Sunday, October 20, 2013

Waltzing with the Greats

Jon Western attended a memorial dedicated to one of my very favorite and certainly most influential IR scholars--Ken Waltz--and reported what he learned.  From the testimonies, Western reports what makes a great scholar.  Nearly all of this is great advice for any scholar, particularly those who do IR, but not all of it.

The advice includes very solid stuff:
  • being good at IR requires reading more than IR.  Waltz rlied on Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf.  I rely on Avengers, Footloose, etc.
  • quality scholarship takes time--one book every decade for Waltz.  This has led some folks to wonder if Waltz could get tenure today.  The answer is: yes.  Waltz's first book was an improved version of his dissertation, and it came out with the normal time frame for tenure.  Obviously, if Waltz had to deal with today's constraints, he would have published an article or two based on the diss, they would have been in the most selective journals, and he would have been widely cited.  Good enough for tenure.  There are plenty of folks who get jobs without pubs still--but who have much promise. Waltz would have been fine in today's world.  
  • great scholarship requires a community of folks--that what we do is a very social social science.  Indeed.
  • take a position and defend it, refine it, but do not caveat it or nuance it into meaningless.
  • be professional--criticize the work, not the people.  Indeed, I could definitely do better on this score, although most of my animus tends to be reserved for folks who have crappy definitions of what it means to be professional.
  • learn to write well.  Waltz was concise, and we should all aim to be so as well.  Yep, still working on that one.
The only part that I disagree with is the first point in the piece: "ask big and important questions."  Yes on the latter, not so much on the former.  Not all of us should be asking the biggest of questions.  There are plenty of important questions and not all of them are big ones.  Waltz did engage in the biggest ones, but we are not all grand theorists nor should we all try.  The world is a complex place with many puzzles to be explained at all levels of analysis and across a variety of sub-fields.  If we only address the big ones, we end up dismissing everything else.  Indeed, one of the ways in which Waltz was abused was to claim that anything other than systemic (not systematic) work is reductionist and thus not worthy of study.  Waltz may not have said such, but those who interpreted him tended to think so. 

Much of the way I think about the world comes from Waltz's work.  Indeed, I tend to find his stuff to answer some of the big questions that I originally wanted to answer--my essay for my grad school applications focused on why there are arms races.  I found his discussion of the security dilemma enough to address that, so I have moved on. In reading Western's piece, I was glad to learn that my one experience of Waltz in person was typical--the man was smart, engaging and decent.  Waltz should be emulated but not imitated. 

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