Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Present and Future of IR

Dan Nexon posted an excellent rant pointing to some of the key problems in the field of International Relations.  I tend to be a glass is half full kind of guy so I see the concerns but do not find them as problematic as Dan portrays.

Yes, the job market and the stodgy profs and the review processes push students to develop quantitative skills (I learned my quant skills on the streets, alas), but I do not lament the trend away from the big paradigm debates.  Sure, they were fun and entertaining, but when folks worry about our added value, perhaps the move to mid-range theory and more policy-relevance is not entirely bad.

To be clear, I come at this with my own biases and limitations.  I don't have a good sense of who the "hot" job candidates were this year, getting heaps of interviews at the top places. In many years, these are the folks with high tech skills, but it seemed to me that the trend has been focusing on folks with interesting questions and challenging research designs where the challenge may be as much in travel to dangerous places as it is about high tech math.  Again, I am not in the loop so much so maybe Dan is correct. 

I have always lived betwixt and between: I engage in quantitative work when I have questions that can be asked in a large N kind of way and when I can build or borrow a dataset to ask it, but my skills are limited.  I do case studies much of the time, but never the same places as I am not an expert on any place in particular.  So, quant folks may see me as a pretender, and area studies folks may see me as a tourist.  As a result, I have long valued diversity in efforts and argued for portfolio approaches by individuals and institutions--develop a broad set of skills and expertise so that one is equipped to address a range of issues.  Students ought to have quantitative training if only so that they can read and critically assess what others are doing.  More importantly, they may find that they end up having questions that can be addressed with the study of a dataset.  I wish I had spent more time (going off to summer programs at Michigan or elsewhere) to master these techniques. 

Anyhow, my view on the job market is critical shaped by how my students have done.  To be sure, none of them got jobs or interviews at Harvard or Stanford, but over the past ten years, all but one got tenure track positions, and they are a mix of folks with quant projects, with case studies or both.  The student that got the most interviews had no numbers in her dissertation (although she had some training) but had a very cool project, few pubs, and great teaching evals.

I worry less about intellectual closure than Dan because I have some observation bias: I notice the grad students I meet at conferences (including next week in San Diego for the ISA) who knock my socks off with really interesting ideas and with research that impresses me.  Some of it involves experiments (the hot trend that is now facing a backlash), some of it involves creative use of existing datasets or hard work in building new ones, and some of it involves interesting comparisons or in depth case studies.

The real test of a department is whether it fosters or squashes curiosity.  People apply to and then endure the joys Phd programs with low wages and high uncertainty because they are very interested in politics.  The job of a Phd program is give students skill sets, to sharper their analytical abilities, and then help them find and define research-able projects.  I have no doubt that there are programs that focus far more on methods than on developing their students' curiosity.  I do believe that Dan is right that there are systemic pressures that matter in all of this.

Dan is right to raise questions about what we are asking of our students--finish fast, publish before you leave and get heaps of skills along the way.  Does make it hard to just sit and think.  On the other hand, I don't remember things being that different twenty years ago (has it been that long? oh yes!): we thought hard the first few years in and around classes, but then we focused on our dissertations.  I guess one of the questions I ponder is how much of this is really that new at all.  The positivists won a long time ago.  But there has always been room for folks who don't do that stuff.  Constructivists may not be doing as well on the market right now (I have no idea), but they did rock the market, the journals, the presses, and the post-docs for much of the past twenty years.  I remember seeing a senior constructivist complaining how oppressed his clan was at a time when much of the commanding heights of the IR economy were in their hands (if not in the hands of the oppressed realists who do case studies and complain about game theory and quant predominance).

To give two examples of the state of IR right now, I look at McGill's two recent hires in IR.  One has published heaps of constructivism (not soft constructivism but not entirely opaque post-modernism) in heaps of places--major journals, major presses, and has had no problems getting grant money.  The other does high tech IPE and has published multiple times in major journals.  They demonstrate that there is more than one way to survive the anarchy that is the academic profession, just as there is usually more than one way for countries to survive and thrive.  My students, as I said, have proven the same thing: despite the pressures, one can still get good jobs in this field by doing interesting work even if it lacks numbers.

The lower risk, higher probability path is, of course, using quantitative methods, but that works best if one is engaged in the important questions of the day.  I do think that the fetish for methods wave has passed by in most places now, but I am now generalizing out of my ass as I have not been on search committees anywhere else.  To conclude, Dan has raised heaps of important issues, but I am not so sure the situation is quite as dire as he portrays.  Of course, it is easy for me to say so--I have tenure and a new job awaiting me in Ottawa, one that I got by presenting some really fun case study stuff (see the new issue of ISQ or wait until we get our book out in the next year or so).

1 comment:

Dan Nexon said...

Nice rejoinder. I'm not calling for a return to the "paradigm wars" (which I've sought to destroy the underpinnings of in print), but I do think that we are in an age of comparative intellectual closure within the US. r