Saturday, July 3, 2010

Big IR Questions

Funny how these things come up.  Stephen Walt blogged about a piece that raised questions about whether we academics are too academic for our own good--that we are so focused on small questions that we ignore the big questions. This was raised on Poli Sci Rumor Mill, and I found it hard not to respond.  My response then became the start to another thread: what are the big questions that IR folks study these days?  Since the original postings asked for five, just five, big questions IR folks still study, to prove Walt wrong, I came up with:
  1. Why War?
  2. Why Cooperation?
  3. Do international organizations matter? If so, how?
  4. What explains the pattern of trade now/in the past/across countries?
  5. How does International Relations influence domestic politics/conflict?
My point was not to say that there are only five big questions but here are at least five big questions that are fairly central and that folks often publish on them in the major journals and prestigious presses.

Could I have come up with more?  Sure.  For instance: alliances.  Walt published a major book a couple of decades ago on alliances, but the topic is not dead at all.  Folks* have been writing on alliance duration and burden-sharing.  For instance: rise and fall of great powers.  Paul Kennedy did not end that debate, and the distribution of power in the system is a big question that gets continued attention.  Is nuclear proliferation a big set of questions?  Is it policy relevant?  Yes.

So, the whole argument that we scholars do not do the grand stuff seems strange.  And the argument is being made by a guy who made a business of doing that kind of stuff, serving as an editor of a book series (Cornell U Press, if I remember correctly) that does that stuff, and serving on the editorial board of journals that do that stuff.

Perhaps the problem is APSR--the flagship journal of the field and of the professional association?  Well, APSR-envy is an old theme, but to say that it does not or has not published important big question kind of stuff is, well, silly.  In a recent issue, a junior scholar published a piece on the role of indigenous folks in counterinsurgency.  This counts as IR in part because the issue of civil war bridges IR and comparative politics.  It also counts since counter-insurgency is a prominent form of external intervention (hence the IR-ish-ness), so factors and strategies that limit or affect COIN are fair game for IR scholars.  And it is very, very policy relevant.  So, we have a piece that is policy relevant, addresses the efficacy of international intervention (a very classic and big question), and also happens to get widely cited inside and outside the academic world. 

In a relatively recent issue, a scholar asks why countries provide sensitive nuclear assistance.  That is, why do countries facilitate nuclear proliferation?

Not every issue has a big IR question as each issue only has one to three IR articles since it is the publication of the American Poli Sci Assn and not just IR types.  But I regularly assign APSR pieces and cite them for my stuff.  APSR may have had some problems lately processing stuff, but the problem is not one of big questions.  Is there a methods fetish?  Perhaps but I don't really think it is as pronounced as it used to be. 

Would I like to get something published in APSR?  Sure.  Is it the journal's fault that I have not done so yet?  I have tried, but I can only think of two pieces I have written thus far that could have been contenders for the most competitive slots in the profession.**  Perhaps in the future, as I have some big question stuff in the early stages, but I cannot really blame the journal.

Perhaps we can invoke the fundamental attribution error to consider the causes of Walt's criticisms.  Or not.

*  Disclaimer: I am working on my daughter's computer due to a re-infestation on my laptop so I am a bit more limited in my ability to summon citations and the like right now.  Just any of the topics I raise and you can find heaps of stuff.
**  The first piece was published in Comparative Political Studies in 2002 on how institutions ameliorate or exacerbate ethnic conflict--a big question.  The second was in International Studies Quarterly in 2008--whether government involvement in the economy is associated with more or less ethnic conflict.  The rest of my work addresses interesting questions--I think so anyway--but not as broadly interesting to the general APSR consuming public.

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

There's a lot wrong with the scholasticism article in PoP, most of it stemming from its poor research design. But that's besides the point.

I get what Walt's trying to say, but the solution that he and the Katzenstein wing propose actually contributes more to the pursuit of small questions and divisions within the discipline. If everyone wants to study their own little pet issues that are tertiary to the big questions, you end up with plenty of "eclecticism" but very little actual progress in research (particularly if you're using poor research design in these studies). On the other hand, using the dreaded rat choice (read: MATH) approach to study these big questions results in some very strong research agendas that are continually refined and can actually engage each other.

Perhaps I've been brainwashed after just one year, but I think that the real challenge is finding ways to explain the research being done on these big questions to non-academics, not to change the research methods.