Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Field Guardian: Brave Heroes of Yesteryear

In today's Political Violence at a Glance, Christian Davenport and Scott Gates address a key problem in the study of intra-state conflict--the inter-state people often don't take it that seriously.   I am not that surprised as I faced much hostility from some of my colleagues at a previous department (hint, that would be McGill) for daring to teach Civil War as a course.  That was a comparative politics class that I should not waste scarce IR time teaching, they argued.  One even would question anyone who suggested that intra-state conflict was an important issue in international security.  So, I have seen "Field Guardians" at work.

A Field Guardian is someone who seeks the field or subfield as sacrosanct--that the stuff inside the field or subfield should be studied without thinking or invoking or borrowing concepts and arguments and skills from other fields or subfields.  They see it as their job to protect the field or subfield from being tainted or diluted.  Their identity may even become wrapped up in the purity of their subfield--"we do not do that" whatever "that" is. 

To be sure, having fields and subfields is inevitable and even desirable as it helps us organize that which is common or common enough and facilitates conversations.  But they were never meant as barriers that must be guarded against the hordes of deviant thinkers.  One of the first hunks of IR theory I found most interesting was the work by Robert Jervis, who did many good things including helping IR folks get some clues about cognitive psychology.  But that required reaching out over the barriers between disciplines.  The fool?!  No, obviously not. 

Whenever I open up the front page of my old address book, I am reminded of this as I was trying to figure out my dissertation project on the IR of secession, and I had a brain wave that I wrote down--think about ethnicity.  Ever since my work has been at the juncture of IR and CP.  Even my latest work on NATO and Afghanistan very much relies on both subfields as it became an exercise not just in International Organization but in Comparative Civil-Military Relations.

Comparativists and IR folks do tend to see the world differently, as they are trained differently, as they are socialized differently and so on.  And this is not a bad thing, as we should not all have the same lenses--that way leads to big blind spots.  However, we need to build upon these differences, share the varying perspectives to see what one misses by focusing on a single perspective. 

The good news is that most of the really interesting work being done these days crosses sub-field lines, whether it is the stuff on civil war or political economy.  Many of these folks are young punks who have little respect for the self-appointed Field Guardians and are finding much success.  Yet old habits and institutionalized behaviors remain.  The key, of course, is to keep ask interesting questions and figure out which theoretical apparatus and methodologies are the most useful for the question at hand. 

To be sure, rebelling against the Field Guardians can have some costs if they happen to be reviewers of your article or book or if they are senior faculty at your institution.  But the primary reason to do this job is to pursue your curiosity to wherever it leads you, which means sometimes having to push back against those that have limited imaginations.

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