Leaving the lab

2 September 2021, 1629 EDT

Paul Musgrave’s ‘lab leak’ piece’ is a haunting read. He points to the damage done by “bad ideas” developed within the international-relations discipline: our “win-sets,” our hyperbolic “fixing of failed states,” and all the inflated formulas and strategies.”

As we watch desperate scenes unfold in Afghanistan, commentators repeatedly tell us that both the international community and the academic world were taken by surprise by the speed of Taliban’s takeover. It wouldn’t be surprising if some lay part of the blame for this at the feet of scholars, arguing that academics are too caught up in our own concepts and esoteric knowledge. The refrain: if we focused more on practical and applied research, we could better help policymakers avoid such surprises.

Of course, quite a few scholars actually did anticipate the Taliban’s swift advance. But, as Musgrave emphasizes, international-relations concepts are, in fact, deeply implicated in what happens in Afghanistan – as well as in the rest of the world.

So how can we avoid the constant export of ’bad ideas’? Should we seal our labs? 

The co-production of knowledge

Addressing these questions inevitably means thinking about how knowledge flows between policy and academia. Perhaps a good place to start, one which does not require a deep dive into the sociology of knowledge, is by noting that our academic knowledge production is deeply interwoven with the policy world. As scholars we are inescapably shaped by politics – and vice-versa. Yet the metaphor of the lab leak rests on a distinction between science and the broader society. This framing glosses over how ‘non-academic’ resources, materials, viewpoints and ideas continuously help transform – and become transformed – by scientific products and processes.

We need to pay more attention to the “import” side – to the ideas that we bring into the “lab.”

The challenge is therefore not how to stop leaks from the academic lab but, instead, how to improve exchanges between the academic and policy fields. Current approaches focus almost entirely on the ‘export’ side: how to most effectively structure the flow of ideas from international-relations scholarship to policy. We need to pay more attention to the “import” side – to the ideas that we bring into the “lab.”

Part of the reason why “bad ideas” are allowed to develop in the first place is that we have established a hierarchy of prestige that values “clean” and “elegant” scholarly ideas over the “messy” ones of practitioners. This hierarchy is challenged the moment we begin to take seriously the world views and knowledges of practitioners.

When we zoom in on diplomats’ experiences of negotiating international interventions; when we do ethnographic work, when interview, observe and engage with practices communities from expatriates to interpreters or refugees, we can begin to develop ideas that acknowledge the complexities, paradoxes, and hidden politics of “policy.” We become curious about what practitioners find appropriate, shameful, or important. This leads us discover, for example, how stigma shapes behavior and what happened to diplomacy when it suddenly moved online during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The banality of international relations

I’m reminded of a back-stage photo from 2016 showing US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Chief of Staff splitting a pizza when working to resolve the final sticking points of the JCPOA (the “Iran Deal”). That pizza underscores a basic feature of international relations: its banality. Yet, “why should the study of the banal itself be banal?” Why wouldn’t the concept of everydayness reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary?’ as Henri Lefebvre asked.

Pierre Bourdieu put it nicely:

“there is a practical knowledge that has its own logic, which cannot be reduced to that of theoretical knowledge” … “in a sense, agents know the social world better than the theoreticians. And at the same time, I was also saying that, of course, they do not really know it and the scientist’s work consists in making explicit this practical knowledge, in accordance with its own articulations”

Trying to make such situated, practical knowledge explicit will not stop us from developing “bad ideas.” But engaging more intensely with the people and places we try to make sense should help bring more intellectual humility and reflexivity to our discipline. It might also reduce the pressure to generate knowledge based on what the academic field treats as prestigious.

A first step to avoid developing too many “bad ideas” may be that we, quite simply, leave the lab.