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Fighting, Dancing and Thumb-Biting: Developing a typology of citations

February 20, 2017

This is a guest post by Paul Beaumont, PhD Candidate at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). Previously, he worked as an academic writing advisor at NMBU and as a Junior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

Some time ago, back when Duckpods still happened, Nicholas Onuf talked to Dan Nexon about the impact of World of Our Making (WOOM). Onuf’s masterpiece is rightly credited with founding Constructivism in International Relations. Yet as the two reflected upon the course 1990s constructivism embarked upon, Onuf acknowledged that his linguistic constructivism had not quite fostered the sort of research he had envisioned. While glad of the recognition he received for WOOM, Nick jokingly laments that his book had become “widely cited but never read”. Victim of “drive by citations”, Nexon remarked, “we could do a whole podcast on those alone.”

There is a serious issue at stake here: currently IR’s performance metrics rely on citation counting practices that provide only a crude picture of how research has been received. While the sociology of IR has long problematized citations practices—illuminating how gendered, racial, and geographic inequalities structure the field—these studies almost always miss how work has been cited: was it shallow and sulky, or longer and loving.

This matters because failing to pay attention to the type of citation means they may overlook how scholars reproduce those very power-structures that they would like to redress. For instance, Kenneth Waltz—a white, male, American, allegedly positivist— towers over the field in citation numbers. But how many of those stem from scholars damning his theory, or using his work as a foil? Perhaps IR researchers systematically cite neo-realism not as knowledge to be built upon, but as an unfortunate err to leave behind. Yet, as each critique of neorealism cites Waltz, the hub and spoke empire of American, white and male international relations is reproduced. In a similar vein, how many of Mearsheimer’s 5000+ citations in False Promise of Institutions stem from scholars angrily responding to Mearsheimer’s (in)famous strawman argument: when he clumped diverse post-positivist approaches under “Critical Theory”, and wrote off their collective work as utopian. Currently, we are in the dark, we only have half-cooked intuition and pub theories.

As an exploratory first-cut to try to escape this predicament, I have begun developing a typology that could provide a guide to help nuance our understanding of IR’s citation numbers. Half-inspired by research in English for Academic Purposes (where distribution of citation type is linked to grades), and Nexon’s podcast with Onuf, this is what I have so far:

 Typology of Citations (work in progress)









Drive by


Thumb Bite






Deep Engagement







Short: just enough words to hurl an insult, attribute recognition, or blow a kiss and drive on. It does not require a stop-and-chat. This not necessarily a problem: we would expect most citations to have a drive by quality, yet knowing the extent to which a work has been engaged with would provide a much more nuanced account of the impact of research. Drive-bys break down into three types:

The Thumb bite is perhaps the most pernicious of citation types as it may skew the perceived impact of an author: grant them a centrality in the field unwarranted by the usefulness of their ideas. For instance, as William Wohlforth has argued, Waltz’ Theory of International Politics, became a very convenient foil– Waltz can’t explain all this stuff, that means I am filling a gap by explaining this stuff. As Wohlforth points out, Theory seemed to make the obvious theoretically puzzling. For instance, if institutions do not matter, why do they exist in such numbers? Similarly, showing domestic factors mattered could be presented as important findings. The thumb bite citation may also be racked up disproportionately via academic trolling: misrepresenting rival approaches and stimulating blowback citations:  it seems likely False Promise generates at least some citations this way.[1]

The Salute is generous, friendly but disengaged. Too many salutes may result in a fossilized land-mark text, famous but under-utilized. WOOM is great, but while most scholars seem to recognize it is important for constructivism, they rarely seem to engage with its ideas in much depth.[2]

The Nod is the pizza-base of research; it recounts where the information was found, eschews positive or negative evaluation and does not usually cite the author in-text. In genre analysis this is termed the “attributional citation” and it comprises the mainstay of most academic texts.

Deep Engagement
All three types of deep engagement citation are likely to be rarer and reflect significant contribution to the field. Indeed, a case could be made to merge the boxes and just count deep engagement as one category. Nonetheless, I would suggest differentiating between them would be worth it.

The Narration neither challenges nor “uses” the research it cites to generate new knowledge, but rather explains its ideas at some length: this type would likely be found in text books, literature reviews, and in longer illustrative examples.

The Dance involves long affectionate engagement that produces new knowledge founded upon the other’s ideas. While an author may be flattered to receive dance partners, the ideal type of dance is not ideal for research. For instance, the uncritical love displayed toward Foucault or Marx by their followers can lead to cultish repetition of moves, devoid of imagination and originality.

At its best, the Fight provides heat, light, and progress. Characterized by mutual respect, understanding, but disagreement, the fighters over several pages dissect their opponents’ arguments, emerging at the end battered but better.

Arguably the most productive longer-engagement involves a hybrid: the dance that becomes a fight. The author begins in love, but through the course of dancing discover their partner’s flaws and end up fighting to lead the dance. Keohane’s co-option of Waltz’s structure might fall into this category.

Generating empirics on types of citation would prove too labour intensive to become standard practice. Yet I would suggest a few purposively selected cases into certain authors could be illuminating.  It could lay to rest the hypothesis that Mearsheimer’s research receives disproportionate thumb-bite citations. It could also illuminate puzzles thrown up by TRIP (e.g. why do scholars perceive realism to remain dominant despite so relatively few scholars self-identifying as realists?). Ultimately, I am not sure what would be discovered, but I think would prove interesting and improve IR’s collective reflexivity to find out.

Sadly, I lack the time to pursue this, but I would be interested to hear people’s comments and suggestions on both the typology itself and whether empirical research in this vein this would be a worthwhile addition to the sociology of IR.
[1] For instance, Jeffrey Checkel (1998) bites his thumb at False Promise twice: once to note its ”confusion” then again to suggest it is an “egregious example of the caricaturing” constructivists as peaceniks. This was the first constructivist text I checked citing False Promise, I suspect it is not anomalous.

[2] Fortunately, with regards to WOOM, this is changing: the “third generation” of constructivist scholars have begun to reengage with Onuf – see upcoming volume The Art of World Making

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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.