Sharpening Research Questions on Twitter

Dec 22 '12

This is a guest post by Jeremy Pressman.  His previous contributions are here.


While anecdotally many academics are on Twitter, I still hear derisive comments about what one can do with 140 characters. In short: waste of time. So I was struck this morning by the rapidity with which Twitter conversations raised important research questions. Twitter may not be the place to find the fully-fleshed out answer, but as an interface between scholarship and the real world, it seems it can raise important questions. The rapid, interactive nature may help sharpen such queries quickly.

Case #1: Yesterday, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a retired military leader, died in Israel. He played a role in many of Israel’s most important historical moments such as the 1967, 1973, and 1982 wars as well as the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

Today, Brent Sasley lamented Shahak’s death, noting

Sasley’s sentiment is not uncommon as the number of active Israeli military and political leaders with direct experience in Israel’s seminal historical moments dwindles. The current Israeli president, Shimon Peres (age: 89), remains a major exception.

But why does Israel not seem to have a succeeding generation of “great” leaders? More generally, how do great leaders emerge? If by great we mean visionary, willing to take risks, and effective, is there a theory of great leader emergence?

I could see either side as plausible. The definition of a great leader could be one who grooms great leaders to succeed him or her. Or, a great leader could be so powerful that even in a democracy there is little space left for younger leaders to grow. There is a traffic jam of sorts as the same people hang around and make the key decisions as they rotate through key leadership positions. What does the record show?

Case #2: On his blog, Dan Drezner asked, “When is Obama gonna try on foreign policy?” Noting the paucity of treaties passed under President Obama, Drezner highlighted a Monkey Cage post and the idea of opportunity costs. In the Monkey Cage post, Erik Voeten wrote: “The Senate’s agree and consent process takes away legislative time and political capital that could be used for other, perhaps more valuable, legislation.”

On Twitter, Shashank Joshi strongly endorsed Drezner’s post:


After some back and forth with Joshi, I began to wonder. An opportunity costs argument suggests the president chose to spend his time on something other than pushing treaties or going to the wall for Susan Rice. What was he spending his time on? In short, it is easy to say the president should spend more time on something, but can you also tell me what he should have spent less time on? (A day is still 24 hours)

Moreover, how do we know how a president or any leader spends his or her time? Is there a measurement unit of presidential (or executive) time or political capital? I would sure love to see a comparison across administrations.

Case #3: Back to Israel. Israeli voters will select a new parliament on January 22, 2013. Polls suggest that the party of the current leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will get the most seats and thus he will likely be prime minister again.

If so, current polls also suggest he will face a choice. He will, as Israel prime ministers have always done, need to form a coalition government to get at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Will he turn to the right and parties like a Jewish Home or to the center-left and parties like Labor, Livni, and Yesh Atid?

In a Twitter discussion, I wondered if he would choose parties based on a policy choice: Would he want to renew negotiations with the Palestinians or not? If yes, choose center-left parties. If not, choose right and religious parties.

But Abe responded with personality, not policy:

Could a bad relationship between Netanyahu and both Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and Tzipi Livni shape the next coalition government more than policy and interests? Would Netanyahu choose or avoid party partners based on whether he got along with their leader? The discussion is reminiscent of the obsessing over the Obama-Netanyahu relationship and how it might or might not shape US-Israeli ties.

More broadly, what factors affect party choice during coalition formation in parliamentary systems? Is the key interest, personality, policy, or some other factor?

In all three cases, the interactive nature of Twitter leads to free-flowing discussions that often – not always – allow for the refinement of questions and competing evidence. For those of us who benefit from an intellectual community, twitter can be a useful source for generating questions.

My point in highlighting these three cases is not that these questions are unanswered in the existing literature. But twitter may push people in the direction of being curious and seeking out what has been written. They may well find out what the existing answers are, if any, and then, if a puzzle or gap remains, pursue it in a traditional academic fashion. Or at least blog about it.