Tag: epistemology

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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Do You Need a Pro-Cancer Oncologist? Bias and Human Rights Scholarship

It’s a question faced by scientists daily: if you found that X wasn’t associated with Y, would you report it?  What if you found that treatment X was harmful to Y, would you report your findings? For example, let’s say you are an oncologist and you just concluded, based on years of research, that smoking wasn’t associated with cancer  – would you report your findings?  What if you were employed by the cancer drug’s maker or dealing with cancer personally, would you report your findings about treatment X then? Is it unethical to leave the results unpublished?

Questions of personal biases and valid science permeate all facets of science; of course, we as social scientists face these questions all the time in our research.  Do personal biases get in the way of our science?  Is there any way around our personal biases?

I’m a firm believer that the process of science allows us to eliminate many of the potential biases that we carry around with us.  As Jay Ulfelder just pointed out in a blog post on Dart Throwing Chimp with respect to democracy research in comparative politics,  the scientific process isn’t easy – there are often strong personal and professional reasons that lead people to stray from the scientific process (to me, sequestering results would imply straying from the scientific process).  But, I would contend, the scientific process allows us to overcome many of our personal and professional biases.  This is especially relevant, of course, to human rights research.  As Jake Wobig just wrote,

“a person does not start studying human rights unless they want to identify ways to change the world for the better.  However, wanting something to be so does not make it so, and we scholars do not do anyone any favors by describing the world incorrectly.” 

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New Duck of Minerva Working Paper: “I CAN HAS IR THEORY?”

There’s been significant interest in Steve Saideman’s criticisms of Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s working paper, “Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR.” Indeed, there are many comments in a discussion that harkens back to older posts at the Duck. Given this, it strikes me as appropriate to add PTJ’s and my paper (PDF)–solicited for the same special issue as Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s–to the Duck of Minerva Working Papers series.

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Brian and Phil Hug it Out

Many of you seem to have read my earlier post knocking the use of assumptions in theory-building, particularly rationalism, and Phil Arena’s defense of it. My earlier post was a little over the top and insulting, which led him to take umbrage. I called him a dick;  he called me a dick. We were both right, although I guess I started it.  When we are thinking about who to ask in as guest contributors, my main criteria was theoretical and epistemological diversity. Then I pulled this. Now we are going to hug it out. Come here, buddy. Give me some sugar. Wait, wait…. No tongue. You are still just a guest contributor. Only over the shirt action.

But……..!  I read Phil’s rebuttal and I still don’t get it. His position seems to rest on two points. First, that everyone uses assumptions in theory building, even in their daily lives. So that means rationalists are no different than others. And second that assumptions, even those that don’t reflect reality, are still useful in getting us somewhere.

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Assume Nothing!

I got some snippy responses, well one in particular, to my post on the future of international relations theory based on a reading of the tea leaves over the last year or so. And it made me realize that there is a fundamental divide between me (and I hope others) and rationalists on the issue of assumptions. I thought I’d write about and get some feedback. I’m sure that there is a literature and debate on this somewhere else, but I blog about things that I don’t really have time to look into. Isn’t that the point? (Although I would appreciate it more responsible people pointed me in the right directions…..).

It seems for rationalists that assumptions are statements that one makes to make the building of theoretical models easier.  It does not matter if they are true, only if they are useful. Assumptions in rationalism are just things you don’t touch. It is a synonym for elements of an argument that are not subjected to empirical analysis or testing. I guess this is a necessary evil to make formal models in particular work. Otherwise one can’t find equilibria and generate expectations of outcomes.

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House MD Epistemologist

Like many of my nerdy friends, I am eagerly awaiting the return of  the second half of this season’s “House MD.” But let’s be honest, the show basically substitutes a flow chart for a plot. No one with half a brain actually watches the show for the “medical mystery”; after all the show is premised on a suspension of disbelief. It’s entertaining and a guilty pleasure because of the wit and antics of the ever gruff Hugh Laurie.

But the show can be read as more than a series of implausible medical escapades; it is also a commentary on epistemology and society. Here is a quick round-up of what I have learned from House MD:

1. House is the most rational person in the world; House is a complete drug addict. These two statements are not a contradiction within the parameters of the show. House is a calculating, self-interested, rational utility maximizer par excellence. His utility is pleasure and his pleasure is avoiding pain… and of course getting more pleasure. He is Bentham’s man; he is John Stuart Mill’s homo-economicus; he is a neo-liberal fantasy in the flesh. House is not a complete human being by any stretch of the imagination and yet this is the human being idealized by rational choice theorists.

Thus, perhaps it should not surprise us that the show’s protagonist moves rather indifferently from the hospital to the prison and back to the hospital as if these were merely interchangeable backdrops from Foucault’s carceral archipelago. House cannot be reformed, resocialized, or rehabilitated by social institutions — he is hardwired, his preferences are (apparently) exogenous — governmentality does not apply to House. Notably, his incarceration makes little real impact on his personality or on his medical practice (and why should it?).

2. Everybody lies. Everyone, particularly every patient, on the show lies constantly — it’s the motto of the show. The interviewed subject (i.e. patient) can never be believed. The subject is a knowing subject who willfully deceives the (medical) examiner by telling him or her what they want or expect to hear. More importantly, the body contains the truth of the subject, but even the body deceives the examiner. Of course, the truth would not be worth much without being defined by these lies. The lies are what make the show interesting; the reasons for the lies are what are worth investigating. The lies uphold the social order and their unmasking reveals the inner workings of that society. Without understanding the reason for the lies, there is no way to solve the mystery.

3. Differential diagnosis: The show is premised on the notion that law like generalizations are irrelevant and probabalistic knowledge is potentially fatal. House is only concerned with finding solutions to the most unique of cases. After all, House’s patients are individuals; they are snowflakes. The accumulated knowledge of science is necessary but inadequate because of the specificity of his cases. These extreme outliers are not “black swans” however because their discovery does not have any impact on established theory or science. The outliers only help to confirm the belief that each individual is unique.

4. Power/knowledge: The production of knowledge is directly tied to power in the show. Wrong answers to House’s quiz questions are immediately punished with mockery and humiliation in the hierarchy of underlings. House’s own status and power are contingent on his unique ability to find the truth by the end of the show.

That Dr. House is also a raving sexist should not be surprising to any feminist theorist. Why House is not also consistently as racist and homophobic as he is sexist is a curious inconsistency or perhaps an indication of the normative (albeit relatively recent) “red lines” in the target viewing audience.

Knowledge is produced in a group setting a la Socrates. Despite House’s incredible intelligence he cannot arrive at the truth all by himself.  (Of course, some of his companions mainly provide him with social insights that he as a hedonist lacks and others provide social constraints upon/opportunities for House’s preferred unethical techniques of diagnosis.) House has encyclopedic knowledge and rational thinking, but what makes him the best diagnostician is that he understands people are seeking pleasure and avoiding pain just like himself. The dictum that guided Hobbes’ (auto-) dissection, also guides House: Nosce teipsum.

The show invariably requires the performance of a radical (and quite literally) critical test in part because House only deals with extreme anomalies and in part because he must eventually contend with increasing time pressures that will not allow for the continued reliance on conventional tests. Thus, the science of House is romantic or perhaps (more accurately) Puritan to the extent that his tests place the life of his patients at stake.

5. Biopolitics: The show is about the demonstration of power through the preservation of life from the clutches of death. The show is not about a flourishing of life, but about keeping people alive mainly to cheat death, i.e. to show the mastery of nature as an intellectual exercise. Oddly, however, House is never able to find redemption, his character must reset as irredeemable by the next episode.

So is it too obvious for me to suggest that House is both a satire and a study of us as Americans and the forms of knowledge that some wish corresponded to our society?


The Conduct of Inquiry: part the third of my contribution to a symposium

 Ah, life — you get in the way of important things, like finishing a reply to an online symposium on my book that was started way back in January of this year at The Disorder Of Things. Part One of my reply is here; Part Two is here. At long last, Part Three is below the fold.

III. don’t cross the streams, but do talk about doing so

In a 2006 article entitled “Public Knowledge and the Difficulties of Democracy,” Philip Kitcher suggests that we need to pay less attention to the epistemological problems generated by a focus on the situation of the putatively isolated individual knower (the problem of true belief) and more attention to the critique of public reasoning. Specifically, he directs attention to what he calls the IIS, the Inquiry-and-Information-System, which he further subdivides into subsystems for inquiry (figuring out which issues are worth investigating), certification (determining which “claims” should be “deemed worthy to inscribe ‘in the books'”), and dissemination (communication of those certified claims to people to whom they would or should make a difference). As a contribution to a broader discussion about the role of science in society, Kitcher’s paper is particularly noteworthy for his insightful observation that it is not enough to concentrate on issues of the transparency of information and on potential distortions of public knowledge produced by interested parties shaping the field of inquiry instrumentally; rather, we also need to think long and hard about what democracy means in the absence of “an IIS whose standards of certification are widely endorsed as reliable.” Indeed, what he calls “hybrid epistemologies” — the idea that people might accept scientific findings only inasmuch as they are not in conflict with some revealed religious truth common only to members of their particular tradition — emerges as one of the significant problems facing democratic deliberation, as it directly undermines the idea of a single common set of certification standards.

It should come as little surprise to any reader of my book or of the various pieces of this discussion that I am in broad agreement with Kitcher’s suggestion to ditch the (Cartesian) isolated knower and his (it’s always a guy, isn’t it?) peculiar hang-ups and challenges related to developing true beliefs about a mind-independent external world. Knowledge isn’t a personal, subjective possession, even if one is a neopositivist; Karl Popper was pretty adamant that knowledge was common to the community, which was part of his solution to Cartesian anxiety, and basically no one after him would disagree in any significant way. And this in turn does mean that we have to focus on the social conditions of knowledge-production, albeit not to the exclusion of the properly philosophical-ontological aspects of the problem — so here again I agree with Kitcher that the certification subsystem is worthy of some serious attention. But then I start to diverge from Kitcher, since his entire position depends on the idea that public knowledge should be based on consensus, both a consensus about particular claims and a consensus about what makes those claims good ones. The entire problem with “hybrid epistemologies” (his term, remember, and a revealing one — he didn’t say “different epistemologies,” after all, which strongly suggests that he places the blame on the non-scientific part of the package) is that they don’t permit diverse citizens to come to overarching consensus about factual issues, and therefore (I can only imagine the shock and outrage in his tone) leaves these issues to be decided by political struggle.

There is something quite interesting going on here, and it has important parallels in the disquiet that my four interlocutors feel, in their different ways, with my deliberate decision to produce an account of contemporary IR scholarship that is content with a diversity of methodological traditions but that insists on the distinctiveness of the scientific endeavor. In Kitcher’s terms, I would definitely say that we need a certification system capable of distinguishing between scientific inquiry and other modes of human expression like art or religion, but I would blanch at the suggestion of inscribing a scientific finding “on the books” if that means that it is now irrevocably fixed or certain or immune to critique — even if, like anthropogenic climate change, there is broad scientific consensus about the finding. That could only be the role of science and of Kitcher’s certification subsystem if there was one unique set of standards that would somehow guarantee the scientific validity of results, and it is the major burden of my book to illustrate that this is simply not the case. As such, a term like “scientific consensus” needs to be used with extreme caution; at most it means “the consensus of (virtually) all of the practicing scientists,” and the decision to go with that consensus can’t be somehow portrayed as anything other than a practical one.

Indeed, it would be fair to say that my entire position on this issue is a deflationary position, and to further say that the main possibility that my argument is arrayed against is the possibility that the claim to scientific validity will be used to insulate an actor from the necessity to take responsibility for her or his action. (Note that I am concerned with the claim to scientific validity, not the claim that something is established in experience; one need not invoke “science” to explain why it’s a bad idea to jump out of an airplane in flight without a parachute if one wants to go on living, and in such a circumstance I fail to see how a discussion of the theory of gravity would contribute much to the deliberation.) “Science made me do it” is just not a valid excuse, since that’s a self-deceptive encoding of “I went with the scientists on this one” — and the less self-deceptive statement opens the possibility of actually deliberating the reasons why to go one way rather than another. Deciding to inscribe a scientific finding “in the books” is a political act, not a scientific one. As I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again, nothing frightens me more than idealists with weapons, because they think that their use of those weapons is simply and unquestionably *right* in the pursuit of their ideals; this misuse of science as a crutch for an idealism that doesn’t self-identify as idealist but as somehow stemming from a de-transcendentalized truth simply equal to the way things are, and as such looks more potent than an honest statement of principle would, is what I am most concerned about. Scientific inquiry doesn’t resolve the highest and most profound issues we face, since those issues are political and aesthetic and ethical and perhaps even theological, even if actors cite scientific inquiry and scientific findings as they express themselves on these issues. I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment that it is striking how few problems are actually resolved when we learn to see philosophical and logical claims for what they are. Limiting science in this way — withdrawing the kind of blind faith that all too often accompanies the unmodified use of the term “science” — makes room for other things, room that we desperately need in a world characterized by immense diversity.

So if science isn’t for achieving global consensus, what is it for? And why am I so insistent that IR-as-social-science — remember that the whole book is set up as an answer to the question “supposing we wanted to study world politics scientifically, how would we do that?” and not as an answer to the question “why should I study world politics scientifically?” — be characterized by multiple incompatible methodologies, and not by a grab-bag from which a scholar may select different elements at will? Some of this is because the book is an ideal-typification of present debates, which both means that a) the only positions I discuss in detail in the book are those that are present in contemporary IR scholarship and b) because the exercise is fundamentally ideal-typical, the positions are mutually exclusive and logically incommensurate in ways that actual pieces of research tend not to be. And some of this is because I am betting that the best way to puncture the veil of mysticism that surrounds the vague use of the term “science” without abandoning the notion altogether is to illustrate the internal plurality of ways of being scientific. In addition, some of this is because of the sociological fact that the contemporary IR field is dominated by the discipline of Political Science, in no small degree because of the institutional location of most American IR programs and scholars within departments of Political Science, and as such is slanted in the direction of neopositivism; hence any call to mix or combine methodological positions is more likely than not going to tacitly privilege neopositivism when it comes to the fundamental design and epistemic status of the research project (the bulk of the “qualitative methods” movement in Political Science serves as a case in point here). The vocabulary of the philosophy of science, as long as it is vocabulary that celebrates pluralism in ways of being scientific, can be a great asset in maintaining the autonomy and independence of non-neopositivist ways of producing knowledge about world politics; “mixing” would dilute this position, and make adherence to neopositivist strictures the default ante for playing the game of IR-as-social-science.

But there’s another reason for insisting on multiple methodologies that can’t be easily combined, and it has to do with the notion of “scientific consensus” — and therefore with Kitcher’s certification subsystem. Because any argument about whether to side with the consensus of practicing scientists can’t be a scientific one but has to be articulated on other grounds (grounds which might be philosophical, as in Fred Chernoff’s defense of a modified Duhemian position, but need not be), we can legitimately ask what qualifies a consensus of practicing scientists as noteworthy enough to affect action. If there is rough methodological homogeneity among a group of scientists, then any consensus that they come to is quite possibly, even quite likely, the result, at least in part, of their methodological consensus — a consensus that precedes, at least logically and most probably also temporally, the substantive consensus in question. The fact that a group of people who already agree on a lot have now agreed on another thing in addition to their prior consensus does not strike me as all that significant on its own. But if a group of people who disagree on other fundamental philosophical issues of ontology and methodology reach a consensus about something: now that strikes me as profoundly significant. Without probing too deeply into the reasons for this consensus or trying to explain it — dualists would say that it reflects the intransigent pressure of the real world on our conceptions, monists would say that it graphically illustrates the power of certain assumptions to order our experience, transfactualists would claim evidence of deep generative structures, phenomenalists would celebrate the revelation of a discernible universal — the bare fact of the consensus itself is noteworthy. Anthropogenic climate change, which I mentioned earlier, might qualify as such a improbable consensus across divisions of philosophical ontology; the near-universal opposition of IR scholars of all stripes to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 might also qualify. With multiple reasons not to emerge in the first place, a consensus has emerged, and that should be taken seriously.

Of course, a consensus like this is only unlikely to emerge if everyday scientific practice and ordinary science is dedicated to refining distinctive methodological traditions in their own directions. Let me be clear here: I am not suggesting that we adopt something like the pop-Kuhnian notion of “normal science” and urge that scholars work on minor technical puzzles within their own hermetically sealed paradigms, waiting for a scientific revolution to change the game entirely when their paradigms become brittle and worn enough. I am instead suggesting that scholars be cognizant of the logical incompatibilities between different methodologies as they set about doing their research on a myriad of problems and issues and even puzzles, and develop their accounts with sustained reference to the logical requirements of particular procedures of knowing. Scientific inquiry is supposed to be hard, so that a fact scientifically established has some claim to epistemic privilege; one of the key ways in which it is hard is the stringent insistence on internal consistency and logical coherence, particularly in the linkages between philosophical-ontological presuppositions about the mind-world “hook-up” and the eventual facts produced. Differences in such presuppositions mean differences in methodological orientation, unless one is either a) willing to sacrifice logical consistency or b) articulate an orthogonal solution that somehow transcends or sublimates those differences. Option a) places us outside of even broadly defined science, and into the realm of politics or engineering or other sorts of practical performances, in which results matter more than validity; refusing to do that means, in practice, that the scientific enterprise is quite frangible — we get a mosaic of diverse knowledge-claims rather than the seamless web dreamt of in more naive notions of progressive cumulation. And that in turn makes the rare moments of consensus that much more precious, and worthy of being heeded.

But what about option b), an orthogonal solution to methodological diversity? The challenge with such a solution is that it lies beyond the limits of philosophical reflection on methodology, since methodological reflection is an inherently reconstructive endeavor: our accounts of what makes a claim valid necessarily run behind the actual practice of making and validating claims. In Wittgensteinian terms, methodological reflection of the sort I pursue in my book is an effort to specify the rules of a game that is already being played, and no such set of rules can exhaustively define or specify the game — the best they can do is to give a sense of how the game is played that is useful for guiding the players. A rule is thus a resource to be used in the playing of the game, irrespective of whether that resource is being used in a constitutive or regulative or strategic or tactical manner. As such, a rule change can only function properly if it somehow captures a sense of how the game is supposed to be played; otherwise the community of players rejects is as somehow violating the “spirit” of the game (the ongoing furor over the “designated hitter” rule in Major League Baseball strikes me as a good example here). And the surest way to get rejected is for a rule to run way out ahead of how things are played in practice, which parenthetically is perhaps why so many philosophers are concerned to establish that their proposed rules for just societies or defensible truths are in some sense already implicit and immanent in everyday life. So the rules that I or any other scientific methodologist proposes are in that very important sense subordinate to ongoing practice, constituting both a reconstruction of that practice and — of necessity — an intervention into the ongoing flow of that practice itself. What I have done in the book is to take existing divisions within the scholarly study of world politics and artificially and ideal-typically sharpen them, in the hopes of making more space for different approaches to the production of scientific knowledge. Either the scientific practitioners — IR scholars who self-identify as scientists — find my version of the rules of their game to be compelling and useful, or they do not, and if they do, those rules make orthogonal logical solutions deeply problematic since those proposed solutions would be torn apart by the distinctions I have explicated. But if scientific practice itself runs out beyond my formalization, and if knowledge is produced by researchers deep in dialogue with the issues I have sought to foreground but equally deeply reluctant to accept my categorization, then two conclusions follow:

1) we need new rules.

2) my ladder has been climbed and kicked away, and I will be content.

I do not think that any of us are served by wishy-washy, vague, relaxed standards of scientific validity; I think that precision and intellectual rigor and sharp disagreements when called for are essential components of productive conversations, as they help us maintain the tenuous balancing-act between treating every claim as valid and treating only claims tendered in accord with a single restricted grammar as even potentially valid. I can’t defend that proposition scientifically, and I won’t try to do so. I will instead only say that a science wracked by methodological disagreement is a surer defense against possible abuses of epistemic authority; that emergent consensuses from such a science are inherently more worthy of attention; and that thinking space for contemplating the pressing problems of our time is better preserved by a set of rules that begin with diversity than by a set of rules that begin and end with conformity. Scientific practice may — and probably, hopefully, will — prove me wrong or at least outmoded in the future, but I hope that it does so at least in part as a reaction to the prodding I have provided with my methodological lexicon. But in the meantime, accentuating methodological diversity leaves more room for non-scientific endeavors (art, ethics, theology, and yes, even politics) to inform our actions, interacting with a chastened science in ways that humanizes the whole process. Feyerabend was, I think, quite right when he repeatedly pointed out that science and the philosophy of science should be our servants, not our masters; insisting on rigorous engaged pluralism is, I think, a most efficacious way of helping to ensure that this remains the case.

And lest you think I am exaggerating for rhetorical effect, remember the stakes. As scholars of world politics, we are or should be concerned with the biggest “we” imaginable: the whole world, insofar as it is marked by human social action. Someone has to witness that grand spectacle, and prevent too-hastily-established “truths” from foreclosing its future potential. Someone has to unseat fallacious claims advanced in defense of narrowly partisan interests. Someone has to remember the whole panoply as a human endeavor, as a creative endeavor, as a messy social and political process wherein we produce the knowledge that can help us address pressing global challenges. Others will do it if we don’t, but the unique and special potency of scientific research is that it transmutes values and philosophical commitments into facts through disciplined procedures of inquiry. At the end of the day, that’s our vocation: to make sure that this potency is not abused, to channel it into productive forms, to hold open the space for innovation by insisting on the boundaries and limits of logic and reason. We place ourselves between science and the rest of human endeavor, ensuring with our lives that science doesn’t tell people how to live — or that people don’t look to science for instructions on that score. And we focus on the facts — as Weber says, we “serve only the matter at hand” — in order to let the rest of the world learn to take care of itself. Here we stand; we can do no other. Who else are you gonna call?


On Paradigms, Policy Revelance and Other IR Myths

I had every intention this evening of writing a cynical commentary on all the hoopla surrounding Open Government, Open Data and the Great Transparency Revolution. But truth be told, I am brain-dead at the moment. Why? Because I spent the last two days down in Williambsurg, VA arbitrating codes for a Teaching, Research and International Politics (TRIP) project (co-led by myself and Jason Sharman) which analyzes what the field of IR looks like from the perspective of books. It is all meant as a complement to the innovative and hard work of Michael Tierney, Sue Peterson and the TRIP founders down at William & Mary, who have sought to map the field of IR by systematically coding all published articles in the top 12 peer-reviewed disciplinary journals for characteristics such as paradigm, methodology, epistemology and policy relevance. In addition, the TRIP team has conducted numerous surveys of IR scholars in the field, the latest round capturing nearly 3000 scholars in ten countries. The project, while not immune from nit-picky criticism about its methodological choices and conclusions, has yielded several surprisingly results that have both reified and dismantled several myths about the field of IR.

So, in the spirit of recent diatribes on the field offered by Steve and Brian, I summarize a few of the initial findings of our work to serve as fodder for our navel-gazing discussion:

Myth #1: IR is now dominated by quantitative work

Truth: Depends on where you look. This is somewhat true if you confine yourself to the idea that we can know the field only by peering into the pages of IO, ISQ, APSR and the like. Between 2000-2008, according to a TRIP study by Jordan et al (2009), 38.8% of journal articles employed quantitative methods,while 30.4% used qualitative methods. [In IPE, however, the trend is definitely clearer: in 2006, 90% of articles used quantitative methods — see Maliniak and Tierney 2009, 20)]. But the myth of quantitative dominance is dispelled when we look beyond journals. In the 2008 survey of IR scholars, 72% of scholars reported that they use qualitative methods as their primary methodology. In our initial study of books between 2000-2010, Jason and I found that 58% of books use qualitative methods and only 9.3% use quantitative (the rest using mainly descriptive methods, policy analysis and the rare formal model).

Myth #2: In IR, it’s all about PARADIGMS.

Truth: Well, not really. As much as we kvetch about how everyone has to pay homage to realism, liberalism, constructivism (and rarely, Marxism) in order to get published, the truth is that a minority of published IR work takes one or more of these paradigms as the chosen framework for analysis. Surveys reveal that IR scholars still think of Realism as the dominant paradigm, yet realism shows up as the paradigm of choice in less than 10% of both books and article. Liberalism is slightly more prevalent – it is the paradigm of choice in around 26% of journal articles and 20% of books. Constructivism has actually overtaken realism, but still amounts to only 11% of journal articles and 17% of books in the past decade. Instead, according to the TRIP coding scheme, most of the IR work is “non-paradigmatic” (meaning it takes theory seriously, but doesn’t use one of the usual paradigmatic suspects) or is “atheoretic”. [Stats alert: 45% of journal articles are non-paradigmatic and 9.5% atheoretic, whereas books are 31% non-paradigmatic and 23% are atheoretical).

So, Brian: does IR still “really like” the isms?

Myth #3: Positivism rules.

Truth: Yep, that one is pretty much on the mark. 86% of journal articles AND 85% of books between 2000-2010 employed a positivist methodology. Oddly, however, only 55% of IR scholars surveyed report to see themselves as positivists. I’m going to add that one to the list of “things that make me go hmmmmm…..”

Myth #4: IR scholarship is not oriented towards policy.

Truth: Sadly, true. Only 12% of journal articles offer policy recommendations. [Ok, a poor proxy, but all I had to go on from the TRIP coding system]. Books are slightly more likely to dabble in policy, with 22% offering some sort of policy prescriptions – often quite limited and lame in my humble coding experience. Still, curiously, scholars nonetheless perceive themselves differently. 29% of scholars says they are doing policy-oriented research. This could be entirely true if they are doing this outside the normal venues of published research in the discipline and we’re simply not capturing it in our study (blogs, anyone?). All of which begs several questions: are IR scholars really engaging in policy debates? If so, how? Where? If not, why not? (Hint: fill out the next TRIP survey in the fall 2011 and we’ll find out!!)

(Note to readers: I was unable to provide a link to the draft study that Jason and I conducted on books, as it is not yet ready for prime time on the web. But if you have any questions about our project, feel free to email me).


Any progress in the study of international security?

Not so much, argues Phil Arena, whose epistemological leanings are likely very far from my own (via John Sides).

I’m inclined to agree; I also remain unclear if any of the other major subfields of International Relations (IR) can point to the existence of significant settled findings, whether correlative or causal.

This matters, insofar as (some of the) major arguments for demarcating non-behavioral work from “political science” rest upon the putatively cumulative character of statistical and quasi-statistical work.

But what if, rather than producing (non-trivial) settled knowledge, such work largely involves cranking out the n+1th round of data crunching using different techniques, tweaked data sets, or new data sets? Then we have the form of “science” without the content necessary for claims of epistemological priority.

Or, as Patrick argues in his latest book,we lack the grounds for declaring so-called “non-mainstream” methodologies beyond the pale for IR scholars.


Robert Keohane the Situated Scholar

I have found an interesting counter-example to my earlier lament about disciplinary norms restricting open reflection by IR scholars about their personal trajectory and history as it relates to their work. It is Robert Keohane’s recent interview on UC-Berkeley’s “Conversations with History” series in which he expounds the myriad personal, cultural, social influences that have informed and shaped his research.

Keohane’s willingness to expound on his personal relationship to his subject matter is not limited to public interviews, of course, but constituted a chapter in his book International Institutions and State Power. While the chapter was not an example of Kingdonian activism – that is, it was not an attempt to account methodologically for his personal influence over the subject matter of his study – I think this does meet Jim Rosenau’s criteria for “situating the scholar” in the world. And I continue to think this is an example to be revived and diffused among younger scholars as well.


Deconstructing the Linguistic turn in Epistemology

Stanley Fish uses a review of the forthcoming book “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States” (University of Minnesota Press) to provide (what I think is a) very good summary of the debates and issues raised by what we in IR have come to call the Linguistic Turn in epistemology and resulting IR theory.

This morning I was teaching discourse analysis in my Intro to Research Methods course, and trying to articulate the different views of language that Fish locates at the center of the debate on French Theory. So, when I sat down to read Fish’s piece, I was particularly struck as to how useful it would have been as an assignment coming into today’s class (and may still end up as such for later in the week).

Now, this is more Patrick’s terrain than mine (and the subject of his current book project, so here’s an invitation to weigh in with a post and some self-promotion on his part). But, I have been working on a paper about how I teach my research methods course, and one of the implications of my syllabus is that much of the so-called Theoretical debate that we have in IR theory is really a methodological debate about different epistemologies. As Fish says, adopting a different Epistemology is to see a different world, and so its no wonder that Theories of World Politics end up at such loggerheads. For example, one might think that some constructivists who talk about power and can’t stand neo-liberalism would have all kinds of affinities for realists, who also love power and hate neo-liberals. And yet, the epistemological divide between the two prevents (in part) what could be a very fascinating conversation. The two are theorizing different world politics.

Now Fish is more interested in the so-called culture wars that “French Theory” seems to have produced (or is at least a part of). He concludes that there’s no there there (as any deconstructionist could already tell you). But, for those of us in IR theory, for some reason, this remains a central academic battlefront and a central cleavage within the field. The comments following Fish’s post are indicative of just how rugged this terrain is for those of us in this game.


Kingdonian Activism?

This is none too pithy, but tonight (this morning?) I’m just going to toss up a whole stream of ideas that have been percolating since the first BioNote discussion and took shape while I was attending the ISA conference in San Francisco. They relate to a very problematic final chapter I’m struggling over now in which I attempt to account for the role I’ve played (by researching a non-barking dog) in inadvertently getting the dog to bark.

Many of us do this of course – interface with the real world in ways that put us inside the subject matter we’re studying – but there are not good formulas in IR scholarship for reflecting about this explicitly (much less analyzing one’s own actions as part of our dataset) as we write up our results.

(This ties into the earlier “Bionote” discussion in two ways. First, bionote norms, I’ve argued, are simply an example of how IR encourages people to think of themselves as observers rather than participants in the worlds we are studying. Second, the autobiographical nature of the ISA panel about which I blogged was due to, not a deviation from, this set of norms. The panel was organized as an autobiographical set of war stories from policy work by academics precisely because as Janice Gross Stein pointed out, autobiography is all we have to go on because we don’t bother to do empirical studies of how we “bridge that divide” and with what consequences.)

But why don’t we? I think it is due to the very trend I think I was trying to articulate before – IR scholars have some stake in keeping up the pretense that we exist separate from international affairs. We’re encouraged through various disciplinary norms to occlude a serious empirical analysis of the way our role in conducting research, especially if we do elite interviews, to say nothing of blogging, writing op-eds, or consulting, affects the processes we’re studying.

To be sure this is probably truer of some projects than others. I’ve concluded it’s quite true of my work on “dogs that don’t bark” in transnational advocacy networks (namely the absence of children born of war rape on the human rights agenda) and I’m trying with some difficulty to account for this as I complete my current manuscript.

Consider this anecdote from the concluding chapter:

“In Spring of 2006, I presented my preliminary findings regarding the non-emergence of “children born of war” at University of Pittsburgh’s Research in International Politics (RIP) monthly brown-bag. In such circles, heavily dominated by empirical approaches, one does not present normative theory – that is, value-laden arguments about how the world should look, or policy-oriented sets of recommendations about particular problems. Rather, one identifies puzzles about the world and then goes about solving them by applying or modifying existing theories. Theories in this sense being lenses said to explain and predict major patterns in world affairs.

Therefore, I had organized this particular paper not as a problem-focused human rights argument about children, but rather as an empirical study on “issue non-emergence” within advocacy networks. I presented the subject of “children born of war” as a negative case and demonstrated why, from the perspective of agenda-setting theory this might be considered an interesting puzzle. The case, I argued, showed that we needed a different understanding of the obstacles to issue emergence.

My colleagues provided a variety of suggestions on the theory, the methods and the structure of the argument. But one piece of advice particularly sticks out in my mind. “You’d better stop talking to international organizations about this issue until you publish,” said one of my senior colleagues. “Otherwise, before you know it you will no longer have a puzzle to explain, because these children will be on the agenda.”

Note two things about this comment. First: the idea that more attention to this population should have been less preferable to me (or anyone) than the ability to advance my career by publishing an interesting paper. Second: the acknowledgement by my colleague that in researching the non-emergence of “children born of war,” I was in fact engaged in “issue entrepreneurship” myself that could alter the research findings.

If the previous chapters illustrate anything, it is that the process of researching human rights is in fact intimately connected with the practice of constructing human rights in and around a variety of policy arenas. In other words, far from existing outside their subject matter, human rights intellectuals are part of the human rights movement and actively (if inadvertently) shape it. But my colleagues did not advise me to explicitly account for this factor in my research or discuss the academy as a source of momentum or resistance to new human rights issues. To do so would have been to breach certain professional norms within epistemic communities of political scientists, norms that suggest that “real” research is distinctive from advocacy.

As explained briefly in chapter one, I have sought to exploit the recursive relationship between academics and practitioners methodologically. The research process for me has consisted largely of poking around the human rights regime asking questions about what is not on the agenda and asking practitioners to justify their answers. This has provided insight into the regime itself, as well as its silences and the cultures within which different practitioners move.

However such a method does constitutes a notable, if modest, agenda-setting function in its own right. Simply raising a new issue in a conversational setting ‘makes people think’ and stirs up dialogue. Such communicative action can lead to organizational innovation. It also introduces the individual researcher to the network of gatekeepers who can stop an issue from emerging, as well at to those ‘true believers’ who might push for it. The practitioners may come to see the researcher, through these discussions, as an expert on the substantive topic. The researcher might be invited by true believers to consult or share findings with the practitioner community.

The choice of whether and how to exercise this role has implications both for the research and for the organizations under study, and eventually for the population of concern. It is therefore impossible and irresponsible to pretend that the research process itself has not influenced the very communities of practice we study. Acknowledging this has required me to reflect on my own role in the human rights network, and that of like-minded colleagues and of academia as a whole, as part of the subject matter of the book.”

But how to do so systematically? In developing a literature review to ground the remarks in this chapter, I re-read with some interest Patrick Jackson and Stuart Kaufman’s Perspectives on Politics piece “Security Scholars for a Sensitive Foreign Policy.” I liked this article because it represented an example of IR scholars self-consciously engaging with the real world, and theorizing about the process of doing so. To wit, the authors document their role in SSSFP, an advocacy effort led by IR scholars to illuminate cause and effect relationships regarding the Iraq war while remaining politically agnostic, thus maintaining scholarly credibility. According to Jackson and Kaufman: “Weberian activism… is an appropriate stance for scholars who wish to engage in debate on public issues.”

However I found their application of “Weberian Activism” too limiting to inform the problem I’m facing, since the authors’ careful incursion into political activism comes at a much later stage of the policy process. In other words, their model cannot inform the work of scholars studying cause and effect relationships in agenda-setting – that is, how “public issues” get constructed in the first place, and particularly why some get framed off the public agenda altogether. Any scholar who “pokes around” a policy domain trying to analyze this part of the policy process, even if s/he limits herself to standard methodologies and avoids “open advocacy” like the plague, will influence the thoughts of policy-makers and possibly affect the very outcomes s/he is studying despite his/her best efforts.

And yet the argument Jackson and Kaufman make reifies the very divide between academic and policymakers about which we might be so usefully explicit. The entire article is an exercise in finding some way to reconcile the authors’ different “hats” as researchers of world politics and participants in world politics. They come down on the side of privileging their scholarly identities (maybe because they were writing this article for a scholarly journal?), even though doing so meant essentially abrogating the possibility of being effective in their activist exercise. At any rate, such a solution would be impossible if they were seeking to “encourage broad acknowledgement of facts and problems” in an area where no policy debate already existed, because in such case the research itself would play an agenda-setting role that could not be summarily negated through the logic of Weberian activism.

Probably, what we need in such cases is to acknowledge what might be referred to, following Stephen Krasner as “Kingdonian Activism.” OK, I coined this term, not Krasner, but he inspired me this week at ISA. On the “Bridging the Theory/Policy Divide” Panel at ISA about which I blogged earlier, Stephen Krasner argued that bridging the gap is the wrong framework. Instead we should be using Kingdon’s garbage can model to think about how academia interfaces with politics. Krasner suggests academics are just one group among many contributing to what Kingdon describes as the policy “soup.”

The question of our moral responsibility as persons with civic identities to deliberately engage as activists in such cases is an important issues, but it is not the subject of this post. What I’m interested in here is our responsibility as scholars to account for our role, however inadvertent, in influencing the policy processes we are studying.

Here is a more recent example of what I mean. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), about whose work I blogged approvingly not so long ago, constitutes an excellent case study for my ongoing work on the dialectic between issue entrepreneurs and establishment advocacy organizations. Since I’m interested in why new ideas do or don’t get picked up by lead actors in advocacy networks, I’m curious to follow this campaign, trace CIVIC’s strategies over time and watch to see what works for them, what doesn’t and why.

However, insofar as policy elites or those within a degree of separation from them do read this blog, my blog post itself arguably has become part of the socio-political dataset on the construction of CIVIC’s platform. How / to what extent / must I account for this in my research? Do I analyze the post and comments to it as part of the total dataset? If so, should I interview myself or at least reflect on / be transparent about my motivations in posting, as I would interview others responsible for content I’m analyzing? Should I code myself as a issue entrepreneur or issue advocate for discussing this campaign, on blogs, conference panels or in the classroom? Or should I avoid any mention of such issues I’m studying in my personal or professional conduct until my research is complete?

It doesn’t matter, because even if I had never blogged about CIVIC, the very process of conducting interviews with people about issue construction plays a role in constructing issues. When I interviewed the CIVIC Executive Director, the conversation itself allowed her to think through the organization’s strategy in ways that may have changed her thinking. And interviews with gatekeepers about issues they’re ignoring force them to justify non-policies, which helps me understand their thought process but also places me momentarily in an issue-entrepreneur role. (I’ve noticed this particularly in my children born of war research – when I talk about my work on BBC, for example, I’m usually contributing to awareness raising about an understudied human rights problem, so my comments would arguably become part of the documentary record I’m then supposed to be tracing.)

Dan Drezner had an answer to this question in his comments last November at the “Who Are the Global Governors?” Workshop at George Washington University. His take on it is that researchers “just aren’t that important” in the global policy cycle. If true, then attempting to include our own impacts in the analysis comes off as vain and narcissistic (as many comments to an earlier post suggest).

But a lot of famous global norm entrepreneurs have been academics, and the whole epistemic communities literature documents the way in which scientists influence the policy process. Bridging the theory/policy divide may not be easy or prevalent in our discipline, but it is done, and in the absence of serious empirical studies of how it’s being done and with what effect/side-effect, it’s hard to know how to do it properly and where the methodological tradeoffs lie.

Perhaps those of us in this position should be trained to recognize it and to adopt participant-observation methods explicitly and transparently. This is standard practice in sociology, but rare in IR. For example, Peter Haas’ work on epistemic communities draws on conversations he has as a participant in global policy processes, but he does not spend time in his scholarly outputs discussing how his presence inside his subject matter influences his findings and impacts the politics he’s studying.

The problem is that people like myself (and, I think Peter) want to be reasonably positivist in our work – in other words, we’d like to observe phenomena and analyze them in a valid, objective, replicable way. But we also want to observe phenomena that we can only be observed from the inside out. Our observations of the phenomena itself may be reasonably empirical; but our observations of our own interactions will be necessarily interpretive.

I can see several possible solutions within our discipline to this seeming need to either degenerate into interpretivism or to deny our role in our subject matter in order to perpetuate an illusory dichotomy between positivist and reflectivist approaches.

1)Recognize and legitimate the complexities outlined above and incorporate ethnographic methods into standard IR methodology training. Some standard criteria would need to be developed for judging the circumstances under which a scholar should know they need to do this in order to retain credibility, since not all projects call for it.

2)Delegate the role of analyzing one’s own interface with one’s subject matter to a third party. In the case of my current manuscript then, I would write up the analysis of the human rights regime as I observed it as an academic, but I would turn over my field notes, published work on the topic, correspondence with political players, briefing notes and slides, consulting records, any evidence of an impact by me on the policy domain I’m studying, to one or more people – coders if you will – whose assignment would be to evaluate how much I had shaped the politics of an issue simply by researching it in such a way that the findings would be independent of my own subjectivity and, ideally, reliable across observers. Often the impact found would no doubt turn out to be minimal; but where significant the author could then refer to some evidence other than their own judgment.

Am I making any sense here, or are these merely the rantings of a seriously jet-lagged assistant professor nervous about including a “radical” book chapter in a manuscript to a university press, late at night, after a day of transitioning back from ISA with needy children, and too many glasses of red wine?

Reactions if you please.


Beyond “Beyond the Bio Note”

In response to our discussion about how explicitly IR scholars should reveal the personal influences on their work Dan Drezner points out that IR scholars do tend to have (and take) somewhat more leeway in book prefaces than in journal bio-notes, and that’s true.

Seemingly, the norms are also somewhat relaxed for very senior IR scholars ruminating about the theory/policy divide. See below the fold.

Autobiographical Reflections on Bridging the Policy/Academy Divide
TA05 Thursday 8:30 ‐ 10:15 AM Room:Imperial B

University of Southern California
J. Ann Tickner

Roundtable Discussants

Princeton University
Robert Keohane

Stanford University
Stephen Krasner

Harvard University
Joseph N. Nye

University of Toronto
Janice Gross Stein

It was a riveting riot of ruminations. Some nuggets of truth from the masters:

Stephen Krasner: “If they call you ‘Professor’ in Washington, you’re finished.”

Joseph Nye: “Nail down your academic credentials first, then go get policy experience, then come back to academia.” If you do it the other way around, your academic career is finished.

Robert Keohane: Prefers “hiking and Shakespeare” to hob-nobbing with policy wonks, but says if you’re going to do it you must be self-disciplined, maintain a moral character and avoid “political prostitution.”


Beyond the Bio Note

I quite liked an article I read in International Studies Review a couple of years back, a conversation between Ersel Aydinli and James Rosenau, published under the heading “Courage vs. Caution: A Dialogue on Entering and Prospering in IR.”

One of the most thoughtful exchanges in the “Dialogue” has to do with academic norms regarding full disclosure of our identities as scholars / persons.

Rosenau argues, defending a “commitment to explicitness” exemplified in his concluding Distant Proximities chapter, that scholars should situate themselves in the world they are writing about so as to allow readers to better assess and evaluate their arguments:

“Some might see that chapter as overly egotistic, but I see it as living by the commitment to explicitness. It is true that all too few analysts proceed in this way. One is hard pressed to find a book, or even a paragraph, in which the author sets forth the personal background factors underlying his or her work… though it would be standard procedure to have at least a paragraph in a preface that tells the reader where the author is coming from.”

Aydinli goes on in the same piece to articulate Rosenau’s point more forcefully:

“Perhaps we should consider a disciplinary movement to encourage our members to develop and expand the currently accepted genre of the ‘author’s bio note’ into something more revealing and explicit than simply affiliation and research interests. I would like to see, for example, some indication of the author’s past history, such as wehre they have workd and lived. Has the author remained all of his or her life in one place? Did he or she take a break along the educational path to join the Peace Corps, live abroad, or work in a different field? I also think it would be valuable to know about some of the author’s non-professional affiliations or interests. Of course it would be up to the individual author to determine how many or which of these affiliations to provide, but even that choice would be revealing to the readers and help them interpret the content of the text… authors [might also be] encouraged in their texts to indicate how they came to choose the research topic or particular questions they investigate. Was it simply a personal interst or were there pragmatic issues involved such as a future grant? Was the topic of global or current scholarly interest or something sparked by a dinner table conversation?”

I quite like this idea. I think it would make our research far more objective, and help us evaluate one another’s work far better if such a norm of full disclosure took root. It might also help us acknowledge and make sense of our presence in the worlds we study, something which Jackson and Kaufman grappled with, for example, in their Perspectives piece on Weberian activism; and which I am grappling with now as I develop a concluding book chapter on children born of war that accounts for my influence on my own subject matter.

But I also know from first-hand experience that Rosenau is right: there is currently no such norm. Which is becoming scarily apparent to me as I complete my book, written with various efforts to follow Rosenau’s advice, and now have to peddle it to mainstream IR presses who will no doubt insist I edit that kind of quasi-narcisisstic reflctivism right out.

Even efforts to bend in that direction just slightly result in disciplining moves from academic gatekeepers. (Don’t know about you readers, but the last time I submitted my author’s bio to a leading IR journal with mention of my children and predilections for science fiction – matters with, I argue, some bearing on the topics I study and the methods I use – I was told it wouldn’t fly.)

And perhaps rightly so.

But perhaps not. Thoughts?


Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

Apparently so.

The NYT has a book review that treads the familiar ground of why Americans are so dumb when it comes to supposedly vital information about the world. The old X% of Americans support a war in Iraq, but only Y% can actually find Iraq on a map… This is especially upsetting to the classic, old-school curmudgeons who think that a classic education involves knowing a lot of key names, dates, and classical cultural references.

This particular thing, however, does not bother a number of my colleagues (I’ll admit I’m a bit more on the fence about it than others…).* The argument goes: such random trivia, like where Iraq is on a map or who was the 13th President of the United States** is readily deposited in great knowledge warehouses such as Google. If you need to know it, just look it up. More important to teach and more important to learn is the skill to look up this bit of information when you need it. Teach the skill and students will always be able to get what they need. In fact, such skills are part of the “skills revolution” that actually makes American kids/workers smarter than other kids/workers around the world.

But such pedagogy seems in the minority. The more troubling trend in American culture is that:

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Now you have talking heads on TV screaming at each other, often seeming to make stuff up to support a point, justified under the guise of “opinion” where every opinion counts (that’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it, but I believe otherwise…).

The anti-intellectualism / anti-rationalism combination undermines the knowledge gathering skills that make the need for memorization of random facts less important, thereby removing any and all facts from the evaluation of argument. When facts are widely known and memorized, they constrain a discussion to those sets of facts. Classically educated individuals talk about the classics. They also set truth conditions for claims–conforming to the shared facts.

The skills revolution of what our library folks call information literacy (the ability to locate, recognize, and evaluate relevant information) performs a similar task, albeit on another level. It too sets constraints on argument, though from a more methodological perspective. But, it still sets truth conditions for claims–demonstrated collection of relevant and accurate information from appropriately authoritative sources. To take Global Warming, for example (Gore’s movie was on tonight and I watched the last hour of it as I ate dinner….) information literacy skills lead you to the point that scientists accept global warming as a fact, as all peer reviewed scientific papers agree to this. If you know how to search for and evaluate scientific information, this fact is easily obtainable and the position is hard to dispute. But, when you ignore this skill, and adopt the anti-intellectual, anti-rationalist position lamented here, Global Warming becomes an opinion, still open for debate.

All of which is to say, I don’t worry so much about the fact that kids don’t know X or Y fact. But, I do worry when kids can’t tell the difference between analysis based on a logical arrangement of well researched facts and opinion based on personal proclivities with facts selected to fit that view.

*I think that a number of so called facts are actually more conceptual than we give them credit for, and thus, relatively important to know. Knowing where Iraq “is” is not just about a spot on a map, it also is linked to questions of strategy, culture, politics, and the like. Certain other claims, like “Iran is a player in Iraq” are greatly aided if you know that Iran and Iraq share a rather large land border.

**Millard Fillmore–I bet you didn’t know either until you googled it.

***Germans? Forget it, he’s rolling….


Mind/body dualism

taken to egregious extremes by CNN.

Unfortunately, the really crazy talk doesn’t start until after the video:

COOPER: It’s interesting. I’m not sure I buy it exactly. But these folks at this company, what do they say, that people vote the way their brain thinks, or they vote the way — what they say they think?

KAYE: In the end, the folks at Lucid, Anderson, say that the brain will actually win out, because people react before they actually feel. And the isolation of the voting booth, they’ll have more time to feel. And they’ll go with what the brain actually wants.

Our very own PTJ might have something to say about this (Download the PDF from the table of contents).


Flat-Footed Empiricists of the World, Unite!

You have nothing to lose but those pesky questions about whether your methods actually prove anything….

[Warning: what follows will likely only be of interest to practitioners and students of academic IR]

[UPDATED 2/4/07]

Almost a year ago, but two months after the conversation had moved on, “IR scholar not philosopher”–who, to his/her credit included an amusing false email address (empiricist@empiricist.com)–posted an interesting comment in response to a post I wrote on realism and constructivism. I lack the energy to respond to it right now, but I thought it might provide some grist for discussion among interested parties.

Dan: “I have yet to read a debate between self-identified realists and self-identified constructivists in which such questions as (to take one example) whether the rockness of rocks is generated by human language or by a rock’s intrinsic rockness made one whit of difference to resolving the dispute.”

Well, I can think of a couple of reasons why this debate (or one analogous to it) has yet to take place within international relations scholarship: 1, the discipline, as represented by the derth of such articles in the major journals in the field (IO, IS, APSR, JCR, ISQ), has decided that IR is moving on as an empirical social science rather than one dominated by large paradigmatic wars or debates, and 2, the arguments (and the concepts employed) are so far up in the clounds that if they magically landed on the desk of an [sic] newly-minted assistant professor of IR who was then asked to investigate the argument, he/she would have a difficult time identifying both what they are trying to explain and how to operationalize and test it.

“IR scholars have an unfortunate tendency to see two boneheaded people arguing about something and call it a case of “incommensurable ontology.”

you must be studying an entirely different type of IR than the rest of us. You seem more interested in developing a philosohpy of how the world works (or ought to work, I cannot tell which) than testing theoretical arguments against the empirical record and actually telling us something important about the world.

I think it is time to come down out of the clouds, identify something meaningful in IR that you want to explain, develop an explanation from stated assumptions, define the domain, develop logical hypotheses, and then test your argument against the data.

From someone who doesn’t want to see the field flushed down the toilet, this is my request.

UPDATE: since of my colleagues inadvertently thought I was affirming (rather than offering up for discussion) the views quoted above, I suppose I need to clarify.

If it isn’t clear from the opening lines of my post, I don’t endorse this view; or, to be more precise, I have serious reservations about it. A few quick points:

1. IRSNP accuses me of “studying a different type of IR than the rest of us.” I’m not sure what, exactly, this means because I’m not clear on who “us” is. Certainly, one can find any number of articles–some of which have been “field defining”–in major journals over the last two decades, including, yes, International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, and the American Political Science Review that involve, either explicitly or implicitly, claims about incommensurable assumptions in the field. So either the field has already been flushed “down the toilet” or there’s actually little problem with allowing multiple kinds of debates and scholarship to take place in the social sciences.

2. IRSNP makes a very classic mistake of practicing flat-footed empiricists, the conflation of their own (often unspecified) philosophical supposition of “how the world works” with a lack of a “philosophy” about how the world works. This is a very old, and well-recognized problem that would hardly need to be remarked upon if more social scientists took a few months to familiarize themselves with the relevant work in social theory and philosophy of science.

3. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to those frustrated with some of the non-issues that get batted about in “high theory” debates. Which was, ironically, enough, the thrust of the discussion that IRSNP intervened in about two months too late.

In reposting these comments, however, I did not want to get a round in against the anonymous contributor to the thread. Thus, my initial decision to post his/her as a possible touchstone for debate. Sunship (in the discussion thread to this post) has already raised some very interesting issues and concerns; I hope others will weigh in.


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