Tag: stuff PTJ says

$h•! PTJ Says #3: protest banners vs. precise terms

 I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.

“Many if not most of the terms we use to differentiate styles and traditions of scholarly inquiry are tools for positioning ourselves relative to other scholars. Names of schools of thought, incontrovertible assumptions that have to be agreed to in order to belong to a particular club, shorthand references to ‘great debates’ and ‘key controversies’ — treating these as though they had positive content is basically the same mistake as treating a nationalist claim to possessing some patch of ground from time immemorial as though it were a factual claim. Positioning can provide a helpful signal to other scholars, but but one should be careful not to go overboard in trying to give serious content to something that is basically a set of mapping coordinates.

“This is particularly problematic when we are discussing methodological terms, which are supposed to provide actual guidance for how to do good research. The ordinary academic machine that translates such terms into shibboleths and slogans does an immense disservice to anyone trying to figure out how to do, or to teach others to do, scholarly research, because if open is not careful one can easily find oneself trapped in a hall of mirrors. Perhaps the worst offenders nowadays are words like ‘qualitative’ and ‘interpretive,’ which seem to say something important about a style of research but actually don’t. Both are better thought of as hortatory protest banners: ‘qualitative’ means something like ‘you don’t have to use numbers in order to engage in systematic procedures of data-collection and -analysis’ and ‘interpretive’ means something like ‘get out of your office and go talk to some people, and not just in order to plug their responses into a regression equation’. Okay, fine, but this tells me basically nothing about how to actually do anything.

“Precise terms give us guidance about how to ‘go on’ in producing scholarship that is in some sense valid. Protest banners get our blood pumping and fuel our passion, and maybe get us out into the streets to complain about the lack of thinking space for our kind of work in our field or discipline, but that’s all they are good for. Don’t try to teach using them, and don’t spend too much time trying to give them positive meaning in your own work. Use them to carve out a little academic space for yourself, if you must, and then move on. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t show me the intellectual payoff of your conceptual apparatus, I am not sure what on earth it might possibly be for.”


Breakout Star Patrick T. Jackson Takes APSA by Storm

The Canard
“All the fake news that’s fit to print”


The American Political Science Association is abuzz with talk about a breakout book by an up and coming star in international relations theory, Patrick T. Jackson. While Jackson had previously had strong indie credentials established through gritty work on the strategic construction of the notion of Western civilization by the United States after WWII, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations looks to give Jackson the broader notoriety in the field that many have long thought he deserved. The book blurb proposes that it “pops a cap in the ass of the bitch-ass notion of a single unified scientific method, and proposes a framework that clarifies the variety of ways that IR scholars establish whether their empirical claims are correctamundo.” Sales of his book were brisk at the Routledge booth where the bold cover was also a hit. It is the one that says “bad mother*@er” on it.

Jackson’s book has elicited a firestorm of criticism from game theorists, stats jocks and other meth-heads in the discipline. Jackson’s response? “If my answers frighten you, then you should cease asking scary questions.”*

In one of its most quotable passages, Jackson writes: “The path of the social scientist is beset on all sides by the inequities of the pseudo-positivists and the tyranny of the APSR. More scientific is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the grad students through the dark valley of political science, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost insights in international relations. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my pluralist brothers. And you will know I am the Director of General Education at American University when I lay my vengeance upon you.”

Jackson’s new book comes at an increasingly self-reflective time in international relations. Most recently prominent scholars David Lake and Peter Katzenstein have offered their ideas about what ails the discipline. When asked to comment

“Get these motherfu*cking positivists out of my motherf*cking discipline!”

on their contributions, Jackson responded in his inimitable fashion. “Normally, both their asses would be dead as f*&king fried chicken, but they happened to pull this sh*t while I’m in a transitional period so I don’t wanna kill them. I wanna help them.”

Jackson’s academic style is brusque and confrontational. After a spirited give and take at an APSA panel with colleague Dan Nexon on the use of Lakatos in assessing paradigmatic progress in international relations, Jackson bristled sarcastically, “Check out the big brain on Dan! Oh, you were finished!? Well, allow me to retort.” When Nexon pushed Jackson on his belief of the inapplicability of Popperian falsification methods to the social subject matter of political science, Jackson rejoinded: “English, motherf*@ker! Do you speak it?” He then asked rhetorically, somewhat incongruously, “Do you know what they call hermeneutics in France? L’herméneutique.” His hotel room was later found trashed.

While Jackson has never formally acknowledged it, it is open knowledge in the field that his middle initial stands for “Thaddeus.” Fearing for their lives, however, the paper could not get anyone to speak to that on the record. Jackson carries a briefcase with him at all times. Its contents are unknown, but there is a rumor that it contains Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s soul.

*I borrowed this from techne. See below. It was just too good to pass up.


$h•! PTJ Says #2: on the difference between assumptions and conclusions

I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.

“Spelling out your theoretical and methodological assumptions — the contours of your conceptual equipment, so to speak — is a vital part of doing good social science, because if I don’t know what your assumptions are then I really can’t fairly evaluate your results. In fact, if I don’t know what your assumptions are, I probably have little choice but to apply my own standards, which may or may not be appropriate to your project. So being as clear as you can about your assumptions (with the caveat that it’s impossible to actually spell out *every* assumption that you’re making, both because that kind of self-awareness is a theoretical ideal rather than a live possibility, and because of the Wittgensteinian logical paradox involved in trying to endogenize every rule of a game) is critical.

However, spelling out your assumptions is not the same thing as establishing their validity or their value. Yes, your take on discourse is more pragmatic/Foucault than CDA/Wodak, but that’s not a conclusion of your research — it’s an assumption. Just like ‘individuals make rational choices under conditions of imperfect information’ or ‘human beings are meaning-making animals.’ The fact that you assume this tells me a lot about you, but basically zippo about whether you are right or, more to the point, about whether your assumption is a useful one for the research problem at hand. You can’t use a set of assumptions about discursive practices to conclude that discourse matters or that discourse works the way you think it does, because you already assumed that at the outset! Ditto assumptions about material factors, ideas, etc. “mattering.” You can and should be as detailed as you can be about your assumptions, but if you want anyone to appreciate them as anything other than an expression of your idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibilities, you need to show us what insight they generate in practice — and you have to refrain from overreaching and tautologically concluding that results generated by applying assumption X are an argument for the validity of assumption X. Those results might indeed contribute to an argument that it is useful to make assumption X when trying to explain what you’re trying to explain, but that’s as far as it goes.

Making ‘assent to assumption X’ a condition of membership in some fraternity helps you found or adhere to a school of thought, but whether it helps you explain anything is an entirely different issue. The fact that members of a school, like adherents of any other type of sect, will parade their results as if they constituted ‘evidence’ for their assumptions should be regarded in about the same spirit as any other testimonial, which is to say, compelling to believers but largely inscrutable to outsiders. Displaying your allegiance doesn’t contribute to knowledge, although it can get you into interesting conversations.”


$h•! PTJ Says #1: justifying your theory and methodology

I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.

“The fact that no one else has approached topic X with your particular perspective is not a sufficient warrant for approaching topic X with your particular combination of theory and methodology. In order to get the reader on board, you have to basically issue a promissory note with a grammar that runs something like:

‘Here’s something odd/striking/weird/counterintuitive about X. Other scholars who have talked about X either haven’t noticed this odd/striking/etc. thing at all, or they haven’t found it odd/striking/etc. Furthermore, they haven’t done so because of something really important about their theory/methodology that — even though it generates some insights — simply prevents them from appreciating how odd/striking/etc. this thing is, let alone trying to explain it. Fortunately, there’s my alternative, which I am now going to outline in a certain amount of abstract detail; but bear with me, because there’s a mess of empirical material about topic X coming after that, and I promise you that my theoretical/methodological apparatus will prove its worth in that empirical material by a) showing you just how odd/striking/etc. that thing is, and b) explaining it in a way that other scholars haven’t been able to and won’t be able to.’

Almost no one is convinced by theory and methodology, and absolutely no one is or should be convinced by a claim that existing approaches aren’t cool enough because they aren’t like yours. The burden is on you to give the reader reasons to keep reading, and at the end of the day the only reason for theory and methodology is to explain stuff that we didn’t have good explanations for before. So you have to convince the reader that other approaches *can’t* explain that odd thing about topic X. (And if you can do this without gratuitous and out-of-context references to Thomas Kuhn and being ‘puzzle-driven,’ that’s even better, because I won’t have to make you write an essay on why basically nobody in the social sciences actually uses Kuhn correctly.)”


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