer. But if you want to dwell in that kind of untimely irrelevance that makes the production of knowledge and criticism possible, even though the cost of doing so is a perpetual temptation to spiral off into technical-ism and erudition, then academia is where you belong, and irrelevance of the third kind is what you ought to be striving for.

website | + posts

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.