The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

It’s All Our Fault

August 1, 2011

I’ve had it. Recently I was asked to review a book that will not be named for a journal that will not be mentioned. It was by an author with a pretty good reputation with an excellent press on a subject that I am well informed on. (I won’t mention names. Dan can take him or her to the woodshed later.) I thought I would be doing the field a service and forcing myself to read what I thought would be an entertaining book that I might not otherwise have the time to read. The problem: it is f&ck*ng mess.

Actually that really isn’t the real issue. The real problem is that I am absolutely positive that this book will receive great reviews and probably win a prize. It has glowing blurbs on the back by luminaries in the field that are entirely unjustified and indicate either 1) they have not read the book, or 2) they have read the book but are friends with the author, or 3) they have not read the book, are not friends with the author but have all suffered major brain injuries within the last year. But it is the kind of thing that passes for good qualitative research in international relations right now. And that sucks.

I will be more specific, presenting what I see as the faults of this book, but which really characterize many if not most books in this vein. I will offer them in a positive light, as admonitions for young scholars to do better work, with enough profanity to capture my indignant rage and serious intent.

1) Do not be a bad historian. If you are going to do macro-historical work that relies on comparative case studies, be ready to read at least one goddamn primary document. I am really, really tired of seeing book after book that relies on secondary sources. This is academic hearsay. It is not admissible. And do not, under any circumstances, quote some historian’s conclusion as evidence for your argument. Get off your ass. Do the work. Historians’ work has all the problems that ours does. They are not the Pope.

If you write a book in international relations on a subject where the country’s official secrecy act is no longer in effect and you do not use primary sources, you have no excuse. And even if there is such a law, that probably means it is a relatively contemporary subject. People do have mouths. They can be interviewed. So unless your subject is how it feels to be part of a mass genocide or the politics of public policy towards the deaf and mute, this rule applies to you.

2) Do not be a statistician, much less a bad one. Show causality. The whole point of doing qualitative work, as opposed to statistical, is usually to trace a process. So get out your pencil and trace it. Don’t simply engage in some kind of half-assed correlative argument that this factor is present when this factor is present so you are right. We want to see not just the smoking gun, but the casings, the bullet, the body, and the hand on the trigger. This will probably require some reference to primary documents. See #1. If you ‘t do that you are just a statistician with a small N and no math skills.

3) Do not fall in love with your own ideas. This way your theory and evidence will match. Almost every book or article starts with an idea that is interesting to its originator, and the problem is that idea is a hard one to break up with. Almost any initial hunch is wrong in some way, even if there is also probably something to it. My first book looked for a common partisan alignment on foreign policy across countries. Didn’t exist. My second book looked for the role that identity played in U.S. multilateralism. None.

But it is very clear when you read a lot of academic work that that love never dies and authors will do anything to maintain that relationship. They will twist the truth, ignore obvious inconsistencies, or make excuses for their argument. Don’t do that. Marry. Get divorced. Marry new trophy spouse. Let the initial idea take you into unchartered waters and see where it takes you because that is inevitably somewhere new, but also more interesting.

4) Do a proper literature review. Make sure you have exhausted all the different ways that someone might go about explaining your explanandum and deal with them. Decisively. Do not pretend they are not there. It is rude and also lacks academic integrity.

5) Avoid the two-by-two table. It is a common joke at academic talks that all the great arguments involve two-by-two tables. I am instantly skeptical of every piece I ever read with a 2×2. 90% of the time they are terrible. I think that qualitatively-oriented academics are sensitive about the criticisms they get for lacking parsimony and generalizability and seek to armor themselves by creating simplistic typologies instead of learning math. That is stupid. Embrace context or go to stats camp.

I do both quantitative and qualitative work, but my best work is the latter. We can complain all we want, and I have, by the dominance in the field of certain ‘isms’ and methodologies, but we have to bear part of the blame. They have a point about our fuzzy conclusions and lack of rigor. We do a lot of really bad work, and we have to get better.

This has to be a personal code. The fact that I am reviewing a book with one of the best presses in the business that makes all of these mistakes indicates that there is no professional incentive to do any of this. Only Dan checks people’s footnotes. It must come from your own sense of personal integrity. But I will be watching…..

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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.