The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Stuff Political Scientists Like #7, International Relations edition: Isms

July 26, 2011

Lest you ask, I do understand the irony of me writing this particular post and risking being a one-hit blogger with the continuation of this series. But I haven’t read a single Harry Potter book, so there is not much I can do. Enjoy!

If you show up at the bar at a conference of international relations scholars, you will immediately stumble upon a conversation about paradigms or ‘isms.’ You will quickly learn that almost all of those same scholars hate the isms and believe the field would be better off without them. Yet this conversation is the same one that has occurred at every hotel bar at an IR conference for 20 years. You are confused. This is because you must first recognize that international relations is like reality TV. This particular species of political scientists claim not to like the ‘isms,’ but the ratings speak otherwise.
If you are an international relations scholar and you want to get published in a big IR journal with a high impact factor, the odds are low, somewhat less than the chances of becoming the next American Idol. And even if you do get this type of network TV facetime, people still might not notice you. Do you remember who the second Bachelor was? The most important thing to do is to say something really crazy, like you can explain war and peace merely by reference to the size of the ‘selectorate.’ From this, you can build your ‘ism,’ your very own IR brand. This ensures a high citation count, the academic equivalent to press coverage, on which all reality TV contestants depend to keep their celebrity alive after their series end.

It is best if you contrive a feud with another, equally mental international relations scholar. Take lessons from Kanye West. This strategy is the same as what TV tells us is the best way to establish street cred in prison – sucker punch the biggest guy in jail on the first day. All academics like a good fight. Even the constructivists. Even feminists will watch female mud wrestling. You can’t look away.
You are now an instant celebrity, the Snooki of the field. (Wear underwear at all times.) It is obvious to non-celebrity academics (the TV audience) that you couldn’t possibly believe such nonsense, but they will not be able to stop talking about you (People magazine). Gossip sites like Political Science Job Rumors (Perez Hilton) will allow internet trolls to post spiteful things about your success, but this only ensures that your reputation grows. Soon you will have a prestige book series to edit (line of fragrances) and an endowed chair (development deal) with which you can train graduate students to be just like you but who inevitably fizzle out as they are always lesser versions of the original (Temptation Island, Hogan Knows Best, the Real Wives of Orange County).
International relations scholars like ‘isms’ for the same reason that television execs like reality TV. They have much lower production costs, as they are much less arduous and cognitively taxing than intense empirical work, which is the equivalent of scripted television. For regular workaday scholars, they are just the kind of brainless thing to sit down and read after a long, mentally tiring day. ‘Iron Chef’ trumps ‘The Wire’ any day. They might feel guilty about it, but this is what they end up talking about at the hotel bar at conferences, which is closest thing to a water cooler that international relations scholars have.
There are still outlets for non-‘ism’ work in excellent niche journals with a more narrow readership, where nuance and sophistication are still important, much like cable TV. But whatever you do, do not start blogging. That is a ticket straight to the D-List.
+ posts

Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.