As I start into the new project, comparing the civil-military relations of many of the world's democracies, I realize I am once again entering an area in which I have little expertise. This is not a new feeling, as each major research project of my career has me walking into countries/areas in which I have no experience.
This started with my dissertation which focused on secessionist crises in Africa and South Asia, two parts of the world I had studied the least. While my second book focused on an issue that I had studied in my dissertation, irredentism, it meant doing fieldwork in Hungary and Romania. I had not studied or been to either before. The third book on NATO could have been a bit more familiar to me, as I had been to many of these countries as a tourist and I had lived the NATO life from the Joint Staff. However, I had never studied the domestic politics of most of the places we studied, a key ingredient in understanding the civil-military dynamics of each.
Why am I thinking about this? Well, the current project would not seem to be that off the paths I have trod--looking at legislative oversight of militaries. While I am not nor have ever been a legislative oversight guy, the basic question is an extension of the previous book. However, in the distribution of labor for this project, my co-authors are getting the cases they know best (and I know best), and I am getting the coolest travel but also the cases I knew the least: Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. While most of the fieldwork will not commence until my sabbatical a year from now, my fellowship applications (to fund part of my sabbatical) have me thinking about this now.
And I realize that my unbridled curiosity might be facilitated by arrogance. How dare I think that I can understand a place I have never studied before? Especially those countries where the English-speakers are not so prevalent. Writing about Canada despite never studying the place before 2007 was not as chock full of hubris (despite offending one reviewer). Navigating in a country where the language is so different that I cannot understand the signs? Now I am intimidated.
I guess my confidence, such as it is, is driven by the perception that my lack of knowledge has not stopped me before. That I only seek to know a small part of a country's history and political processes. I am not an expert on Danish politics, but I learned enough to figure out what I needed to figure out--why the Danes were among the most forward leaning and least restricted troops in Afghanistan. I learned enough about African politics to understand why countries took sides in two secessionist crises, but didn't learn much more than that (that I applied for African Politics jobs as I was leaving grad school was more about desperation than arrogance). I learned enough about Somali politics to have a decent grasp on its inconsistent irredentism from 1960-1990, but not enough to understand what is going on today, except as a product of the consequences of the past.
But this tendency to tread where I know not has fed a case of imposter syndrome that someone will find out that I missed a huge hunk of something along the way. However, so far, so good. I do know that there are other costs besides being found out. That if I spent my time focusing on the same few places, I would develop some serious expertise, which could be damn useful. But my mind does not work that way. I just keep seeking the questions that intrigue me most, and they keep leading me away from that with which I am most familiar. Maybe I am easily bored or have attention deficit disorder.
All I do know is that I have enjoyed the ride that my curiosity has taken me, and it is that curiosity that got me in this business in the first place. Still, I wonder about the advice of a key role model: