The Duck of Minerva

How do we get IR to notice something?

23 February 2022

I excitedly read this recent tweet by Evan Perkoski of UConn, about a new article he co-authored that has been accepted in International Organization. Beyond being glad for a colleague’s success, I was excited by the substance of the publication. They produced a new dataset on violent non-state actors and analyzed the conditions under which they cooperated, finding a major role for both group ideology and religious identity.

That is huge! Well-crafted data published in one of the top journals in the sub-field that found that religion drives a crucially important security issue. This should undermine the rationalist-materialist biases driving so much of security studies, and convert those skeptical that religion matters in high-stakes area.

While the end of the paradigms wars were good for the sub-field, we’ve lost something; a sub-field wide standard for what counts as important.

Unfortunately, my excitement was tempered by another article I recently read. For my Intro to IR course, I decided to assign Simmons and Elkins’ 2004 APSR piece on the spread of liberal economic policies for my IPE lecture. I thought of this as a good example of academic research in IPE. Much to my surprise, while reading it I saw they found that religious identity had a huge impact on the spread of liberal economic policies. This was a major article by a major scholar that came out almost two decades ago! Where are all the articles on the religious origins of liberal economic policies? Why was I discouraged from exploring this in grad school?

This raises serious issues for the ability of new ideas to break into the IR mainstream, and the viability of the sub-field (at least its American wing) itself.

Why I (sometimes) miss the paradigm wars

When I was in coursework in grad school, I tried to learn about IR but also learn about the sub-field of IR. Strategically, I wanted to get a sense for what sort of dissertation would get me noticed. One indicator of “getting noticed” seems to be whether your work is assigned in PhD classes. So I paid attention to the readings during coursework.

The readings from the 80s and the 90s dealt primarily with the paradigm wars. Influential works seemed to develop a variation on existing theories or tested some key element of a paradigm.

The readings from the 2000s were different, however. Some were major theoretical advances. But many were narrower research questions; works that gained influence developed novel and effective tests of these questions. Occasionally these developed into a broader theoretical argument tying the research program together. But they didn’t rise to a sub-field wide level that demanded a response from everyone.

Generally I think that’s a good thing. As I’ve discussed here, I get tired of the paradigms and don’t think IR should revolve around them. We’ve made a lot more progress analyzing narrower topics with mid-level theories than we did debating whether absolute or relative gains matter more.

The problem is that there are fewer publishing opportunities and job prospects for people studying out of the mainstream topics. At some point, grad students will turn away from them.

But we’ve lost something: a sub-field wide standard for what counts as important research. That leaves the designation of important much more arbitrary and political. It depends on what the editors of top journals see as important, or what faculty in top programs are interested in. This makes it harder for newer ideas to become accepted. It also leaves the sub-field vulnerable to the latest methods fad, as we attach value to novelty and apparent rigor rather than impact.

How does a new idea break into the IR mainstream?

Given all that, what can we do?

My approach in grad school was to take mainstream topics and methods and use them to show religion mattered. I added religious variables to conventional models on terrorism, UN voting, interstate conflict and other issues. I adapted selectorate theory to look at religion-state connections and counterterrorism. This worked in that it got me published and got me a tenure-track job (eventually). But it (and similar efforts by others studying religion and IR) didn’t force the field to recognize religion as a key aspect of international relations. And I’m not sure they ever will.

Alternately, we could be ok with the way things are. Sure religion (or insert your own out of the mainstream research program) will never be the top topic in IR journals. Who cares? We still have vibrant debates and produce significant research. The problem, of course, is that there are fewer publishing opportunities and job prospects for people studying out of the mainstream topics. At some point, grad students will turn away from them, something I worry is happening with religion (I’ll write on that for a future post).

Finally, we can downplay the out of the mainstream aspect of our research. The article isn’t on religion and terrorism, just terrorism. It’s not about religion and humanitarianism, just humanitarianism. As one of my grad school Profs told me, try to find the “non-religious analogue” to what we’re arguing in order to engage in a broader debate. This has worked well, especially in comparative politics. But it also prevents us from making the case for religion’s significance.

I don’t really have a good answer. I’m very glad Perkoski and co-authors got this publication, and I hope it inspires a broader research program. But I hope it also provokes a broader conversation in the sub-field, about what we do and do not think is important.