On Paradigms, Policy Revelance and Other IR Myths

Jul 27, 2011

I had every intention this evening of writing a cynical commentary on all the hoopla surrounding Open Government, Open Data and the Great Transparency Revolution. But truth be told, I am brain-dead at the moment. Why? Because I spent the last two days down in Williambsurg, VA arbitrating codes for a Teaching, Research and International Politics (TRIP) project (co-led by myself and Jason Sharman) which analyzes what the field of IR looks like from the perspective of books. It is all meant as a complement to the innovative and hard work of Michael Tierney, Sue Peterson and the TRIP founders down at William & Mary, who have sought to map the field of IR by systematically coding all published articles in the top 12 peer-reviewed disciplinary journals for characteristics such as paradigm, methodology, epistemology and policy relevance. In addition, the TRIP team has conducted numerous surveys of IR scholars in the field, the latest round capturing nearly 3000 scholars in ten countries. The project, while not immune from nit-picky criticism about its methodological choices and conclusions, has yielded several surprisingly results that have both reified and dismantled several myths about the field of IR.

So, in the spirit of recent diatribes on the field offered by Steve and Brian, I summarize a few of the initial findings of our work to serve as fodder for our navel-gazing discussion:

Myth #1: IR is now dominated by quantitative work

Truth: Depends on where you look. This is somewhat true if you confine yourself to the idea that we can know the field only by peering into the pages of IO, ISQ, APSR and the like. Between 2000-2008, according to a TRIP study by Jordan et al (2009), 38.8% of journal articles employed quantitative methods,while 30.4% used qualitative methods. [In IPE, however, the trend is definitely clearer: in 2006, 90% of articles used quantitative methods — see Maliniak and Tierney 2009, 20)]. But the myth of quantitative dominance is dispelled when we look beyond journals. In the 2008 survey of IR scholars, 72% of scholars reported that they use qualitative methods as their primary methodology. In our initial study of books between 2000-2010, Jason and I found that 58% of books use qualitative methods and only 9.3% use quantitative (the rest using mainly descriptive methods, policy analysis and the rare formal model).

Myth #2: In IR, it’s all about PARADIGMS.

Truth: Well, not really. As much as we kvetch about how everyone has to pay homage to realism, liberalism, constructivism (and rarely, Marxism) in order to get published, the truth is that a minority of published IR work takes one or more of these paradigms as the chosen framework for analysis. Surveys reveal that IR scholars still think of Realism as the dominant paradigm, yet realism shows up as the paradigm of choice in less than 10% of both books and article. Liberalism is slightly more prevalent – it is the paradigm of choice in around 26% of journal articles and 20% of books. Constructivism has actually overtaken realism, but still amounts to only 11% of journal articles and 17% of books in the past decade. Instead, according to the TRIP coding scheme, most of the IR work is “non-paradigmatic” (meaning it takes theory seriously, but doesn’t use one of the usual paradigmatic suspects) or is “atheoretic”. [Stats alert: 45% of journal articles are non-paradigmatic and 9.5% atheoretic, whereas books are 31% non-paradigmatic and 23% are atheoretical).

So, Brian: does IR still “really like” the isms?

Myth #3: Positivism rules.

Truth: Yep, that one is pretty much on the mark. 86% of journal articles AND 85% of books between 2000-2010 employed a positivist methodology. Oddly, however, only 55% of IR scholars surveyed report to see themselves as positivists. I’m going to add that one to the list of “things that make me go hmmmmm…..”

Myth #4: IR scholarship is not oriented towards policy.

Truth: Sadly, true. Only 12% of journal articles offer policy recommendations. [Ok, a poor proxy, but all I had to go on from the TRIP coding system]. Books are slightly more likely to dabble in policy, with 22% offering some sort of policy prescriptions – often quite limited and lame in my humble coding experience. Still, curiously, scholars nonetheless perceive themselves differently. 29% of scholars says they are doing policy-oriented research. This could be entirely true if they are doing this outside the normal venues of published research in the discipline and we’re simply not capturing it in our study (blogs, anyone?). All of which begs several questions: are IR scholars really engaging in policy debates? If so, how? Where? If not, why not? (Hint: fill out the next TRIP survey in the fall 2011 and we’ll find out!!)

(Note to readers: I was unable to provide a link to the draft study that Jason and I conducted on books, as it is not yet ready for prime time on the web. But if you have any questions about our project, feel free to email me).


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Catherine (Kate) Weaver is associate dean for students and associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security & Law, where she is the founding director of Next Generation Scholars Program. She also chairs the university’s Graduate Assembly Academic Committee, the President’s Award for Global Learning steering committee, and the Truman Scholarship committee. Weaver’s research focuses on transparency in international development aid, reforming global economic governance, and the politics of data in the world economy. She has developed methods to track and dynamically geomap aid and climate adaptation, and writes about the shifting power, players and paradigms in governing the global economy. Her latest project, the Global Indices Network (GIN), examines the interdependent power and pathologies of global indices.