The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

$h•! PTJ Says #3: protest banners vs. precise terms

January 21, 2012

 I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.

“Many if not most of the terms we use to differentiate styles and traditions of scholarly inquiry are tools for positioning ourselves relative to other scholars. Names of schools of thought, incontrovertible assumptions that have to be agreed to in order to belong to a particular club, shorthand references to ‘great debates’ and ‘key controversies’ — treating these as though they had positive content is basically the same mistake as treating a nationalist claim to possessing some patch of ground from time immemorial as though it were a factual claim. Positioning can provide a helpful signal to other scholars, but but one should be careful not to go overboard in trying to give serious content to something that is basically a set of mapping coordinates.

“This is particularly problematic when we are discussing methodological terms, which are supposed to provide actual guidance for how to do good research. The ordinary academic machine that translates such terms into shibboleths and slogans does an immense disservice to anyone trying to figure out how to do, or to teach others to do, scholarly research, because if open is not careful one can easily find oneself trapped in a hall of mirrors. Perhaps the worst offenders nowadays are words like ‘qualitative’ and ‘interpretive,’ which seem to say something important about a style of research but actually don’t. Both are better thought of as hortatory protest banners: ‘qualitative’ means something like ‘you don’t have to use numbers in order to engage in systematic procedures of data-collection and -analysis’ and ‘interpretive’ means something like ‘get out of your office and go talk to some people, and not just in order to plug their responses into a regression equation’. Okay, fine, but this tells me basically nothing about how to actually do anything.

“Precise terms give us guidance about how to ‘go on’ in producing scholarship that is in some sense valid. Protest banners get our blood pumping and fuel our passion, and maybe get us out into the streets to complain about the lack of thinking space for our kind of work in our field or discipline, but that’s all they are good for. Don’t try to teach using them, and don’t spend too much time trying to give them positive meaning in your own work. Use them to carve out a little academic space for yourself, if you must, and then move on. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t show me the intellectual payoff of your conceptual apparatus, I am not sure what on earth it might possibly be for.”

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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.