Day: January 5, 2013

Lamenting The Loss of the Light, The Ebbing of Grand Theory and The Decline of Old Boy Networks

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have written a piece that is critical of the supposed move to hypothesis testing and the failure of IR folks to do grand theory.   I have many reactions to this development that I thought I would engage in a bit of listicle:

  • My first reaction was: Next title: why too much research is bad for IR….
  • As folks pointed out on twitter and on facebook discussions, it seems ironic at the least that someone who made a variety of testable predictions that did not come true (the rise of Germany after the end of the cold war, conventional deterrence, the irrelevance of international institutions, etc) would suggest that testing our hypotheses is over-rated or over-done.
  • When I was preparing for my comprehensive exams long ago, I worked with a member of my cohort who was a Political Theorist just trying to get through the process.  He would just read everything and ask “what would Ken Waltz think of this?”  Well, invoking the WWWD mantra here, I think he might wonder why M&W are writing this stuff when they could be producing yet more Grand Theory or more Grand Theorists.  Waltz produced Walt after all ….
  • Which leads to the next question: what does this complaint say about their students?  Either they failed their students (their students did not learn to do good grand theory) or the students have failed them (their students have focused on stuff other than grand theory).  I know a good number of their students, and their work is often quite terrific and influential, so I am confused.
  • If M&W have failed to re-generate themselves, it could be because they and their generation of grand theorists have answered all of the big questions, leaving us with the small questions and the dirty work of testing hypotheses.  Perhaps they should be happy that their work is done and ride off into the sunset?
  • Perhaps the utility M&W really seek to maximize is citations (given what they say at the end of the piece, I guess I am wrong here…).  I became convinced in the early 1990s that producing controversial work seemed to be more important than producing convincing work.  Mearsheimer’s piece blasting the “False Promise of Institutions” seemed to be citation-bait to me.  Similarly, Walt’s article finding fault with the move towards formal theory seemed aimed not so much at convincing people but at attracting counter-attacks. [It is interesting that their latest piece cites approvingly the Fearon 1995 IO piece on Rationalist Explanations for War that Walt considered old wine in new bottles way back when].

What really frustrates me is that their claims make them bad realists and make me a Marxist.  How so?

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Saturday Afternoon Linkage

ducklingsPromotional and Disciplinary

  • Peter Henne’s guest post — in which he asks questions about peer reviewing from the perspective of a junior scholar — has been getting a lot of traffic. But it’s a pretty big tell that no one has attempted to answer his questions.
  • Iver Neumann’s not the first scholar to be interviewed for both the Duck Podcast and Theory Talks, but he may be the first to have the latter interview released the day after he conducted the former.
  • I’ve been enjoying Namesake, a webcomic involving characters travelling into classic stories. Check it out.
  • Also take a look at Alex Wallerstein’s Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.
  • I didn’t know that MIT Press Journals has a podcast series, which includes two from International Security. Good idea. Not, as far as I can tell, very well publicized.
  • Kindred W. wonders why political scientists don’t practice what they study, but chooses a questionable example: the lobbying effort on behalf of NSF funding worked. More interesting: some of the behavior he discusses is not at all puzzling from an identity-politics or social-psychological perspective. So perhaps the question ought to be: why do we peddle theories inconsistent with our own political behavior?

Grand Strategy

  • It was the week of grand strategy, highlighted by the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Barry Posen advocated a US “pull back.” Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth called for “deep engagement” (see also their International Security version of the article) Dan Drezner discussed how the GOP can rebuild its foreign policy credibility.
  • Erik Voten weighed in at The Monkey Cage, noting that the demarcation problem makes it difficult to distinguish between the practice of “deep” and “selective” engagement.
  • Steve Walt also engaged.
  • I noted that these debates, despite being incredibly important, aren’t as exciting as they once were.
  • In Proceedings Magazine, Colonel T.X. Hammes (retired) advocates “offshore control” as an alternative to “offshore balancing” for the US in Asia (via Taylor Fravel — note that I so consistently mispel Taylor’s last name that the Duck is the first google hit for “Taylor Favrel.”)
  • Danielle Pletka has a “Think Again” piece arguing that the GOP is in great shape on Foreign PolicyDaniel Larison is unimpressed. James Poulos is also underwhelmed.

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