The Duck of Minerva

No, social science didn’t kill international relations, part 58

9 November 2022

Earlier this week, professional opinion-haver Tom Nichols posted a “short” Twitter thread complaining that the push to make IR a social science, combined with the dominance of realism, is leading to bad takes on Ukraine. Despite my mindfulness-inspired efforts to ignore annoyances on social media, I felt compelled to respond (with the above picture).

I was tempted to leave it at that, but this sort of argument appears every five years or so, usually by someone who is far from connected to current trends in IR. So, as I attempted with Dying to Win, I decided to write a post we could resurrect whenever these annoying claims reappear to save us time in the future. Future social media users, you’re welcome.

What is he so upset about?

So what exactly is Nichols mad about?

It’s hard to say, because he didn’t give any concrete examples of the bad analyses he thinks were caused by realism and social science. But I guess the idea is that IR used to be focused on deep understanding of countries until realists made us treat countries as observations in a dataset. This led us to not care about the details of their politics, and produce flawed analyses of current events.

In the absence of any clear examples of bad quant analysis how can we take this critique seriously?

There is a long tradition of such arguments in IR. Many decried the social scientific turn of Waltz’s neorealism, wishing for the earlier, richer classical realism (note, it was still realist). I’ve been part of these discussions. Alexander Wendt’s work, and the resulting constructivist research program, was in part a critique of the overly rationalist approach of both neorealism and neoliberalism. The flourishing work in qualitative methods grew out of frustration with the over-reliance on quantification–although many still accept quantitative analysis is valuable–and the attempt to impose a quantitative template on qualitative research.

So there is some basis for his argument. Why did I, and many others, decide to mock him?

Does he even make any sense?

It’s because he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.

At first it seems like a standard critique of the dominance of quant analysis. Again, this is not uncommon, or unreasonable. But in the absence of any clear examples of bad quant analyses–he just gets annoyed about “charts and graphs”–how can we take this critique seriously? Reading further, however, we realize he’s not mad at quants, he’s mad at COMPARISON! He’s annoyed at studies that compare two countries in order to better understand what is going on.

I think anyone reading this blog has had enough IR to understand the value of comparison, but let me just lay it out. When you examine one country, you can learn a lot. But there are so many potential causes for every outcome it’s hard to really figure out what is most important. When you find another country that is similar in many areas but had a different outcome, you can start to isolate what really matters. And there are numerous other ways to set up case comparisons beyond that.

This isn’t ignoring the richness of a case, it’s allowing us to say something useful about it. Moreover, asking scientific questions about IR isn’t “physics envy,” as Nichols puts it. I’d recommend he read Jackson’s excellent book on the numerous forms scientific inquiry can take in IR.

He wants IR to be a bunch of long-winded Atlantic and New Yorker articles

Then he attacks realism for thinking all countries are the same. Realists do think all states are self-interested. And structural realists assume states will react the same to external conditions. But not all realists agree. Walt (whom I’ve praised here) argues states’ intentions can differ. Neoclassical realists’ entire program is based on the great variety of state responses to international conditions. Much of IR does accept realism’s rationalist assumptions, but that doesn’t mean they think all states behave the same. It means they can understand what a state will do…once they understand the details of that state.

Then there’s an attack on language training. And…sure. Kids these days don’t have to learn 8 languages like our academic grandfathers did. But most programs do still require language training. And it’s not like intensive language training guarantees good analyses.

So there are some vague elements of truth in these attacks. But this isn’t a critique of one school of realism, or one quant research program. It’s an attack on ALL OF IR SINCE THE LATE 80s! You can’t launch such an attack without giving any concrete examples of bad IR research or bad Ukraine takes that resulted from that research.

This feels like I’m doing his work for him, but let’s think about the ideal IR he wants. Single case studies by people who only study that one country, without any sort of social scientific hypothesis testing. Appropriately enough (given he is a staff writer at The Atlantic), he wants IR to be a bunch of long-winded Atlantic and New Yorker articles. There’s a value in that sort of writing, but our job is not just to describe what’s happening, it’s to explain it. I’ve been in many conversations with area experts in DC who can tell in-depth interesting stories about the country they study but…struggle to actually answer the question they were asked.

Why does this argument keep getting made?

So Nichols’ argument was dumb. As I said, however, this post isn’t just about his argument, it’s about every other one that will come up. Because they keep coming up.

I remember when I started grad school, a political theory Professor wrote a screed against the social scientific study of religion. He claimed it stripped religion of its important essences, and misrepresented what religion really meant to people. As a first-year grad student I was impressed, and decided I’d help take down this narrow view of religion. But then I read the response, which pointed out the theorist didn’t actually reference any work on religion and politics, and imposed his own narrow view of religion on all religious traditions.

I saw several parallels with Nichols. A senior figure, who engages in a field but isn’t really active in it, attacks research he doesn’t understand. But the argument is well-written and provides satisfying answers to tricky problems. So it attracts attention from people who are new to the field, trusting in this authority figure. (Someone make a joke about the death of expertise here).

The conditions that lead to this sort of argument aren’t going away. And, to be fair, the problems with IR and social science that lead to these frustrations are real. Those of us who are actually scholars in our fields need to focus on carefully and modestly advancing our research, addressing complaints by explaining how we came to our conclusions, and reposting this blog post whenever we get into trouble.

EDIT: Grammar and Syntax