Why Have Mainstream IR Journals Largely Ignored Pandemics*

Mar 28, 2020

* I have changed the title as I got plenty of pushback on twitter–that there is plenty of IR on Pandemics, not just in the major journals. And I will add an update at the bottom later to address the criticisms later.

People are wondering why there has not been much scholarship on the international relations of pandemics in the mainstream journals.

Not a scientific survey of the literature, but it gives you the basic idea.  I can’t really name any scholars that come to mind that are the pandemic experts, except strangely enough Dan Drezner thanks to his book Theory of International Politics and Zombies (the origin of that book was the blogging community reacting to a study by public health types who were wondering if countries would cooperate in the face of a pandemic and they used zombies as a placeholder for … something like this)  Which really is about IR theory and cooperation and not really about pandemics.  It is just the closest we got.  Which ain’t much. Why?

I am just, well, semi-spewing here, having no evidence of causal mechanisms, but projecting from both my experience and what I have seen over the years, I would say IR scholars have largely ignored pandemics because:

  • Anytime we talk about a specific policy area, there is a hurdle–can you get a minimal level of expertise to understand the stuff there?  To study the international relations of pandemics, one should get some basic understanding of epidemiology.  Well, many of us (ok, me) started at as pre-med in college, but we have no background there. We do have backgrounds in econ and history and sociology because as social studies majors, we studied other social sciencess.  I think that is why it is so normal to see folks steal from psychology (Robert Jervis being the patron saint of IR’s use of psychology).  Our inclinations and expertise tend to focus on the social sciences.  It is not impossible to get smart enough on epidemiology to write IR about it, but it is a barrier to entry.  
  • The conventional always gets more attention.  We have far more models and mentors and advisers if one is doing war, trade, foreign policy, etc.  If a student wants to do a dissertation on the IR of pandemics, where should they go to grad school?  Who should be their adviser?  The system does build in incentives to stick to the well-worth path.  Of course, one of the positive consequences of the explosion of scholars doing work in IR and of journals is that there is a greater tendency to move outside the comfort zones, such as focusing on climate change.   
  • Low frequency events get less attention.  The example we keep going back to is the 1918 influenza.  Sure, folks could have studied how countries and international organizations reacted to HIV/AIDS (there is some work), Ebola, SARS, H1N1 and the like, but these are, thankfully, rare (albeit costly, enduring) events.  So, we study stuff that happens a bit more often.  
  • There might be a tendency not to study “third world” problems.  Disease is far more destructive to less developed countries, but most of the major journals are dominated by folks in North America and Europe.  I am not saying this is right, but I am thinking this might be a tendency.
  • Our discipline does not play well with scientists.  My friends who do genuinely inter-disciplinary work with hard scientists have found a number of obstacles.  It is not just that the styles of writing and co-authoring are very different, but it is also the case that reviewers don’t read the scientific journals and don’t know how to treat them as they consider the tenure file.  Being in the top science journal may not count for much compared to being in a top three Poli Sci journal (APSR, AJPS, JOP) or top IR journal.  Poli sci article reviewers have a hard time reading the stuff and evaluating whether the science in it is good.

What have I missed?

Of course, our field is faddish so we will certainly see a lot more scholarship after this crisis, just as we saw much more work on cartels after OPEC, much more work on terrorism after 9/11, much more work on ethnic conflict after Rwanda/Bosnia (I was ahead of the wave, if just briefly on that stuff), much more work on counter-insurgency after 2006, etc.  There are so many questions to ask–not just about the failure of American leadership and what it says about hegemonic stability theory, but also the politics of WHO (there is stuff out there but there needs to be more study, perhaps applying the lessons of Barnett and Finnemore), understanding the variation among and within countries to their responses to the disease and their responses to the economic shock, the interaction of this crisis with on-going stuff like the conflicts in the Mideast, the cyberwars that been going on, etc.

We IR scholars are late to this because, well, everyone is.  The epidemiologists were on it, the public health folks were on it, the Obama administration was on it along with governments elsewhere.  But the rest of us looked at past feared outbreaks and scoffed–because we suck at thinking about prevention.  I am reminded of the Carnegie Corporation spending the entire 1990s with a most impressive effort to study how to prevent deadly conflict, and I am not sure they made much of a dent in the behavior of governments or of scholars.

Update: This post received much feedback via twitter, arguing mostly that I missed existing work. My response that is: guilty. I didn’t do an exhaustive search of the literature, with scholar google searches producing a lot of noise–medical stuff burying the work done by IR scholars.
My original title was too broad as there are IR scholars working in this area, but the point still remains that the mainstream journals do not publish much of this stuff. Still, much of this omission on my part is that I was focused on major North American IR journals. The European Journal of IR has published much on this as has Security Dialogue. This raises a few issues:

  1. Why haven’t the folks who publish in these other journals submit to IO and the like? Eric Voeten provided stats to suggest that a key problem here is a lack of submissions. It may be that critical security scholars don’t think they will get published by IO and other mainstream pubs. That the problem is not about the topic but the theoretical approach.
  2. Why is it that it is mostly critical security scholars who study pandemics? Much of what I said above may still apply but apply most strongly to US scholarship and less so to Canadian and European scholarship where there is more work on this stuff: that inter-disciplinarity is hard and rarely incentivized, that there are few big names doing this kind of stuff so there is a lack of role models and mentors, and so on.
  3. There is an entire section of the ISA that focuses on Global Health. So, obviously, there are many folks doing that. But the problem of having so many sections is that we get sectioned. I don’t know what the folks over there do. One way to fix that would be to ensure that there are more panels that cross-over: having the International Cooperation or IO section co-sponsor GH panels and GH co-sponsor with International Security and with Foreign Policy. I am sure some of this has happened, but perhaps not as much as it should.
  4. I probably should do more of a lit review when posting here. I call my own blog the Semi-Spew because it is a place where I post stuff that is half-baked. There is a bigger audience here, so I probably should think and read more before hitting the publish button. I am sorry that I omitted the work of many scholars. For a good start to this literature, see this thread by Clare Wenham. On the bright side, I learned a lot along the way, and that really is one of the reasons I blog–to figure stuff out and to find out where my preconceptions are wrong. Thanks for pointing out what I missed and also pointing out some of the divides in the discipline.

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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.