Month: March 2021

A Gilded Age of Social Science: Big Data Governance, Neopositivist Social Science and Covid-19

This is a guest post by Dr. Adam B. Lerner, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of the Royal Holloway Centre for International Security.

As an American living in London, I wake up every morning and check statistics: the number of positive cases reported the prior day in both the UK and US, the number of deaths, hospitalizations and vaccine doses administered, the percentage of the population fully vaccinated and the number of days until the government promises to re-evaluate the lockdown’s end. These numbers determine when I might see my family again, when I might receive a vaccine or even when I might be able to meet a friend for a much-needed outdoor pint.

Of course, beneath these numbers may lie unspeakable loss to families and communities. Nevertheless, their quantification and continual visualization and dissemination in mass media can also make them feel like talismans, ripped from context, critical reflection and, oftentimes, the lives of real people. Indeed, their dominance in public discourse of the pandemic reflects the encroachment of neopositivist social science on lives and livelihoods in new ways—ways that have crowded out numerous other important considerations. 

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Elite Experiments: Strengthening Scholarship while Bridging the Gap

This post was written by Simone Dietrich, Heidi Hardt and Haley J. Swedlund. Simone Dietrich is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Geneva. Heidi Hardt is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine; a member of the 2015 International Policy Summer Institute cohort, and a 2021 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. Haley Swedlund is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Radboud University and a member of the 2019 International Policy Summer Institute cohort.

For decades, many International Relations (IR) scholars portrayed experiments with foreign policy elites as too risky, too costly, or too difficult to implement. Faculty mentors discouraged graduate students from wasting their time. In a new article in European Journal of International Relations, we argue that elite experiments are not as difficult to implement as many believe they are. However, they do require careful planning in order to get elites on board.

When are elite experiments worth the costs? What are some tips and tricks for successfully carrying out this method? How might this approach be helpful in bridging the gap between IR and policy?

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Beyond the Electoral College: MMP in the USA?

Wahlrecht - Schafft die Zweitstimme ab! | Cicero Online
Photo courtesy of Cicero Online.

This is a guest post by Timothy Sisk, professor of international studies and director of the Institute for Comparative and Regional Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. This post is the first in an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas engendered when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Trump-induced 2020 electoral crisis in the United States underscores that, in the world’s most long-standing democracy, the “rules of the game” for presidential elections, the Electoral College, is irreparably obsolete.  The diagnosis of the problem is simple: in two of the three most-recent electoral cycles, prior to 2020, the “winner” in fact failed to win in the popular vote. The presidency was won by a plurality of voters.  The U.S., in so many ways, has tendencies toward a “minoritarian” winner-take-all democracy.  If we know one thing in comparative politics, it is that minority- and bare-majority rule governments – especially in ethnically diverse societies – are not sustainable: such systems create broader susceptibilities to political violence.

Observers including the Editorial Board of The Washington Post and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer mission to the 2020 U.S. elections have called for the U.S. to move beyond the Electoral College.  Even some from the Republican party, which has ostensibly benefited from the disproportional effects of the Electoral College, have argued it should be jettisoned.  The national move toward rank-choice voting is a step in the right direction in efforts to induce moderate campaigning in a polarized society.  But ranked-choice voting is at best a baby step, as the systems adopted in Maine, Alaska, and New York City for example, ultimately still function as winner-take-all, or simple-majority rule.

Setting aside the question of how to reform an ossified electoral system, reformers must contend with an equally daunting question: What is the best electoral system to replace it?

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We want you to write for us!

This post from our partners at Bridging the Gap is written by BTG Fellows Danielle Gilbert and Erik Lin-Greenberg, who are now the new editors of the BTG Duck channel, coordinating contributions from BTG’s network of scholars.

The past twelve months have been fraught with challenges, yet they have also given rise to a host of new opportunities. We’ve faced a global pandemic, a contentious U.S. election, social and racial injustice, and assaults on democracy around the world. These experiences have led scholars to ask tough questions, have difficult—but critically important—conversations, and to rethink how we teach and conduct research. At the Bridging the Gap Project, we’ve tried to keep pace with these global shifts, including on our channel here at the Duck.

Beginning today, we’re the new editors of the BTG Duck channel, and we hope to build upon the great work of our predecessors Naazneen Barma and Brent Durbin. We look forward to publishing more content that helps scholars navigate the academia-policy space and to showcasing the work of members of the BTG community. We’re excited to feature posts about your research, teaching, and mentoring as they relate to policy and public engagement.

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Confronting Biases in Policy-Engaged Research: The Case of NATO and Russia

Photo courtesy of NATO via Creative Commons License.

This is a guest post by Rachel Epstein, professor of international studies and associate dean of faculty & research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. This post is the first in an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas engendered when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

As early as middle school, we are teaching young minds to think critically and notice bias when it inevitably arises in news and media. Yet as academics, there is an illusion that we are free from bias and conflicts of interests that permeate all other parts of the world. To perpetuate this illusion only hinders policy engagement and deepens the divide between academics and practitioners. PhD training addresses part of this problem pretty effectively—by teaching us to consider alternative explanations in depth, to articulate the limits of any given study, and to avoid making sweeping statements about future developments that are intrinsically unknowable. 

However, in light of a recent review of literature on NATO enlargement, I ponder whether there is a critical strategy to be added to the discourse.  Antithetical to what we are taught at the advanced level—to strive for objectivity— academics should openly acknowledge political commitments where they exist, because of course they will exist. These political commitments can lead us to become “stealth issue advocates,” in the words of Roger Pielke, where social scientists claim to be arguing from expertise but are in fact arguing from a political position. And we may only be dimly aware of doing this; the first victim of the deception may be the researchers themselves, in terms of not recognizing their own biases.

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Is “Camp Qual” really our best option?

This is a guest response to Simon Frankel Pratt’s musing on methods. Lucas Dolan is a PhD Candidate at American University’s School of International Service.

In a recent contribution, Simon Frankel Pratt offers an incisive conceptual dismantling of the quantitative v. qualitative dichotomy in social science research. Pratt points out that while “quantitative’ refers to a clear community of practice centered around statistically facilitated inductive causal inference, “qualitative” lumps together several distinctive research communities. Though not all named in the post, this implicitly includes interpretivists, relational and practice turn scholars, feminists, and critical theorists of all varieties. Importantly, “qualitative” also includes small-N positivists, who share a logic of inquiry with “quantitative,” but prefer to express their knowledge claims through ordinary language. Clearly then, “qualitative” research communities differ substantially from one another in terms of scientific ontology and in the logics of inquiry they utilize, but nonetheless many of them share certain affinities as a result of being outsiders in the field.

I agree wholeheartedly with Pratt’s analyses—both regarding the incoherence of the dichotomy and of the work it performs as an expression of disciplinary power relations. It is because of this that I was so confused by Pratt’s conclusion on the “what is to be done?” side of this question.

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The peace, women’s suffrage and reproductive rights activist you might not know: Aletta Jacobs.

Aletta Jacobs. Raise your hand if you have never heard her name! In our neck of the tulip fields, however, she is a celebrated professional: she was the first woman to be officially enrolled and graduate with a doctorate at the university in the Netherlands (shoutout to my employer – Rijksuniversiteit Groningen!) and the first woman to receive a medical degree. On top of those accomplishments, she was a women’s suffrage and peace activist, and helped establish Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a Novel prize winning anti-war organization. To celebrate international women’s day, let me tell you her story. 

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