Why Do Policy Makers Hate International Relations Scholarship?

by Henry Farrell on September 18, 2013 · 4 comments

in International Relations

Paul Avey and Michael Desch have a forthcoming article in International Studies Quarterly, that supplements the ranking work that Erik summarizes below. The conclusions bear out the claims of Joe Nye and others that there is an increasing gap between academic international relations and the kind of work that US senior policy makers care about. Some 45% of the senior policy makers who answered Avey and Desch’s survey have training in international relations or political science. It doesn’t seem to have taken.

Aside from Economics, the scholarly disciplines that policymakers found of greatest use were Area Studies and History. … compared to the other disciplines, Political Science did rather poorly (see figure 1). This lower ranking may reflect the fact that in recent years the discipline has become dominated by more complex methodologies such as formal modeling and statistics. Policymakers tend to eschew, in the words of one respondent, “all formulaic academic, as opposed to historically based temperamental, realist projects,” preferring, in the words of another, “historical analysis, case studies, theoretical writings that illustrate theory with case studies and concrete examples.” … the higher the rank of the government official, the less likely he or she was to think that formal models were useful for policymaking.

There are a number of possible responses that international relations scholars could make to this (e.g. to argue that political science is in the business of finding out about the world, not helping policy makers, or to argue that it’s not US policy makers who international relations scholars should be trying to help). Or scholars could argue (as many have) that we should reform political science to move away from quantitative techniques and formal modeling towards more policy relevant work.

However, I can’t help wondering whether Avey and Desch’s piece misses out on some of the interesting things that have been happening over the last couple of years. They mention the Monkey Cage (among other blogs) as an interesting model of communication, but also caution that the Internet is full of unreliable information. But what we have seen over the last couple of years is an explosion of interest in political science results (some of them based on sophisticated quantitative or formal analysis; some derived from sophisticated qualitative research) that are cleanly presented and obviously relevant. Most of this interest has been in work in the field of Americanist political science – but this field is even more notoriously disliked by political types than international relations. Nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of Ezra Klein and others, it’s built up a real audience. We furthermore have reason to understand that some of our work at the Monkey Cage has had significant take up among policy makers.

This suggests not only that Avey and Desch’s cautious optimism about the prospects for short, punchy timely work could be strengthened, but that methodological sophistication is not a natural enemy of public interest. The problem lies less in methodological approach than in choice of topic (much international relations work is tediously self referential), disciplinary self-understanding (many international relations scholars don’t value public outreach, and don’t have disciplinary incentives to value it) and lack of venue. The last of these at least, we and other bloggers are working on (and will be able to work on better in The Monkey Cage when it starts to reach the larger audience of Washington Post readers). The decision of both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy to create big active websites soliciting timely content has built another venue that academics can use to connect to a policy audience. I can’t help wonder whether a survey of policy makers say, in five years time, would respond quite differently to a survey, thanks not only to generational shift among policy makers, but structural changes in political science. The incentives are shifting in interesting ways.

Update: Avey and Desch apparently have a guest-post on their findings in the Monkey Cage pipeline (we’re an autonomous collective – what can I say … )

{ 4 comments }

Jeremy Springman September 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Haven’t any of those policymakers seen Moneyball?

Andrew September 18, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Haven’t read the survey so not sure if this was taken into account, but I wonder how many policymakers know that IR is a sub-field of political science. I imagine a lot assume it’s a separate discipline altogether (as it is in the UK).

Jason September 18, 2013 at 10:26 pm

One thing I wonder about: a lot of political scientists whom I would expect to have a fair bit of influence on policy makers end up being called economists a lot in the popular media (James Robinson and Elinor Ostrom come to mind off the top of my head). I think this is especially true of those who use formal modeling and statistics, so I wonder to what extent (if any) this contributes to this apparent divide.

Fred September 19, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Robinson is a professor of government at Harvard, but he studied economics at LSE, Warwick and Yale.

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