Tag: weberian activism

From Kingdonian to Weberian Activism: A Shifting Stance

One of the great things about being done with my book project is that I can begin blogging and writing a little more openly regarding the issues I’ve been tracking empirically over the past seven years, in the same way I have often weighed in publicly on political subjects I’m not studying directly. The latter type of activity is referred to by Patrick Jackson and Stuart Kaufman as “Weberian activism“: informing policy debates by educating stakeholders and the public about the relevant empirical relationships underlying pressing policy decisions and global processes. In my view, this is the gold standard to which academic bloggers and commentators should aspire. Continue reading


To science or not to science — is that a question?

Dear American Anthropological Association:

According to recent reports, you are considering dropping the term “science” from your long-range planning document. You propose replacing it with the phrase “public understanding,” and also including a long litany of the variety of things that fit under this umbrella:

This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

All that really changes here is the term “science,” since this kind of diversity was and is already characteristic of the discipline of anthropology; the change is therefore symbolic, as you note. But it’s a powerful symbol, perhaps even more powerful than you realize. I’m not an anthropologist and so I don’t really have a dog in this fight, except for the broader philosophical and cultural issue of what “science” means. But since that’s largely an issue of “public understanding” — or, better, “public misunderstanding” — I would really urge you to think very carefully about this move.

See, in abandoning the term “science” you are, in effect, ceding the rhetorical ground commanded by one of the most potent terms in modern intellectual culture and society at large — and you’re ceding it to a very narrowly neopositivist construal of the term and practice of “science.” As soon as you say “I’m not doing science” in this environment, you set yourself up to be critiqued as subjectivist, relativist, fuzzy, woolly-headed, arbitrary, and a bunch of other dismissive caricatures culiminating in what the president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences called “the rejection of rational argument and thought,” akin to creationism and due to a postmodern attack on the authority of science. So from a purely public relations standpoint, this doesn’t sound like a wise move.

The more important issue, however, is that in simply rejecting the term “science” you reaffirm the very boundary that critics like this insist on maintaining. If I have a narrow understanding of science that restricts that term to practices involving hypothesis-testing, cross-case generalizations, and a rooting of knowledge in an external material reality to which knowledge-claims approximate, I have that understanding not because it’s a personal preference about how to do my work, but because I think that such procedures are somehow uniquely warranted and rooted in the pursuit of Truth or, at the very least, validity. Procedures and techniques are thus inseparable from epistemic goals, and if I reject one I am taken to be rejecting the other. So rejecting the testing of general empirical hypotheses against data about the material world looks like an abandonment of the whole enterprise of producing knowledge that is in some sense valid, and that’s what the critics see as being signaled in the loss of the word “science.” By not confronting this head-on, you are in effect letting the critics have the word “science” as a magical talisman that they can conjure with in debates and discussion — not to mention in the competition for grant funding and publication.

And much like the Democratic Party, which last time I looked still have a majority in both houses of Congress and could make a concerted effort to actually pass something instead of rolling over and playing dead, you have some pretty firm ground on which to stand in refuting the nonsense that the critics are spewing. “Science” is simply not equal to its neopositivist construal; philosophers of science are quite divided about how to define science, and indeed most of them gave up the effort to produce sharp demarcation criteria between science and non-science decades ago. Instead, they are interested in the variety of ways that valid knowledge-claims about the world are produced, ways that are all “scientific” inasmuch as they are a) systematic in that they feature a logical relationship between premises and conclusions, b) public in that they are susceptible to challenge and critique by members of the relevant community of judgment, and c) worldly in the sense of being related to and about the world and the things in it rather than pointing beyond the world towards some transcendent question of the world’s value or purpose. That’s about all one can say about “science” that is generally the case, I would wager. Science isn’t art and it isn’t politics and it isn’t engineering and it isn’t normative critique, although it can inform all of those in various ways; the important thing remains the goal of the exercise, and science is about making systematic, public, worldly knowledge-claims that are in some sense valid, whereas these other vocations are about pursuing different goals. (At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I would suggest my recent bookas a good guide to the issues.)

My point is that you have an excellent warrant for expanding the definition of science rather than abandoning it, and in particular abandoning it to a very narrow definition that equates science with disciplines like biology and practices like archaeology — not that these aren’t scientific, far from it, but there is no reason that the study of cultural practices can’t be just as scientific, albeit in a distinct way. And who wouldn’t want to construct systematic, public, worldly knowledge-claims about human cultural practices as a or perhaps the major component of their professional practice in studying humanity? Seriously, what’s the alternative: abandoning these goals in favor of just advocating on behalf of native peoples? Following Paul Gauguin and painting idiosyncratic pictures of native life? Writing speculative fiction about imagined societies? Go that way and you abandon the epistemic authority of your own research, which strikes me as both short-sighted and unnecessary. I think that if you poll most of your members you’ll find that they agree that they are trying to produce knowledge-claims that are in some sense valid, which means: broadly scientific. Not narrowly scientific, not inextricably linked with hypothesis-testing and broad generalization and determining materiality, but broadly scientific in a way that is easily supported by even a casual perusal of philosophical debates about science over the past few centuries.

And what makes this particularly urgent is that the neopositivist caricature of science is also very similar to the popular misunderstanding of “science,” which seems to hold that science requires numerical data, sweeping generalizations, and incontrovertible facts. (Good neopositivists don’t agree with this, of course, but when attacked many of them trot out old canards about the putatively unique relationship between their preferred procedures and the pursuit of Truth. Public debate makes us all lose our subtlety.) None of this is true, and all of it makes the epistemic authority of science questionable whenever any politician can come up with one practicing scientist willing to publicly doubt some set of research findings (e.g. global climate change), because the public’s confidence is then eroded inasmuch as it mistakenly thought that science was about unquestionable truths. This is bullshit, and the only way to combat it is to help to improve the public understanding of what “science” actually means and how diverse scientific practice is, and this in turn is helped if you keep the study of cultural practices inside of the big tent of science. Otherwise the tent gets small, and the people left to defend it are vulnerable to all sorts of political silliness.

And let’s be honest here: we all want to defend that tent and the broad notion of science. None of us would be happy going back to a world in which public truths were simply proclaimed and imposed rather than being critically constructed, something that we performatively reveal when we criticize some established bit of conventional wisdom as arbitrary and unjustified. Note that this doesn’t mean that we are all committed to the same set of procedures for establishing validity, nor does it mean that we will all one day agree on the same set of facts after we approximately-ideal-speech-situation ourselves into the Linguistically De-Transcendentalized Kingdom of Ends and are escorted to our place at the Kantian table by our maitre d’, Herr Doktor Professor Habermas. But the alternative is not a complete abandonment of the task of thinking, but a reworking of what it means to think scientifically such that it is neither narrowly neopositivist nor the key to a secularized Promised Land, but instead a set of practical procedures for dealing with the world. If anthropology takes its toys and goes home, the whole tent gets smaller, which none of us actually wants.

So please reconsider. What is called for at this juncture is attack, not defense; the definition of science needs to be pluralized, not abandoned to those who would restrict it even further. Otherwise we all lose, if not immediately, than over the next few years, as our culture and civilization continue to drown in the muck of reality TV, soundbite politics, and people just plain making shit up and imposing it by nothing but the authority of sheer naked force. Don’t believe me? Have you looked at the caricatures of other societies and cultures — and even of our own — that circulate in our politics and our school textbooks? You can’t fight that kind of ridiculousness without the power of “science.” Don’t give up the fight before you’ve even begun, and don’t leave the field of battle and make it that much harder for the rest of us.


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.


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