Professionalization and the Demise of IR Theory

Mar 28 '12

My friend and colleague Dan Nexon has a long rant (by his own admission) about the poverty of IR theory on the Duck of Minerva. Go read the whole thing, it is provocative and interesting. Also look at the comments, many of which are interesting and from prominent people in the field. What follows is some inside baseball, so it is going below the fold.

Dan’s core argument is that:

the conjunction of over-professionalization, GLR-style statistical work, and environmental factors is diminishing the overall quality of theorization, circumscribing the audience for good theoretical work, and otherwise working in the  direction of impoverishing IR theory.

In the process of advancing this argument he makes a lot of claims, many of which I disagree with. But I want to start with an important area where I think we have some agreement, although I would phrase things differently than he does.


1. The advance of quantitative research diminishes the quality of theorizing in IR

If with “quality of theorizing” we mean developing  multi-causal theories of complex phenomena I agree with this statement. We are increasingly realizing not only that causal inference is incredibly difficult but also that to do causal inference well, it is very hard to isolate more than one causal factor. This is, of course, not just a problem of quantitative research but of causal inference more generally. “Doing some process tracing” (a popular comment these days in research seminars) does not magically make the fundamental problem of causal inference go away.

The question is what to do about this. The modal article in IR is supposed to offer both theoretical and empirical contributions. It is very difficult to offer a sophisticated theoretical contribution when your empirics force you to focus on one factor. It is also very hard to substantiate a theoretical contribution if we demand that the empirical part of the paper obeys the rules of causal inference. Surely, there are papers that do both within the word limit of articles but we cannot expect all articles to do so.

Both causal inference and theoretical development are too important to give up. The only answer, as I see it, is that we have to increase our valuation of empirical work that provides new evidence that matters to existing theoretical or (importantly) policy debates but that offers no theoretical innovation of its own. Conversely, we ought to increase the valuation of theoretical work that is innovative and has potential empirical applications but that offers no more than suggestive evidence.

Changing our valuation of certain types of research is, of course, easier said than done. Yet, my sense is that the discipline  is slowly moving in this direction. Journals like International Theory and the European Journal of International Relations offer increasingly esteemed venues for theoretical work while journals like International Organization now offer an outlet for shorter research notes that primarily make empirical contributions. The very real danger is, of course, that these two sides of the discipline are not going to speak to each other. Lots remains to be done here and I’ll try to offer some more thoughts on this at a later time.

2. “over-professionalization of graduate students is an enormous threat to the vibrancy and innovativeness of International Relations (IR)”

What Dan means with this is that the insistence that graduate students are now required to have some prior mathematical and statistical training and should develop more during their graduate careers. I would defend such requirements strongly. Understanding statistics is an enormous asset for anyone who endeavors to understand social life. Creative and innovative minds understand this, regardless of whether they intend to use it in their own research. The very best qualitatively minded students also tend to do very well in quantitative methods classes. If with professionalization we mean demanding that all IR PhDs have some understanding of statistics, know at least one foreign language (a requirement in almost any program), and so on, then I am all for professionalization.

3. All the professional rewards go to quantitative scholars

Dan is rightly being taken to task in the comments for being hyperbolic on this. Many people point to the TRIPS survey of IR scholars and other studies that show that a majority of IR scholars and published research still is qualitative. I am a little disappointed that Dan is making this claim so strongly. In our own Georgetown department we have some 25 IR scholars, 4 6 of whom are primarily quantitative. Another issue is the critical theory/Constructivism angle but I would posit that this has far less to do with professionalism or quantitative methods than Dan implies. We can have endless debates about what a just division of professional rewards would look like (and no-one would agree) but we cannot claim that the IR field is a monoculture. Indeed, compared to other professional fields it is and remains extremely diverse (as it should). That does not mean that everyone is happy with what types of research appear to get rewarded more.

4. The monoculture of quantitative research

There is an underlying tone to Dan’s comments that make quantitative scholars seem like unimaginative and uncreative number crunchers that simply tweak existing datasets in order to bypass lazy gatekeepers and reap their professional rewards. As is true everywhere, there is tremendous variation in the quality of quantitative work. Yet, there is tremendously creative work going on in terms of research design and data collection. For example, the new generation of scholars engaged in field experiments do more soaking and poking than most qualitative researchers ever get to do.

There are a number of other issues I could get into, for example the sense that there was this mythical time when all was well, everyone could think big things, and tremendous progress was made in our understanding of IR (see Erik Gartzke’s comment to Dan’s post). I don’t want to claim that all is now well with IR but I do not see the professional demands we make of our graduate students as a core part of the problem.