Category: Theory/Methods

What If Academia Had a ‘Scout Mindset’?

Exensor - Infrared Scout Camera - UGS 2 - Army Technology
Source: https://www.army-technology.com/contractors/surveillance/exensor-technology/attachment/exensor-infrared-scout-camera-ugs-2/

Imagine you are reading a theoretical social science article that is dedicated to making an argument (let’s call it Argument X). You get to a section of the article called “Alternative Explanations,” which discusses Challenges A, B, and C to Argument X. At the end of this section, the author writes: “Challenge B is the superior explanation, and Argument X is therefore disconfirmed.”

Or imagine you are reading the “Robustness Checks” section of a quantitative piece and the author concludes by writing, “The majority of these robustness checks failed and therefore the main hypothesis of this article is wrong.”

These are the kinds of things you might expect to read if academia had a “Scout Mindset,” a term taken from Julia Galef’s new book [Full disclosure: I haven’t finished the book yet, so these are initial observations]. But you don’t read these kinds of passages very often. And that’s a problem.

Scouts and Soldiers

In a recent interview, Galef describes a ‘scout mindset’ as:

“…my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were, being or trying to be intellectually honest, objective, or fair minded, and curious about what’s actually true.”

This can be contrasted with ‘soldier mindset,’ which is what most people have:

“…a lot of the time we humans are in what I call ‘soldier mindset,’ in which our motivation is to defend our beliefs against any evidence or arguments that might threaten them. Rationalization, motivated reasoning, wishful thinking: these are all facets of what I’m calling a soldier mindset.

I adopted this term because the way that we talk about reasoning in the English language is through militaristic metaphor. We try to ‘shore up’ our beliefs, ‘support them’ and ‘buttress them’ as if they’re fortresses. We try to ‘shoot down’ opposing arguments and we try to ‘poke holes’ in the other side.”

Sound familiar? Like many things it purports to be (e.g., a meritocracy), is it really the case that academia uncovers the best explanations or simply defends privileged explanations? The prevalence of soldier mindset seems especially relevant for academia because a career can be made on the basis of having the “right” argument. 

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Not everything outside the Pentagon is “soft power”

As someone who works on religion and politics, I encounter the term “soft power” a lot. Most of the time it’s in a good way; soft power is a means to advocate for policies that draw on our values but still advance our interests. But, occasionally, the term frustrates me. Too often it’s used as a catch-all to address any foreign policy that doesn’t involve military force or economic sanctions. If we want to advocate for a broader set of foreign policy tools, we need a better set of terms to describe them.

Soft power

Soft power was famously introduced by Joseph Nye in a 1990 Foreign Policy article. He argued that it is the ability to get others to “want what we want,” rather than merely doing what we want. It amplifies, or even replaces, conventional “hard power.” Since then, scholars have tried to test it, policymakers have advocated for its use in US foreign policy, and skeptics have questioned the usefulness of the term or whether it really matters.

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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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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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