The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Poverty of Style in IR

October 4, 2017

As one of the new Ducks, I will from now on be posting diversely on a range of topics including political violence, the status of critique in IR, and professional issues that will be of particular interest to early career scholars and PhD students. For my first post, however, I want to write about the style of writing IR and/or Political Science. This is something that has troubled me for some time now and on which – I think – I depart slightly from the mainstream view of things.

To begin, let me quote the author’s ‘style’ guidelines for the ISA journal International Studies Quarterly:

  • Favor short, declarative sentences. If it is possible to break up a sentence into constituent clauses, then you most likely should do so.
  • Avoid unnecessary jargon. Define, either explicitly or contextually, necessary jargon.
  • Favor active voice, the simple past and present, and action verbs.

Favoring ‘clarity’ and ‘accessibility,’ the guidelines go onto state that “it is unreasonable to require readers and reviewers to read many pages into a manuscript before encountering its basic claims. It is unrealistic to expect that readers and reviewers are skilled in Kabbalah and therefore able to decode esoteric writing.”

These basic words of guidance are common across journals in IR and in the advice we give to our students, the reviews we write of articles, and the words we ourselves attempt to write. We seek to be clear. To the point. To report what we want to say and nothing more. This is the dominant ‘style’ of IR today.

I want to argue that the too-rigid enforcement of this Anglo-Saxon writing style creates problems for IR and – in fact – impoverishes its diversity, enjoyment, and ultimately its relevance to the world in several ways.

But let me first make a caveat. I am discussing these issues in part out of the tensions I have found in my own work. Based at a European school, I am certainly somewhat ‘outside’ the traditions of Anglo-American style. However, my institution teaches, writes, and conducts almost all its activities in English. It does so because it is forced to do so, largely. Despite efforts at (French-English) bilingualism, English has become an absolutely necessary asset in an ever internationalized academic setting. This gifts the language itself and the style through which it is expressed power. I have noticed this power as I mark essays, for example, and find myself giving greater writing ‘style’ comments to francophone students than their Anglophone colleagues. And the style comments I give are based on a certain predisposition over what ‘good’ writing is in IR. But I am troubled, however, because the content of those essays is often strikingly originally and inextricably linked to the style in which it was written. I am troubled – then – about the ways in which my own attempts to discipline students and others into particular styles of writing might have negative effects on intellectual vitality as a whole. Hence, this critique is as much directed at myself as others: a self-critique, if you wil.

With that said, I now want to explain three areas in which I feel the Anglo-American ‘clear, short, and to the point’ style of writing impoverishes IR. And I will do so by drawing on another source as I work through my claims: the American Political Science Association’s Publishing Political Science: APSA Guide to Writing and Publishing. This text includes a host of chapters following a similar drive for ‘clarity’ in writing found in the ISQ guidelines. Thomas E. Cronin’s chapter The Write Stuff, for example, identifies writing as a “performing and political art” but one that should be performed in very specific ways. There are strict rules to this performance, it seems, that orient writing “well” as a “form of leadership” in which one should “use as many words as you must and as few as you can. Skip long words where short ones will do. Make every word count… Clarity of writing flows from clarity of thought.”

It is the strict rules of this performance that, I’ll suggest, lead to the an increase in A) the parochialism of the discipline of IR, B) the masculinity of the discipline, and C) the diminishment of political theory within the discipline.

Let’s take each in turn.


  1. The Parochialism of the Discipline

My first concern is with how the typical writing style found in IR reduces the international nature of IR. Of how it restricts it only to those who can become fluent in its intricacies. To begin, consider how the APSA handbook states that not only must we avoid ‘jargon’ or ‘pedantry’ but also “out-of-town” and “foreign phrases” that are apparently only designed to show off erudition. Perhaps in some cases this claim is true: using longer and specifically ‘foreign’ words as a substitute for solid argumentation must occur now and again.

But consider also the following two lists of words:



The APSA guidebook quotes the Associated Press as suggesting there is no reason to use the words found in the first list, above, when those in the second list convey the same meaning but are shorter, clearer, and more ‘to the point.’ If we take a step back, however, then we notice two things.

First, these words are not semantically the same in most cases. Only the most striking example here is the necessary distinction to be made between methodology and method. Muddling up these terms will only weaken our arguments, I would suggest

Second, while all these words form a part of modern English, the left hand column is largely made up of words with Latin roots, and particularly derivations from the French.

This second point is particularly interesting: the discipline of international relations tends to refuse its expression in anything other than the most ‘pure’ of Germanic or Anglo-Saxon rooted words. For those trained in earlier British academic writing styles, of course, this is baffling: the French influence over English was once favored quite distinctly. But putting such concerns over the specifics of the American-variant of the ‘Anglosphere’ aside, the more pressing issue here relates to the dominance of Anglo-American voices in the publishing of political science.

The tight boundary conditions that have been placed around what constitutes ‘acceptable’ writing within the field have worked to exclude many authors from across the world for whom English is a second language. If simply using a greater quantity of Latin-rooted words, employing longer sentences, and using the passive voice indicates ‘bad style’ and – moreover – a belief that the argument is weaker simply because it employs a different style, so the number of non Anglo-American scholars likely to be encouraged to publish in leading IR journals will naturally be decreased.


  1. The Masculinity of the Discipline

IR and Political Science remain highly gendered in their disciplinary norms, unequal cadres of professors, students and professors, and – yes – their use of language. It is thus that Cronin speaks in the APSA Style Guide of writing as a “form of leadership” but a type of leadership expressed in typically masculine terms. Indeed, we are expected to write “honestly, with voice and power” – drawing on tools like ‘shotgun’ writing – and words that “go deep”, “strong verbs (verbs that show action)” and which “infuse sentences with life-giving nectar,” the active voice which:

Uses verbs to push, strike, carry, and persuade… ‘Joe led the discussion’ is strong. ‘The discussion was led by Joe’ is limp.

In short: “Be bold. Be definite. Say it in the positive form. Take a stand. Be careful about using qualifiers.” I will not dwell here too long on the more phallic images that are (unconsciously?) employed here (but infusing with nectar is certainly my favourite). These are all too common across all discussions of writing ‘clearly’ in multiple disciplines. Instead, let me turn to Carolyn Cohn’s now classic article Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals. Cohn’s piece discusses the power that (equally sexualized) language had in making nuclear war something that could be discussed in a ‘rational’ manner: language disciplines and imposes certain ways of thinking about the world.

Equally, we might argue that when IR is written with this particular style in mind, so it also disciplines and does so in very gendered ways (as an aside: only 5 out of 16 of the chapters of the APSA style guide are written by women). If writing is a form of “leadership” then the style that has been taken up within IR is a masculine leadership style that accepts no “qualifiers” or ambiguity and is suffused with attempts to inject arguments with aggressive “power.” There is little room for subtlety here. Instead, this style resembles more the Oxbridge debating format in which one is expected to use all forms of linguistic trickery possible, alongside a forceful oratorical style, and  a performed disregard for the arguments of your opponent, in order to make a point as forcefully as possible: whether or not one actually has doubts, caveats, and qualifiers.

Might the arguments found within IR look different and perhaps be more relevant to the world if they moved beyond this ‘gladotorial’ style of writing? And might not this also make the discipline a more open place to female and LGBTQ scholars whose voices are often – both in spoken and written form – marginalised in part because they sometimes do not conform to this highly masculine style of writing? Would IR not be a more ‘caring’ discipline if it wrote differently? And given the power of language, would not this care extend beyond the pages we write to make the field more open, inclusive, and welcoming?


  1. The Diminishing of Political Theory

The final issue that I wish to discuss concerns the kind of texts that can be written within the current style of writing used in IR. In particular, it seems fairly obvious that the often complicated, necessarily caveat-filled, and intensely subtle or fine nature of the argumentation used within political theory is likely to be significantly diminished by a field that demands only “clear, lean thinking [and writing]” and in which “complicated constructions” should be “kept to a minimum.” Indeed, that the more exciting forms of political theory tend to be produced in non-Anglo-Saxon intellectual fields, before being translated into the English, seems to indicate the growing difficulties faced in writing theory in IR that have been much discussed quite recently.

However, one reason that ‘experimental’, ‘quantitative’, or whatever label one wishes to use, forms of scholarship have perhaps become more publishable in IR relates to how these forms of conducting social inquiry can fit more easily into the standards of writing that have become acceptable. The typical article written within these fields lays out a problematiques or puzzle, conducts a literature review, lays out hypotheses and/or the ‘design’ of the inquiry, before then ‘reporting’ on results.

The word ‘reporting’ here is particularily interesting. Forms of IR that have specific ‘results’ that can be ‘reported’ on (usually in the ‘discussion’ section of an article), can follow a journalistic standard of writing. And, indeed, the style guidelines of journals like the ISQ and APSA are ultimately journalistic standards of writing: be clear, write in short sentences, and get to the point (within the short word limit). Be your own copy-editor.

This point is only re-inforced if we consider the ‘heroes’ of this style of writing, quoted frequently in the APSA Style Guide and elsewhere: Ernest Hemmingway and George Orwell, both praised for their short, succinct, and clear writing. But aside from their literary projects, it seems hardly a coincidence that both these men worked as journalists. (As a further aside: nor that the hyper-masculine finger of Hemmingway would advocate for ‘forceful’ writing).

But journalistic style does not work when writing theory, or simply any nuanced argument (and particularly one combining multiple sources of data). There is nothing simple to report. Complicated constructions are necessary. More words are needed. The freedom to use the style of writing to express the argument is often needed. Words here are not merely a tool for reporting but an intrinsic part of the argument being made. It is hard to see – then – how political theory within IR can diversify and flourish without altering disciplinary expectations over writing styles quite dramatically.


To conclude, let me repeat: the problems above are directed at myself as much as APSA, ISQ, or Cronin. We have all ‘internalized’ these standards to a great degree. But if we can see that they might be impoverishing IR, then it might be time to start talking about innovation in this area.

Jonathan Luke Austin is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen. He is also Lead Researcher for the Violence Prevention (VIPRE) Initiative at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Austin’s research agenda is currently orientated around four main axes: 1) the ontology and microsociology of political violence, 2) the relationships between technology, design theory and world politics, 3) the political status of aesthetics, and 4) the contemporary state of scientific critique. Alongside these foci, Austin possesses a decade of research and field experience in the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq) and regularly consults for NGOs and the media on current events.