Monday, April 6, 2015

The Accidental Researcher

I was asked recently about my research--how did I get my ideas and whether I chose my research projects strategically.  That is, did I start research anticipating what is in demand--what is likely to be published?  And the answer is basically no.  I always want to do stuff that is publishable, but I have never tried to do what is hot (a couple of close calls--see below).  Instead, I have followed my curiosity. 

My dissertation and subsequent research from it was the product of a happy accident. Well, not so much of an accident but a series of projects that evolved to someplace very indirectly from the starting point.  I started out thinking about sovereignty--that the "units" in IR are defined as territorial hunks with their own governments.  I was curious if the international relations of the territories was distinct from the international relations of the distinct governments--do other countries mess around with one aspect of a country's sovereignty more than another?  This basically meant I was interested in comparing the international relations of revolution (changing governments) with the IR of secession (changing boundaries).  The conventional wisdom was that not many folks messed around with supporting secession, so I had an interesting contrast until ... I realized that the conventional wisdom was wrong.

That there seemed to be a whole lot of supporting secession in South Asia (India supporting groups in Pakistan and vice versa, plus stuff elsewhere) but not in Africa.  So, the dissertation then became a comparison of those two regions until I realized that the conventional wisdom in Africa was wrong--countries did support secessionists.  So, I was flummoxed--more support of secession than usually argued.  I don't know when or where I had the modest brainwave, but I wrote it down immediately on the inside page of my address book (it was handy, and I was not going to lose it): think about ethnicity.  So, I didn't start my dissertation thinking I was going to write about the international relations of ethnic conflict... it just happened. 

My work on the IR of secession led to tangents that focused on the domestic politics of separatism and on the contagiousness of conflict (an interest that has popped up for me every once in a while) and then onto the next project.  A case study in the dissertation didn't really fit into the first book but raised questions about inconsistent irredentism--when do countries engage in efforts to take "back" "lost" territories.  This project took place in between the hip periods of irredentism--the early 90s of Yugoslavia and Armenia and the mid-teens where Putin is bringing it back into fashion.  I was curious as to why there was both more and less irredentism in the 1990s than I had expected


I used the irredentism project as part of my application to the Council on Foreign Relations to be an International Affairs Fellow.  I wanted to get some government experience, and I wanted my family to be in DC for a year since my wife's family is there.  During the interview process, I said I would like to be placed at the National Security Council or the National Intelligence Council because I wanted to see sausage get made.  My interviewers said: you should go to the J5.  I was like, J what?  It turns out that the NSC was not an option since the National Security Adviser of the time was hostile to having CFR fellows on the NSC--despite the fact that she, Condoleeza Rice, had previously had this very fellowship.... and served in the Pentagon.  Anyhow, I ended up getting placed, with very little of my own agency involved, in the Balkans Branch of the East European Division of the Directorate of Strategic Planning and Policy of the Joint Staff.  On the Bosnia desk.  For my year, much of the time spent on Bosnia (and Kosovo when I was helping the folks near me) was actually time spent on ... NATO. 

[Interlude I: around this time, I did ponder changing course and studying corruption. My year on the Joint Staff taught me how important corruption is to civil wars and peace/stability operations.  But then I realized that I just didn't have the skill set (advanced economics) and the data would be difficult, so I didn't pursue it]

And as the irredentism project finished up with the help of Bill Ayres, I started a new project, seeking to understand double hatting: how officers serving two roles balanced each role.  In my year on the Joint Staff, I regularly interacted with both the American and NATO staffs of the individual commanding both American forces in Europe as CINC/combatant commander and NATO forces as SACEUR, and these staffs would say different things.  So, how do officers manage the pulls of very different bosses?  The more we (David Auerswald and I) looked into it, the more we realized that the national chain was far more important than the international chain (see the intro chapter here).  Instead of comparing Bosnia to Kosovo to Iraq to Afghanistan, Afghanistan ate the book.  There was enough variation among countries and the focus turned mostly to the cross national comparisons that looking across operations did not make sense... until Libya happened as we were wrapping up the book.  So, we put in a quick case study of the Libyan operation.

[Interlude II: I nearly chased the money.  As we were working on the NATO book, I kept hearing that we didn't really have any good measures (metrics) for figuring out if NATO was being successful in Afghanistan.  There was a grad student at McGill who really wanted to apply for a Minerva grant, and I realized that I could chase the big bucks (millions of dollars) to study something really important and really timely and really desired by multiple governments.  But it would distract me from everything else I was doing.  So, I didn't do it.]

My next book, completed, reviewed and under consideration by an editorial board, spun off of the NATO book.  I had learned much about Canada and its behavior in Afghanistan that did not fit into half of one chapter of the NATO book.  I never intended to study Canada when I moved here, but I ended up with great access and developed a number of strong if not always well supported opinions about what happened and why it had happened.

The new project, which just received funding, was inspired by a conversation with a Canadian member of parliament--that the defence committee here is essentially blind--no security clearances.  So, we (Dave, Phil Lagass√© and I) are going to be traveling to figure out how do legislatures vary in overseeing militaries.  This project naturally emerged from the NATO project--continuing our interest in comparative civ-mil dynamics but looking more at legislatures than at executives, more at oversight and less at discretion. 

I have skipped over some other stuff along the way--the institutions and ethnic conflict project that produced my most cited piece and also years of frustration (working on a dataset that became widely criticized), the diaspora project that has been very challenging, the TRIP dataset that will emerge soon, other pieces)--as this post is long enough.

The key is this: I have followed my curiosity, the poking of co-authors, and pretty much nothing else.  It would have been more rational to stay within my initial lane: no new lit reviews!  I probably could have gotten more done.   But I got into this business because I am a deeply curious person, and this job allows me to pursue my curiosity wherever it goes.  I have an idea of what the book after the next book will be, but I could easily be wrong.  Just as my job path has been nothing like I would have expected (Vermont -> Texas Tech -> McGill-> Carleton), my research path has been just as indirect.  Maybe my research imagination has always been drunk....









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