The Duck of Minerva

The Unwritten Rules of AMERICAN IR? (or, things American IR scholars don’t always know about ‘doing’ IR ‘in the rest of the world’)

8 June 2014

Laura Sjoberg recently wrote a post listing “The Unwritten Rules of IR.” While it is an interesting review of some of the power relations, maneuvering, and indeed game-playing that goes on in the field, it also captured a particular American (maybe even just a personal) experience of being an IR scholar. Of course this makes sense, since Sjoberg is an American doing IR in America…but it felt a little bit more like ‘Mean Girls- the IR Sequel’- like when Regina George (yes, I remember the main character/villain’s name outlines the ‘rules’ of the table….maybe the problem is the table, not the rules). My point is not to critique Sjoberg or the individual points she makes, but to consider what these rules tell us about how exceptional (I think) this experience is from those of us ‘doing’ IR in, well, the rest of the world (and maybe at other tables in the US cafeteria). I’m drawing from my experience working in New Zealand and Australia, studying in Canada, and completing a post-doc in the US. The post made me ask two questions:

  • First, is the American IR community really that shitty/petty/manipulative? (read, ‘why is everyone so mean!?’)
  • Do American IR scholars appreciate that their experience of the field is not, in fact, how the entire field operates? (read, ‘why don’t more US scholars abandon ship?!’)

I offer a few counter punches to those offered by Sjoberg in the hope of making my point:
1. Get over pedigree. Pedigree matters most to those who went to ‘the top 2/5/8’ US universities in the US. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive about the power of studying at Harvard or Yale. BUT pedigree only goes so far. And, especially outside the US, A) one’s publication record, and general contribution to the field outweighs pedigree. Full stop. B) perception about ‘good’ pedigree varies vastly across the world. There is an entire cohort of non- ivy league universities that seem to garner as much- if not more recognition- for producing incredible IR scholars, including: Aberystwyth, the University of Copenhagen, Science Po, and University of Southern California- to name a few. C) constantly name dropping your alma matter or PhD supervisor is annoying both inside and outside the US (the students of a few American IR dudes ‘icons’- who shall remain nameless- should just get t-shirts made for their students, to save them the hassle of declaration (it would be equally as annoying), or maybe there should be some pin that signals certain supervisors…now I’m just getting bitchy). Maybe this is my perspective because- from a pedigree perspective (what are we breeding, exactly) I’m the equivalent of a Shetland Pony/work horse bred with a thoroughbred racehorse. I’m sure the pedigree-police would recommend taking me out back and shooting me, but hey, I’ve managed ‘show’ in a few races and make my mark on the track anyway (ok, those are all the racing analogies I’ve got).
2. The HR pimp line, or the degree to which you brag about yourself as a scholar, that Sjoberg talks about is relative. That is, people have a different tolerance for self promotion around the world (and Americans have a high tolerance): For example, Canadians have, like, zero tolerance for any bragging (actually, there is a required amount of self-depreciation necessary to survive socially and professionally); the Kiwis are the same; Brits seem to have a moderate level, provided you make a joke or speak about your accomplishments in a sarcastic way (ok, I’m descending into total generalizations here). But, generally, Sjoberg’s statement that self celebration “annoys the crap out of people” is universally true.
3. OK, here’s where shit gets real. The whole ‘tit for tat‘ list of things you should ‘watch your back’ about in the field is very much an American experience (or is it? are things really this bad? what is a ‘bad’ review and do people really have time/energy to seek out revenge plots over them?), and I’m grateful for that. Maybe it is the competitive nature of tenure, the product of having a terrible job market for over a decade, or something else, but I don’t believe that IR scholars everywhere can expect to have reference letters or reviews used as a revenge tool. Maybe I’m being Pollyanna here?
4. The fourth ‘rule’ Sjoberg sets out is really a laundry list of no nos. These ‘fouls’ are unspoken faux pas within the field. I’m with her on most of them, except to say that “obtaining the sought-after spousal hire, and then divorcing the spouse then making the department an uncomfortable working environment” can hardly be compared to getting drunk at a conference, or fashion choices at a conference. The fact that it makes people ‘uncomfortable,’ or annoys them when marriages break up, is too f*cking bad. I highly doubt that any academic couple sets out to get a spousal hire (which is, to use sports terms, hole-in-one-rare, making the job market for such couples a total nightmare) only to go through a divorce that involves, and is witnessed by, their professional peers. Spousal hires are important. Feminists fought for them because it forced departments to recognize that professionals have partners and families- we are not just publication/teaching robots. Whatever happens to such relationships is something any department can and should deal with professionally (just as they deal with any number of ‘personal’ issues, such as affairs between staff, and between staff and students). On a lighter note, I will say that there does not seem to be any ‘rules’ for what American academics wear to conferences. I’m not a fashion expert, but it seems the real problem isn’t night club wear, or pjs (as Sjoberg suggests), but a much more chronic condition of shapeless and unflattering, grey/navy, non-breathing fabrics (again, this is not a universal- there are always some sartorial hits…but really, who cares what we are wearing anyway?).
Unfortunately, I think 5 and 6 are pretty universal. Although ‘what counts’ as IR, and as political science in the US is- I think- much more confined than in other parts of the world. Boys clubs are universal. Sigh… In my 8 years of going to the ISA and 1 year living within the US, I had a very different experience of boys clubs and bullying. Talking about personal experiences: I found the field largely inspiring, friendly and encouraging- I have mentors that have been generous and I’ve learned that the gossip and dark side of conference and professional politics is pretty easy to side step. Most of the bullying I have experienced- sadly, there has been no shortage- has come from women, not from men. Boys clubs exist, but I don’t need to tell anyone that they are not gender-exclusive.
What do you think? Am I a product of my own quirky geographic choices- and out of touch with ‘the field’ and its politics?